The Co-Addicted Tango: A Look at Pia Mellody’s Theory of Love Addiction and Love Avoidance

During the 1970s, Pia Mellody observed a growing number of clients linking dysfunctional, abusive family backgrounds in their childhood to codependent behaviors in adulthood. These codependency patterns manifested in various forms, including addictions, mood disorders, and physical ailments. Through her work with codependence, Pia Mellody researched dysfunctional relationships that often involve what she termed The Co-Addicted Tango between a Love Addict and a Love Avoidant. Cultural gender norms and childhood experiences deeply influence the formation of these roles. 

The Co-Addicted Tango theory suggests that Love Addicts seek love for validation and assurance from other people, while Love Avoidants feel overwhelmed and suffocated in relationships. 

In a Co-Addicted Tango, a Love Addict seeks acceptance and attention as a result of past neglect and chooses a partner who mimics intimacy. The Love Avoidant, feeling duty-bound, becomes a pseudo-caretaker, while developing resentment for the role. When the Love Addict turns elsewhere for comfort, the Love Avoidant fears losing their sense of worth and superiority and confronts abandonment fears. Both individuals within the co-addicted tango struggle with their self-worth, which stems from childhood experiences. The key to overcoming the dysfunctional cycle of pursuit and withdrawal lies in reducing shame through therapy, revisiting childhood wounds, and confronting past abuse.

What is Love Addiction and Love Avoidance?

Love Addiction and Love Avoidance categorize two dysfunctional relationship patterns that individuals frequently encounter, which cause considerable emotional distress and foster unhealthy intimate relationships. Although neither Love Addiction nor Avoidance is officially recognized as a clinical diagnosis, these concepts are valuable for understanding complex and self-destructive behavioral patterns. Such behaviors may interconnect with mental health issues such as depression, addiction, and anxiety, which highlights the importance of understanding these dynamics in order to pave the way for effective intervention and support.

Throughout this blog, the terms Love Addict and Love Avoidant will be used, as they mirror the language of Pia Mellody’s research. However, the terms “Love Addiction” and “Love Addict” should be understood as complex behavioral patterns rather than as diagnoses, addictions, or mental conditions.

Love Addiction

Love and attraction, often pleasant experiences for most, can become precarious and confusing experiences for love addicts because they lead to a distortion of reality and become a hindrance to healthy relationships. This emotional affliction stems from childhood neglect, leaving love addicts starved for nurturing. Their unrealistic romantic expectations, fueled by fear of abandonment, burden partners and perpetuate a cycle of abuse or addiction. The initial euphoria of a relationship soon deteriorates into emotional neediness, which pushes partners away. Love addicts struggle with accepting reality and, instead, cling to fantasy until inevitable heartbreak ensues, leading to a desperate cycle of seeking new partners. This serious mental condition, intertwined with co-dependency, sexual addiction, and abuse, mirrors the destructive impact of chemical dependencies. Professional therapy offers hope for understanding and overcoming these patterns through fostering emotional resilience.

Signs of Love Addiction

Individuals who would be categorized as Love Addicts in Pia Mellody’s work often idealize their romantic interests by pursuing them tirelessly and seeking to please them at all costs. They may even become excessively clingy and reliant on their partner for emotional support and stability. Love addiction manifests through various symptoms, including but not limited to:

  • Persistent desire to be in love.
  • Elevated idealization of the romantic partner.
  • Obsessive thoughts about their romantic interest.
  • Experiencing cravings, withdrawals, euphoria, and dependency.
  • Frequent need to fall in love.
  • Seeking emotional solace from a partner, even if unreciprocated.
  • Difficulty being alone.

While placing romantic partners on pedestals can be normal, love addiction intensifies this behavior and potentially leads to detrimental consequences, such as unresponsive or abusive partners as well as co-dependent relationships. 

Love addiction is often categorized into four main sub-types:

Obsessive Love Addicts: Struggle to detach from partners, even in unhealthy relationships or with emotionally distant partners.

Codependent Love Addicts: Seek self-esteem and worth from their partner and often experience people-pleasing tendencies and resentment over time.

Narcissistic Love Addicts: Exploit partners for attention, ego-boosting, and servitude, while maintaining an attachment.

