From Addicted, To Loving

Being addicted to a person is unhealthy "love". Perhaps it can be made healthy.

Posted Aug 10, 2014

My last two posts dealt with sex addiction and love addiction, respectively. Though I touched on codependence in the latter, this post will further delve into a “romantic” addiction to an individual, often called codependence, and will answer the question, “if you determine you are addicted to a person, can you make the relationship a healthy one?” It is the third and final post in this trilogy of what might be called intimacy addiction.

“She’s the worst thing I’ve been addicted to” is part of a chorus from the Black Keys song, “Run Right Back”. I am certain this isn’t the only song that glorifies an addiction to an individual. If you agree with my last post, you’d likely posit nearly all songs about love are really about addiction to an individual. Psychology Today’s Stanton Peele, who wrote, “Love as an Addiction”, has a post called, “The Greatest Love Addiction Songs of All Time”. It seems evident many agree that people can be addicted to another person.

Many prefer addiction to a healthy love. Being addicted to someone is intense. How else would so many songs about it become so popular? Some believe addiction is what “true love” is. For them, a relationship without the intensity is like loving without being, “in love”. The love then becomes more like siblings.

It is sometimes difficult to differentiate between love addiction and being addicted to an individual. Whether one is codependent (which in this post is used to refer to an addiction to an individual) or addicted to love depends on the circumstances. Is there a string of short-term intense relations? That would be love addiction. When the feeling loses its intensity, does the person leave the relationship? Again, this is love addiction. In codependency, a person is the object of addiction, rather than the feelings. Often with the codependent, the intensity remains a part of the relationship, or the codependent perpetuates the intensity through drama, as a result of his or her addiction to the individual.

In fact, codependency and love addiction are likely two sides of the same coin. Most addictions are the same enemy with a different face. Insecurity abounds in addiction. No matter what someone is addicted to, they fear its loss. The heroin addict can’t imagine life without a substance to either numb or uplift his spirits. The alcoholic, gambler, or sex addict is the same; giving up the addiction seems unfathomable. Life without an object one “depends” on (be it a substance, a behavior, or in the case of this post a person) is threatening. Whatever someone is addicted to, the individual counts on it, excessively and to the point of dysfunction, to cope with life.

Often the object of addiction provides a framework for one’s life as well. An addiction often defines an individual. Gamblers identify with the role of gambler. Substance addicts identify with their involvement in counter-culture, a rebellion against society. An exercise addict allows his or her physique to dominate their identity. Although this is not the case with every addict, many identify with the manifested role of their addiction.

This is even truer with a romantic partner. Many people feel they couldn’t go on without their partner. To them, this is the very essence of love. This may lead to the addiction having a stronger hold. Pair that with the idea that being addicted to a person may be the most normalized, even glorified, addiction of all, and it just may be the most difficult to change. Imagine a person married to the individual he is addicted to; how easy would it be to rectify that addiction? Most other addictions you can leave, and, in time, vastly improve your life. This isn’t always the case with codependency.

So this begs the question, can an addicted relationship become a healthy one? Before delving into whether that can happen, I’d like to provide an example of typical addiction recovery. It is often easier to leave a substance or behavior alone, rather than try to control it. For example, think of something you find delicious. Would you rather have one bite, then struggle knowing more is within reach, or do without it? For many, doing without is the logical choice. This is relative to a relationship failure as well. Many prefer to cut-off contact with an ex, especially in the middle stages of grieving (in the early stage there is a great deal of self-deception and hope), than to see them regularly or maintain contact. It is simply less torturous. Addiction recovery recommendations are the same; stay away from the substance (alcohol, heroin, etc.) or behavior (gambling) and things associated with it. This makes the early stages of recovery easier.

Sometimes this is also the recommendation for the codependent. If the relationship is abusive or toxic, keeping distance is best. But many times, this solution isn’t the best. In some cases of codependency, perhaps another approach is best.

