Love addiction - on a par with being hooked on drugs?
Most people have experienced infatuation and the heady buzz that follows, but when does the desire to be with that special person become an addiction – one that's on a par with being hooked on drugs?
Published 30/06/2013 | 05:00
Some believe that a life without the exquisite pain of love and heartbreak is merely a life half-lived. And in this day and age, the drama of romance and the heady thrill of passion have been amplified to the nth degree.
Yet while love addiction may have spawned a million catchy pop songs, beyond the glossy world of showbiz lies a more disturbing reality.
Earlier this month, it was reported that Barbadian popstar Rihanna took the latest step in her ongoing relationship with fellow musician Chris Brown – checking into rehab in a bid to get over her addiction to him. According to reports, Rihanna is planning to be treated at the Ranch clinic in Tennessee, which runs courses for people with relationship issues.
Some bystanders eye-rolled at the latest instalment of the saga; an on-off-on-again dramathon that has been marked by domestic abuse, a second girlfriend on Brown's part and a tit-for-tat war on Twitter. So far, so compelling.
But the idea that Rihanna is considering embarking on a 12-step programme – the preserve of drug and alcohol addicts – to get over Brown throws a harsh light on a relatively new addiction.
Sex therapist Teresa Bergin observes: "Often, that kind of love addiction is char-acterised by drama, extreme highs and lows of interconnection and passionate arguments.
"People mistake this for passion and a deep connection when, in fact, this type of relationship is characterised by very little intimacy. It centres around drama, and the couple in question find it hard to talk about real thoughts and feelings."
Science is playing catch-up, and now examining the theory that love – dysfunctional or otherwise – is more a result of biology than cultural conditioning.
The people in white coats are also beginning to view love addiction as a serious clinical entity.
When a group of scientists at Rutgers University, New Jersey, showed heartbroken men and women photographs of past romantic partners, activity increased in the same regions of the brain known to be associated with cocaine and cigarette addiction.
Helen E Fisher, biological anthropologist at the university and a frontrunner in the field of love addiction, told 'Psychology Today' magazine:
"When I first started looking at the properties of infatuation, they had some of the same elements of a cocaine high: sleeplessness, loss of a sense of time, absolute focus on love to the detriment of all around you.
"Infatuation can overtake the rational parts of your brain."
Elsewhere, researchers have likened a break-up to the mental anguish of cocaine withdrawal. Researchers at Stony Brook University in the US examined 15 heartbroken men to test their reactions to a simple maths problem. The tests showed that certain areas of the brain were more active after looking at photos of their exes – and the same areas are also abuzz in cocaine addicts experiencing withdrawals.
According to 'Psychology Today', "Levels of phenylethylamine (PEA) – a chemical in the brain involved in the euphoria that comes with falling in love – rise with feelings of infatuation, boosting euphoria and excitement. Love and sex addicts may simply be dependent upon (this) physical and psychological arousal triggered by PEA..."
Eoin Stephens, a therapist who runs the Centre for Sexual Addictions in Churchtown, Dublin, has been researching the science behind what we previously referred to as 'mere infatuation'.
Among his interests is pinpointing where mere infatuation ends and a proper addiction begins.
But here's the rub – romance and relationships are intoxicating by their very nature.
"It's natural in the very beginning of a relationship to be infatuated and to idealise our partner," says Teresa Bergin.
"Everything is going well and we want to spend a lot of time with them. Yet after the first few months of that sexual chemistry and attraction, if that craving continues or increases, that makes things problematic. No clear boundaries becomes unhealthy."
Explains Stephens: "Anything that is intensely mood-altering and hooks into the reward centres in our brain is potentially addictive. We are beginning to understand more about the effects of [brain chemicals] dopamine and oxytocin.
"That's not to say that everyone whose mood is altered is addicted. Paradoxically, an addict becomes increasingly attached but the relationship itself is decreasingly rewarding."
According to addiction counsellor/ psychotherapist Declan Tarpey, the difference between addiction and mere habit is if a habit is malignant or causing harm to someone's life or well-being; if it's harmful, it could very well be an addiction.
