Love, Lust, or Addiction?


Wonder whether you’re in love or in lust? Whether your obsession with someone is a sign of love or addiction? Whether you’re staying in a troubled relationship because you’re addicted or in love? It’s complicated, and lust and love and addiction don’t always exclude one another. Endless analyzing doesn’t help or change our feelings, because we’re often driven by forces outside our conscious awareness.


Initial attraction stirs up neurotransmitters and hormones that create the excitement of infatuation and a strong desire to be close and sexual with the person. These chemicals and our emotional and psychological makeup can cause us to obfuscate reality and idealize the object of our attraction. Time spent in fantasy fuels our craving to be with him or her. This is normal when it doesn’t take over our lives.


When it’s pure lust, we’re not too interested in spending time together without sex or the expectation of it. We don’t want to discuss real-life problems and may not even want to spend the night. Fantasies are mostly sexual or about the person’s appearance and body, and we aren’t interested in meeting the person’s needs outside the bedroom – or maybe even inside!

Sex releases oxytocin, the love chemical that makes us want to nest with our partner. As we get to know our lover, we may want to spend more or less time together, depending on what we learn. At this juncture, our brain chemicals as well as our attachment style and psychological issues can lead us to become codependently attached through a romance or love addiction that feels like love, but is more driven by our need for the chemical rush to avoid feelings of abandonment, depression, and low self-esteem.

Relationship Addiction

Excitement and desire may be heightened by intrigue or our partner’s unpredictability or unavailability. We may remain attached and even crave our partner, but our discomfort or unhappiness grows. Instead of focusing on that, our hunger to be with him or her takes center stage, despite the fact that disturbing facts or character traits arise that are hard to ignore. We may feel controlled or neglected, unsafe or disrespected, or discover that our partner is unreliable or lies, manipulates, rages, has secrets, or has a major problem, such as drug addiction or serious legal or financial troubles. We begin to obsess about our partner and the relationship, anticipate his or her reactions, and try to maintain the relationship.

Whether we provoke conflict or try to avoid it, we stay and don’t heed our better judgment to leave. Increasingly, we hide our worries and doubts and rely on sex, romance, and fantasy to sustain the relationship. Out of sympathy, we might even be drawn to help and “rescue” our partner and/or try to change him or her back into the ideal we “fell” for. These are signs of addiction.


But lust can also lead to true love as we become attached to and get to know our sexual partner, and lust doesn’t always fade. I’ve seen couples married for decades that enjoy a vibrant sex life. However, true love does require that we recognize our separateness and love our mate for who he or she truly is. There’s always some idealization in a new relationship, but true love endures when that fades. As the relationship grows, we develop trust and greater closeness. Instead of trying to change our partner, we accept him or her. We want to share more of our time and life together, including our problems and friends and family. Our lover’s needs, feelings, and happiness become important to us, and we think about planning a future together. When the passion is still there, we’re lucky to have both love and lust.

Love Plus Addiction

Love and codependency may coexist or be hard to differentiate because it’s normal to want to please our beloved. However, codependents idealize and often happily self-sacrifice for their partner. Due to denial, differences and serious problems are largely ignored, minimized, or rationalized, it looks more like codependency, because we’re not really seeing or loving the whole person. Facing the truth would create inner conflict about our fear of emptiness and loneliness. Similarly, when our emphasis is on how our partner makes us feel or how he or she feels about us, our “love” is based on our self-centered, codependent needs.

Two Paths of Love

Healthy relationships and codependent, addictive ones have very different trajectories. Healthy partners don’t “fall in love;” they “grow in love.” They’re not as driven by overwhelming, unconscious fears and needs. Compare:

Codependent Relationships

Intense attraction – feel anxious
Idealize each other, ignoring differences
Fall “in love” and make commitments
Get to know one another
Become disappointed
Cling to a fantasy of love
Try to change our partner into our ideal
Feel resentful and unloved

Healthy Relationships

Attraction and friendship begin – feel comfortable
Attraction grows as they know each other
Acknowledge differences (or leave)
Grow to love each other
Make commitments
Compromise needs
Love and acceptance of each other deepen
Feel supported and loved

Signs of Relationship Addiction

Codependency is an addiction and underlies all other addictions, including sex addiction, and romance, relationship, and love addiction. Lust and love and love and addiction can overlap. When we heal our codependency, we can see whether love remains. We might even leave an unhealthy relationship and still love our ex. Meanwhile, some things are knowable:

  1. Love at first sight may be triggered by many things, but it’s not love. It takes time to love someone.
  2. Having sex with strangers or frequent multiple partners is a sign of sexual addiction.
  3. Compulsive activity, whether sexual or romantic, that feels out-of-control, such as compulsive sex, stalking, spying, constant calling, or texting is a sign of addiction.
  4. Ignoring your partner’s boundaries, and abusing, controlling, or manipulating him or her (including people-pleasing or rescuing) are signs of addiction.
  5. Using sex or a relationship to cope with emptiness, depression, anger, shame, or anxiety is a sign of addiction.
  6. Using sex or romance to substitute for vulnerable, authentic intimacy is a symptom of addiction.
  7. Staying in a painful relationship out of fear of abandonment or loneliness is a sign of codependency and addiction, not love.
  8. The inability to commit to a relationship or stay involved with someone emotionally unavailable shows a fear of intimacy – a symptom of addiction.
  9. The need to jump into a relationship and quickly make it serious is a sign of addiction.
  10. Sacrificing your values or standards to be with someone is a sign of addiction.

Healing from Codependency

Healing from codependency and addiction requires abstinence and the support of a Twelve Step program and/or psychotherapy. It’s very hard to abstain from compulsive, addictive behavior without support, because the unconscious forces driving us and the pain of abstinence are overwhelming. There is hope and a way out. Recovery includes:

  1. Learn more about the symptoms of codependency
  2. Healing the shame and abandonment pain of your childhood
  3. Building your self-esteem
  4. Learning to be assertive
  5. Learning to honor and meet your needs and nurture yourself
  6. Risking being authentic about your feelings and needs
  7. Attend CoDA or SLAA (Sex & Love Addicts Anonymous)

To learn more and start healing, do the exercises in my books Codependency for Dummies and Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You and e-workbooks, 10 Steps to Self-Esteem and How to Speak Your Mind: Become Assertive and Set Limits.

©Darlene Lancer 2014






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6 years ago

How true I was in a roller coaster relationship for over 20yrs off again on again. We even tried marriage and that lasted 12days I kept thinking that with all this passion we must love each other but after years of trying to built something lasting I know it was based on Narcissism/ codependency. Me trying to get the love I never felt from childhood and taking on the challenge over and over of winning it though his love. The prize would be that he would give me time and attention and make me feel like I was worth it. it was unfinished business from Childhood.The truth will set you free! Thank you for this excellent article.Debby

Darlene Lancer, LMFT
6 years ago
Reply to  Debra

That’s both sad and encouraging. Knowing the truth is often the first step in healing. The shame and lack of entitlement learned in childhood is also a lie. See my new blog, “Codependency is Based on Fake Facts” and my other blogs on narcissistic relationships. You may want to read, Dealing with a Narcissist – 8 Steps to Raise Self-Esteem and Set Limits with Difficult People.

8 years ago

Wow !! What a deep dissection of psychology of Codep. I am amazed with full understanding and diagnosis of the problem. Thank you for the blog.

8 years ago

This was a great article. I am very confused about my codependency. I was with a guy off and on 13x for 10 years. Crazy I know. I have just discovered Codependency and it fits me to a T! I am really struggling letting go of this guy. It’s so hard. I’m reading everything I can get my hands on. I haven’t attended a CoDa meeting yet. I’m a bit scared. After reading your article I think my relationship is an addiction but am having such a hard time letting go. I think I love him but then I read and know I don’t and back and forth I go. It’s all so confusing. My family thinks I am truly CRAZY. 🙁

Darlene Lancer, MFT
8 years ago
Reply to  Sue

It would be very helpful to go to meetings – a lot of them. You may also like S.L.A.A. meeting for sex and love addiction. Do the exercises in my books. It may be hard to distinguish love from addiction and whether you miss him or a relationship. Don’t dwell on that. Start changing your behavior.

Darlene Lancer, MFT
9 years ago

Thanks Jim. I’m grateful for your popularizing HSP also. I am one! I explain a lot about how shame feeds the dynamic you describe in Conquering Shame and Codependency

Jim Hallowes
Jim Hallowes
9 years ago

I like your article very much! Dr. Drew is talked about how unfortunately if a lot of “bells and whistles go off” it may be a sign of “being attracted to a person who will later abuse or abandon you” based on past relationships and often times childhood trauma. So, bottom line, healthy “attraction” and strong “chemistry” may be wonderful, however “lust” may well not be!
All the best, Jim Hallowes
Founder and Former Executive Director of the Dr. Pat Allen WANT Institute “Educators of Effective Communication Strategies”

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