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Overlaps Between Childhood Trauma and Adult Pathological Love

Childhood trauma may be a core symptom of compulsive behaviors toward love.

Key points

  • Unhealthy love-associated behavior may stem from developmental trauma where there are deficits in maintaining relationships.
  • Fears of abandonment commonly seen in BPD may create a pattern of dysfunctional and toxic relationships to prevent being alone.
  • Those who develop an insecure attachment style often become preoccupied with romantic relationships irrespective of the red flags.
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The term pathological love is sometimes used to refer to patterns of relationship behaviors that are characterized by idealized images of love, an overwhelming need to be needed, and compulsions that tilt toward infatuation or obsession with one or more romantic partners. There is often a pattern of “attaching” to partners and then easily “detaching” if feeling emotionally vulnerable or fearing abandonment.

"Love addiction,” as it's more commonly known, is not currently recognized in the DSM and experts continue to debate its legitimacy and whether it can be truly classified as an "addiction." But the broader, non-clinical concept of pathological love is thought to share some common behavioral patterns with some personality and mood disorders, including borderline personality disorder (BPD), narcissistic personality disorder, and bipolar disorder.

For example, fears of abandonment commonly seen in BPD may create a pattern of dysfunctional and unhealthy relationships to prevent being alone or to satisfy a need to feel needed. Similarly, a recent study found high correlations between both ludic love (viewing love as a game, a tendency favored by those lower in emotional empathy and emotional commitment) and pragmatic love (choosing potential mates based on how well they fit into a person’s lifestyle or how well they meet their needs) and people scoring higher in pathological narcissism.

Possible Signs of Pathological Love

  • Inconsistent or nonexistent boundaries
  • Deep fears of abandonment
  • Overlapping relationships or short intervals between relationships
  • An overwhelming fear of being alone
  • Attempts to change their partner
  • “Settling” on a relationship in an attempt to stop the cycle
  • A pattern of emotionally unavailable partners
  • Issues with control or manipulation
  • Partners vacillating between “savior” and victim role(s), which can switch within the relationship
  • Psychological or emotional games used to control or shame
  • Feeling worthless when not in a relationship
  • Extreme emotional lability when not in a relationship
  • Codependent behavior (constant need to contact partner, to do everything together, to gain partner’s approval, etc.)
  • Choosing a partner’s needs over their own

The Relationship Between Problematic Love Behaviors, Trauma, and Addiction

Compulsive and unhealthy behaviors surrounding sex or love are not always paired with early trauma. Yet traumatic experiences can shape how a person sees the world, whether they connect with others, and how they see themselves.

If a person grew up in chaos or unpredictability, they may feel comfortable around emotional turmoil. If unhealthy behavior patterns are in play, it’s common to see people choosing partners that resonate with their early trauma. This is especially seen in self-sabotaging behavior, where a healthy relationship may be destroyed in exchange for a relationship that is seen as “safe,” but toxic.

Compulsive behaviors, substance use disorders, and childhood trauma often co-occur. Compulsive behaviors may be turned to because of the effect on the brain’s reward pathways. For example, compulsive video gaming or a gambling addiction may be both positively and negatively reinforcing to a person—providing both a momentary rush (positive reinforcement) and a temporary escape from emotional pain (negative reinforcement).

A similar pattern can also be seen in unhealthy behavior associated with love. For example, a recent study compared those identifying with so-called “love-addicted” behavior against people with a substance use disorder and found that both groups experienced activated dopaminergic regions of the brain and self-reported feelings of euphoria, craving, increased tolerance, dependence, withdrawal, and relapse. Neurotransmitters and hormones such as dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and vasopressin are released, which can trigger a pattern of compulsive behavior to maintain these feelings, which could include obsessive or needy behavior.

At the root of unhealthy behaviors related to love is often developmental trauma where there are deficits in establishing or maintaining healthy relationships. Instead, core attachment wounds such as betrayal, rejection, invalidation, shame, or abandonment from a primary caregiver often become the catalyst for later adult patterns surrounding intimacy and love. As a result, those who develop an insecure attachment style often become preoccupied with romantic relationships irrespective of the red flags or warning signs.

As with any compulsive, unhealthy behavior pattern or recognized addiction, the concept of "pathological love" can perhaps be best understood as "an ounce of pleasure for a pound of pain." And, as with any problematic behavior, it requires admitting whether there may be a problem. If you or someone you know may need support, a trauma-informed clinician can help you begin learning healthier patterns surrounding love. To find help near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

References

Earp, B. D., Wudarczyk, O. A., Foddy, B., & Savulescu, J. (2017). Addicted to Love: What Is Love Addiction and When Should It Be Treated? Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, 24(1), 77–92.

Fisher, H.E., et al. (2016). Intense, passionate, romantic love: A natural addiction? How the fields that investigate romance and substance abuse can inform each other. Frontiers in Psychology, doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00687.

Johason, P. K. et al. (2020). The mania and ludus love styles are central to pathological personality traits. Personality and Individual Differences, 165, doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2020.110159.

Redcay, A., et al. (2018). Criteria for love and relationship addiction: Distinguishing love addiction form other substance and behavioral addictions. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 25(1), 80 – 95.

Sanches, M., & John, V. P. (2019). Treatment of love addiction: Current status and perspectives. European Journal of Psychiatry, 33, 38-44.

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