LOVE ADDICTION... WHAT IS IT? WHO GETS IT? And WHY?
by Brenda Schaefer
Real love is not addiction nor is addiction love. Yet, because of the human condition, these two experiences seem to come together and result in the incredible pain and suffering we are witness to or experience directly. We are drawn to the chemical highs love, sex and romance produce. The neurochemistry of love can become a drug as difficult to give up as alcohol or cocaine. Words we often associate with addiction include obsessive, excessive, destructive, compulsive, habitual, attached, and dependent. And when you think about it, some of these words are also used to talk about love. And the similarities do not stop there.
The love addict may understand intellectually that their behavior is self destructive, but physically and emotionally they are drawn into it over and over again. The number and variety of out of control behaviors when love is withdrawn are becoming legion in the daily news: “Young woman ends abusive love relationship and is brutally murdered.” “CEO charged with sexual harassment.” “Coach sued for child support by a former lover.” “Domestic abuse charges filed by wife of a professional sports star.” “Public official caught in scandalous affair.” How is it that we are simultaneously seeking wellness and love but descending into a well of violence and obsession?
What is love addiction?
Love addiction is any unhealthy attachment to people, euphoria, romance or sex in an attempt to get needs met. Psychologically, love addiction is a reliance on someone external to the self in an attempt to heal past trauma, get unmet needs fulfilled, avoid fear or emotional pain, solve problems, fill our loneliness and maintain balance. The paradox is that love addiction is an attempt to gain control of our lives, and in so doing; we go out of control by giving personal power to someone outside ourselves. Addictive love is an attempt to satisfy our developmental hunger for security, sensation, power, belonging, and meaning. Love addiction is very often associated with feelings of “never having enough” or “not being enough.” None of us got everything we needed in just the way we needed it in our developmental history. We literally walk around with holes in our psyche and look for others to fill those holes.
No matter how it plays out, we unconsciously look to others to “fix” our fear, pain, and discomfort and tolerate or inflict abusive behaviors in the process. We use and abuse. This other can be any important person in our life that we unconsciously hook up with: a child, a parent, a friend, a boss, a spouse, and a lover. Or, as in romance or sexual compulsion, it can be someone we don’t even know personally. In sex addiction it can be a pornographic image. It can be as mild as a codependent relationship or as lethal as a fatal attraction.
Why love addiction is so common.
At the base of love addiction is a violation of trust. We have all had them in some form or another. Because of the betrayal of trust we both want and yet fear closeness. Our fear is both biological and psychological and runs deep. Since we are meant to be in relationship we have no choice but to figure out a way to be involved with others. Love addiction is the answer. It is quite clever and often gets passed off as the real thing. Sometimes you have to look very closely to notice the difference. But we really do know in our hearts and in our soul’s when we have been fooled, are fooling our self or just plain fooling around.
We do not become love addicts living in a vacuum. We live in a culture of image and ownership. We are measured by how good we look, how much we have, and if we have someone by our side that supports a good image. We have, sadly, been groomed to look outside ourselves for happiness and love. Our obsession with love pervades every aspect of popular culture from romance novels to rock and pop song lyrics, and even great works of fiction, poetry, drama and art. Our culture idealizes, dramatizes, and models a dependency that says we cannot live without another person, sex or romance. We become dependent almost unconsciously.
Culture and psychology are not the only things directing us towards love addiction. When it comes to love we are neuro-chemically vulnerable. Biology provides us naturally with the three sensations of pleasure--arousal, fantasy, and satiation--as a way to experience life to its maximum. These three planes are controlled by hundreds of brain chemicals that we are only at the beginning stages of understanding. Without these chemicals we would not have the ability to appreciate our own human nature and the earthly gifts. PEA, for example, is a neuro-chemical that produces arousal states; it keeps us alert and motivates us to action. Discomfort states--including pain--are also identified by the presence of neuro-chemicals, and help us identify our normal human needs so we seek satiation. Chemically controlled feelings of satiation then tell us we have had enough and--hopefully--we stop and experience a feeling of physical balance. Eating until we are full is a good example. Still other chemicals are necessary to a rich fantasy life. We luxuriate in a future of pleasing options. We revel in a piece of art and feel great passion as we write a song. The biochemistry of this self-induced trance states allow us to deeply experience a sunset or envision our beloved.
Contentment, creative passion, fear, and sexual excitation—each has a neurological analogue. Though these chemicals are meant to enhance our love life we can become dependent on these “feel good” chemicals and self medicate our ills with them.
Types of Love Addiction
In my clinical practice I have found it important to distinguish between three types of love addiction: love, romance and sexual.
