When does an obsession with a new relationship turn unhealthy? (Illustration: Erik Mace for Yahoo Health)
When Shary Hauer was 27, she appeared to be a successful corporate executive who had everything together. If you saw her walk down the hall at work, you’d think she had it all: looks, career success, and confidence.
“I was seen as someone who was in charge — and that attracted men,” she tells Yahoo Health. But everything was not as it seemed: Inside, Hauer was an insecure wreck, longing for a loving relationship. “I felt so empty, bereft, without someone by my side,” she says.
But Hauer wasn’t just hoping that some day she’d meet Prince Charming and build a healthy, long-lasting relationship — she was completely consumed with the idea. And even when she was dating someone, she didn’t feel content. In fact, her obsessions only intensified. “I became extremely needy, weak, and dependent in relationships,” she explains. “I constantly longed for attention — and everything that I represented on the outside became a shell of nothing on the inside.”
Sometimes, she’d picture a life with someone before the second date. In her new book, Insatiable: A Memoir of Love Addiction, she writes of one such incident: “Immediately, I started reconfiguring my life around him. I had to get a bigger bed — he was 6 foot 2 — and a slew of new dresses and Botox. I’d needed to book hair and nail appointments. Get a bottle of Shalimar. And shimmery body butter. A lingerie overhaul was essential. The kitchen required a new coat of paint, and I had to call the landscaping guy. Then order new silk sheets and fluffy towels. I was manic, wired, not sleeping for days. The frenetic high of a cocaine-like craving.”
But a slew of boyfriends and even a husband (Hauer was married for five years and then divorced) couldn’t satisfy her. This was largely because of something that took her years to realize she had: an addiction to love.
What Is Love Addiction?
Rather than reaping a reward through viewing porn or experiencing orgasm (like sex addicts), love addicts tend to be serially drawn to the attachment of courtship, the beginning of a new relationship, or even the challenge of getting a relationship going, explains Jenner Bishop, clinical director of Foundry Clinical Group in California, which treats sex and love addiction. “Love addicts tend to be more addicted to people and relationships than specific sexual behavior,” she tells Yahoo Health. “It can be a quick hit of what someone is doing — by stalking Facebook or social media — or decoding texts, and thinking and fantasizing in an out-of-balance state about the relationship.”
In her book, Hauer writes of this kind of behavior, describing how she pined for a man she dated after her divorce: “The next day, less than twenty-four hours after meeting him, I was obsessed with Patrick, already consumed with waiting, wondering when his next call would come. My mind spun, speculating what he was thinking. I replayed and analyzed our conversations, coaching myself to reel in my emotions, play it cool, not appear too eager, put the brakes on my hungry heart. I remembered a friend’s advice about transition relationships: Just have fun, keep it light. Between business calls and meetings, my eye was glued to the phone and the red message light. Did he call? What is he thinking? Did I go too far, too fast in telling my friends that I met someone special? Did I chase him away with my defensiveness?”
Usually, love addiction behavior manifests as bouncing around between relationships or being a “serial monogamist” — jumping from one serious relationship to the next, Bishop says. “An addiction, colloquially, is really something where there are negative consequences — the behavior continues despite repeated negative consequences — and [the] person would like to stop the behavior. But with a love addiction, it’s hard to do that.”
Bishop has seen people with love addiction engage in behaviors ranging from jealous fits to taking fertility medication without a doctor’s consent to increase the chances of pregnancy. “There’s a real spectrum when it comes to love addiction,” says Bishop. “Some people historically have problems with boundaries; others stay with people who aren’t good for them — and even though they have ample evidence that a person isn’t good for them, they stay. Some people constantly pine over old loves; others have affairs.”
For Hauer, even in her most love-addicted days, most therapists would have defined her as “high-functioning.” She woke up energetic and full of passion, and worked a job where she appeared to have it all. It was only behind closed doors that she would descend into her addiction.
There’s no question that Hauer isn’t alone in her feelings, but estimating how many people suffer from love addiction is difficult. Just as the term “hypersexual behavior” did not make its way in to the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) — the authority when it comes to psychiatric diagnoses — because of an “imperfect definition,” pathological attachments like love addiction still don’t yet have an “agreed-upon” definition, she says. That means love addiction is also not a diagnosable mental condition in the DSM — making the topic very difficult to study.
