Love Addiction and CPTSD

by Coach Ellie

Imagine this:

You’re stuck in rush-hour traffic. You just put in a 10-hour shift at work, and you’re tired. Your boyfriend, exhausted from having stayed up until 4 a.m. playing Fortnite, is dozing off in the passenger seat. Suddenly, he comes to life. 

“Are you stupid? Stop the car!”

Worried that you may have missed something crucial, you slam on the brakes. 

“You just missed the exit for In & Out Burger.”

What do you do?

As a love addict, you would likely default to one of the four Fs: fight, flight, freeze or fawn. This “fight-or-flight” reaction is a symptom of complex post traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD).

Let’s look at this scenario from another angle:

Your boyfriend, exhausted from having stayed up until 4 a.m. playing Fortnite, is dozing off in the passenger seat. Suddenly, you look over at him and feel overwhelmed with murderous rage. You do not know why you feel this way. You try to talk yourself down. Distracted by your own anger, you miss the exit for In & Out Burger.

What just happened?

You just launched an emotional flashback.

What is an emotional flashback?

Psychologist and YouTuber Richard Grannon says emotional flashbacks are different from regular flashbacks. We all know flashbacks as little mental video snips of past traumatic events that you replay in your head. Emotional flashbacks, according to Grannon, are when the “mind and body ‘flash back’ only to the emotions of the initial trauma.”

Pete Walker, M.A., M.F.T., describes emotional flashbacks as “re-experiencing the way it felt during the frightening, confusing and abandoned feelings-states of childhood.” Emotional flashbacks are a major symptom of CPTSD.

What is CPTSD?

You are probably familiar with (drop the “C” and just say) PTSD. It used to be called shell shock. The term graphically illustrates what happens to you after being in combat. It’s linear. You heard “boom” while on the battlefield, so now when you hear “boom” on the Fourth of July, you feel you are back in mortal danger.

Complex PTSD is less obvious and more nuanced

CPTSD is bewildering because there is no one terrible event to point to. When feelings get unmanageable, you just sense an overwhelming wall of bad. The anguish seems unconnected to anything specific from the past. You may be tempted to beat yourself up for being overwhelmed by childlike helplessness.

CPTSD is … complex

CPTSD arises from multiple emotional traumas endured over time. It is about your feelings and your internal reality. The triggers cannot be seen, touched or heard. It’s subjective.

CPTSD in love addicts originates from, you guessed it, childhood. Instead of external events causing PTSD, you start spinning based on your mental interpretation of being shamed, blamed, rejected, abandoned, mocked or aggressively ignored.

So you have CPTSD and emotional flashbacks. How do you feel about that?

How are you reacting to the idea that you have CPTSD? Is it okay, or do you feel offended? If you object to being considered “disordered,” then replace the “D” with “R” and consider that you have CPTSR, or complex post traumatic stress response.

You are only human

Having your humanity denied as a child forced you into survival mode. Your safety depended upon pleasing your parents. If one or both of your parents were themselves addicts, absentee, chronically ill or overly narcissistic, you had no space to be a kid and had with little to no guidance or opportunity to experiment with properly asserting yourself.

You were trapped

John Bradshaw, the late, great speaker and addiction recovery counselor, pointed out something key. As a kid, you were stuck. You could not have packed your bags and announced to your family that you’d be moving on to a more healthy family, thank-you-very-much.

What exactly causes CPTSD in love addicts?

This gets thorny because I am talking about potential child abuse. There is a whole spectrum of mistreatment and as well as a whole spectrum of economic, social and psychological hardships to keep in mind when pointing the finger at parents. When examining your childhood, set aside the protection or blaming of your caregivers. Give yourself permission to connect, without judgment, to how you really felt as a little, dependent human.

OK, but I’m an adult now

You are an adult now, but I want to impress upon you how utterly at the mercy of others you once were, and thus why CPTSD is so deeply rooted.

As a love addict, your brain is wired for surviving instead of thriving. When you were small and defenseless, your needs and feelings were not cared for properly. As a result, you are at a disadvantage. You lack the awareness and language to pinpoint your real feelings. You may be unsure that you even have a right to your feelings.

Open, honest communication was not modeled for you. Therefore, in stressful moments you lash out, shut down, make jokes or just leave rather than being genuine and direct. It is a profoundly worn groove in your brain. It’s just the way things are for you.

When does CPTSD show up in relationships?

Being unable to calmly stand up for yourself in a disagreement and/or shaming yourself for having negative feelings when triggered are both examples of CPTSD. You go blank and revert to a primitive, self-protective response: Yelling, begging forgiveness, laughing it off, giving the silent treatment, running away, etc.

The primitive part of your brain, or “hijacked amygdala” as Pete Walker calls it, does not care that you are freaking miserable after yet another fight with your on-again/off-again love interest. So what if you are bawling your eyes out? Your stressed-out brain just cares that you keep inhaling oxygen — quality of life be damned.

Image by Maksim Gocharenok on Pexels.

What does CPTSD have to do with romantic partnerships?

All relationships, but especially love relationships, put us to the test. Dating and relationships show us what we are made of. All our unresolved traumas and unmet emotional and psychological needs rise to the surface.

