Experts question whether we can describe a toxic relationship the way we talk about gambling or alcohol. But some have found that framework to be a helpful step in the road to freedom.
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Tara Blair Ball, a relationship coach in Memphis, met her ex on Match.com. They instantly clicked.
“He felt like my soulmate. It was the little things; we both talked about the differences in the old Spider-Man movie with Tobey Maguire and the comic book. A lot of people didn’t know about these details, and it just felt like this bonding experience.”
On their first phone call, they talked for eight hours — so long that Ms. Ball came late to work and was fired from her job at Target. “I took that as a sign that I was supposed to be connected to him,” she said, laughing.
When the red flags started to appear, Ms. Ball brushed them aside. “He started acting jealous and wanted to know where I was, what I was doing, who I was talking to, how long I was going to be there and when I was going to be back.” Instead of seeing warning signs, Ms. Ball interpreted his actions as affection.
“We were quickly talking about marriage and moving in together. I felt like I couldn’t be away from him for very long — I’d be in withdrawal.”
If the situation seems to contain some of the track marks of an addiction, it’s because it does. And like many addicts, Ms. Ball took a long time to recognize and admit she was experiencing what some call “love addiction.”
The definition of love addiction is hard to pin down. Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous calls it an extreme dependency on one person whereby “relationships or sexual activities have become increasingly destructive to career, family and sense of self-respect.” Helen Fisher, a senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University and a leading expert in romantic love, said it’s any relationship that leads to “obsessive craving and intrusive thinking,” meaning impulsive or unwanted thoughts.
One meta-analysis looked at 83 studies and estimated that about 3 percent of the population has had a serious problem with love addiction over a given year. That number may be higher than 10 percent among young adults.
Looking at TikTok, where Ms. Ball began to share her experiences with love addiction, you might think the number of love addicts is even higher. The hashtag #ToxicRelationship on TikTok clocks in at 1.7 billion views, plus another 320 million more for related terms such as “love addiction,” “love addict,” and “codependency.” Whether telling their tales or reacting to others, people are finding healing and community on the short-form video sharing app by posting the signs of love addiction, with memes and tips.
Wherever you decide to share about your experiences, it’s helpful to be able to recognize when a dream romance strays into love addiction.
“Anybody who says it’s not an addiction, all I can tell you is that we’ve looked in the brain,” said Dr. Fisher.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, Dr. Fisher and her colleagues have studied romantic love and found increased activity in a brain region called the nucleus accumbens, “that becomes active when anything becomes an addiction — alcohol or nicotine or cocaine or heroin or amphetamines or any one of those things,” Dr. Fisher said.
But some in the scientific community don’t even accept love addiction as a diagnosis. “Love addiction is a contested concept,” said Brian D. Earp, a Ph.D. candidate and the associate director of the Yale-Hastings Program in Ethics and Health Policy at Yale University who has studied love addiction. He noted that some of the disagreement comes down to the definition of love itself.
“Some feminist philosophers argue that if a relationship is toxic or abusive it shouldn’t even be labeled as love,” Mr. Earp said, adding that some prefer the label “addiction to toxic relationship behaviors.”
To make matters even more complicated, experts also can’t agree on the definition of addiction. Mr. Earp said some neuroscientists believe that something labeled an addiction must be bad for you. Therefore, “if you rely on an activity that might be classified as unhealthy but it’s totally compatible with living a flourishing life, some experts would say there’s no reason to call this an addiction,” he said.
Whether or not you believe love addiction is real, thinking of a toxic relationship as an addiction can be useful to someone dealing with the repercussions of an unhealthy partnership. “The bottom line is this: an unhealthy relationship tends to involve a search for a dopamine rush” and involves power and control, said Steven Sussman, a professor of preventive medicine, psychology and social work at the University of Southern California.
