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” have much more to do with needing the other at any cost, than sharing a loving relationship.
An 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 I have seen and as discussed by authors like Brenda Schaeffer in Is it Love or an Addiction, these dynamics become the fabric of additive relationships.
Given the denial associated with addictions, however, the signs become increasingly evident – but not to the people involved.
The Nature of Addictive Relating- The Partner as “ Fix”
Addictive relationships like addictions always start out wonderfully because they meet an often unspoken long carried need. If they were not as magical as described, they would never work as a fix.
- “This is the only man who ever understood me.”
- This is the only person who ever said he needs me physically to survive.
- I never thought a woman like this would love me.
Addictions Are Transformative- Be it Drugs or People
They are the instant relief, the transforming fix for self-loathing, anxiety, despair, fear, 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 demanded versions of the other.
Since when do you put friends before us?
How can you disagree when I am telling you how I feel?
- Addictive relationships can’t sustain the level of gratification that is demanded and eventually escalate anxiety, at times rage.
- They set off cycles of euphoria and depression that make the people deny reality, search for a flicker of the early magic, and tolerate anything to stay attached.
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. Like the tolerance with any addiction more and more is needed and greater becomes the fear of losing it.
- Often one partner is seemingly the demanding, controlling one of another who appears more needy, worshipping and striving to please.
- The reality is that both are desperate, dependent, and addictively attached for different reasons.
What seems like a perfect match becomes a perfect storm:
- The ability to trust is compromised in addictive relating. There seems no ability to hold on to the good feelings of self or the love of the other.
- Often anxiety is colored by jealousy and paranoid fears. A good evening or a fun vacation never holds.
- Doubt about not having been perfect enough or loved enough takes on momentum and the fix wears off.
- Endless texts, phone calls and messages provoking apologies, verbalizing anxiety or demanding that the other prove that they have not turned from loving to unloving are made by both partners at different times.
- The constant and insistent demands for reassurance ultimately incite rejection, rage and threatened disconnect by one of the partners.
- This in turn brings efforts to repair, repent and a willingness to tolerate anything to re-connect again.
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.
“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
Much as drugs and alcohol, the obsession and dramatic cycles that underscore addictive relating jeopardize the connection with family, friends and networks of support.
- 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 they feel personally used and abused.
The Break Up – Make Up Cycle
The pattern of addictive relating involves more and more dependence with less and less fulfillment despite negative consequences.
There are often many cycles of breaking up and making up.
What makes the break-up so difficult is the physical withdrawal and the emotional pressure of the partner.
- Often at the point of actually losing “ the fix” or breaking up, people suffer not only psychological devastation; but the actual symptomatology of physical withdrawal including sweating, cramps, anxiety, nausea, sleeplessness, eating difficulties and disorientation.
The Dependent Partner
- The other problem is the co-dependence and the return of the “Addiction.” As one man shared with a group,
“ The difference between giving up drugs and alcohol and giving up a relationship is that the drugs and alcohol don’t come calling.”
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 recognized as signs of impairment from addiction.
- Some have observed that other people’s relationships are different.
- Some have stolen a glimpse of their real self and want to find it again.
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. The healing process includes dealing with the regulation of feelings, acceptance of self, grieving the loss of the fix, healing from past wounds, examining dependency issues, allowing self-compassion and self-love.
- Recovery for couples whose relationship is addictive involves a joint wish to change willingness to seek help individually and/or as a couple.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
(Poet Derek Walcott, “Love after Love”)
Listen in to Betty Hafner discuss “ Not Quite Love: A Memoir of Domestic Violence” on Psych Up Live – The insider’s story.