Love is the mother of all addictions: Compelling as nicotine and heroin -- and just as hard to kick

Docs question whether it exists at all. For members of Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, it's excruciatingly real

Published May 1, 2016 12:00PM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on The Influence.

“I got it bad for you, girl,
but I don’t need a cure.
I’ll just stay addicted
and hope I can endure
all the good love…”

—“Hooked on a Feeling

Sometimes when I think of love, my mind floats back to a scene from my high school geometry class.

My young teacher is projecting elegant arcs and angles onto the wall. She writes a series of neatly numbered steps indicating the path to results that ought to seem obvious. Start with this, add this, go here, do that and presto! Everything resolves into harmonious logic. Her voice is kind and encouraging: “Now you try it.”

I want so badly to follow her, to grasp the elusive geometric truths, to prove my worthiness. But tears threaten to roll down my cheeks. Why can’t I get it? Her air of effortless competency is fascinating—and alien. A quick scan of the room finds my classmates busily scribbling in their notebooks, unlocking mathematical mysteries. Their focused concentration mocks my confusion. Panic clenches my stomach.

Love can seem this way to me. Something I can’t quite properly grasp. An equation everybody else seems to intuitively understand. I wonder if I’m like a colorblind person who can’t register certain qualities of light. Why do I have such a hard time choosing between a red apple that is ripe and a green one that is sickening?

What ought to signal danger can trick me with a rush of euphoria. When society tells me something is healthy and normal, my mutinous heart secretly sinks in despondency—yet yearns for normalcy at the same time. I’ve read books, talked to therapists, practiced various corrective techniques, but still my reactions are not the reactions I wish them to be. They are illogical.

My romantic relationships are often so painfully fraught that I sometimes think it might be best to avoid them altogether. I’ve missed out on a lot.

Turns out, I share some things in common with a growing group of people who call themselves love addicts, people who are suffering mightily and increasingly making themselves heard.

Modern love is messed up, and addiction could be a useful framework for explaining what’s wrong—especially in a society that’s increasingly connected-yet-disconnected. Are there larger societal forces at play that prevent many of us from getting what we want from our relationships?

Is Love the Mother of All Addictions?

In the New York City area alone, the lovesick drag themselves to one of 40 meetings of Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA) that take place every week. Gatherings follow a familiar 12-step approach to “sobriety” where participants recite the mantra of powerlessness over love, sex, or—God help them—both, and commit to help each other “recover.”

But what does recovery mean? You can’t just up and abstain from love the way you give up Pabst Blue Ribbon. The idea is to somehow stop the kind of behaviors and thought patterns specified in “40 Questions for Self Diagnosis”—stuff like, “Do you find yourself unable to stop seeing a specific person even though you know that seeing this person is destructive to you?” Or: “Do you get ‘high’ from sex and/or romance?”

It’s hard to imagine a breathing person who has not experienced something along these lines, which is why love addiction can sound too vague to be a helpful descriptive. On the other hand, the common thread helps us understand people in the painful throes of love compulsions. We may never have scored smack or found ourselves slumped over a slot machine, but most of us have had a glimpse at the dark side of love. It’s a question of intensity and degree.

Some of the folks in the SLAA meetings speak of losing themselves in the fog of misty romantic fantasies. Others cop to behaviors like cyber-stalking of which they are deeply ashamed. More women seem to identify as love addicts and more men call themselves sex addicts. But interestingly, some in the second category—even one testosterone-soaked guy you might imagine trysting in a nightclub bathroom—reveal that they now believe love addiction is their underlying problem. For them, sex is not a just a compulsive physical act, but a distorted lunge at a human connection. What they really crave is love.

Sex addiction we’ve heard of.  But it’s hard to pin down what love addiction is or whether or not it even exists. In the annals of addictionology, love is something of an embarrassing, late-coming guest. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders contains no reference to it. Love addiction is not an official clinical term. On a HuffPost Live panel on the subject, psychiatrist Reef Karim noted that the concept “has almost zero clinical data behind it.”

Pia Mellody, who has written influential books on love addiction and is affiliated with trauma and addiction treatment facilities, claims that it’s really a problem of fantasy addiction—to which Reef Karim counters, yes, but so is every other addiction! Tracy Shields, whose blog The Lovely Addict recounts her personal struggle, thinks that it is not about love but the “avoidance of the self.” Often those describing love addiction reduce it to a simplistic model in which one screwed up person (the pining “love addict”), hooks onto another screwed up person (the neglectful “love avoidant”), and hell ensues.

