Does your relationship feel like a roller-coaster of euphoria, pain, frustration, and bliss? Do you crave connection with your beloved, only to be disappointed, rejected or hurt over and over? If so, you may be addicted to a toxic relationship. I want you to know: You are not alone, and there is a path out. I share this story in hopes that you won’t wait as long as Tom did to find your way back to True Love.
Toxic Relationship Addiction: A Case Study
A year before he died, I sat with Tom in my therapy office as he continued to obsess over Sarah. He’d left his wife and children for her several years previously. Their affair had sparked a passion deep inside him, like nothing he’d ever known. They had fun together. They laughed. Their sexual connection was intense. As destructive and crushing as the relationship had been for him, he was still addicted to the way she made him feel.
Sarah was pretty, but mercurial. She would get upset and break up with him frequently, for reasons that mystified him. Even during the good times he disapproved of her manipulative parenting, and he hated her free-spending ways. His friends disliked her. His daughters hated her. But he stayed by her side even as she was convicted of shoplifting. At least, until another fight left him alone in a restaurant after she walked out on him again. Tom’s face got red as he talked about his frustrations, but his brown eyes welled up with tears at the thought of being without her.
During the break-ups he and I weathered together, he couldn’t bear to erase her number, delete her from Facebook, or block her email. The idea of being Capital-D Done and cutting the electronic cords filled him with fear. If he cut her off completely he wouldn’t get the inevitable “Thinking of You” text that would flood him with hope of being back in to her arms for another few months of bliss.
But the actual experience of being with Sarah was much more difficult than his idealized day-dreams of her. While Tom lived for their intoxicating “peak moments,” you can only spend so much time riding a motorcycle, cresting waves of sexual ecstasy, or dancing at a concert. Sooner or later someone has to pay the tab, take out the trash, and decide what to cook the kids for dinner.
And that’s when the inevitable friction would start. Harsh sparks of judgment from a clash of values would quickly flare into anger and incinerate the good feelings that were the basis of the relationship. When things got hard Sarah would again reject Tom and refuse his calls, leaving him slumped miserably on my couch, pining for her. During these times he couldn’t eat. He couldn’t sleep. He started smoking again.
We talked about the addictive nature of this relationship, and Tom could understand it intellectually when I said things like, “Doing cocaine is lots of fun too, but just because it feels good doesn’t mean it’s good for you.” He could see the parallels. But he was simply hooked. He felt euphoric when they were together. He felt a craving for her when they were apart. The fact that this relationship was the relational equivalent to eating ice-cream for breakfast, lunch and dinner didn’t matter. He just wanted to feel it again. And so it is with all addictions.
The Nature of Addiction
Here is the definition of an addiction:
1) [Insert name of vice here] changes your mood.
2) Engaging in __________ stimulates your reward system.
3) __________ causes negative consequences for your life.
4) Despite being aware of the negative consequences, you can’t stop.
The alcoholic drinks to change his mood: To celebrate, to console, to unwind, and to feel free and loose. The gambler pulls the handle to feel the surge of excitement, and the intermittent thrill of victory. The lover desires to be with their irreplaceable other for the joy of connection with their beloved.
All these pleasures powerfully stimulate a neurological reward center deep in your brain that floods you with feelings of euphoria. This part of your brain, evolutionarily speaking, precedes the development of parts responsible for executive functions, language and thought. It seems that we descended from animals who were built to crave pleasure.
This physiological engine of addiction drives our compulsions for “more.” It overrides pain, fear and values. It can motivate pigeons to peck for reward laden pellets until they drop from exhaustion, and shivering skeletal addicts to exchange the last remnant of their human dignity to experience it again.
Addicted to Love
In groundbreaking research, evolutionary anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher (www.helenfisher.com) identified subjects who reported being in love and collected MRI data of their brains. Sure enough, she found that when people were exposed to images of their beloved their reward centers lit up with pleasure. Her research suggests that romantic love stimulates the same addictive neurological pathway as opiates and amphetamines. We crave love.
When you consider that above all else (from an evolutionary perspective) the survival of our species has required us to pair-bond, reproduce and remain committed enough to successfully raise babies together, having physiological brain structures that support “addiction” to intense feelings of love make perfect sense. Taking pleasure in proximity, and having an irrational devotion to an irreplaceable other that overrides pain, fear, and logical thought is necessary if we view the power of love in the context of survival.
Think of an exhausted man carrying a limp deer home through thigh-high snow to feed the vulnerable woman and children waiting for him. Without the bonds that connect them to each other, what else would motivate him to keep going through so much danger and pain? Without the original craving for one specific person, people wouldn’t stick together long enough to form those attachments — the deeper bond that remains after romantic love fades.
One interesting theory is that this pair-bonding process was the original function of the brain’s reward system. More modern addictive substances and diversions may actually be hijacking the ancient highway of pleasure-craving that romantic love has ridden on since the beginning of time.
While our pleasure system can be recruited for the pursuit of dark obsessions, it’s true purpose may be to drive us towards the pleasure we experience when we’re with our irreplaceable other. It’s there to drive us towards the attachment that sustains marriages, families and enduring partnerships that create an ideal society. It’s there to push us towards True Love: The most powerful, most positive, and most noble of all human experiences.
Unless, of course, you fall in love with (“get addicted to”) the wrong person. Someone who rejects you, who is not compatible with you, or who’s personality / values / judgment you’d find off-putting were it not for the surge of endorphins you feel in their presence. Even if you know in your head that the relationship is wrong, when you’re separated from your beloved your reward center still craves closeness with them. When you’re cut off from your irreplaceable other, the obsessions start and the compulsion to connect with them can be overpowering.
Sadly, this is what happened to Tom. Of all the “love addicts” I’ve worked with, his preoccupation with Sarah was probably the most toxic. Certainly the most tragic. We circled the cycle together many times: Rejection, Obsession and Craving, Reunion, Honeymoon, Frustration, Rejection. And each time, through our work together, the threads binding him to her stretched thinner as his awareness of his unhealthy dependence grew.But for Tom, clarity about Sarah and freedom from his addiction came late.
He started loosing weight and complaining of odd pains in his stomach, and by the time he finally went to the doctor had late-stage pancreatic cancer, with a dismal chance of survival. Sarah accompanied him to one doctor’s appointment, and then bailed for good, saying that “she just couldn’t stand to see him like this.” Clearly, the thrill was gone. She abandoned him to face the procedures, the chemo, the surgery, and the recovery alone.
The Difference Between Toxic Love Addiction and True Love
Only then did Tom really understand the truth of his addiction for the hollow reality it was: The pursuit of fleeting feelings. He’d left his marriage to dance in a mirage of excitement that crumbled to dust in his hands when he reached out for real support. Like Coleridge waking from his fever-dream about a pleasure-dome, Tom finally came to his senses only to find that he was alone in a desert without the True Love of attachment and commitment — from Sarah, at least.
And so he went home.
Because thankfully for him, the True Love of his ex-wife and children had endured the years of his obsessive intoxication. Their True Love, the un-breakable bond of a merciful family, was the nourishing, stable connection of support that was there for Tom at the end of his life.
In his final days, Tom was finally healed of his addiction. He found forgiveness and redemption when he came to understand, and appreciate, what True Love really is: The quiet, unselfish service to the wellbeing of another that endures long after the sparkles of romantic love fade.
True Love is not always fun or exciting. It’s not terribly addictive. But it is there at 3am to mop up vomit, and to shelter you when you have nowhere else to go. It’s the kind of Love that has the courage to walk beside you into death, and maybe even meet you again on the other side.
True Love is never an addiction, because it’s not actually a feeling at all — but a choice.