Some people have a background that can set them up for dependency disorders, says Bishop. People who grew up with unavailable parents may be more likely to suffer from certain attachment disorders, such as love addiction, for example.
Women are more likely than men to become love addicts, Bishop says, estimating that up to one in five women could suffer with the disorder. One possible reason is that men are simply more likely to be sex addicts than women, Bishop says. There’s also a lot of data that suggests women are biologically predisposed to seek for paired bonding. “Women are hardwired to do microcalculations on interpersonal relationships, and female brains are hyper … tuned to focus on bonding — and women can get lost in that.”
Plus, “women can receive a lot of validation for falling in love and having new relationships,” she said. “In a way, we can sign on to the love addiction pattern because it just looks like relationships.”
But how do you know if you’re addicted to love or simply googly-eyed about a new partner? “Love addiction is a pervasive pattern of speaking out or maintaining relationships despite repeated, negative consequences,” says Bishop. “One bad breakup and some Facebook stalking does not a love addict make.” But if you see a pattern — if you’re losing time, money, sleep, sanity, productivity, or more dramatically, you’re getting disciplined (or arrested) for behaviors — that signals something more serious, she says.
Coping with an Addiction to Love
The pain of suffering from love addiction doesn’t just stem from the yearning for love, but also from the struggle of learning how to deal with the symptoms. After Hauer had multiple failed relationships — one with a great guy whose love she simply couldn’t return — she sought counseling. And finally, at age 40, the pieces started to come together. “I began to understand the roots of unhappiness and trauma,” she says. “I wasn’t nurtured and didn’t get the love I needed as a child. So this was a lifetime of looking for attention from men to feel validated and important.”
Hauer realized she had to learn self-love. “Over time, I became aware of how much my psyche was cemented in negative, critical, diminishing, self-sabotaging thoughts and beliefs,” she says. “I didn’t nourish or nurture myself with kindness.”
Many times, love addiction — like other addictions — can stem from attachment issues or trauma that date back to childhood. “It’s tough because childhood trauma may make love addiction seem like an excuse,” she says. But childhood values and beliefs actually shape a lot of how people feel about themselves and relationships. “Through therapy, people who lacked attention may discover that when given attention, they feel like they’ve been parched in the desert and given water,” she adds. “That can be chemically profound in terms of your neurotransmitters, creating a powerful urge to feel love.”
But trying to step outside of what feels like “the norm” can be anxiety-provoking, too. Your nervous system tells you that you don’t have a choice — that you can’t break up with this person, for example. “You think you have to keep the pathological attachment,” Bishop explains. “People with love addictions fight with themselves to stay with the behavior.”
In therapy, people with love addiction can learn to stop the behavior by conquering their fears. “A fear of being alone, fear of hurting someone, fear of not feeling attractive, needing something to be high-stake and exciting — those can all propel you to make certain decisions,” says Bishop. People can learn to be alone and fulfilled (instead of lonely), build confidence, and be able to distinguish reality from the imagined (like realizing a worst-case scenario possibility is probably not likely, and even so, not that bad).
Today, Hauer is 57 and has transformed the way she makes decisions — which has helped her craft a new, successful life. “Like all addicts, we are always addicts. You learn to manage the addiction. I have ‘worked on myself’ diligently, and I mean diligently,” she says. She has since started her own business and learned that healthy love doesn’t involve obsession, and isn’t rooted in fears and insecurities. She hasn’t been in a relationship in eight years, and is just fine with that.
“I am no longer searching for a relationship to give me self-worth,” she says. “I’ve delegated that responsibility to me.”
For more information on love addiction, visit Love Addicts Anonymous, and download “40 Questions to Determine if You Are a Love Addict.” And if you’re looking for recovery options, addiction counselors, therapists, and dedicated programs — both virtual and in-person — can help.
Read This Next: Should We All Be In ‘Monogamish’ Relationships?
Have a personal health story to share? We want to hear it. Tell us at YHTrueStories@yahoo.com.