Others recognize a glorious rainbow of various types of love addicts, from the “Codependent Love Addict” (the desperate cling-on) to the Relationship Addict (the status-quo keeper who cheats endlessly but can’t divorce) to the Narcissistic Love Addict (watch your back if you leave this type) to the Saboteur (“Oops, I blew it again.”)

Some refer to love as a “process addiction,” like tanning or video gaming, as opposed to a “substance addiction” like alcohol. Others emphasize the neurotransmitter alterations and the chemical ecstasy of being in love, often comparing the high of romance to the rush of cocaine. (Andecdotal reports of those addicted to love trying to stem the tide of craving with the opioid blocker naltrexone, often used to treat alcohol addiction, speak to this aspect). Still others link it to impulsivity or more widely recognized mental health disorders like co-dependency. Or a bit of all of these.

It was 40 years ago that Stanton Peele and Archie Brodsky laid out the case for the existence of love addiction in their book Love and Addiction, describing it as something that is really not love at all, but a “sterile, ingrown dependency relationship, with another person serving as the object of our need for security.” For them it was not a metaphor. These relationships were actual, bona fide addictions, defined by unhealthy involvement that wreaked havoc on other important areas of life. Peele, who is a columnist for The Influence, has memorably called love addiction the hardest of addictions to quit, more compelling than heroin and nicotine.

Today, the concept of love addiction is bursting into public awareness, fueled over the last decade or so by a profusion of books, documentaries, journalistic explorations, a cornucopia of treatment programs, and the confessions of celebrities like singer Alanis Morissette and model Amber Smith. Cultural reverberations are picking up: In Judd Apatow’s new Netflix series, Love, Mickey, a Los Angeles hipster, tries to give up her problem drinking and drugs, but finds herself in the grips of floor-pacing obsession with a love interest. Her boss, Dr. Greg, hosts a cheesy love-themed radio talk show, but nails Mickey with his diagnosis: Her real problem is “bingeing on other people.” Something about this rings painfully true: Mickey makes haste to a love and sex addiction meeting.

Who Becomes Addicted to Love?

In the 2011 documentary Love Addict, by Danish director Pernille Gronkjaer, an actress depicts Eliza—a “young woman lost in an obsessive infatuation, stalking a guy barely aware of her existence.” We see her poring over a scrapbook stuffed with photos and drawings illustrating a nonexistent relationship. Eliza, we are told, developed a fantasy of finding Prince Charming as a defense against a lonely childhood. Images of glowing forests suggest a little girl’s wandering into an alternative universe of romantic reverie, one she can’t leave as an adult.

This is the most common explanation of why some people end up chasing love rainbows: They are Very Wounded Children. The usual culprit is a parent of the opposite sex who was neglectful or distant.

Kids facing difficulties can certainly develop fantasies as a coping mechanism against pain. Maybe it’s not the worst coping mechanism to develop—probably better than beating up other kids on the playground or setting fires. If the child grows up to be a great novelist, we might even say that the imaginative defense mechanism can be transformed into something positive.

But there’s a problem with this childhood trauma idea—who among us didn’t undergo something difficult growing up? Why is it that some people can have distant parents and end up having flourishing relationships as adults?

One answer to the question of who is susceptible to love addiction is that they are more or less the same people who are likely to interact addictively with anything. The many cases of the love-addicted who are also compulsive drinkers or video gamers or drug users seem to suggest this. They are the folks who have insufficient social or family networks, inadequate coping skills, and a lack of sources of joyful pursuits and meaningful work.

But there’s something distinct about love in this framework. Unlike playing Warcraft, love has been celebrated in its intense, addictive form as long as human beings have been telling stories. The association of great suffering with great love is locked into our cultural DNA—just think of Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde.

The very word “passion” has its etymological roots in suffering. We are groomed to swoon. Every other pop song tells us that if we are not obsessed or high as a kite, we aren’t in love. Movies insist that we fall head over heels. Romance novels tell us our prince (or baron, or lovable pirate) is on the way. The volatile process of falling in love is supposed to be the lead-up to the decidedly unromantic decision of who will take out the trash and help pay the electricity bill—for maybe the next 50 years. There’s a lot of cultural weight on love. And then there are things that we lack that are hard to make up for.

