There’s a common saying that states that birds of a feather flock together. Meaning, people often associate with others who do the same or very similar things. This holds true for addiction and relationships.

Relationships and addictions are a tricky pairing. Most everyone wants that special someone to connect with, but is it a true connection, or is the soaring feeling of infatuation just another high to chase?

Addiction is seen more and more as a disease and not as a moral failing. Some scientists believe that people take part in potentially habit-forming activities as a way to “escape discomfort — both physical and emotional.”

Being alone, for some, can be a form of discomfort. Being coupled, by contrast, fills that void. Addiction can be latched to a specific substance, such as alcohol or opioids, or to a drug-free activity, such as shopping or sex.

If it’s a feel-good activity or substance, it’s potentially addictive. And if the object or activity overtakes other previously important activities and relationships, it’s an addiction.

It goes without saying that love and infatuation feel good. Science has shown that people’s brains react similarly to different pleasurable experiences, and that falling in love affects the brain much like being high.

A 1985 single by Robert Palmer, “Addicted to Love,” has the following lyrics:

“Your lights are on, but you’re not home

Your will is not your own

Your heart sweats and teeth grind …”

The British blue-eyed soul singer describes the similarities between love and addiction pretty well: “Oblivion is all you crave.”

A sizzling infatuation feels as intoxicating as a couple of cocktails. Misguided love provides those same highs — and many of the same deep lows — as an addiction to vodka or painkillers.

Addiction and Relationships

The brains of men and women who claimed to be in love have been scanned in studies. Researchers found that the gray matter in the lovebirds’ brains appears to be stimulated in the same areas that activate in drug-addicted individuals. That’s not to say love is bad for you, just that some love is good and some love isn’t.

There are ways to tell if a relationship is healthy for you. There are also better times to enter into a relationship. (Hint: If you’re fresh out of rehab, focus on yourself first.)

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Dealing with Addiction in Relationships

There is the common adage about having an addictive personality, which dovetails with the fear that when someone achieves sobriety for one addiction, they may replace it with another. Television shows and movies have turned that into a storyline many times: a character gives up drinking, meets someone, and becomes consumed by passionate feelings.

The scene, simplified: goodbye, cocaine. Hello, Caitlin!

That doesn’t mean that a recovering addict should shy away from relationships. Studies have shown that people who were in remission from an addiction were less likely to adopt a new one. Each case is unique, just as every recovery plan should be, whether it’s two addicts in a relationship, or one.

Focusing on getting well, however, should be one’s first priority.

Addict Behavior Relationships

People who are single and newly sober should focus on themselves. They’re casting off one (unhealthy) lifestyle and in a sense, learning a whole new (sober) one.

Some psychologists recommend stepping back from dating for at least a year. The honeymoon phase refers to the early stages of a new relationship when partners are excited about each other and are less likely to find faults.

The phase can contribute to issues that fuel addictive behaviors. Dating not long after beginning rehab can shift the focus from recovery onto the object of affection, placing the other person on a pedestal. People may be desperate to hold onto that feel-good honeymoon phase, and if the relationship crumbles and the good feelings evaporate, a relapse could occur.

Sarah Hepola, who wrote Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, a memoir detailing her alcoholism and recovery, relapsed a few times, and came to realize that addiction had eroded her ability to set personal boundaries and gage her own self-worth. Dating, she admits, brought to light a lot of challenges. What if she and her date went to a bar or party where alcohol was served? She found that even kissing someone who’d been drinking was risky enough to knock her off the wagon.

As for people in committed long-term relationships, the hold-off-from-dating-for-a-year rule doesn’t quite apply. They face their own unique set of challenges, however.

Addicted to Love

In cases where a relationship becomes the addiction, withdrawal can follow a breakup. In some cases, reactions to breakups may strongly mirror symptoms of a recovering drug addict’s withdrawal:

  • Interrupted sleep patterns
  • Appetite changes
  • Confusion
  • Depression

A sense of hopelessness and feelings of failure may also creep in.

There are said to be two forms of love addiction. In one type, it’s a one-sided relationship, where the object of affection does not reciprocate. The infatuated individual is said to have attachment hunger — feeling empty, incomplete, anxious, and insecure.

Meanwhile, if the other person does return affection, the individual may quickly lose interest, as the pursuer is only interested in the chase. They want the icing on the cupcake, not the kitchen and its messes.

Two Addicts in Love

Then there are the people addicted to one another. It’s like two drug addicts in a relationship. Instead of opioids (for example), they tend to be focused on one another, to the exclusion of the outside world. They’re in it for their own security, and it’s not a true partnership. The partners feel incomplete without the other.

Psychotherapist Howard Halpern wrote about love addiction and breaking such dependency. He cited three symptoms of the condition:

  • Compulsion: The urge to merge with someone specific
  • Fear: Holding onto the relationship feels like the only thing sustaining you
  • Withdrawal: The relationship ends, and depression and physical pain manifest

There is, of course, a normal amount of sadness and pain that follows a breakup, but if it’s following the end of a relationship that’s imbalanced, that’s unhealthy.

Relationship Goals

Good relationships hinge on balance.

A person with a history of drug or alcohol addiction doesn’t need to be yanked from the dating pool. Recovery and focusing on healing yourself is most important.

Then, when it comes to dating, there are both bad relationship characteristics to avoid, and good relationship situations to which to aspire.

Red flags in an addictive relationship include:

  • Believing you can’t live without that person
  • Thinking your partner will meet all your needs
  • Feeling incomplete when your partner isn’t around
  • Limiting your interests and social contact outside of the relationship
  • Neglecting yourself or other relationships (friends, family)

On the flip side, a good relationship includes the following:

  • Respecting one another’s privacy and individuality
  • Understanding that things are give and take
  • Encouraging self-sufficiency and outside interests
  • Being open and honest
  • Fighting fairly: Conflict is normal, but it should be balanced and respectful

By creating healthier lives, former addicts have a better chance creating healthier relationships.

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References

  • huffpost.com – Addicted to Love? Three Ways to Tell
  • indiana.edu – Addictive Behaviors
  • utdallas.edu – Addictive Relationships
  • amazon.com – Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget
  • huffpost.com – Falling in Love Affects Brain Much Like Addiction, Scientists Say
  • depts.washington.edu – Healthy vs. Unhealthy Relationships
  • jamanetwork.com – Testing the Drug Substitution Switching-Addictions Hypothesis
  • health.harvard.edu – What is Addiction?
  • health.usnews.com – Why Newly Sober Alcoholics and Addicts Shouldn’t Date for a Year