Romantic love is often viewed as a form of addiction or sickness. There is no doubt that love involves constant thinking about, and activities with, one’s beloved. Is it always bad to be so obsessed with one person? Should it be regarded as a type of addiction, or might it actually be beneficial to the partners’ flourishing?
“Love addiction,” like “sex addiction,” is a disputed term. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association; DSM-5, in 2013, refers to these phenomena as “hypersexuality.” The World Health Organization’s most recent International Classification of Diseases, ICD-10, refers to them as “excessive sexual drive.”
These disputes are a sign of the complexity of the problem. While I believe that deep romantic love does not constitute an addiction, some aspects of addiction like preoccupation can be found in it. However, not all types of preoccupation are harmful—when it is part of a flourishing life, it is beneficial and cannot be regarded as addiction.
How to Flourish
Profound activities are crucial for our development and well being. Superficial activities have a less impact on us. Instrumental activities are used to reach an external goal. Intuitive activities are used because we value and enjoy them.
We typically regard intrinsic activities as positive, while instrumental activities are usually considered an unwelcome necessity—something we do not want to do, but must in order to achieve our goal. When they are deeply meaningful, intrinsic activities can be extremely valuable. However, they can prove to be detrimental if done superficially or too often.
Intrinsic profound activities are crucial for the presence of long-term profound love (Ben-Ze’ev & Goussinsky, 2008).
This notion of profound satisfaction relates to Aristotle’s notion of human flourishing (eudaimonia). Human flourishing is dynamic. Meaningful intrinsic activities are its most important (but not the only) elements. Human flourishing is more than a temporary state of superficial pleasure. It is the realization of one’s potential, as opposed to hedonic well-being, which expresses fleeting pleasure. Carol Ryff (Ryff, et. al., 2004) collated multiple studies linking flourishing with beneficial impacts on our health—including higher immunity, resistance to and recovery from disease; lower levels of stress; longer periods of REM sleep (associated with deep rest and dreams); and lower levels of the biomarkers associated with Alzheimer’s disease, osteoporosis, and arthritis.
Do you want to be with your partner?
An obsession, which is considered the primary symptom of any addiction, is defined as “a persistent disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable idea or feeling” (Merriam-Webster). These words are essential. Persistent preoccupation with an idea or a person is not harmful in itself—as long as it does not harm your flourishing. Since profound love involves a positive preoccupation that enhances one’s personal flourishing, it cannot be regarded as an obsession, which is by its very definition a negative experience.
This is why repetition and excessive love are so important.
A repeated action or event is one that occurs repeatedly or infrequently. Repetition is often seen as a negative aspect of human behavior. This is especially true if it seems that repeating the same thing over and over again is not adding any value. Repetition can lead to boredom and decreases our ability to function. We shouldn’t waste our mental resources on repetitive activities.
Is there a repetition of activities that can add value to the original activity? Many human capacities—playing the piano, dancing, swimming—are maintained, and even enhanced, only through repetition. In these cases, the repeated activity is valuable—without it, the capacity will deteriorate or fail to develop. (Hence the saying “Use it or lose it.”)
Repeated activity can cause harm if done in an excessive way or in a manner that is detrimental to other important flourishing activities. It is possible to develop an addiction if such an activity doesn’t contribute to your flourishing and development. Sex and watching TV are two common examples.
Unlike profound love, which develops with time and enhances your flourishing, strictly sexual relationships are often repetitive and almost identical at all points of time—hence, they are more likely to become addictive.
Is it possible to love too much?
It is also dependent on how much we love, and if it can become an addiction.
Is it possible to love someone too much?
It is important to distinguish between romantic intensity, which represents the instantaneous value of acute emotions, as well as romantic profundity, which encompasses frequent, intense, long-lasting, passionate love experiences that are conducive to your flourishing. The benefits of deep, profound love are a key to flourishing. As we wouldn’t blame an author for writing a book too deep, so we can’t criticize a love partner for loving too deeply. Harmful addiction is not a problem.
Because we love being with our loved ones, it is easy to desire to be together. This is also true for deep intrinsic activities like writing and painting. There is no “appropriate” frequency for engaging in profound intrinsic activities; however, engaging in such activities should not prevent you from engaging in other flourishing activities.
Even though they are superficial activities like watching TV or casual sex, they can be very enjoyable and contribute to our long-term wellbeing. They can lead to addiction and can make it difficult to pursue other rewarding activities. Romantic intensity, but not romantic profundity, can be excessive—a lover’s intense love might prevent a partner from noticing, or at least admitting, that his attitude toward her is humiliating or that their relationship has very little chance of surviving in the long term.
A clear line exists between profound romantic behavior, which is part and parcel of our flourishing, and the highly criticized phenomenon of “love addiction” or “sex addiction.” This line is based first and foremost on the difference between profound and superficial activities. The distinguishing feature of an addictive attitude “is not the intensity of passion, but its shallowness,” as Peele and Brodsky argue in Love and Addiction.
Being profoundly in love involves pursuing many different flourishing activities with one’s beloved. A sex addict restricts your world to a narrow range of repetitive activities. A sex addict’s sex interactions are repetitive and superficial, which can greatly hinder their personal growth and flourishing. Love can make lovers happy in the long-term. Sex addiction is disruptive to other activities and can have long-lasting negative consequences.
In profound love, the wish to be with one’s lover is quite different from the obsessive need that is the driving force of addiction.
With 16 years in the adult industry, including many years at LELO, it’s fair to say Stu has been around the sex toy block a few times. As LELO’s resident sex geek, he’s been featured in the Independent, the Guardian, HuffPost, Vice, Cosmopolitan, and anywhere people talk about sex. He spotlights the most important sex issues right now on Volonte in a regular Op-Ed. These views are his.