“Love Addiction” is a term that’s been much bandied about ever since Stanton Peale published his seminal book, “Love and Addiction” in 1975.
Since then, innumerable books and articles have appeared elaborating on the theme, but the field is full of misnomers. Some people include sex addiction, romance addiction, an addiction to being in a relationship (anyone) and others, and more commonly, “interpersonal addiction”, which is what I think Peale had in mind when he wrote the book.
Interpersonal addiction, as Peale defines it is:
Two people who lack a well-developed core being,a secure sense of themselves, compulsively bond in a relationship to fill their inner emptiness. This can only be done by subsuming someone else inside yourself, or by allowing someone else to subsume you. They engulf and are engulfed by each other. The result is a full-fledged addiction.
Brenda Schaeffer, in “Is it Love or Is it Addiction?” defines it as:
An unhealthy dependency on the object of love…a form of passivity in which we do not resolve our own problems or ask for what we need, but attempt to collude with others so they will take care of us and thus take care of our problems. We take care of others at our own emotional expense or we attempt to control other to meet our needs at their expense…we look to others to “fix” our fear, pain and discomfort.
After 20 years of working as a sex addiction therapist, I think an addict is a person who, due to inadequate parenting, feels unable to meet the demands of living and so lives in a constant state of fear. Addicts lack confidence and have low self-esteem. Because of disruptions in normal developmental processes, they have problems with having a consolidated identity and are not in touch with core values, goals and meanings.
They live with a constant sense of “lack” or…emptiness from the lack of having core aspects of themselves and have major problems in regulating and tolerating distressing or overwhelming inner states. Their solution is to seek a chemical, behavior or person to help them tolerate these distressing states and to solve the problems in living that more self-actualizing people meet routinely.
Thus, we can see that a relationship can be an addiction. The relationship meets the same needs as a mood-altering drug.
However, interpersonal addiction is the norm in our society. At the level of family, church, education, and peer groups, we are given the message that an intimate relationship is what will provide us with a never-ending supply of great sex, predictability, emotional support, acceptance and validation, understanding, personal identity, security, comfort, meaning, belonging, prestige, and financial security.
This represents a huge institutional and individual delusion. No wonder the divorce rate is over 50%.
The allure of the romance fantasy is so entrenched in our culture and individual psyches that people begin to make sacrifices for it at the expense of huge sections of themselves. Friendships outside the relationship are not nourished. There are few instances when people can just spend quiet time with themselves. Activities and hobbies that used to be absorbing are dropped for the sake of the relationship.
Because of the extent of the dependency, spouses have a hard time of “letting go” of their partners for business trips or any activity that doesn’t not include them. Jealousy is often a problem. Abandonment fear is rampant. Because each person is dependent on the other for approval, fights erupt when there is merely a divergence of perspectives. Controlling and “fixing” or “helping” the other becomes paramount because if there’s loss of control, there’s loss of a possibility of feeling whole and secure. Addictive relationships grind people down.
The irony is that neither person in such a relationship gets their needs met because their needs, for the most part, are not able to be met by a spouse or by anyone else because they are immature, based in childhood neglect and are insatiable. As adults, we will NEVER get unending, unconditional, positive approval ,which we enjoyed as infants. Very often people look to their partners to compensate for the nurturing they didn’t receive as children, turning the relationship from an adult-to-adult interaction into a parent-child interaction.
The price people pay for the security, comfort or financial success of traditional (addicted) marriage is enormous. People often betray their own integrity and values for the sake of the relationship. The couple stops growing as individuals or having new encounters with life and other people. Careers and educational objectives are compromised because they threaten the partner. An interpersonal addiction limits your: ability to live up to your potential; openness to new experiences; energy for creative and productive activities; ability to accept others on their own terms; capacity for intimacy and ability to love.
True intimacy is impossible because the other is not seen as an entity in his own right, with his own wants, feelings and desires, but rather as a need-satisfying object. Addicts don’t know who they are. They don’t really know how they think or feel, so sharing with another on an intimate basis is impossible.
