by Glynis Sherwood
It’s Not About Love
“I can’t stop myself from going back to him, even though all I get is rejection and put downs. He reels me in with false promises that he’ll be there for me if I just shape up. Once he’s ‘got’ me, he criticizes me and I start to feel worthless and want to pull away. But after a few short hours away from him I start to panic and frantically start phoning or texting him. It’s almost like he’s my life line and I have to prove myself to him. But it’s a life line to hell. I feel like I’m possessed” ~ Sherry
The Ties That Bind Can Really Hurt
Sherry – a 40 year old woman with a 12 year old son from a previous marriage – is not alone. She’s obsessed with Jack, a man she has been involved with “off and on” for almost 2 years. But in spite of her preoccupation with their relationship it’s anything but secure or rewarding. What’s gone so terribly wrong?
Like many people in addictive relationships, she thought her relationship with Jack started out well – in hindsight almost too well. It was a romantic, whirlwind relationship where they wanted to be together every minute of the day. Declarations of love were made early, at less than two weeks into the relationship. Things started to fall apart about a month later, when Jack started criticizing Sherry. At first it was about little things such as the way she was dressed. Then he began questioning her parenting skills. Shortly after that he accused Sherry of being too needy, and said he needed space. At that point Sherry panicked and started chasing after Jack. Without him she felt like her world was falling apart.
So what exactly is going on here?
What is Relationship Addiction?
There’s a lot of skepticism in the media, amongst academics and researchers about whether an individual can really be ‘addicted’ to another person. But if you remember one of the classic definitions of addiction, which is to pursue a behavior compulsively in spite of negative consequences, then relationship addiction fits the description.
Relationship addiction can be one of the hardest behaviors to break, because the person experiencing it – and others – may not recognize it as a destructive, compulsive behavior. But like any addictive behavior, it can come to feel like the sufferers life depends on being able to hold on to the relationship as an external source of self validation. And like any other addiction, the sufferer may know the situation is wrong but can’t just change their mind and walk away. Rational thinking is in short supply, and the addicted person needs a recovery program.
Patterns of Painful Relationships
Addictive relationships tend to have most – though not necessarily all – of the following stages in common:
- Love at first sight – feels like they’ve known this person for a long time – they seem familiar.
- Going quickly into the relationship without taking the time to establish common values, goals or to build trust.
- Intense bonding and sexual activity – fueling feelings of being ecstatic and high.
- Wanting to be together every waking moment.
- Neglecting friends, family and themselves to be with this person (i.e. stop doing the things they used to like to do).
- Continuously fantasize about the love object.
- Early declarations of love and commitment.
- First fight – often a bad one – where they discover their lover is not the person they thought they were.
Partner withdraws – time, attention, affection, sex, acts cold, critical, etc.
- The love addict starts to panic as feelings of unbearable loneliness, unlovability /unworthiness get triggered – rather than feeling annoyed with partner for mistreating them.
- Love addict begs, pleads, sell themselves short in a frantic effort to reconnect with partner.
- Partner either ends contact, or may come back, often with the agenda that they will continue if the addicted person ‘shapes up’. But this is a false promise, as this sort of partner’s goal is control, not the desire for a healthy relationship.
- If partner returns, romance starts all over again.
- Next fight, often shortly after reuniting.
- Distancing by partner and anxious pursuit by addict resumes.
The painful cycle of attraction, bonding, rejection, panic, reconciliation and rejection is what characterizes love addiction. Often the addict’s partner finally leaves. The relationship addict experiences intense “abandonment anxiety”. This anxiety triggers panic, low self worth, feelings of emptiness, isolation and possibly depression. The addict may believe they are worthless without their partner. They almost always feel unbearable emptiness.
Relationship addicts may intensify their obsession by subtly or overtly chasing or stalking their former partner. For example, driving by his/her home to see if s/he’s there, and with whom; lurking on Facebook or other social media, monitoring conversations and connections; phoning him/her then hanging up. If the addicted person suspects or learns their former partner has a new love interest, they feel devastated, and imagine that this new person is getting something they never got, i.e. true love – and falsely uses this as ‘evidence’ that they are unlovable. The vicious downward spiral continues, unless the addict stops the behavior and gets help.
Roots of Addictive Relationships
What’s the origin of this painful obsession to pursue unhealthy relationships compulsively?
The roots of addictive relationships can generally be found in childhood, where original love relationships with parents were accidentally or intentionally inadequate, negligent, abusive or broken (such as through chronic illness, addiction, divorce or death). This relationship breach leads to fractured bonds, and emotional needs that are destined to be unmet. In order to grow into secure adults capable of healthy relationships, children generally need the following support from parents or care givers: 1/ Unconditional love, 2/ A shoulder to lean on and, 3/ Someone to look up to.
