Louise Stanger is a speaker, educator, licensed clinician, social worker, certified daring way facilitator and interventionist who uses an invitational intervention approach to work with complicated mental health, substance abuse, chronic pain and process addiction clients.
In a recent true crime story published in the Daily Mail, a popular TV producer in the UK was on trial for attempting to hire three different hitmen to kill his partner of 30 years. David Harris, the accused, became so infatuated with his love, Hazel Allinson, that when she stopped paying for his lavish lifestyle and left him, he ordered the hit.
Despite these allegations coming out in the case, Allinson, possessed with blind deference for Harris, refused to believe he had nefarious intentions and righteously defended him. In the end, the judge presiding over the case was quoted telling Harris, “For your pipe dream, for your obsessive infatuation with a young woman, Ms. Allinson, who had protected and nurtured you, was to die a painful and terrifying death in an isolated spot.”
If this sounds too fantastical to be true, perhaps it’s because that is what lies at the heart of love addiction: fantasy. Like a person struggling with a cocaine addiction in search of their next high, humans are drawn to the natural chemical high that sexual attraction offers and may create an unrealistic vision of sex, intimacy and romance. The adage love is a drug becomes all too real for the love addict chasing a pipe dream.
In understanding love addiction and the ways it manifests itself in our culture, it’s important to clearly define love addiction and its psychological properties. According to Brenda Schaefer, a psychologist and author who has published many books on the topic, writes on her website “It’s All About Love” that love addiction is “an unhealthy attachment to people, euphoria, romance or sex in an attempt… to heal past trauma, get unmet needs fulfilled, avoid fear or emotional pain, solve problems, fill our loneliness and maintain balance.”
Although our biological needs to find connection are normal and healthy, it spirals out of control when we obsessively pursue a fantasy to fill a hole in our psyche. The compulsive behavior may even build so great that it results in hiring a hitman for one’s lover like in the opening story. As Schaefer puts it, “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.”
Another aspect of love addiction is dependency. Co-dependence occurs when each partner in a relationship depends on the other for love, security and belonging. When the partners are out of sync, they can no longer function without the support of the other. Co-dependency is central to love addiction because it’s about relying on another to have our needs met. This yin and yang relationship makes it difficult to break the bonds of love addiction because like any chemical addiction, psychological, biological and emotional withdrawal can be an excruciating experience.
But don’t go blaming dependency and the resulting love addiction on the individual. Humans are hard-wired for love and connection in an increasingly love-obsessed culture. Romance novels and stories, movies and TV, art and theater, advertising and material goods shape us to be love sick. Schaefer writes “our culture idealizes, dramatizes, and models a dependency that says we cannot live without another person, sex or romance.” As such, “we become dependent almost unconsciously.”
Love addiction comes in three forms: love, romance and sex. The core of love addiction is filling a void. Often times we seek out a person similar to someone in our past who did not fill the hole with the hopes that it will turn out differently. However, this rarely works out. Schaefer also says that this form of love addiction is fueled by three 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.”
In the case of these three psychological beliefs, the love addict grows dependent on the person of interest. And since they fear betrayal and abandonment, often times love addicts in dependent relationships will stay in unfulfilling or abusive situations.
For romance addiction, the person fixates on new love or the “honeymoon” phase of a relationship and conjures a fantasy of love and intimacy. This fantasy may follow an absurd story not unlike what is found in romance novels. And it is followed by an escalation of obsessive and bizarre actions that in some cases can be dangerous or violent. In the hit movie Fatal Attraction, Glenn Close’s character develops a romantic addiction for Michael Douglas’s character, leading to stalking and obsessive behavior that culminates into a fantastical climax that only Hollywood could dream up. Once the newness of the relationship fades, the romance addict will move to another partner.
Finally, sex addiction is marked by any kind of uncontrollable sexual activity that ends in undesired or negative consequences. Sexual addiction builds until it becomes the most essential need, eclipsing family, work and personal values. Our culture perpetrates conflicting ideas about sex - two sides of the same token. On the one side culture advertises and promotes sex as a drug of choice. And on the flipside we shame and judge sexual expression. So it’s easy to see how sexual addiction takes root in politics and government, religious institutions and home and family.
How do we begin to unravel love addiction and pursue healthy, lasting relationships? It begins with a refocus on the self writes Virginia Gilbert for Addiction.com. “Over-focusing on another person is a great way to sidestep issues in your own life,” she says. Therapy and 12-Step programs are a great way to work through early development relationships so we don’t look to new relationships to fill the void.
Early childhood relationship patterns are the first place to look when working to break the bonds of love addiction says Lori Jean Glass, an educator, relationship coach and public speaker. Ms. Glass speaks from her own personal journey as a little girl developing what she calls “attachment disorder” because her parents were absent in her upbringing. After getting sober and working through the relationship issues she developed through her formative years and into adulthood, Lori was able to learn positive and healthy ways of being in a relationship - whether it be friendship, romantic love, and relationships with family and loved ones - and put those tools to good use in her adult relationships.
In essence, she broke through her attachment disorder which she has aptly titled , “The Crazy Train” which drives us to either want overly dramatic and intense emotions in relationships or to detach completely for fear of neglect and abandonment. And in turn she focused on the daily practice of setting boundaries and expressing her needs and wants in a healthy way to promote long-lasting, happy relationships. Wondering if you or a loved one is experiencing attachment disorder which is fueling love addiction? Here are some signs to look for according to Five Sisters Ranch, of which Lori serves as program director , a treatment center with a focus on love addiction:
- Lack of nurturing and attention at a young age
- Avoid abandonment and neglect at any cost
- Manipulative and controlling of others and in relationships
- Seek out drama-driven relationships and mistake intensity for intimacy
- Trust issues, hidden pain and denial
- Sense of worthlessness without a relationship so you jump from one relationship to the next
- Experience other addictive or compulsive problems
Self-empowerment is another great step to take. That’s just what Erica Jong did when she wrote her bestselling book “Fear of Flying” in 1973. The book follows a young woman struggling to find what she wants her life to look like. Jung writes with an openness through frank discussions of sex and sexuality uncommon for the times. And she coined the famous term “zipless f-word” for the main character to experiment with unattached lovers in search of meaning and belonging. The book empowered women to dust off old notions of relationships and marriage to find their own identity.
Fantasy can be fun and playful, however, true love begins when the individual nurtures themselves from within so that they can outwardly nurture another. As Shakespeare famously wrote in Hamlet, “This above all, to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any woman (or man.”
To learn more about Louise Stanger and her interventions and other resources, visit her website.