What is Pathological Love and Who is Affected?

Blog Mind What is Pathological Love and Who is Affected?

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8.15.2023 0 comments

Love is such an important part of life!

Our love for our family, friends, spouse, and children provide us with motivation to grow, change, and improve, and it’s what drives us to grow as human beings.

Love has also been proven scientifically to have a lot of health benefits [1]: higher life expectancy, better heart health, lower depression rates, better immunity to disease, lower anxiety and stress levels, better gut health, improved sleep, and the list goes on.

But sometimes love—especially the “wrong” kind of love—can be a dangerous thing. One type of love in particular, pathological love, can lead you down a dark road to addiction and obsessive behavior.

In this post, we’re going to take a deep dive into pathological love, examining what it is, who it is most likely to effect, how to recognize its symptoms, and how it affects those who suffer from it. We’ll also look at what can be done about it and how to break the “love addiction”.

By the end of this post, you’ll have a much clearer idea of what pathological love is and know how to spot the warning signs.

What is Pathological Love?

According to the scientists who have dedicated a great deal of time to studying it, pathological love—also known as “love addiction”—can be defined as [2]:

“A pattern of behavior characterized by a maladaptive, pervasive and excessive interest towards one or more romantic partners, resulting in lack of control, the renounce of other interests and behaviors, and other negative consequences.”

Pathological love shares certain behavioral components with borderline personality disorder and dependent personality disorder. However, what’s unique to pathological love is that the dysfunctional behavior is limited exclusively to romantic love, while the other two conditions involve a broader range of dysfunctional behavior.

What Causes Pathological Love?

Research into pathological love is still in its infancy, so there is a great deal about this condition that isn’t known. Including a concrete cause of what causes it.

However, experts [3] believe that unhealthy childhood attachments may play a strong role in the formation of love addiction.

Children need strong emotional bonds in order to develop into psychologically healthy adults. However, if they learn maladaptive attachment behaviors during their childhood, they may eventually repeat those behaviors later in life. Their feelings of self-esteem, love, and acceptance that are affected during their childhood can continue on into adulthood, leading to love addiction.

Things that can cause these maladaptive attachment behaviors may include:

  • A co-dependent relationship between parents and children

  • Physical abuse

  • Emotional abuse

  • Physical or emotional abandonment

  • Parents demanding autonomy of the children at a young age (which can often feel like emotional abandonment)

  • Children being taught to seek validation, love, and a sense of fulfillment from external sources, rather than being encouraged to develop their own feelings of worth and value

  • Children who have no “healthy” relationships with parents or parental figures

Is Pathological Love a Recognized Medical or Psychological Condition?

Unlike borderline personality disorder or dependent personality disorder, pathological love has no formal diagnosis in the DSM (even the DSM-V-TR published most recently in 2022) [4]. It is often conflated with or mistaken for these other two conditions due to the similarities between them.

However, research has begun to uncover more evidence that may lead to pathological love being formally diagnosed and recognized as a medical condition.

Signs of Pathological Love

The signs of pathological love can often be mistaken for other conditions, such as mood disorders or personality disorders.

However, there are a few signs that will point specifically to pathological love, that is to say addiction in romantic love.

Experts [5] have stated that, “people with love addiction experience mood states (e.g., hypomania and elation) similar to those who are falling in love or are in the early stages of intense romantic love.”

There are also similarities with obsessive-compulsive tendencies—“those with love addiction might experience repetitive and intrusive thoughts”, though the obsessive tendencies will be entirely focused on romantic love to the exclusion of all else.

Also, “in some individuals, high impulsivity and reward-seeking behavior would co-occur with high levels of attachment behavior, resulting in obsessive or dependent kind of love; in others, high reward-seeking and impulsivity would co-occur with attachment deficits, resulting in high sexual interest and having multiple sex partners.”

Other signs that might point to a love addiction include a pathological need to be in a relationship or feel love, feeling desperate or alone when not in a relationship, and replacing ended relationships immediately.

Essentially, acting in the same way any other “addict” would (hence its name, “love addiction”), with a compulsion to repeat the addictive behavior continually.

How Pathological Love Affects Your Health

Brain scans taken of people who suffered from “love addiction” showed similar effects to other forms of addiction. Specifically, the regions that were responsible for the release of dopamine were activated by both love and drug addiction in equal measure.

The problem is, when something triggers the release of dopamine, it can create a “feel-good” sensation that can almost be like a “high”. In certain people, this may actually create negative conditioning wherein they are encouraged to pursue that high.

With drug addicts, it would be trying stronger and more varied types of drugs to recreate the high. With alcoholics, it might be drinking more and more. With love addicts, it is constantly seeking the high of romantic love, either with the same partner or with ever-changing partners.

Who is Most Affected by Pathological Love?

It’s estimated [6] that anywhere from 3 to 10% of the U.S. population is afflicted by pathological love.

However, in college students specifically, that estimate can be as high as 25%.

How to Treat and Manage Pathological Love

There are a number of means of treating and managing pathological love, much the same as you might treat any other addiction.

Self-help groups and recovery groups (similar to NA for drug addicts and AA for alcoholics) can help you to regain control of your life and manage the addiction.

Books like Women Who Love Too Much by Robin Norwood have also become popular literature for those who are battling love addiction. These books can provide insight into the underlying causes behind the addiction and help sufferers recognize the symptoms that could send them down a dangerous path.

Psychodrama group therapy has also been shown to be effective, particularly at helping sufferers to develop and maintain healthy relationships.

Cognitive behavioral therapy effectively challenges thoughts about romantic love that might be distorted or colored by childhood traumas or experiences (like those listed above), helping you to reframe your way of thinking about love and reduce the severity of symptoms.

Psychodynamic therapy helps you to address attachment or relationship difficulties you may have, leading you to form healthier, more balanced relationships.

Early [7] research suggests that mood stabilizers, antidepressants, and other pharmacological treatments may prove useful, similar to how they help to manage similar disorders (like OCD or mood disorders). Specifically, they may help to manage the mood instability and obsessive thoughts common with pathological love.


For those who are struggling with a series of unhealthy and unsuccessful relationships, or who seem forever compelled to seek out love, you may be one of the small percentage of people affected by pathological love.

The information shared above is a starting point, a reference to help you understand what might be the root cause behind the “love addiction” you might be feeling.

If what you learned leads you suspect you might be experiencing the addiction-like symptoms of pathological love, it’s recommended you talk to a therapist or psychologist for a concrete diagnosis and possible treatment plan.

Love addiction doesn’t have to ruin your life or romantic relationships. It can be managed and treated, and you can have a healthy, happy, love-filled life.


[1] https://uthealthaustin.org/blog/health-benefits-of-love

[2] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0213616318300120

[3] https://www.healingspringsranch.com/rehab-blog/love-addiction-sometimes-called-pathological-love-is-there-such-a-thing/

[4] https://medium.com/invisible-illness/3-common-patterns-seen-in-pathological-love-aaa9013fab17

[5] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/finding-new-home/201902/what-is-love-addiction

[6] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0213616318300120

[7] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0213616318300120


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