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Is Human Connection the Antidote for Addiction?

Exploring the lethal mix of love deprivation and addiction.

stefano caccia/
Source: stefano caccia/

I can’t do without youCaribou, “I Can’t Do Without You

What is compulsive caretaking? Is it an addiction? Codependency? Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder? Maybe all (or none) of the above? One thing we do know, though, is that it’s a hamster-wheel of pain: give until it hurts—and then keep giving. But don’t expect anything back, or it isn’t really altruism, is it?

But we do and should expect something back because mature, integrated human relationships are based on reciprocity. While our relationships shouldn’t be mere cold-blooded transactions, at the end of the day, all of us approach our connections with others with “you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours” expectations. Otherwise, we couldn’t realistically expect to survive and thrive as a community.

But compulsive caregiving, addiction, obsessive-compulsiveness, even codependency only tells one side of the story. These clinical perspectives tend to overlook the shared quality these types of relating may have, disguising them as only one individual’s issue and overlooking what may really be going on between two (or more) people. Identifying the inverted equation, "you-scratch-your-back-and-I’ll-scratch-mine” in persons affected by irrelationship, we have developed a concept called “Self-Other Help” as its antidote.


Comparisons can be made between irrelationship and contemporary theories of addiction. This is particularly so of theories which take social bonding into consideration, rather than seeing addiction as a relationship between a person and his chemical of choice to the increasing exclusion of other people and considerations. Some research suggests that the idea of "drug-induced addiction" may have been overemphasized, to bring it in line with the"disease model" of addiction (Alexander, 2010; Hari, 2015a,b). Rather than seeing it as a “socially-transmitted disease” with multiple factors, addiction is viewed solely as a brain disease that includes brain activity that causes the addictive process.

This issue is addressed in Johann Hari’s (2015b) article, “The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think.” The following excerpts are pertinent to the crossover between addiction and irrelationship:

One of the ways this theory was first established is through rat experiments—ones that were injected into the American psyche in the 1980s, in a famous advert by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. You may remember it. The experiment is simple. Put a rat in a cage, alone, with two water bottles. One is just water. The other is water laced with heroin or cocaine (experiment #1). Almost every time you run this experiment, the rat will become obsessed with the drugged water, and keep coming back for more and more, until it kills itself.

The advert explains: "Only one drug is so addictive, nine out of ten laboratory rats will use it. And use it. And use it. Until dead. It's called cocaine. And it can do the same thing to you."

But in the 1970s, a professor of Psychology in Vancouver called Bruce Alexander noticed something odd about this experiment. The rat is put in the cage all alone. Maybe being isolated confounded the experiment. After all, when you design an experiment, you have to make sure you are really measuring what you want to, and avoid measuring unplanned for influences you notice later on - if at all.

What would happen, he wondered, if we tried this differently? So Professor Alexander built Rat Park. It is a lush cage where the rats would have colored balls and the best rat-food and tunnels to scamper down and plenty of friends: everything a rat about town could want (experiment #2).

What, Alexander wanted to know, will happen then?

In Rat Park, all the rats obviously tried both water bottles, because they didn't know what was in them. But what happened next was startling.

The rats with good lives didn't like the drugged water. They mostly shunned it, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats used. None of them died. While all the rats that were alone and unhappy became heavy users, none of the rats that had a happy environment did. (We added the terms “experiments 1 & 2”.)

Rat-In-A-Maze Type Thing

The data supports the hypothesis that deprivation (or, in relational term, isolation) leads to apparently self-destructive obsessive and compulsive behaviors. The isolated rat is easy prey to cocaine addiction, even to the point of self-neglect as he consumes increasing quantities that lead ultimately to his death, very much like hundreds of thousands of human beings do every year.

Because it’s jointly constructed by two or more people, irrelationship can be seen as rats-in-a-maze. Addiction is sometimes described as a “family disease.” While this is informative about what goes on in irrelationship, the irrelationship labyrinth is more accurately described as a maze of relational dynamics which produces a false sense of safety by maintaining distance between people — especially by protecting them from the emotional risks inherent in empathy, vulnerability and intimacy. This sense of safety is a delusion permitted by dissociation from our true feelings. We mistakenly believe that out of sight is out of mind. However, our feelings are not easily railroaded, at least, not indefinitely. Eventually, they will reveal themselves, with or without our consent.

Meanwhile, in the rat maze of the irrelationship labyrinth, nothing is going on—by design. Irrelationship is addiction to pretending that emptiness is not empty. Unlike a conventional addiction, however, the induced state of numbness and relief is shared and perpetuated, draining us of our humanity until something happens to stir up desire for profound change.

The solitary rat in experiment #1 was given a drug that made him indifferent to the lack of stimulation. Can compulsive caretaking routines be compared to compulsive cocaine use? Is this kind of misguided caregiving, a lived fantasy of love, a stand-in for intimacy which protects us from awareness of terrifying isolation? Such fantasies are even harder to identify since they’re usually acted out with someone in whom we’re genuinely interested.

The rat park in experiment #2 was the opposite of that in experiment #1 in terms of the social aspect, showing us a missing component we have to take into account to understand addiction. Instead of deprivation, rats are placed in the rat park with other rats in an environment designed to promote a sense of well-being—what in humans would be called "humanizing". We assert that an environment lacking empathy, intimacy and emotional risk is a set-up for an addictive cycle called “irrelationship.” Jointly created dissociative defenses comparable to the experience of deprivation of the rats in experiment #1 leave us craving human contact, disappointed, vaguely resentful and unable to see how we got there.

Even If You Win, You're Still A Rat

Our dissociated state prevents feeling acute pain, but also leaves us clueless about how to build intimate, sharing relationships. Irrelationship provides instead a recipe, i.e., a song-and-dance routine, that, in some ways, looks like real relationship, but doesn’t deliver the closeness our humanity craves.

Johann Hari’s (2015b) article concludes:

Professor Peter Cohen (Director of the Centre for Drug Research in Amsterdam) argues that human beings have a deep need to bond and form connections. It's how we get our satisfaction. If we can't connect with each other, we will connect with anything we can find — the whirr of a roulette wheel or the prick of a syringe. He says we should stop talking about 'addiction' altogether, and instead call it 'bonding.' A heroin addict has bonded with heroin because she couldn't bond as fully with anything else.

The same is true for irrelationship: its opposite is human connection. Irrelationship is experiment #1: We may have all the good things—wife, husband, partner, kids, career, education, job, friends, money—but our ingrained defenses have us so protected from our own feelings that we can’t enjoy the good things that we value and work for. It is love deprivation.

How do we enrich our relational environment? That’s what we will continue to explore in future blog posts. We invite you to read, reflect, and respond to us as you join us along the way.


Alexander, B. (2010). The globalization of addiction: A study in poverty of the spirit. London: Oxford University Press.

Hari, J. (2015a). Chasing the scream: The first and last days of the war on drugs. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Hari, J. (2015b) The likely cause of addiction has been discovered, and it is not what you think. Huffington Post (2/20/2015).

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Source: The Irrelationship Group, LLC