With any change there are ups and downs, victories and setbacks. Change starts with being aware of the change one wishes to make. Awareness is key, especially awareness of one’s thoughts. The next step is questioning thinking. The recovering individual must take a rational approach and challenge thoughts that lead to acting out on addiction. This is often difficult. Emotions are difficult to manage, and certainly influence thinking. Many base decisions on emotions, rather than rational thought. For the recovering person, these thoughts must be challenged and changed. Often support is beneficial. Supportive people can be used to talk about the feelings, while the support reinforces the importance of the rational decision.

A newly recovering person must also find new meaning, a new way of defining himself. In the case of codependency, this is especially important early in recovery. A hallmark of codependency is defining oneself through the relationship. New ways of self-definition, including hobbies, interests, and a focus on personal growth, can work to fill the void that is left without (or created within) the relationship.

For example, if one is staying with a partner she has been codependent on, she will need other ways to define herself, rather than focusing on her role in the relationship as who she is. Often a codependent, in their own mind and in conversation, will focus much of her energy on the relationship and the object of her affection. This needs to change to make the relationship healthy. The codependent will need other activities which help define her.

A technique I suggest is focusing on who one wants to be, and then acting accordingly. One can take pride in exercising self-control. For many, therapy or any type of self-help assists in self-mastery. When one is able to enact self-mastery, the individual is best served recognizing it, and feeling positive about the behavioral change. This is momentary, of course, but change is nothing more than practicing behaving differently from moment to moment.

When a codependent decides to stay in a relationship, she must initially be hyper aware of interactions with the beloved. This is true of all relationship changes, and feels difficult and forced in the beginning. Recently a husband in couple’s counseling said he’d be happier in the relationship when the interactions came naturally. Unfortunately, for a codependent (or, for that matter anyone in couple’s counseling) what is comfortable is often dysfunctional. Nevertheless, with practice, the “forced” or controlled behavior becomes natural. It will take substantial time, however. 

As with all of my writing, I laud the effectiveness of mindfulness. This is no less the case here. A mindful awareness of how one wants to be in the relationship, a focus on the here and now unfettered by the past or fears of the future, will undoubtedly assist in making and being more comfortable with, the changes that need to occur. Quite frequently an aspect of codependency is a fear of abandonment forged in memory from early in childhood. Mindfulness techniques can be of great assistance in overcoming this. In “Buddha’s Brain”, Rick Hanson has several suggestions to overcome the power of these memories. Two I have found especially helpful are recognizing one’s fearful response is part of evolution, and has become outdated and counter-productive. The fear response is to an unreal danger; the loss of a beloved does not result in death, and no amount of sympathetic nervous system response (fight or flight) is going to help this predicament. In fact, that type of response likely negatively impacts the relationship. Second, he suggests when recalling negative memories (one can look at where this fear is coming from, and likely tie it to a personal memory from the past that is negative) imagine reaching down and pulling it out by the root. This can be fostered by also recalling positive memories with the negative, to break the memory strands in the brain. The negative memories will grow less powerful using these techniques over time. 

To change an unhealthy codependency into a loving relationship, one must focus on love. Love isn’t about ego security. Love is an action. We all know when someone is acting lovingly; love is giving. Love isn’t based on fear; in fact it needs to be its opposite. Healthy love gives, out of a desire for the beloved to be happy. Codependent love gives due to building a case not to be deserted. Love doesn’t possess, it allows growth. Desiring growth in the beloved is a hallmark of love. To focus on love in this way will help challenge codependency.

Any addiction is hard to overcome. An addiction to a romantic partner may be even more so. But as with any addiction, it can be arrested. An unhealthy “love” can be made healthy, although awareness of this goal may need to be forever kept in mind. With this a more loving relationship can develop, and health out of dysfunction.

Copyright William Berry, 2014 

References:

Hanson, Rick; 2009; Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom

Peele, Stanton; 2012; The Greatest Love Addiction Songs of All Time; in the Psychology Today blog, Addiction in Society; Retrieved from: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/addiction-in-society/201202/the-grea...

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