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Being addicted to a person is not generally what comes to mind when people think about addiction. We generally think about addiction as being hooked on substances that have addictive chemical properties.
As an addiction counselor specializing in behavioral addictions, I’ve seen many people develop addictions to things that are not substances. A few common behavioral addictions include gambling, gaming, social media, and work. This leads to the question: can you be addicted to a person?
You can be addicted to a person. This is also referred to as relationship addiction, love addiction, or codependency. Each of these consists of seeking external validation to compensate for low self-esteem.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, you can check out my resource page for suggestions on how to find help.
What it Means to be Addicted to Someone
Although the word “addiction” is commonly used to describe intense craving, the clinical use of the term only applies if something is becoming destructive. As stated in my article, When Does Something Become an Addiction?
Something becomes an addiction if it begins to have significant harmful impacts on other areas of your life. In addition, the individual experiences craving, loss of control over the substance or behavior, and is unable to stop despite these harms.
Although strong healthy relationships often involve a high level of desire for the other person, the word “addiction” would only apply if this desire becomes destructive.
For example, codependent relationships often consist of one person focused on helping another person at the expense of meeting their own needs.
A common codependent scenario may consist of a spouse of a person with an addiction who feels the need to continually hold everything together. They take care of the household, make excuses for the other person’s irresponsible behavior while neglecting their own needs, and losing a sense of their own identity.
This behavior may look like helping, but it is actually a form of enabling. As described in my article, When Does Helping Become Enabling?:
Helping becomes enabling when you diminish someone else’s responsibility by not allowing them to experience the natural consequences of their behavior.
This leads to perpetuating the problem, keeping you trapped in a cycle of martyrdom, attempting to gain external validation to overcome low self-esteem.
Other forms of addictions to persons like relationship or love addiction work the same way when someone continually seeks the romantic attention of others.
Although there are many different ways you can be addicted to another person, the common features include low-self-esteem, seeking external validation, and harmful consequences in one’s life.
Let’s take a look at what the research says about the origins of this unique form of addiction.
What Causes Addiction to a Person?
Since this form of addiction is so centered on seeking external validation, it is closely related to early childhood attachment experiences.
In a study titled, Psychological Correlates of Codependency in Women, they state:
An association was demonstrated between codependency and parental alcoholism, or history of childhood abuse, or both.
These early childhood experiences may increase a person’s likelihood of developing codependent relationships. Early turmoil can instill a deep sense of distrust and relational insecurity.
Psychologists refer to this relational style as anxious attachment. Inconsistent displays of affection in childhood may result in a child being generally anxious, fearing potential abandonment. In adulthood, this results in distrusting others while simultaneously craving intimacy.
The lack of secure attachment can result in persons being highly dependent on relationships, often concerned about abandonment from a romantic partner. Rather than getting to the root of the issue, persons with this type of relational addiction seek short-term reassurance at the expense of long-term relational health and security.
Some of these short-term behaviors include the following:
- Trying to impress others to get their approval
- Trying to fix others
- Doing things to be perceived as “the hero”
- Excessive gift-giving
- Constantly adapting to “fit in”
Like an addiction to substances, these short-term coping behaviors result in long-term consequences. Let’s take a closer look at how this type of addiction is similar to other addictions.
Addiction to a Person is Like Other Addictions
New relationships often share many features of addiction, including craving, euphoria, and withdrawal. In a study titled, Intense, Passionate, Romantic Love, the authors ask if love is a natural addiction. Using fMRI brain scans, they found the following:
…feelings of intense romantic love engage regions of the brain’s “reward system,” specifically dopamine-rich regions, including the ventral tegmental area, also activated during drug and/or behavioral addiction. Thus, because the experience of romantic love shares reward pathways with a range of substance and behavioral addictions, it may influence the drug and/or behavioral addiction response.
Since romantic love induces similar brain activity to other addictions, this leads to the question of when the clinical use of the word “addiction” is appropriate.
It would not be accurate to define every person entering into a new relationship as “addicted” since the word only applies when a substance or behavior has an increasingly negative impact on your life.
In a study on The Lived Experience of Codependency, the researchers share the experience of a person who compared the sense of obligation to stay in a dysfunctional relationship to a sense of military duty:
I would be in relationships that were unhealthy, unequal, umm unpleasant umm and I would stay in them, you know, no matter what, like a marine, umm … It’s my duty, God gave me this!
Another participant describes their sense of an unstable identity as the following:
…it is like the chameleon, you know, trying to fit in with every situation rather than allowing myself to be who I am…
The question of “who I am” is often unanswered among persons in this situation, but it is an important area to consider when trying to regain control.
Recovering from an Addiction to a Person
If you are struggling with this type of addiction, it can be helpful to reach out to a psychologist or counselor who specializes in this area.
A key area to consider when recovering from codependency is asking yourself this simple question: “What do I want?”
Getting clear on your values allows you to regain your own sense of purpose, building a sense of independent identity. I’ve written about values in my article on How to Stop Living in Your Head, where I share an exercise used in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT):
Imagine you have a mind-reading machine that can tell you the thoughts of someone close to you. Tune in to what that person is thinking about you. What are they thinking about what you stand for? What do they think are your personal strengths? What do you mean to this person? In an ideal world where you are the person you want to be, what do you hear this person thinking?
What theme do you see?
Come up with a few core values and keep them with you throughout the next week, being mindful of how they inform your actions.
Some examples of values include compassion, creativity, authenticity, community, order, justice, courage, curiosity, and loyalty.
If you find yourself drawn to valuing compassion, it is important to also consider whether or not your attempts to help others are genuinely compassionate.
Compassion can be defined as a form of giving for the benefit of the other person. Codependent “helping” is often not compassionate since it is intended to benefit the helper through external validation, often enabling the other person to continue down a destructive path, allowing for a perpetual cycle of “helping.”
My article, “When Does Helping Become Enabling?” takes a deep dive into the dynamics of helping vs. enabling, allowing you to better understand how to truly express compassion when trying to help someone.