What Are Addictive Relationships?

Persons in addictive relationships may experience feelings of incompleteness, emptiness, despair, and sadness that they seek to remedy by connecting with others. The relationship is seen as a way of meeting one’s needs for love, attention, and security. Addictive relationships can be characterized by obsessive attention that is given to the partner while an inadequate amount is given to the self. These relationships are “addictive” in the sense that there is a compelling need to connect with and remain connected with a particular person. People find that they are unable to leave, though they know the relationship is bad for them.

Addicted persons may think and daydream about their partner much too often, and give excessively of their time, energy, and hopes. All healthy boundaries disappear in terms of what they are willing to do or give up in hopes of maintaining the relationship. Bad relationships can destroy self esteem and prevent those involved from moving on in their professional or personal lives.

Remaining in bad relationships not only causes continual stress but may even be physically harmful. Physical abuse may become part of such relationships. Tensions and chemical changes caused by constant stress can also drain energy and lower resistance to physical illness. Ongoing involvement in bad relationships may even lead to unhealthy escapes such as alcohol and/or drug abuse and can even lead to suicidal thoughts or attempts.

Despite the pain of these relationships, many rational and practical people find that they are unable to leave, even though they know the relationship is bad for them. One part of them may want to leave, but a seemingly stronger part refuses or feels helpless to take action. It is in this sense that relationships are “addictive.”

How do you determine if you are in an addicted relationship?

Consider whether the following several signs of addiction apply to you:

  • Even though you know the relationship is bad for you (and it is likely others have told you this) and you cannot expect improvement, you take no effective steps to end it.
  • You give yourself reasons for staying in the relationship that are skewed (not accurate with reality).
  • You may experience feelings of overwhelming    panic when thinking about ending the relationship. You may feel dread, terrible anxiety, and fear that make you cling to it even more.
  • When you try to take steps to end it, you suffer acute withdrawal symptoms that may include physical and emotional distress, which can only be relieved when contact is reestablished with the person.

If you said yes to the majority of these signs, you are probably involved in a relationship where the addictive aspects have become so controlling that they could take away your capacity to direct your own life.

Strategies for overcoming addictive relationships

Robin Norwood, author of Women Who Love Too Much, provides information on how to overcome the pattern of addictive relationships. Her suggestions, which are equally valid for men, include the following:

  1. Focus on recovery and make it a priority.
  2. Focus on identifying your needs  and getting those needs met more effectively.
  3. Develop your spiritual side and engage in daily activities that increase your own sense of peace and tranquility.
  4. Identify and learn to avoid relationship games and roles you tend to fall into such as the rescuer, blamer, or victim.
  5. Find a support group of friends who understand.
  6. Share with others what you have experienced and learned (group therapy may be helpful and provide the opportunity for you to share your experiences and how they have impacted you).
  7. Consider talking with a professional therapist.

Characteristics of an Addictive Relationship:

  • You believe you can’t live without that person.
  • You think you will never find someone else again.
  • You feel this person will be the only “real” friend you will ever have.
  • You believe that your partner will fulfill all your social, intellectual, and personal needs.
  • You feel incomplete when you are not with your partner.
  • You become excessively involved and preoccupied in the relationship (have limited or no social contact outside of the relationship, no interests outside of the relationship).

Characteristics of a Healthy Relationship:

  • You find pleasure in giving and receiving.
  • You and your partner encourage self-sufficiency.
  • You have high individual self-esteem.
  • You can express feelings spontaneously.
  • You can honestly ask for what you need and your partner can do the same.
  • You can experience and appreciate oneness and separateness from a partner.
  • You engage in friendships and activities outside of the relationship.
  • You can discuss things, allowing for differences of opinion and compromising equally.
  • You can respect each other’s need for privacy.


  1. When you are terribly unhappy in the relationship and are unsure or confused about whether you should accept it as it is, make further efforts to improve it, or leave.
  2. Though you know you would be better off ending the relationship, you continue to stay in it and suffer a great deal.
  3. When you suspect that you are staying due to reasons such as guilt or fearfulness and insecurity about being alone, and you have been unable to overcome the these feelings on your own.
  4. You recognize that you have a pattern of getting into and staying in addictive relationships and have not been able to change this through your own efforts.


Halpern, H.M. (1982).  How to Break Your Addiction to a Person. New York, NY: MJF Books.

Norwood, R. (1985). Women Who Love Too Much. Los Angeles, CA: Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc.

Schaefer, B. (1987). Is it Love or Is It Addiction?. U.S.A.: Hazelden.