Ambivalent Love Addicts: Avoid true intimacy, hold onto past loves, engage in one-sided relationships, sabotage connections, and become addicted to the illusion of relationships.

Each type may use sex  as a form of manipulation or employ desperate behaviors such as threatening themselves or their partner when facing separation.

Love Avoidance

People who experience love avoidance, often shaped by past losses, resist emotional vulnerability because they fear attachment and commitment. These behaviors may stem from traumatic childhood experiences, such as neglect or an expectation of maturity and caregiving beyond their years. Love avoidants often attract love addicts but struggle with the emotional intimacy that is expected of them, which leads to distancing and conflicts. 

Certain behavioral patterns and signs characterize love avoidance:

  • Reluctance or complete avoidance when it comes to physical or emotional intimacy or committing to a long-term relationship.
  • Difficulty expressing or reciprocating deep emotions, which leads to emotional detachment.
  • Patterns of short-lived relationships or a history of avoiding serious commitments.
  • A strong desire for independence and self-sufficiency, which includes avoiding reliance on a partner.
  • Discomfort with being emotionally vulnerable or allowing others to see their true feelings.
  • A general mistrust of others, which makes it challenging to establish trust in relationships.
  • Sending mixed messages in relationships such as expressing affection one moment and withdrawing the next.
  • A pattern of avoiding deep emotional connections with others to prevent potential pain or disappointment.

It’s important to note that these signs can vary in intensity, and not everyone who exhibits one or more of these behaviors necessarily has love avoidance issues. Professional guidance can benefit individuals who experience challenges when forming and maintaining healthy, fulfilling relationships.

Shared Struggle and Familiarity 

Love Avoidants consciously fear being drained and used. Their unconscious fear is the same as Love Addicts – fear of abandonment. Love Avoidants and Love Addicts share more than might be expected. While they appear starkly opposing in their manifestations of love and romance, Love Avoidants and Love Addicts share similar childhood experiences, anxieties, and fears. 

The inclination toward familiarity begins in each person’s family system and dysfunctional dynamics, which becomes a pivotal force in shaping childhood character. Love Addicts and Love Avoidants are drawn to each other due to the familiar traits that reflect their childhood adaptations for survival in abusive family systems. Both were traumatized children who learned to adapt to parental expectations in order to safeguard themselves. 

Love Addicts, shaped by childhood abandonment, learn to be unobtrusive and undemanding. Unconsciously drawn to those avoiding attachment, they unwittingly replicate their early relationships. Childhood wounds impact their self-esteem, with abandonment suggesting they lack worthiness. For Love Addicts, part of the attraction to Love Avoidants is the pursuit of healing. There is an unconscious drive to prove their inherent worth by connecting with those who withhold intimacy. This is seen as a chance to address and heal childhood wounds and validate their self-worth as adults. 

Love Avoidants learn in childhood that it is their job to care for people who cannot care for themselves. As adults, Love Avoidants enjoy the familiarity of control and neediness from their Love Addicted partner. They thrive in the role they learned to embody as children for acceptance or survival. They may also seek to heal childhood wounds through attempting to take care of their partner in the way they were expected to take care of themselves or another in childhood. The Love Avoidant was likely never praised, recognized, or consistently shown love for their efforts in childhood, which has left them constantly chasing this appraisal but never meeting the expectations of their caregivers. In the Co-Addicted Tango, the Love Avoidant eventually grows resentful of all the work it takes to be a caretaker. They begin to feel suffocated and lifeless and distance themselves from the Love Addict, who, exhausted from pursuing, seeks solace elsewhere. The Love Avoidant, no longer needed, grapples with diminished self-worth and value, which triggers deep, underlying abandonment fears.

Avoiding the Co-Addicted Tango

Overcoming the co-addicted tango requires more than understanding the stages of Love Avoidant/Love Addicted relationships. In order to heal from childhood trauma, it is essential to reduce shame in order to clear the path for recovery.

Unravelling the automatic descent into shame during relational stress involves revisiting and working through childhood experiences with a therapist and releasing yourself from the constraints of the roles you had to play in childhood. This is central to recovering from the toxic shame inherited from abandonment trauma and to preserving healthy relationships.


[1] Mellody, P., Miller, A. W., Miller, K. (2010). Facing love addiction: Giving yourself the power to change The way you love. HarperOne.

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