Addicted to love?
Is it possible to love too much or to become addicted to love? We have all known people or observed ourselves getting into and staying in intimate relationships which are obviously unhealthy. These relationships give more pain than pleasure, lower our self-esteem and often make us feel insecure and depressed. Yet, we stay. Despite every warning signal that goes off in our minds, we stubbornly remain in denial thinking ‘It will get better. I just have to try harder to make it work. I just have to show my love for him/her more.’
Many of us might have trouble believing there is such a thing as love/relationship addiction because loving someone is not a bad thing. However, this form of addiction should not be confused with true intimacy or love. Instead, it is an addiction to a relationship which is obviously unhealthy to our physical, emotional and mental health but which we continue to stay in. It is like an obsession with a man or woman which we mistake to be ‘love’. We allow this obsession to control much of our lives, despite knowing its negative effects. It often seems like we cannot leave this relationship or our partner. We cannot imagine our lives without this relationship even though our life might not be all that pleasant now. Many of us might have some aspects of relationship addiction although to different degrees.
This article is mainly inspired by the book, ‘Women Who Love Too Much’ by author and counsellor Robin Norwood, who has worked with relationship addiction for many years. According to her, one of the main reasons why women develop addictive patterns in relationships is because of childhood trauma. Men with such childhood experiences might develop addictions which are more external like becoming addicted to work, sports or hobbies while, due to socio-cultural and biological factors, women are more likely to become obsessed with relationships. If women have grown up in dysfunctional families, where one or both parents were physically or emotionally abusive, unavailable, extremely overprotective or isolating or behaved inappropriately, chances are that we do not learn how to have truly intimate relationships. True intimacy is being your true self with another person, revealing your strengths and your faults to this person because you trust him/her. If we don’t know how to do this because of our childhood experiences, we tend to make the same mistakes in our adult relationships as well. Norwood says that children of alcoholics and other addicts have more of of a tendency to develop relationship addiction than others. They have often been deprived of love and attention as children and observe and learn inappropriate ways of relating to others.
It is frequently observed that in dysfunctional families, the real problem affecting the family is not acknowledged. For example, if the father’s addiction to gambling is tearing the family apart, the mother might refuse to accept it. Instead, both of them might choose to focus on their daughter and her ‘faults’, trying to fix her, as that is easier for them to deal with. The child’s instinctive perception about her father’s addiction as something bad is denied or ignored. Even her hurt about not getting enough attention from him or her mother might not be acknowledged. Due to many such experiences over time, she learns not to trust her own instincts and stops believing in herself. This extends to her relationships outside the home as well. As an adult, this woman might not be able to discern when someone or something is bad for her as she doesn’t trust her own judgment. She is often drawn to the one thing she knows well – the drama and chaos of unhealthy relationships. Therefore, she might enter into relationships with other men who are emotionally unavailable or treat her badly in some way. These relationships make her unhappy but she unconsciously seeks them out repeatedly and is comfortable with the pattern that these relationships follow. However, true intimacy is never achieved in these relationships.
What drives a woman to punish herself in this way? Norwood and other experts in this field say it is because such women don’t feel like they truly deserve love. Deep down, they believe that they have to work hard to convince people they are worthy of being loved. Relationship addicts fear being abandoned or unloved to such an extent that it drives most of their behavior in a relationship. Therefore, they attempt to do everything in their power to keep the relationship going. They mistake being needed with being loved. If something goes wrong, they blame themselves.
Anjana, an abused wife, might say ‘He only hit me because I annoyed him so much with my questions. I’m sure it will never happen again.’ In some ways it might be better for Anjana to blame herself because at least then she can change herself to make her husband happier and make him ‘love’ her. To admit that one’s partner is not good for one and will never change means that one will have to admit that this relationship will never work. This truth is too hard to face for most relationship addicts.
The distortion in the thinking process of a relationship addict is not as uncommon as we might think. If such thinking has caused you to repeatedly enter destructive relationships, with no end in sight, you might need to seek professional help from a counsellor.