Adult relationship addicts typically have had few of their critical emotional needs met as children. In fact, many experienced rejection or abandonment when reaching out to their parents to try and get this support. In the absence of this critical emotional support, a child may come to believe they are unlovable and unworthy of love. Unfortunately, these beliefs get carried – often unconsciously – into adulthood where they wreak havoc in love relationships.
The Purpose of Addictive Relationships and Why They Are Doomed to Fail
There’s good inside the bad. The main motivator for compulsively pursuing unhealthy relationships is a positive one – that is to achieve inner and interpersonal validation that one is a lovable and worthy human being. This was denied in childhood, and has become the missing piece of themselves that addicts are seeking. In a sense, the relationship addicted person is looking to heal or ‘complete’ the love relationship that was denied in childhood. Although the motivation to heal is positive, the effort is destined to fail if they pick the same kind of person as the parent or principle care giver who was unable to give them genuine love, caring and emotional support in the first place. Unfortunately, relationship addicts tend to select partners who seem familiar and are therefore similar to the unavailable parent they desperately needed love from.
The second fatal flaw is that the relationship addict is seeking external affirmation that they are worthwhile – meaning loveable – human beings. The problem with this approach is that it creates a dependency – aka addiction – on others to engender a sense of self worth. This dependency is structured to fail as feelings of self worth must come from within or will never feel sustainable or authentic. A person trapped in the vicious circle of relationship addiction, and lacking recovery skills, does not share that perspective. Usually they lack a strong enough sense of self worth to believe it is worth the risk of disengaging from compulsive behavior, and are doomed to repeat the cycle of longing for love only to be rejected or disappointed over and over again. In a sense they are clinging to the ‘devil they know’, rather than recognizing the need for healthy change.
How to Begin the Healing Process
Relationship addicts are wounded people with distorted love maps or blueprints inherited from childhood. Fortunately, as with any addiction, recovery is possible. And all addiction recovery starts with acknowledging the existence of the problem. If you believe you, or someone you love, are caught in relationship addiction, here are the steps forward:
- Admit you are in pain, and that relationships tend to feel bad more often than good.
- Understand that real love doesn’t hurt. Real love makes you feel valued, cared for and stronger about yourself. Perhaps you don’t recognize real love, or it feels uncomfortable. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong, just unfamiliar.
- Back away from compulsive, painful relationships and give yourself a chance to heal and learn how to identify real love.
- Accept that obsession is not the same thing as love. You may feel temporary relief while caught up in your obsession. But like a drug, you need that fix over and over again to try to overcome feelings of emptiness, and prove to yourself that you are lovable or adequate.
- Recognize irrational beliefs or fears that can sabotage you and keep you hooked. For example, believing that you can’t cope with anxiety, loneliness or sadness being on your own. Addictive relationships by their very nature make people more vulnerable to experiencing painful emotions and negative beliefs as compulsive relationship dynamics are in themselves invalidating.
- Once you start to pull back and learn to understand and manage your thoughts and emotions better – from the inside out – you will gradually begin to feel your confidence grow. You may feel worse at the outset rather than better. Hang in there and give yourself a chance to develop your strength.
- Know your triggers – Usually feelings of unlovability or unworthiness to receive love, and believing that you can only be restored to wholeness in a love relationship. If you feel high in the presence of the person you are obsessed about, and panicked when you are apart, this is a sign that addictive relationship dynamics have been triggered.
- Connect your feelings of unlovability to their origins in your childhood.
- Develop empathy for the unloved, abused or neglected child you were.
- If you feel overly attracted to someone very quickly, pull back. This is a warning sign that a ‘negative love map’ might have been retriggered.
- Make a point of learning healthy coping strategies to deal with negative beliefs and emotions.
- Get group support with others in recovery, such as in an online forum.
- Connect with a skilled Psychotherapist who understands relationship addiction and recovery strategies
Need Help Overcoming Relationship Addiction? Visit My Love Addiction Counselling Web Page Here
Counselling is available in person in Vancouver BC or Skype Video around the world.
Glynis Sherwood – MEd, Canadian Certified Counsellor, Registered Clinical Counsellor, Certified Substance Abuse Counsellor is a Counselling Therapist specializing in recovery from long standing Anxiety, Depression, Grief and Addictive Behaviors.
Please check out my other article on Relationship Addiction: How to Stop Choosing the Devil You Know