When I was in my mid-twenties, I sat myself in the consulting room of a steely therapist, who told me that I was doing everything wrong when it came to love. For me, she said, love was all about the intoxicating highs and the soul-destroying lows; a dysfunctional cycle of attraction and distancing.
I was left ashen-faced. Since when had my love life descended into a kind of school lesson, complete with a whiteboard and diagrams? But this wasn’t a conversation about giggly kinds of romantic infatuation. Rather, I was being told about my love addiction. I apparently couldn’t control it – romance controlled me. I didn’t know what to think. Me? A love addict? It sounded more like a fragrance. But could it have been true? Was love addiction the reason I felt perpetually trapped in my own Sex and the City storyline?
I had told her that whenever one of my relationships comes to an end, I find the emotional pain unbearable. I am crushed. Yet the craving and obsession for my ex-partner continues day in and day out. As the days turn to months, I’m plagued by regret, and memories of good times together. Will we get back together again? Can I make him jealous? If only I’d been more accepting of his reclusive nature. If only I’d loved Manchester United. Would we still be together if I got on better with his mother? Or not complained about his workaholism?
Love addiction has many variants, though they’re all linked by a terror of intimacy. There’s the obsessive love addict; the codependent love addict; the narcissistic love addict; the relationship addict; the avoidant love addict; and the romance love addict. As my therapist reeled off these terms, they began to sound like a particularly heavy Cosmo love quiz: “Which kind of addict are you?” I was also told that love addicts and love avoidants unintentionally attract one another. That they enter into a “co-addicted dance”, known in layman’s terms as a total nightmare once the initial hit of dopamine wears off.
Back then, I’d already lost count of how many times my relationships played out like episodes of Tom and Jerry – the ultimate game of cat and mouse. I could never succeed in eradicating the “push/pull” dynamic – however hard I tried. My boyfriends would always put up emotional walls to avoid intimacy. I’d spend the rest of relationship preoccupied with getting it back to how it was during the era of romantic bliss – craving love like a starving person. It drove me mad.
But I wasn’t exactly Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. It was nothing compared to other self-confessed “love addicts” whom I ended up meeting on my recovery journey. Lizzie*, a recovering love addict who I met in Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA), realised she’d reached her rock bottom when she found herself in full disguise, crouching behind a bin at her boyfriend’s office, desperate to catch a glimpse of him.
“At that moment it felt like my survival was based on seeing him,” she told me. “When I heard someone mutter ‘Look at that crazy woman’, the sense of overwhelming shame led to suicidal thoughts. I had tried to call and text over 40 times that day. The desperation was excruciating. I didn’t know who I was anymore. I had lost all of my sense of self. Luckily, I reached out for help.”
Unlike drug addiction, in which the consequences are very tangibly destructive … the consequences can often be invisible with love addiction
Clare Griffin, psychotherapist
According to US therapist and recovering sex and love addict Kerry Cohen, the author of Crazy for You: Breaking the Spell of Sex and Love Addiction, love addiction is an embarrassing diagnosis for most women. “It’s hard to reconcile being a feminist while spending all day worrying about how some dude feels about you,” she says. “Add to this that lots of love addict behaviour is the behaviour of a person who has no self-regard. We might need too much reassurance that a love interest wants or loves us. At its worst, love addiction can inspire abusive behaviour, such as stalking. Think the ‘psycho ex-girlfriend’ trope. Love addicts believe they aren’t lovable, and then they ‘make’ themselves unlovable through their behaviour. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
I always thought the breakdown of my relationship was my partner’s fault – there was a great deal of self-pity. I was nine months sober at the time, but suddenly suffering withdrawals from being madly in love. I had – according to my therapist – replaced one drug with another.
Cohen says that the dynamic between a love addict and a love avoidant typically follows a specific trajectory. “The love avoidant is skilled at seducing the love addict, the love addict moves in, the avoidant pulls away, the addict grows anxious enough that the avoidant fears abandonment and moves back in, and so on,” she says. “Because of the ‘go away, come closer’ cycle, the relationship feels super intense, always in states of breaking up and making up.” It’s not love, she adds, but “love theatre”. “They both get addictive hits from this kind of intensity,” she says.
Clare Griffin, a relational psychotherapist, and clinical director at west London’s Portobello Behavioural Health, isn’t keen on the term “love addiction”. She prefers to call it “relationship addiction”. She says: “For me, putting love with addiction doesn’t feel congruent. I think you can be in a really dysfunctional relationship but the feeling of love is genuine.” Griffin says people in withdrawal from a relationship do experience similar feelings to those withdrawing from drugs – but it’s less obvious.
“Unlike drug addiction, in which the consequences are very tangibly destructive … the consequences can often be invisible with love addiction,” she says. “[Despite] the feelings of withdrawal [sometimes] feeling the same. There is less tolerance by society when somebody is withdrawing from a person.”
Dr Scott Lyons, a holistic psychotherapist and the author of Addicted to Drama, says that when experts refer to the quality of love that’s present in love addiction, they are referring to “an over-romanticised, immature, and fantasised version of it”. “For people stuck in this pattern, there is rarely availability for true intimacy, and they are often attending more to the version of their partner they have created in their head than the partner they have [in reality]. For them, genuine love is coupled with a sense of anxiety and danger, and so they become preoccupied with a destructive, love-bombing approach that is more akin to codependency.”
Often “attachment disorders”, as they are known, are the result of past trauma, low self-worth, or childhood issues. For me, I had to learn to stop relying on external validation to show me that I was loveable – which I did through 12-step recovery.
Cohen, however, believes that love addiction treatment is “outdated”. She says that recovery requires “critical examination of our society’s approach to intimacy”, as well as “constant attention to how we’ve absorbed so many of these messages and inaccuracies” that feed into a love addict’s fantasy about love.
I might take a leaf out of her book and blame it all on all the movies. And I still believe that there’s a great love story out there for me. But it has to come from a healthy place within me first.