The truth is, there’s nothing more dangerous or fragile than a dependent, “secure” relationship. Life changes, people change, circumstances change. If a dependent relationship is lost, everything is lost because there’s no other source of identity, pleasure or satisfaction to fall back on. And it’s hard to “unhook” from a dependent relationship because interpersonal addiction is totally integrated into our society.
The antidote to addiction is maturity. An essential attribute of maturity is the ability to handle the inevitable conflict between our desire for connection with others and our own individual separateness.
A well-known family therapist, Murray Bowen, used the term “differentiation” to work with families to become more functioning units.
I think “differentiation” is the opposite of addiction in intimate relationships. If the individuals in a couple are well-differentiated, each has developed a solid sense of self which comes from confronting his/her self, challenging his/her self to do what’s in line with ones values and integrity, and earning ones own self-respect.
Your self-development greatly determines your capacity to love.
A differentiated person, having a solid sense of self, is able to maintain themselves in the face of anger or disagreement, can regulate her own moods, can stay non-reactive and grounded but still be engaged and can tolerate emotional discomfort for the sake of personal growth.
Like a mature person (non-addict), they can tolerate frustration, delay gratification, control their impulses, persist in achieving their goals, despite obstacles and is capable of having empathy and compassion for others outside their relationship.
Such a person is able to be “self-validating”. They are able to confront themselves about what they bring to their life and their relationship. (Intimacy requires that you know yourself and allow yourself to be known. It requires vigilant self-confrontation.) You can stay clear about your ideas, feelings, values and self-worth in the face of adversity or challenge. You don’t need to or find it necessary get crazy when your partner gets crazy. Because you can control yourself, you don’t need to control your partner.
When she wants intimacy with her partner, she doesn’t really mean she wants validation, empathy, acceptance and unconditional positive regard. (They’re nice to get, but the kiss of death if they’re demanded.) She’s willing to be wrong.
Knowing herself, she’s able to self-disclose in the presence of her partner and say what she needs to say REGARDLESS of the type of response she gets. (After all, maybe he’s had a hard day and doesn’t want to hear it. Life goes on.)
Her partner doesn’t lose desire and respect for her because her need for validation, security and acceptance doesn’t dominate the relationship. He doesn’t have to spend his energy propping her up. She knows that self-sufficiency and self-knowledge are the keys to love and self-fulfillment.
Addicted couples are emotionally fused. They’re like Simonese Twins. Emotional fusion is togetherness (attachment) without separateness (autonomy). Differentiation is togetherness with separateness.
Differentiation in a relationship can be boiled down to this: Confront yourself and take your own counsel; soothe your own wounds; listen to your heart and mind; unhook from your partner’s behavior and stand up and face the music.
In addition, make sure you’re enthusiastically engaged in interests, activities and people outside the relationship so you’ll be a more stimulating partner when you get home. Remember, relationships are people-growing machines.
The characteristics of a mature relationship as opposed to interpersonal addiction, then, include:
has both autonomy and connection
open to change and exploration
stimulates growth in both partners
an opportunity to know and be known
communication of feelings, wants, needs
self-sufficiency of each partner is encouraged
each enjoys certain amount of solitude
accepting of limits and shortcomings of each other
heightened sense of well-being when together and apart
no attempt to change or control partner
detached care and concern
welcomes closeness and vulnerability
allows each partner his/her negative feelings without having to “fix” them
some shared values and respect for values each other doesn’t share
goes beyond narcissistic gratifications to give pleasure, comfort, support, affection with no ties attached
childhood demons that interfere with intimacy have been put to bed and we realize we no longer need what we needed as children
each partner clearly sees the other as separate from himself, with own objective and subjective experiences
sharing common experiences
shares knowledge that dependency in any kind is a relationship killer
knows that the relationship is only one important aspect of a total life
hot sex, or hot-enough, anyway
Key words: sex addiction therapy, sex addiction treatment, therapy for sex addiction, addicted to love