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PBS' 'This Emotional Life': Signs That Your 'Loving Relationship' May Be an Addiction

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RELATIONSHIP ADDICTION

"Looking back, I see my affair as a breakdown, as simply illness. It was a sickness, an emotional plague. It was equally as threatening as an alcohol or drug problem. I can honestly say it was the worst feeling I ever experienced."

As suggested above in this glimpse of Ethel Person's book "Dreams of Love and Fateful Encounters: The Power Of Romantic Passions" (p.155), there is a striking correspondence between the psychological dynamics for addiction or substance dependence and the patterns of use, impairment, increased tolerance and withdrawal found in addictive relating.

Addictive relating, as evidenced by the proliferation of books on the subject, is all too common, painful and suffered by both men and women. In my work with people trapped in addictive relationships, it becomes clear that their efforts to "desperately keep someone" has much more to do with needing the other at any cost than about sharing a loving relationship.

According to Brenda Schaeffer, who has written about the difference between love and addiction, addiction is composed of three elements: obsession or preoccupation, a feeling of being out of control, and continuation despite negative physical and psychological consequences. As with other addictions, the signs of addictive relating often become increasingly evident -- but often not to the people involved.

A Closer Look at the Signs of Addictive Relating: The Partner as "Fix"

"At first our relationship was like being in heaven -- It ended up in hell."

Addictive relationships always start out wonderfully. If they were not as magical as described, they wouldn't work as a fix.
  • "This is the only man who ever understood me."
  • "This is the kind of woman I have dreamed of being with my whole life."

Addictions, be they to drugs or people, are transformative. They are a "fix" for negative feelings of anxiety, despair, self-doubt, rage, fear of abandonment, etc. The problem is that the fix doesn't last. It can't.

As opposed to healthy relationships that go from euphoria to loving and knowing the partner as a separate person with faults as well as gifts, addictive relationships are built on rigid and demanding versions of the other.  They can't hold and actually escalate anxiety. They set off cycles of euphoria and depression that make the person deny reality, search for a flicker of the early magic, and tolerate anything for the fix.

Dependency

The dependency on another person as the fix is reflected in the preoccupation and obsession that goes into maintaining the connection, approval or fantasized attachment to the other. The ability to trust is absent in addictive relating. It seems there is no way to hold on to the good feeling of self or the love of the other. Often anxiety is colored by jealousy and paranoid fears. A good evening, a fun vacation never holds. Endless texts, phone calls and messages are sent to lower anxiety and ensure that the other has not turned from loving to unloving.

Loss of Control

The constant and insistent demands for reassurance ultimately incite rejection, rage and threatened disconnect in the partner. This in turn brings efforts to repair, repent and a willingness to tolerate anything to reconnect again. Given that no one can be in an addictive relationship alone, it is no surprise that there is often a codependency with a partner who, on some level, needs the adoration and control being offered, even at the cost of their own emotional freedom.

Loss of Self

One of the greatest losses in addictive relating is of self. Addictive relating results in an increasingly devalued view of self and an idealized version of the other, which makes the need to depend greater and the stakes higher. It is at times as if reality has become obscured.
A business man complains, "I think she is trying to trick me into getting strong and independent so she can leave me. I don't know who I am without her."

Loss of Connections

The obsession and dramatic cycles that underscore addictive relating jeopardize the connection with family and friends.  Frequently friends and family feel pushed aside as activities are given up and responsibilities neglected in pursuit of the fix. At other times friends are called upon to soothe the escalating anxiety, bear witness to the abuse or help in an unsuccessful attempt to stop the addiction. Eventually those who have stepped up -- step out. They either can't watch or feel personally used and abused.

Loss of Functioning

The pattern of addictive relating involves more and more dependence with less and less fulfillment despite negative consequences. The cost can be in all spheres of a person's life. Often at the point of actually losing "the fix" the person not only suffers psychological devastation, but the actual symptomatology of physical withdrawal: sweating, cramps, anxiety, nausea, sleeplessness, eating difficulties and disorientation.

What Stops Addictive Relating?

Over the years what has brought people to my office is not necessarily the wish to end the attachment -- but the failure of the addiction. Some have hit the break-up and can't cope. Some have come to enlist my help in changing the other -- essentially to make the addiction work again. Some have come with depression, rage and physical symptoms that they do not recognize as signs of impairment from addiction.

What Is Needed for Recovery From Addictive Relating?

Recovery begins with the end of denial -- the recognition of the addiction.
Recovery involves the wish to change, even when that wish comes from hitting the wall of loss and pain.
Recovery is not about reclaiming another person but about reclaiming self.
Recovery most often necessitates seeking professional help as a way to connect with self by dealing the regulation of feelings, acceptance of self, improved self-esteem, healing from past wounds, dependency issues, self-love and self- forgiveness, etc.
Recovery for couples whose relationship is addictive involves a joint wish to change and seek help individually and/or as a couple.
Recovery for couples can start with the courage of one partner who stops the pattern and seeks support. The addictive cycle cannot go on without a "fix."

"I was always looking outside myself for strength and confidence but it comes from within. It is there all the time." -- Anna Freud

Further Reading: Ethel Person, Brenda Schaeffer, "Addictive Relationships: Reclaiming Your Boundaries."

This Emotional Life is a two-year campaign to foster awareness, connections and solutions around emotional wellness. Join our community at www.pbs.org/thisemotionallife.

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