"Some addictions are so subtle they are hard to detect," says Tarpey.
"Very simply, addiction is about avoidance. Someone once described addiction as living a short distance away from yourself and not really being present. If you have ants in your pants, and you're not taking enough quiet time for yourself, you may be prone to addiction."
In her book 'Addicted To Love', British writer Clare Catford described how her love addiction was as ruinous as being on hard drugs.
"Some of the relationships had lasted barely a few dates, but I'd find myself unable to work or sleep," she said in 2009.
"I'd obsess over the finer details in my head and would end up entertaining suicidal thoughts. I wouldn't be able to function. I was like a naive teenager in a woman's body, obsessing about men and my own desire to be the perfect girlfriend, believing that this would make men love me.
"I was addicted to the initial high you get in those first few weeks and months of a relationship. That was my drug, my euphoria. My mood was wholly dictated by whether I got attention from men.
"Rather like the days when I had my eating disorder and I'd get weighed and find I'd lost a pound, I'd be pathetically grateful on a daily basis for the slightest bit of attention from a man."
Eventually, Catford sought help at a €250-a-day clinic in London, where experts diagnosed her as a love and sex addict.
"Withdrawal from love and sex was like withdrawing from a drug, and suffering all the symptoms that go with that," she said. "For me, that meant terrible panic attacks, insomnia and uncontrollable shakiness.
"I still go to monthly addiction meetings to help me control my feelings, and I feel a certain shame and sadness that I haven't got a husband and 2.4 children. Yet part of me is thankful that I didn't bring any kids into the maelstrom that was my life for so long."
And so the question looms large: do people become addicted to everyone they form a relationship with, or is it the chemistry with one certain individual that engenders the toxicity and dependency?
"The first theory was that both partners had to be dysfunctional, but we don't necessarily think that now," says Stephens.
"The people I work with fall into a sort of pattern, and if you go back into their family history, you'll find similar stuff going on in parents' relationships. They just develop a dynamic where they are stuck in something they can't let go of, and often they burn through many relationships."
There is no such thing as a certain personality type or gender being predisposed to love addiction, although the same can't be said for those who seek help.
The number of people contacting Stephens for help is certainly on the rise, owing in part to a growing awareness of love addiction, the ease of sexual availability and the fact that relationships can develop more easily through social media.
"There are slight patterns of those with this addiction," notes Stephens.
"Low self-esteem doesn't help, but that's not to say that everyone with low self-esteem will experience this. Poor relationship models in early life also don't help.
"The gender factor is interesting because we talk more about love addiction to women than men. Sex addiction is discussed more by men. In practice, a client addicted to porn is more likely to be male, while women tend to be open about addiction to relationships."
So why is there such difficulty in letting someone go?
Often, there's a need for control or predictability, a fear of the unknown, a tendency to base one's self-esteem on how others view them and mistaking drama for closeness.
"If you can't do your job or mind your kids, it's a symptom of any addiction," says Stephens.
"It's also worth looking at the damage that people are prepared to put up with. A love addict will take risks and put up with negative consequences."
That said, treatment can be relatively straightforward. While exploring the relationship in question is certainly part of the plan, delving into deeper, underlying issues is a must if one is to fully move forward.
Often, addicts are taught about negative thought patterns, how they can modify their behaviour and how to practise good self-care.
"People wouldn't come into therapy saying, 'I have a love addiction', but they would come into therapy feeling distressed about a relationship," notes Teresa Bergin.
"In talking about their patterns of relationships, we explore what might be a healthier way of establishing boundaries."
The rewards are plentiful in the long term, she adds: "People recovering from addiction come out wiser because they've had to learn this stuff. The brain has been wired in a certain way, and has come to expect certain rewards, and this needs to be rewired."
Elsewhere, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (slaaireland.org) hold regular meetings in Dublin, Belfast and Galway.
It may seem indulgent or extreme to seek help from a third party over something that looks like time-honoured, post-break-up behaviour, but if you are having trouble moving on, asking for a helping hand can only ever be a good thing.