We are biologically hardwired to connect with other people and go through life two by two, and culturally hardwired to partner up. In Western cultures, more than 90 percent of people marry by age fifty.
For some people, this hardwiring goes haywire and they see life as a choice between living in a kind of fantasy romance novel or the sheer hell (for them) of being single. In healthy relationships, after the initial attraction where couples idealize and attach to each other, love matures and changes. For example, it becomes less intense, but more secure. However, people with relationship addiction never get past the initial stages of falling in love. They become dependent on the object of their affection, hoping somehow these people will complete their lives and create a kind of happily ever after. Their expectations are unrealistic, so inevitably they are disappointed. Their relationships are ultimately never truly satisfying, yet they can’t seem to live without them.
They are obsessed with the idea of being in a romantic relationship, no matter the cost. Relationships pile up, becoming increasingly tangled and messy. Relationships become serial disasters because they jump in again and again without first doing the work of unearthing the trauma and issues that keep them in their cycle of addiction.
Relationship addicts are so in love with love that they continually move from one relationship to another, always on the rebound, never giving themselves time to heal and learn how to be independent. They partner up again and again, just to avoid feeling lonely—or worse, to avoid feeling “abnormal.”
There are things that happen to us in love-addicted relationships that, if we don’t learn from them and don’t realize why we are picking who we are picking, we will keep repeating the behavior.
The problem is, it’s a behavior people can’t stop themselves from doing, even when they are hurting themselves. Sometimes, they don’t realize they are hurting themselves, or that the pain will inevitably come. But even when they know they are hurting themselves, even when they know what’s coming, they can’t stop.
Relationship addiction is painful; sufferers find it excruciating to be alone. The relationship takes over their waking mind and uses up their emotional energy, as they keep reinventing themselves to make sure their obsession will continue to choose them.
The key to distinguishing relationship addiction from the normal ups and downs of a relationship is to examine the frequency or severity of those ups and downs. If a person has five happy relationships and one unhappy one, they are not likely a relationship addict. If they are unhappy in every relationship, and yet feel even worse on their own, likely they’re addicted to romance, love, relationships, and marriage.
An addictive relationship begins with a typical attraction to someone, but it morphs into idealizing that person, even if the relationship junkie doesn’t know them very well. The addict is so desperate to hook up with someone that they become blinded by the fantasy of love at first sight. They become obsessively preoccupied with their love interest. Everything else in their life gets shoved aside.
People who are not relationship junkies know one person can’t possibly fulfill all their needs. They include friends and family in their lives and are comfortable having no relationship at all if the right person doesn’t come along. Relationship addicts are looking for just one person to fill an insatiable emptiness in their lives. They believe this new love is the answer to all their unmet hopes and dreams. Being alone feels intolerable, but this person, this relationship, will save them from loneliness and rejection and care for them forever.
Now the Relationship junkie has pinned all their desires on this new relationship. They become completely dependent on it and begin to fear rejection, disappointment or betrayal. If the relationship ends, all their hopes and dreams will be obliterated. This sets the stage for obsession.
During the obsessive stage, the addict tries to control the object of their love, insisting that they meet their needs at any cost. They want more time, more attention, more consideration. They want their partner to be able to read their mind and fulfill their fantasies. If they get any hint of rejection, they go into panic; this could be something as innocent as their partner saying they don’t feel like meeting up tonight or are tired and are going to bed early. The addict’s brain starts taking something simple and running with it to complicated places. Their nervous system goes into overdrive and they will try to avoid feeling the pain of what they see as rejection by searching for anything to replace the pain. Obsessive love is a sort of desperate longing: It never feels whole, never feels nurturing, and never feels safe.
This is where many relationships begin to spiral downward. The partner begins to pull back because the relationship feels smothering, overbearing, all-consuming. They may avoid the relationship addict. They may be more direct and just say, “You’re smothering me!” This disengagement triggers the addict’s attachment issues and core fear of abandonment. In an addicted relationship, though, this spiraling downward doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the relationship—at least not for the addict. The addict has become completely dependent on this relationship and will go to great lengths to deny and avoid the truth that the relationship is in trouble.
The cycle of relationship addiction has several stages, which are laid out quite elegantly in Pia Mellody’s book, Facing Love Addiction. These stages begin with the relationship addict being attracted to a partner who is unavailable in some way. This kind of partner recreates their early childhood wounds of being with caregivers who either abandoned or neglected them. They need someone to take care of them in a way their early caregivers did not, but, paradoxically, they typically pick someone who is like their early caregivers and so can’t fulfill that need.
