When most people think of addiction, they probably picture dependency on substances such as alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs such as cocaine or heroin. Addiction to drugs is certainly a worryingly common and highly destructive form of addiction – but it is not the only one.
Some behavioural addictions, such as addiction to gambling, overeating, shopping, and even playing video games, are becoming more widely accepted. But can you be addicted to a person?
Personal addiction is not a formal diagnosis, but according to many therapists, psychologists and others working in the field of mental health and well-being, the short answer is yes, you can be addicted to another person.
Can You Be Addicted to a Person?
At one time, addiction to alcohol and other drugs was seen as a character flaw or even the choice of the person affected. We are coming to understand more and more about the mechanics of addiction and the physical changes that using addictive substances, or engaging in certain activities, can have on the brain, as well as the psychological impacts.
One study and scientific literature review cites behavioural science experts who believe that “all entities capable of stimulating a person can be addictive”.
This does not mean that anyone using a given substance or engaging in a stimulating activity will instantly become addicted, of course. The researchers state that it is when a habit “changes into an obligation” that it can be considered an addiction.
Most definitions of addiction also mention a drive to continue taking the substance or engaging in the behaviour despite the possibility of negative consequences. The World Health Organization (WHO), for example, states that: “Addiction is the repeated involvement with a substance or activity, despite the substantial harm it now causes because that involvement was (and may continue to be) pleasurable and/or valuable.”
These definitions of addiction can certainly be applied to a relationship with another person, with the emphasis on harm being particularly important. Stanton Peele and Archie Brodsky first explored the concept of addictive relationships in their book ‘Love And Addiction nearly 50 years ago.
The authors contend that most people experience addiction to some degree, at least for periods of time during their lives, and that there are many psychological parallels between love and addiction.
They write: “As with heroin and its irrecoverable euphoria, or cigarettes smoked in routine excess, something initially sought for pleasure is held more tightly after it ceases to provide enjoyment. Now it is being maintained for negative rather than positive reasons.”
A 2016 study also proposed that romantic love is a natural addiction, saying that people who are “passionately in love and/or rejected in love show the basic symptoms of substance-related and gambling addiction listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5, including craving, mood modification, tolerance, emotional and physical dependence and withdrawal”.
They also suggest that romantic involvement can stimulate the reward centres of the brain in a similar way to addictive substances, leading to certain patterns that mimic addictive or compulsive behaviour.
While the intensity of new love or the comfortable habit of an established relationship can have parallels to standard definitions of addiction, modern therapists and psychologists will draw a major distinction between healthy and addictive relationships.
Signs of Being Addicted to a Person
Addiction to a person can share some signs and symptoms of what most people consider to be the intense stage of romantic love. If you consider some of the following factors, they could also easily apply to someone with a substance misuse problem:
- Wanting to see more and more of the other person
- Feeling bad when they are not around
- Intense euphoria when seeing the other person
- Physical symptoms like palpitations or a racing heart
Even where there are similar symptoms, however, it is important to make a distinction between healthy relationships and unhealthy, addictive relationships. In healthy relationships, each person should have their own life and space for personal growth, while personal addictions tend to involve more co-dependent relationships.
Some personal addiction signs could include:
- Feeling anxious and unable to cope away from the other person
- Feeling jealous if they do things or interact with people outside the relationship
- Expecting the other person to fulfil all your needs
- Having no life away from the relationship
- Basing your entire identity on the relationship
- Justifying abusive or unreasonable behaviour
- Changing your own behaviour to fit the other’s expectations
- Frequent break-ups and make-ups, severe ups and downs in the relationship
There can also be elements of addictive behaviour in other relationships besides romantic ones. Parent-child relationships can be very complex, for example, and can contain some harmful addictive or co-dependent elements.
Tips for Recognising Personal Addiction
In ‘Love and Addiction’, Peele and Brodsky list some questions intended to help draw a distinction between healthy love and addiction. They include:
- Does each person feel secure in their own value?
- Are they improved by the relationship?
- Do they have serious interests and other personal relationships outside the relationship?
- Is the relationship integrated into the people’s lives rather than being the entirety of it?
- Are they possessive and jealous of the other’s growth and/or expansion of interests?
- Are they friends? Would they still enjoy each other’s company if not in a relationship?
Some people might also be ‘addicted’ to the thrill and intense feelings of a new relationship – leading to a lack of long-term commitment and a string of failed relationships.
Implications on Mental Health and Relationships
A personal addiction can have serious mental health implications. Such a co-dependent relationship can cause or contribute to a lack of self esteem as well as mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
If you believe you may have a personal addiction, it can be difficult to overcome without expert support and guidance.
Depending on your unique situation, this may involve personal or couples therapy. Some addiction programmes might also address personal addiction, although many will be geared towards substance dependence and other behavioural addictions such as gambling, sex or shopping addiction.
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