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Addictive relationships: What are they and how do we break free from them?

Many of us have experienced a romantic connection that can be likened to an addiction to a substance, like alcohol or drugs. These relationships often start on a high where we feel excited, exhilarated, understood, heard, and like we have found our soulmate. This type of connection may trigger a part of ourselves that fears abandonment, wants to feel needed or rescued by another, and can produce overwhelming feelings that we may not be familiar with. When the honeymoon stage of a relationship like this wears off or a breakup happens, we can often feel deflated, abandoned, worthless, and hopeless. This can create a cycle where we actively try to recapture those feelings by engaging in unhealthy behaviors such as:

  1. Actively trying to maintain contact;
  2. Thinking about the relationship constantly;
  3. Allowing our sense of self-worth to fluctuate depending on the person’s behaviour toward us;
  4. Putting their needs before ours;
  5. Ignoring or enabling poor behaviour, or not setting boundaries so that we may continue to experience the highs that accompany the addictive relationship when our needs are being met.

Some of the reasons that this type of relationship can form are:

  1. We meet someone who may seem to need rescuing such as someone with a drug or alcohol addiction, or in a situation in which our desire to help or rescue is triggered.
  2. We may have a pattern of wanting to be rescued due to adverse early experiences where we felt abandoned, and this relationship may both support that need to be rescued but also trigger our abandonment fears when our partner pulls away or ends the relationship.
  3. We may meet a partner with an avoidant attachment style who can sometimes trigger this cycle because of their nature of pulling away when they get too close to people. This pattern can sometimes trigger anxiety within us and our need to chase the relationship. This ultimately leads to a push-pull pattern that can create a cycle of addiction in one or more of the partners.
  4. Individuals with narcissistic traits can sometimes trigger this cycle, especially when they get involved with an individual with a need to rescue. People with narcissistic traits are often charming, engaging, and have a high need for attention and approval. These types of individuals can be toxic for anyone with a need to rescue because they may feed off their partner’s need to please and help them, potentially producing a cycle that can be both addictive and abusive.

These types of unhealthy relationship patterns can be difficult to break free from, but here are some ways to start regaining our self-worth and sense of identity:

  1. Identify that we are in a cycle or pattern that is addictive or even abusive;
  2. Recognize that we may be trying to change our partner as a way to alleviate our own anxiety and conscious or unconscious needs;
  3. Find ways to value ourselves by looking within ourselves rather than our partner to determine what we need, want and deserve in a relationship;
  4. Learn boundaries, healthy communication skills, and build self-esteem/worth through therapy, self-help books, and support groups;
  5. Accept the past and practice self-compassion; avoid judging ourselves too harshly for lacking awareness of, and being in this type of pattern or cycle.



Heather Nolin, MC, is experienced in the areas of anxiety and self-esteem, plus many more. For more information on Heather and her work, click here to link to her full bio page.