Love Addiction is nothing but a misguided dependency on others in an attempt to fulfill unmet developmental needs. We often choose people similar to those in the past who did not meet our needs hoping this time we will end up satisfied. But because they are similar or we view them as similar, we end up feeling dissatisfied once more. A key element in identifying dependent love is how we feel when the person disapproves of us, disagrees with us, moves away from us, or threatens us. An escalation of behaviors occurs when the love object threatens to leave us psychologically or physically. Dependent love is always self-serving. It survives on psychological myths: “I will take care of your fears and inadequacies so you will take care of mine.” “If you fail me, I will do whatever it takes to keep you around.” “But since I do not know how to be intimate or fear intimacy, I will allow only so much closeness or push you away.” On a psychological level love addiction makes perfect sense. Our attractions are psychological. If I believe men are never there when you need them most, I will find them. If I need a woman who won’t support me, I will find her. Dependent love addicts fear abandonment or betrayal. The most important thing is to be in a relationship or on the edge of a relationship. They often hang onto abusive relationships for fear of being alone. They may or may not have romantic or sexual feeling for the object of their attention and drama substitutes for intimacy.
Romance Addiction refers to those experiences when the object of love is also a romantic object. This object/person can be a romantic partner or live only in the love addict’s fantasies. The “fix” may be an elaborate fantasy life not unlike the story line of a romance novel, or the euphoria of a new romance. In either case, the rush of intoxicating feelings experienced during the attraction stage of a romance—a state sometimes referred to as limerance—is the drug that can become a substitute for real intimacy. The pursuit of this high can become an addiction in itself. Often, it becomes a dramatic obsession that results in the stalking of the romantic love object by the obsessed person. The love addict seeks total immersion in the romantic relationship, real or imagined. Since the romance-driven high is dependent on the newness of the relationship or the presence of a person, romance addiction is often filled with victim/persecutor melodrama and sadomasochism. Bizarre acting-out behaviors are often a by-product of romance addiction. When the euphoria of new love wanes, the romance addict often moves on looking for a new romantic encounter with its high or obsessions.
The power of sexual love is unequaled in human experience. In fact, sex may be the only experience that profoundly affects all three of the pleasure planes (arousal, satiation, and fantasy) in our neurochemistry. It has the potential to be the pièce de résistance among life experiences. It is easy to see, then, how sex can become an addict’s drug of choice.
Sexual addiction is a sickness involving any type of uncontrollable sexual activity that results in negative consequences. When obsessive-compulsive sexual behavior is left unattended, it causes distress and despair for the individual and his or her partner and family. Denial causes the sexual addict to distort reality, ignore the problem, blame others, and give numerous justifications for his or her out-of-control behavior. The addiction progresses until sex becomes the essential need, more important than family, work, or spiritual integrity.
We live in a culture that promotes sex as the drug of choice. Perhaps the mounting negative social consequences of sexual compulsion will motivate society to take this problem more seriously. The cost of this addiction to our society is more than financial. The fabric of our spiritual, emotional, and relational lives is affected as well.
Dependent love may or may not include a romantic or sexual component. When the object of love is, or has been, the romantic and sexual partner, the stakes run high. When a person’s object of dependent love is also the object of his or her romantic and sexual desires, he or she will experience intense behaviors when the object of love withdraws or threatens to withdraw.
Most, if not all relationships have elements of unhealthy dependency as well as healthy interdependency. The difficulty with love addiction, however, is that we cannot stop loving or relating! Nor should we! Therefore, we must learn what is love and what is addiction and build on the best aspects of our love life. Why get out of love addiction? The biggest reason is that it limits and stunts our growth as a human and spiritual being.
Seven steps to getting out of love addiction:
1. Believe that healthy love is possible.
2. Be willing to assess your love life honestly.
3. Accept that the only person you can change is you.
4. Connect the unhealthy aspects of your love life with your inner beliefs and past trauma.
5. Change your beliefs to those that encourage healthy love
6. Let go of fear.
7. Experience yourself as unconditional love and live it.
Post Script: if you need help…do yourself a favor and get it!
In summary, obsessive, dependent, erotic love often is a misplaced attempt to achieve that fusion we so deeply desire. We want to end the feelings of isolation caused by our learned restraints against true intimacy. Aroused by the experience of love, one often is willing to suspend those restraints in order to merge with another. If the merger is dependent and immature, the result is love addiction. Life energy is directed on the pursuit of gratification rather than growth. If mature, the love will grow and expand. As Erich Fromm said, “This desire for interpersonal fusion is the most powerful striving in man. It is the most fundamental passion, it is the force which keeps the human race together . . .. Erotic love . . . is the craving for complete fusion. It is by its very nature exclusive and not universal.” Without agape, universal love of others, it remains narcissistic.
Sex, love and romance are delightful aspects of our humanity. Some of the most powerful experiences relate to the meaning and beauty of love, sex and romance. They can be a sacred form of connecting or they can be an egoist’s attempt at self-fulfillment. It is the challenge of the day, is it not? From Is It Love or Is It Addiction? And Love’s Way.