BEFORE you say “I love you” on Valentine’s Day you may want to think twice.
I was recently at a dinner party and I heard a story that was all too familiar. The host was expressing concern that a friend was about to marry a man who was completely wrong for her.
“She’s always breaking up with him. He is an emotional train wreck. He’s been divorced three times, he isn’t there for his own kids. He can’t seem to earn money or keep it when he makes it. He can’t even talk to her or give her emotional support. She’s a brilliant, gorgeous woman with so many options. How could she turn around and get engaged to him?”
As a sex and relationships journalist for many years, I knew the answer. If the stories of his emotional distance and self-defeating behaviour were true (and there are always two sides to a story), then she is a love junkie, an intimacy addict, someone who will tolerate anything rather than be alone or give up on an objet d’amour. But possibly, she may well be provoking him into depriving behaviour too, by doing things under the surface, criticising, controlling, withholding sex.
According to the diagnostic view of love addiction, she would have come from a family where one or both of the primary caregivers was not emotionally available to her.
And it feels familiar for her to keep “trying” to win love. He, too, would be a player in the game, duplicating the pain and drama of his own childhood with his self-defeating behaviour, hooked on her anger then forgiveness — a classic attachment disorder.
There are many types of love addicts, male and female, according to psychologists at The Ranch, a detox and recovery clinic in Tennessee, US, which also deals with specialty addictions such as intimacy disorders, sex addiction and emotional co-dependency.
There are people who are hooked on love as a form of procrastination — avoiding reality by using high-drama as a distraction. There are people who buy the romantic myth that a partner gives meaning and is the only thing that makes life worthwhile. We are brainwashed by romantic songs, the co-dependent anthems we live by. Most notably for me was singer Harry Nilsson in the 70s, who warbled on in a desperate, high-pitched screech: “I can’t live, if living is without you, I can’t live, I can’t live any more …” Quick, someone call a therapist!
Once a woman rang my sex and relationships radio program on Triple M to tell me that she kept falling for men she’d just met, even though she was happily married. A doctor responded, explaining that 40-plus women often become love junkies.
“It’s not your fault,” he told her. “It’s nature’s last hurrah — using chemicals and hormones to trick the female to have sex and get pregnant with a fresh genes before menopause and the eggs run out. I see it a lot.”
Pathological love is like any addiction to drugs, alcohol, or gambling. It triggers the release of dopamine in the brain, the reward chemical. The rush is as potent as cocaine, the withdrawal as painful.
The Ranch psychologists say: “Love addiction is characterised by compulsive patterns in romance, sexuality and relationships that have harmful consequences for the addict and their partners. Although it may sound less damaging than other addictions, it shares many similarities.”
I’ve heard it described by a female love addict as such: “It’s like the sex act is the syringe, the soothing ‘Ahhhhh’ of the rush, followed the next day by the need to score from the dealer again. I ignore the humiliation I feel, the abuse my grovelling elicits in my partner, and beg him to supply me with my hit of love again.”
Behaviour takes many forms. Some love addicts fear getting too attached and sabotage good relationships so they can move on and get multiple partners to mimic the first hit of love. Others have abandonment issues and are in unhealthy relationships like the case study mentioned here, but can’t let go at any cost. Some may be desperate and needy, others controlling and manipulative.
Often love junkies who fear abandonment team up with love avoidant partners who fear being smothered. The partnership becomes a battleground. But oddly both can change roles and play the other’s part, as a strange push/pull feature of the chronic dysfunction and co-dependency.
The pleasure in these relationship is — or includes — the pain which forms the basis of the addiction. During my interviews for one of my books, I discovered many “emotional sadomasochists” who don’t do sexual S&M in bed or a dungeon; instead they torture themselves and each other in day-to-day domestic life. This can often be a turn on — as passionate break up/ make up sex is deemed a “love worth suffering for”.
Whatever form the addiction manifests in, the hit has its basis in physiology. Although the primary chemical of addiction is dopamine, there are even more potent drugs at work in the brain. There is oxytocin, which helps us bond with partners as well as offspring. Oxytocin fills us with wellbeing, calm and a sense of peace. It has a narcotic effect.
Called “the cuddle chemical”, oxytocin is released when women are breastfeeding, helping the baby and mother bond. It is responsible for contractions of the uterus after childbirth and is also involved in orgasms. The theory is that after six good orgasms, a woman will think she is in love with her partner because of oxytocin release. Men have a similar chemical called vasopressin.
Helen Fisher, a prominent biological anthropologist from Rutgers University in New Jersey, US, who wrote the book Anatomy of Love, says when love hits, there is a chemical release of the body’s amphetamines and then opiates. Poets have described falling in love as a sickness, with dizziness, madness, sleeplessness. Science backs that up.
She says chemicals at the start of an affair differ from those in long-term pair bonding. During the first flush of love, the body produces amphetamines which promote the excitory aspect of attraction like speed or cocaine. We literally “fall” in love. Chemicals include adrenalin, norepinephrine, PEA (which is a chemical in the brain involved in the euphoria) and increased testosterone.
Later, nature’s opiates and feel-good chemicals and hormones kick in to help us down the aisle, like soothing serotonin; and act like pain killers or rose-coloured glasses, to keep us together while kids grow up. But as with all drugs, the fixes don’t last. Dr Fisher argues in 62 cultures she studied, the average biological hit lasted long enough for pairs to rear a child through infancy before wearing off. Then they yearn for a new gene pool — an unconscious biological imperative for infidelity.
We’ve all been in love; all had the DTs during breakups, bad withdrawals, trembling, nausea and depression. The question is how fast do you recover? Do you go grovelling back?
Not to be a killjoy before Valentine’s Day, but take stock. If you are painfully attached, if your relationship is full of high drama, you may call it “passionately in love” but remember — where the heart is concerned, logic is on holidays.
Ten telltale signs you might be a love addict Ten telltale signs you might be a love addict
1. You escape bad feelings by seeking out romantic attachments 1. You escape bad feelings by seeking out romantic attachments
2. You feel pain but also emptiness when he or she is away 2. You feel pain but also emptiness when he or she is away
3. You feel unfulfilled when alone, but not happy in your relationship 3. You feel unfulfilled when alone, but not happy in your relationship
4. You repeatedly attract unavailable or intimacy avoidant partners 4. You repeatedly attract unavailable or intimacy avoidant partners
5. You will accept anything in order to get love and affection from a partner 5. You will accept anything in order to get love and affection from a partner
6. You are unable to set appropriate boundaries in relationships 6. You are unable to set appropriate boundaries in relationships
7. You fall in love far too easily 7. You fall in love far too easily
8. You have difficulty staying or committing after the first hit wears off 8. You have difficulty staying or committing after the first hit wears off
9. You keep searching for greener pastures 9. You keep searching for greener pastures
10. You withdraw from friends or interests when you find a beloved 10. You withdraw from friends or interests when you find a beloved