What’s love got to do with it, sings Tina in her beautiful song. And indeed, this is almost everybody’s question. Statistics says that 10% of all people develop addiction at some point in their lives, and if you count also their family members, there’s a whole lot of people struggling with this disease and the consequences of it. If you are one of them, let me share with you my story, to help you find your way through the troubled waters.
I remember how I first stumbled upon that question. It happened 25 years ago, when I was a young doctor, married, with two daughters. One day, out of the blue, my husband came to me, saying he had something rather difficult to disclose. I felt that he was very serious. I feared that maybe he had fallen in love with somebody new, as I was aware that things were not O.K. between the two of us for quite some time. But I had done nothing to change that. Like many others in the similar situation, I thought I was supposed just to endure and try to be the perfect wife and mother, believing against all odds that one day maybe I would wake up and the problems would be gone. Well, that’s not what happened!
Instead, I was to learn that he had secretly begun gambling for money, and had been doing that for quite some time, getting as a result deeper and deeper in debts. The reason why he was telling me that now, was not that he would be sorry, or found it wrong to have spent our money without telling me, which in fact is a lot like betrayal, anyway. No, he was sure that he was actually doing us a favor, deluded that he was going to hit the jackpot and then – everything would be all right. It was impossible to talk him into any sense. Does that sound familiar?
I realized that he was addicted to gambling, a so-called pathological gambler, and the more I listened to his explanations, the more puzzled I was. The person who was revealed to me was somebody quite different from the one I knew and thought I had married. How and when did that change happen?
Why did I not see it coming? How can a person change so much within only a couple of months, so that you no longer recognize them?
That was the moment when I started to question everything I had believed before. I had always thought that there was love between us, and I knew he loved our children. But for me, the definition of romantic love was something like: “This is when somebody knows and appreciates you just the way you are, unconditionally!” Now, I was confronted with the fact, that the Gambler talking to me seemed a completely strange person, whose ideas and actions I did not know. And I certainly could not appreciate the difficult situation he had put us into. Did that mean that I did not love him? And, did his doing things that hurt our children mean that he no longer loved them? For me, this was a very central question, because I had believed that love can solve any relationship problem and that romantic love was the essence of any marriage I wanted to be a part of.
We entered a recovery program, and there I found the answers to most of the questions that had puzzled me. I learned that he was addicted to gambling, but I was addicted to “love”. But what I had thought was love, were actually my obsessive attempts to control, rescue, and fix my partner, expecting him to change and to make all my problems disappear. I did not know that people do not change on the pressure of others, but only if they want to and my expecting him to make my own problems disappear was delusional. I needed to own my part of the family disease of addiction. Unfortunately, my husband did not stop gambling, and so we had to divorce.
My recovery as a co-dependent or love addict took a couple of years, and it was anything but easy, but it was worth it. My life changed, become more peaceful and fulfilling. I learned the answers to many of my problems that I used to think had been caused by others, but when I changed, they melted away. I was so excited about the change I experienced, that I decided to devote my life to it. I learned to become a psychotherapist and started working with people in recovery from process addictions, as well as writing books about that process.
A love addict is not just someone who “loves too much”, just like alcoholism is not just about drinking too much, even though this is the behavior we see and attribute all the problems to. As I have explained in my former blog, there is a thin and invisible line that separates abuse from addiction, and it is characterized by the acquired inability to stop the harmful behavior, by obsession and by loss of control. As a result of repeating the behavior so many times, there is a change in the structure and the function of the addict’s brain; therefore, we have grounds to call it a disease.
A love addict is someone who is obsessively searching for romantic fulfillment, constantly preoccupied to the point of obsession with falling in love or being in love, and as unable to stop it as the junkies are unable to stop using.
She believes, that finding the one true love would forever solve all the problems she has. For her, the romantic relationship is the most important thing in life, and for the sake of finding and keeping it, she is prepared to do things that hurt herself and others. She would stick with partners who physically and verbally abuse her, exploit her or hurt her children, she would neglect or abandon her children, and she would be as unable to stop that behavior as like alcoholics, drugs addicts, pathological gamblers, sex addicts, and other addicts. She becomes unable to set healthy boundaries in relationships, as well as ignoring the boundaries of other people, making the mess out of close relationships. The consequences to such behavior are similar to all other addictions: depression, anxiety, lowered self-esteem, ruined relationships, trouble at work or in school, declining physical and/or emotional health, financial troubles, etc. You may think that this is typical female behavior in relationships, but men can be love addicts to.
So, one can be “addicted to love”, with the consequences similar to those of the other addictions. But, I think that it is worth making a distinction here. Love is unlike anything else in life; I believe that love is the true essence of all our relationships, romantic or not. But I have also learned that everybody has a different life story and has learned a different definition of what love is. We learn what love is from the very beginning of our lives; love is supposed to be what we feel from our parents. But not everybody is lucky enough to have grown up in a safe and stable environment. The basic definition of love as either safe and stable, or something you need to struggle for, or even something unattainable, stays the foundation of our thought systems throughout our lives. It does not change much as we grow up, because we never question it, unless we enter a psychotherapeutic or recovery program.
For some of those people who grew up in unfavorable circumstances, love has a lot to do with sacrifice, with being a Martyr, with putting everybody else first. Excessive caretaking, pleasing others and rescuing passes for love with those who were under-appreciated, neglected, inconsistently taken care of or even directly traumatized in their childhoods. As most children do, they had taken the mal-treatment of their caregivers for the proof that they were not worthy of true love, and they kept looking for those behaviors that they believed would make the others stay with them. They learned to call this love, and their definition of love is very different from the one of those who had grown up in loving families. Low self-esteem, the belief that you are less than, the constant struggle to get some praise, comfort or at least some attention, is the basis for “love” addiction, and – in my experience as an addictions therapist of 25 years – also a strong contributing factor for most other addictions.
So, I believe that one cannot be addicted to real love, but one can get addicted to all sorts of surrogates for love, and only those who believe that they do not deserve to be really loved, can be satisfied with surrogates. When they wish for a hug, they reach for chocolate or ice-cream, and the desserts never desert you, they can be depended upon to calm you down. When they feel alone, they may enter into the virtual relationships in a videogame or a chatroom, instead of taking the trouble to meet real people who always seem to let them down. Instead of searching for love, they may settle down for frequent shallow sexual encounters.
In our next blog, we will continue our discussion about love addiction and look inside the mind of a love addict.
Check out my video on this topic here:
Sanja Rozman is a medical doctor, psychotherapist and author of 8 books on behavioral addictions.
Read more in her book Serenity: How to Recognize, Understand, and Recover from Behavioral Addictions
that is about to be published by Brandylane Publishers Inc., Belle Isle Books.