Love Addiction and Substance Abuse: Fellow Travelers

Feeling hostage to your endless quest for love? Abusing drugs and alcohol? You’re not alone. Love addiction and substance abuse are frequently fellow travelers. Emotional despair can fuel alcohol and drug use. In turn, many love addicts use substances to overcome inhibitions in romantic pursuits. In reality, love addiction relationships and substance abuse are often attempts to self-medicate difficult emotions that stem from past trauma such as shame, anxiety, fear and self-contempt. Until you address the underlying issues behind your troublesome behaviors, what you desire most —acceptance and unconditional love — may remain out of reach.

Love Addiction Is Often Rooted in Childhood

Early childhood relationships with parents can be a predictor of love addiction in adulthood. An emotionally unavailable parent or an abusive or unpredictable parent can have a lasting impact on how you function in future relationships. For example, research shows people who experienced avoidant or anxious/ambivalent attachment patterns with caregivers exhibited more obsessive, dependent behaviors in love relationships as adults. As a child, you rely on parents or caregivers for physical and emotional survival. When these needs aren’t met, emotional and physical development can be thwarted. If you don’t experience love as a dependable, nurturing, accepting emotion, you may unknowingly continue to seek out similar relationships in an attempt to “resolve” these early attachment patterns. Martha Graham, LPC, is an expert on intimacy disorders and addiction. She currently works in the women’s sexual addiction and intimacy disorder program at The Right Step drug rehab in Dallas, Texas. Graham says that the onset of many of her clients’ substance abuse problems closely coincides with their first traumatic relationship experience such as heartbreak, emotional or physical abandonment and sexual abuse. When I do a relationship timeline with my clients, drugs and alcohol almost always enter the picture around the same time as a traumatic experience or as some sort of abandonment issue related to their relationship with their parents, Graham says. When you’re raised in an environment that doesn’t promote resiliency and self-esteem, you’re likely not learning healthy coping skills to regulate emotions and deal with hardships. This is where drugs and alcohol may enter the picture.

Love and Drugs as Coping Mechanisms

Love addiction and drug and alcohol abuse may become a way for you to numb out and temporarily escape emotional pain from past trauma that gets triggered in present day situations. Ruminating, obsessing, infatuating and sexual acting out can all become habitual and familiar patterns. There are indicators that you can actually become addicted to a person. Love addicts begin to develop a dependence on, and even experience withdrawal symptoms around, the highs, lows, wins and losses of relationships. One study found that love and emotional rejection impact the brain’s reward system similarly to cocaine and nicotine addiction. People can crave a person just like they “crave” drugs or alcohol. “Withdrawal from a relationship can feel 10 times worse [than substance withdrawal],” says Graham. “It’s so connected to our sense of who we are; our sense of self.” She says relationship addiction withdrawal is when comorbid depression, suicidality and personality disorders tend to become apparent. “Often when a person is going through relationship withdrawal, symptoms manifest as psychiatric presentations,” she says. Graham says the connection between love addiction and substance use is most evident to her in how the two are tied together in relapses. If a person doesn’t learn how to regulate their feelings, heartbreak can trigger an alcohol or drug relapse. The love addict needs their fix, and when they can’t acquire it from their love pursuits, they may turn to drugs and alcohol. Graham says this is why it’s critical for love addicts to address the underlying issues behind their external symptoms and follow through on recommended aftercare, whether that is temporary relationship sobriety, 12-step programs or other professional support and self-care measures.

Help and Hope for the Love Addict

Graham explains that effective treatment for love addicts involves validating the client and helping them see the connection to their substance use. Gender-separate addiction treatment is critical so that clients can feel safe exploring difficult emotions without distractions and inhibitions that may come with the opposite sex. At The Right Step drug rehab, Graham draws upon a mix of therapeutic interventions. Some love addicts are very responsive to cognitive behavioral therapy, which encourages them to change unhealthy thought patterns. Others do well with dialectical behavioral therapy, a form of cognitive behavioral therapy that is mindfulness-based. Approaches that address shame such as Dr. Brene Brown’s The Daring WayTM shame-resilience curriculum can help clients begin resolving past trauma. Non-invasive neurofeedback therapies like eye movement desensitization processing (EMDR) or Brainpaint® can also begin releasing deep-seated trauma. Education is critical in love addiction treatment. Graham says she teaches her clients how relationship addiction patterns fuel their substance use and destructive behaviors. They also learn relationship skills such as setting healthy boundaries. Connecting with support groups such as Love Addicts Anonymous can provide a valuable post-treatment recovery community for love addicts. Love addiction can be gut-wrenching, even life-threatening, but people do recover and come out the other side. Witnessing this healing process unfold is the most rewarding for Graham. “When you see someone value themselves enough to know that they need something different and they don’t deserve the kind of behavior they’ve been given, you hope they take the seed we’re trying to plant and grow some healthy relationships,” she says. By Sara Schapmann

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