Untreated CPTSD locks in the suffering. It keeps you reacting rather than responding and makes it basically impossible to attract or keep a good partner.

Unidentified and unexpressed needs make you a bad partner

Humans need connection. That means you need connection. Yes, even you.

But if you are out of touch with your authentic self, you can’t connect. There is nothing real to plug in to. Your trauma reactions are keeping you in victim mode where you are inaccessible. You will only feel attraction to your fellow sick puppies. You will feel exhilarating butterflies only for potential partners with matching wounds with whom you can reenact old upheaval.

It’s pretty common

Psychotherapist and YouTuber Ross Rosenberg writes about this phenomenon in his book, “The Human Magnet Syndrome.” He points out that those who struggle with codependency and love addiction get strongly attracted to people with extreme narcissistic tendencies. He explains why and how couples get together based on their adverse childhood experiences.

Rosenberg calls it “relationship math.” Two people will feel insane chemistry with one another based on how proportionally far along the codependency-to-narcissism (or love-addict-to-love-avoidant) spectrum they are. The extremely codependent are drawn to the extremely narcissistic.

It feels natural, but it’s deadly

Love addicts get “high” off of relationship drama. If you identify with love addiction, it is dangerously easy for you to fall into the toxic pattern of narcissism and codependency because it feels familiar. The tumult feels like love. It hurts so good.

You experience what you perceive as a special bond. Your love is unlike anyone else’s. He is a precious, wounded soul who NEEDS you. The addict in you gets a sense of power and purpose from being there. Never mind the name-calling, physical violence, attention withholding and temper tantrums.

That’s the CPTSD talking

Your past is controlling your present. It has you re-enacting the care-taking or manipulation you performed to get the attention of adults who couldn’t recognize your needs when you were young. Your unstated hope is that, this time, you will get reciprocation or revenge.

Break the cycle

A reciprocal relationship will not happen until you get real. You have to exit the hamster wheel of CPTSD and let go of the addictive relationship cycle. 

How can a love addict overcome CPTSD?

Getting a grip on your CPTSD is just like every other aspect of addiction recovery. You need to cultivate awareness, self-compassion, and some form of spirituality or an organizing belief about the world. And — most importantly — you need to take action.


Reading this article is a great first step. Well done! There is plenty more information available. I have already mentioned three sources — Pete Walker, Ross Rosenberg and Richard Grannon — but there are many more. Seek them out!


Love addicts are five-star self-shamers. It is time to quiet that inner critic. Shame left unchallenged only fuels the addiction. Mindfulness instructor Forest Fein teaches a three-step method to counteract self-judgment.

  1. Name the judgment

Ex: “I always do it wrong!” By labeling the thought, you get some objectivity.

  1. Tame the feeling

Take some deep breaths. Note how you feel in your body. Imagine exhaling out your harsh judgment.

  1. Re-frame (name a positive)

Ask yourself, “What is going well in my life?” or “What is something about myself that I appreciate or value?” Practice redirecting your thoughts toward positive, self-nourishing ones.

This is just one approach of many. The goal is to shift away from painful, abusive thoughts. Do this multiple times a day and see how it impacts your mood.

Spirituality, philosophy and/or humility

Some take to spirituality easily; others, not so much. If you do not already have an established way to get some distance from your thoughts, you need to create one.

Your best thinking got you to where you are now. Why not try someone else’s thinking on for size? Experiment with various religious, philosophical or historical concepts. Or simply try walking in nature. Be humble enough to accept new ways of looking at the world. You don’t need to adopt a new life philosophy straight out of the box. Try out various working hypotheses and see what works for you.

Conscious effort

I wish love addiction recovery were as simple as thinking positive thoughts and reading good books. Alas, it is not. Instead, use all the methods listed above to encourage change. You will need these tools to support you. Don’t worry about failure. Everyone slips up many times before getting it right. It’s just part of the process and a great reason to hire a coach.

Welcome the frustration

Accept that this is not easy. Remind yourself of these recovery slogans as you embark on your journey:

Progress over perfection.

Nothing changes if nothing changes.

Just stand up one more time than you fall down. 

The only way out is through.

What recovery awareness does for you

Let’s return to the car. This time, you are a love addict with some recovery under your belt. How do you react to your man-child boyfriend?

  1. Tell him to grow up
  2. Promptly apologize
  3. Stay calm and carry on
  4. Ask him to get out of the car
  5. None of the above

Did you notice that each of those options is one of the four Fs? Good. Then you know that there is no point in reacting. You see that by reacting you are only reinforcing an outdated defense mechanism. The goal is for you to be able to RESPOND rather than react. 

Get to the heart of the matter

You’ve got to get to the root of your actual need. Are you looking for approval? Maintaining the status quo? What do you really want from this relationship? Until you get honest with yourself and behave differently, the pain will continue. You can stop emotional flashbacks and CPTSD, but you must respond to your own needs rather than reacting to someone else’s.

Next Step:

Consider recieving coaching. If you are in 12-Step recovery or just think you might need help navigating CPTSD, let’s talk.

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