When the relationship addict starts to feel good about being wanted and adored, the childhood fantasy of being rescued kicks in. There is a strong desire to merge identities, so the partner can banish their deep fear of abandonment. However, they are not truly seeing who this partner is; instead, they are responding to a delusion of what they want them to be. The relationship addict also feels relieved that they won’t ever have to be alone and that this fantasy person will make them feel whole.
By this time, the addict begins to get needier and needier, which often causes their love object to pull away. The addict is still in denial about who this partner really is, and eventually, when the denial starts to wear off, the addict begins to re-experience their early childhood wounds. They start trying to control their love object; this is where desperation kicks in, because the partner is now becoming more and more unavailable.
The most excruciating pain is during the next phase, withdrawal. This phase is characterized by pain, fear, rage, jealousy, emptiness, frustration or a combination of all these emotions. The relationship addict turns their anger and disappointment in on themselves. Controlling behaviors increase, such as nonstop texting, driving by their partner’s home or workplace, and other desperate means to make connections with their love object. The relationship becomes more and more toxic and manipulative, as the addict desperately tries to gain control. Obsessing, in fact, is an attempt to self-medicate the excruciating pain of withdrawal.
The experience of withdrawal feels like something is missing from your very core, especially when it is part of a break-up. The addict is longing for the attachment they have lost.
The emptiness of withdrawal, the obsession, anger, betrayal and resentment penetrate every cell. There is no distraction to ease the incredible pain. It is a stage where the addict feels they will never be loved again.
During withdrawal, the love addict will go to great lengths of scheming to pull their partner back in and may even use many of the measures they learned as an abandoned child. They will manipulate and control, may dress provocatively, cheat, enter into affairs both emotionally and sexually, abandon their partners to make them jealous, and/or become abusive. To avoid the pain of withdrawal and keep themselves hooked into unhealthy relationships, addicts may also try to transform themselves. They believe they must be picture perfect to earn love; this comes from deep feelings of unworthiness, shame, unlovability, and fear of being left. The love addict believes they are trying to meet their partner’s needs, but in fact, everything addicts do, even the things that look the most self-sacrificing, are done to meet their own need to be loved and needed. They may become overly compliant instead of being authentic and truthful.
On the other end of the spectrum, love addicts are masters of manipulation. They will invest great lengths of time and energy determining what patterns of behavior will produce the desired effects in other people. They may lie, keep secrets, break promises, withhold information, violate boundaries, use sarcasm or become a victim to gain connection. But because they have tied their identity entirely to their partner, thereby ignoring their own essence, these ploys cause them to feel an intense loss of self and identity, similar to those terrible feelings of being abandoned by the unavailable caregiver. It is as if they are invisible and live in the abyss of nothingness.
All of these tactics are intended to avoid the pain of withdrawal, and stem from a host of fears, including fear of emptiness, nothingness, abandonment, loss of control, losing connection, exposure, rejection, insignificance, loss of security, and that self is not enough. It can become so painful that they just can’t stand it anymore and cover it up with denial. They deny the problem, the pain, and the cause. The addict fears any truth that might separate them from the fantasy they have created about their love object. All of these fears prevent the love addict from being their authentic self. Most of their time is spent running from their true self with the mistaken belief that they are keeping themselves safe. The love addict gives up their own creativity, spontaneity, authenticity and own value system to avoid the suffering of withdrawal symptoms.
Finally, during the last stage of relationship addiction, the addict either leaves the relationship to start this cycle over with a new partner, or they attempt to get the love object back. Either way, there is no learning from experience, no time or space for the healing process to begin.
Certified Transformation and Recovery Coach
Sherry Gaba helps singles navigate the dating process to find the love of their lives. Take her quiz to find out if you’re struggling with co-dependency, sign up for a 30-minute strategy session, or learn more about how to get over a break-up.
She maintains a private practice in Westlake Village, and is a sought after online dating and relationship coach. For more information visit www.sherrygaba.com or sign up today for Sherry’s online group coaching program. Buy her books Love Smacked: How to Break the Cycle of Relationship Addiction and Codependency to find Everlasting Love or Infinite Recovery
Sherry Gaba, LCSW
Psychotherapist and Life Coach
Editor of Recovery Today Magazine
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