Rihanna's latest interview with Oprah has brought the issue of abuse and the complex relationship women share with their abusers back into the forefront of conversation. Many women, including myself, understand the conflicting, sad feelings RiRi described. Wanting to be with someone who is clearly unhealthy for you -- not wanting to let go -- is often classified as "co-dependency" or "love addiction." It's like a drug, with potential loss of both mental and physical health, and can sometimes even be life threatening. All of the above have been true for me, so anyone who thinks a little dose of love addiction is some modern day jargon, I am here to tell you it is very real and has kicked my ass since I started having relationships as a teen.
The challenge with recovery from this affliction is that you can't entirely cut people out like you can with other more tangible addictions like drugs, booze, pills, gambling, shopping, porn, etc. Learning how to have "healthy" attachments sounds easy, but in fact for someone like me who had damaged early relationships, it's like learning to be fluent in Chinese. One of the harder points is being able to recognize what is healthy and what isn't. For example, is it okay for your partner to raise their voice at you because you forgot to buy the coffee at the grocery store? No. That is NOT okay. No one should raise their voice or hand at you. Yet I have lived with both verbal and physical abuse in two long-term relationships and rationalized a way to stay.
You might not think I would be the "type" to tolerate abuse; I'm a smart woman with choices, a job and a life -- but I lived with violent men and didn't want to leave either of them. The first was when I was a just a teenager. One time he waited until I was in bed asleep and naked to start a drunken fight with me, which ended with him ripping the railings off the stairs and barricading me in the bedroom. With a swollen eye and a beaten body, my only escape was to go out the first floor window and hide in the trash can until my friend came to rescue me, totally naked in the cold of the English winter. Guess what? I didn't leave. I went back because he told me he loved me and I believed him, and if that isn't love addiction, I don't know what is. That relationship finally ended when he punched me in the face and I defended myself by returning the punch. For a second I felt bad, ashamed even. Who had I become? Not someone I wanted to be, but certainly someone who knew I deserved more. Even though I never went back to that guy, the fact that it took me so long to leave meant I was not the healthy teenager I should be.
Eight years later I fell in love with a man who appeared to be nothing like the angry boyfriend from my teen years (who, for the record, has only dated men since me). Be warned, a wolf in sheep's clothing can be very desirable, especially one who is famous, who meditates, who is ridiculously handsome and older than you. But no, a love addict will always pick the one person in the room who is unavailable in some way and is going to trigger all the chaos inside herself.
This one took me three years to leave. There were police visits, bruises being covered and too many nights spent sleeping on couches after fleeing abuse late at night. Why would I stay in such damaging relationships? I stayed because I didn't think I was lovable. I believed I didn't deserve better, that no one would love me again. I truly believed I'd be alone my whole life if I let go of this great guy. My friends eventually despaired of me, of course. How many times could they encourage me to care about myself? The truth is, there is no one who can give you that self love. It doesn't matter how many people adore you, or how skinny, successful, smart, talented, funny, kind, or compassionate you are. None of it matters if YOU don't see your wonderful self.
I had lived with abuse for many years but the worst abuse has been at my own hands and the appalling situations I have tolerated. It has been no easy road to recovery for me. I believe I was a codependent out of the womb and have been struggling to free myself from its vice-like grip for many, many years. The comforting part is that many of my close friends have had versions of the same challenge. It's not a sexy issue, so most people don't exactly go about broadcasting it, but I would say it's as common as alcoholism and often hides behind other addictions so it can be harder to spot. There are a few books I read that woke me up at the right time -- books that described in detail the symptoms I had. I was greatly relieved to know my absurd thinking and behavior had a name, but I was equally terrified because now I would have to confront it.
I am mother to three kids -- two of which are daughters -- and I knew I was role modeling a broken and dysfunctional way to love. I knew even if I could not heal for me, I had to heal for them. The first step to change is to acknowledge the problem. I was addicted to my partners, the same way an addict is to their drug of choice. I began to understand the "why" by reading every book I could find on love addicts. I found a therapist who challenged me, and I went to anonymous meetings daily. For the first time in my life, the focus began to be lifted from the abusers and onto the only place I have any control: MY life.
This freedom has allowed me to be a more present mother, friend and wife. It's given me the time to dream up a successful career, publish a book, create a television show for women and a website for us to talk about these issues. But, most importantly, I spend less time in that awful obsessive place than ever before.
1. All Al-Anon literature
2. Facing Love Addiction - Pia Mellody
3. Women, Sex, and Addiction - Charlotte Kasl
4. The Language of Letting Go - Melody Beattie
5. Addiction to Love - Susan Peabody
6. The Verbally Abusive Relationship - Patricia Evans
To hear from more fabulous women who've overcome difficult issues in their lives, join The Conversation with Amanda de Cadenet.