Addictive relating, as evidenced by the proliferation of books on the subject, is all too common and painful. Both men and women suffer from it. In my work with people trapped in addictive relationships, it has become clear that their “desperation about keeping someone” has much more to do with needing the other person 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 frequently 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. Ross Rossenberg describes this as a “ magnetized” pull between two people. If people were not as drawn together, if the attraction was not as magical as they describe, it could never serve 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.”
It sounds like what everyone wants but these relationships don’t involve the healthy mutual connection of two people. They are underscored by need. These are addictions.
Addictions, be they to drugs or people, must be transformative in some way.
Addictive relationships are a “fix” for negative feelings of anxiety, despair, self-doubt, rage, fear of abandonment, etc. Central to the need for addictions in an inability to regulate emotions on one’s own and the need for an external source to “ fix” the loneliness, sense of dissolution, etc. The problem is that the fix doesn’t last. It can’t. More and more is desperately needed.
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 demanded versions of the other. Such versions of idealization– can’t hold and inevitably escalate anxiety. They set off cycles of euphoria and depression that make the addicted person deny reality, search for a flicker of the early magic, and tolerate anything for the fix.
The dependence 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. There seems no ability 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 attached to abandoning, 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 re-connect again. Given that no one can be in an addictive relationship alone, it is no surprise that there is often a co-dependency with a partner who on some level needs the adoration and control being offered even at the cost of their own emotional freedom. Rossenberg describes this as the irresistible attraction of the co-dependent personality and the pathological narcissist.
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.
One 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 suffers not only psychological devastation; but, the actual symptoms of physical withdrawal including 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 breakup and can’t cope. Some come to enlist my help in changing the other – essentially in making the addiction work again. Some come with depression, rage and physical symptoms that they do not recognize as signs of impairment from their relationship 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 with ways of regulating anxiety, accepting self, improving self-esteem, healing past wounds, facing dependency issues, finding self-love and allowing 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.”
You are entitled to more than desperation disguised as love. You are entitled to love that enhances you as well as the person standing next to you.
Learn More about Addictive Relating on Psych Up Live Thursday 11/5/15 2PM Eastern 11 AM Central when Ross Rosenberg joins host, Suzanne Phillips