Those experiencing love addiction “have the behavioral pattern of addiction,” said Dr. Fisher. She explained that this may manifest in mood swings from despair to euphoria and a willingness to put up with abuse. Additionally their personalities may shift when they’re addicted, leading to lifestyle changes or a tendency to distort reality.
Houston-based literacy specialist, Synthia Smith, said she succumbed to those feelings with her now ex-boyfriend. “The prospect of living my life without him was unbearable — I would be emotionally dead,” she remembered.
So great was this fear that she stayed in the relationship for two and a half years, despite a fast-growing litany of warning signs, such as the time she discovered his profile on the dating website Plenty of Fish. After confronting him, he claimed that he was there to network for his business and shamed her for bringing it up before exploding in rage.
Becoming involved with someone who compromises your mental health can be a scary and isolating experience. Whether you believe yourself to be a love addict, or just need help getting out of a bad situation, there are resources to consult and healthy actions you can take.
Katlynn Rowland, who owns a housecleaning business in Ocala, Florida, was involved with an emotionally abusive man when she first came across Ms. Smith’s TikToks about gaslighting. “It almost felt good when I first watched the videos because it felt like I was being validated,” Ms. Rowland said, “and that I wasn’t crazy.”
Ms. Smith’s videos gave Ms. Rowland the courage to leave her ex-boyfriend — and to post about it on TikTok. “I was scared to post at first because I knew he would go insane,” Ms. Rowland said. “But since Synthia said that she didn’t care what her ex thought anymore, I was able to let go of that fear.”
Mr. Earp said this is a common experience. “It can be comforting for people to make public sense of their experience, rather than just having it be a private phenomenon.”
“It’s important to educate yourself about how love addiction works for you, to understand the layers and nuances of how it plays out in your life,” said Kerry Cohen, a therapist and the author of “Crazy for You: Breaking the Spell of Sex and Love Addiction.” This may include finding a support group, like Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous or Love Addicts Anonymous, and speaking to a therapist or psychiatrist specializing in love addiction. It’s important to see a licensed professional and not to self-diagnose.
Texting can be a potential minefield for love addicts, as there is often room for miscommunication, leading to anxiety and fear. Ms. Cohen said love addicts should refrain from talking about feelings via text with their partner, particularly negative emotions. “This will be good practice for you to regulate your feelings until you can talk in person,” she wrote, “and it may give you the pause you need to get a handle on how to respond without reacting.”
Many love addicts keep parts of themselves and their lives secret from their partner to provide what Ms. Cohen called an “artificial sense of autonomy” and a means to avoid conflict. Although having privacy is appropriate in a relationship, keeping secrets is not. Love addicts often “lie about their pasts, and try to be someone they think their lover wants them to be,” Ms. Cohen wrote in “Crazy for You.” She advised partners to share honestly with each other, especially about their struggles with sex or love addiction.
After you have built a support team, you can decide if, when and how you should end a toxic relationship. With your therapist, consider what the “Cambridge Handbook of Substance and Behavioral Addictions” calls “a strict no-contact policy, avoiding any form of communication with the ex-partner that may trigger renewed feelings of craving and retard the healing process.”
Twelve-step programs often advise addicts to remove all reminders of the addiction, including all social media contact, photos, songs or memorabilia. “Somebody is camping in your head, you’ve got to get them out,” said Dr. Fisher.
It may be helpful to develop a dating plan with your sponsor or therapist, which can be a useful guide to finding a new, healthy relationship. Start by identifying one action that has brought about negative consequences in your past. Some love addicts may have sex too quickly with a partner and get too attached. In that case, it might be helpful to establish a rule to only have sex after entering a committed relationship.
“Nobody gets out of love alive,” said Dr. Fisher. “People live for love, pine for love, kill for love and they’ll die for a loved one. It’s one of the most powerful brain systems we’ve evolved.”
Whether you harness this energy for a positive or negative romantic experience is up to you.
Kaila Yu is a journalist based in Los Angeles.