Peele and Brodsky write that “the person who becomes an addict has not learned to accomplish things he can regard as worthwhile, or even simply to enjoy life.” So love addiction serves as a temporary means of avoiding that painful awareness. People seek to transcend their own world, move beyond the sucky imprisonment in their individuality. Love addiction becomes a futile search for meaning and connection, for comfort in the face of rootlessness.

It does seem that people who are addicted to love lack something in life. But is it just them? Or does our current social and economic set-up make it increasingly difficult for too many of us to get what we may need, much less what we desire in the realm of love?

If Love Is the Problem, What Is the Cure?

Love addiction may seem like a fluffy idea next to sticking needles in your veins, but if you think about how many suicides and homicides seem to have some kind of love-gone-wrong narrative, the picture begins to look pretty serious. There’s little doubt that for many people, the pain of the end or interruption of love feels unbearable. Because emotional pain follows some of the same neurological pathways as physical pain, the experience has a famously physical dimension—a sense of being unable to breathe, of being taken over by manic energy that drags you racing down the street or checking your love object’s Facebook page.

The 12-step folks would argue that abstinence is the best medicine for love addiction. I have doubts about that. It may be that much of what the meeting attendees are actually getting is much-needed human connection that is not dependent on romance or sex, a dependable structure, and self esteem-bolstering encouragement. But the expectation that they are addicted for life and have to practice rigid control over their thoughts and behavior may be a set-up for failure for others.

The childhood trauma script insists that a person needs to “process” bad experiences from the past and somehow free themselves from their influence. For certain types of people who are more cut off from memories and have not been inclined to speak about them, there may be something to that. But some who have been through horrible traumas don’t talk about them and do quite well as adults. Others may feel themselves even worse off constantly replaying narratives that cast them as victims and their childhoods as hopelessly negative. Could it be that talking about the positive things they did to survive or focusing on more nuanced or forward-looking narratives might be more helpful? Hard to say.

Some, like Stanton Peele, who push back on the 12-step model, suggest that addiction—to love or anything else—is not necessarily wired into a person forever. Most soldiers who used heroin during the Vietnam War did not remain addicted long-term once they returned home. Their environments changed, as did their sense of meaning and human connection, and the reasons for interacting addictively melted away. Another way of thinking of this is to imagine the caged rats who became hooked on opiates in a famous addiction experiment. Subsequent researchers found  that if you give the rats interesting things to do and other rats to interact with, they aren’t nearly as compelled to drink drug-water.

Adjusting our “cages” seems like a promising idea. We can try to start with small things like taking pride in a well-cooked meal or acknowledging a gesture of kindness. From there we might gird ourselves for big changes like a new career or divorcing a spouse or moving to a different location. Finding reliable sources of meaning and happiness in our own lives does seem to be an important factor in feeling good with someone else. The old Harry Nilsson song wails, “I can’t live, if living is without you.” Well, we probably love better when we know that we can live without the other person. When we know our life can go on positively even if our loved one leaves or is taken away.

But there’s a troubling element in the advice to buck up and take responsibility for our lives—a kind of “go eat your vegetables and live contentedly” message that may not jibe with our actual experience. We are told to connect with our neighbors (try doing that in a big city apartment block), learn a foreign language (who has that much leisure time?), enjoy the little things (not easy when you wake up sweating the bills), and above all, learn to like ourselves (famously easier said than done).

Here in the reality of the early 21st century, we not only have big demands on romantic love as a concept, but many of us have what feels like dwindling fields of human connection, joyful pursuits and purpose. The institutions and structures of our lives may not be exactly conducive to living joyfully, especially if we have a particularly strong attraction to adventure, novelty, devotion to causes, and other experiences that do not easily lend themselves to our station in the cubicle or behind the cash register. Or the unemployment line.

Just look at our typical family experience: It is only in the last several decades in the West that people were expected to live for 50 years together as a couple, fulfilling each other’s needs in the context of a nuclear family in a detached dwelling. One hundred years ago, people often died young, so if you lived to be 80, the chances were good that you’d had more than one long-term partner. You were also more likely to have large families and residences where various relatives and even workers came and went, as well as broader community groups, like churches.

What we have now is an experiment in human living that has left many bereft. Some trying to function in it end up secretly creating other connections, romantic and sexual, and living lives of deception and potentially explosive meltdowns.

Does sobriety and living a normal life mean that we have to conform to things that for many of us don’t lead to fulfillment? Seems like there are a lot of important questions here, and not yet enough solutions to this most profound of human equations.

By Lynn Stuart Parramore

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