I call it relationship addiction. Hollywood and Bollywood call it love. Trillions are spent romanticising a compulsive fantasy that is nothing less than an unrecognised addiction.
“Your life is like an Asian art film” my friend declared. I was crying my eyes out for the umpteenth time. This was after he’d cheated on me, again; sworn at me, again and left me at a night club. “I love him!” I wailed.
Addiction conjures up images of a ‘bad’ junkie injecting drugs into her veins selling herself for a buck. Some addictions have a more obvious and faster path of destruction. It’s easy to over look all the bad stuff that happens in relationships. We don’t call it addiction.
What is addiction? What is relationship addiction?
According to sources such as Harvard Health and Alcoholics Anonymous addiction has two criteria’:
1) It is compulsive and
2) There is a negative consequence.
At two am, walking the streets of Yeoville, I had an epiphany. I was twenty-four. He’d not answered my seventeen phone calls I’d compulsively made in the space of two hours. (I wonder why). I had to see him, NOW. It occurred to me I was acting crazy. My behaviour was no different to that of a child molester, I thought.
Despite the fear I’d be attacked, I sought relief from my emotional pain. My craving was compulsive. Except that thankfully, my craving was a man and not a powerless child.
This epiphany didn’t stop my compulsion. I had no control. I experienced the most enormous compassion for anyone who has an addiction of any kind. Even those whose are sadistic in nature. It began my quest to heal.
The key, I discovered is the third criteria of addiction: Seeking RELIEF from pain.
Understanding addiction. More than just a disease.
I had to leave the city to let him go. I sank into a deep depression. I cried every day for a year. I wanted to die. I ate chocolate eclairs instead. I was in withdrawal.
Later, I participated in a stress management program run by psychiatrist Dr Moch at the Milpark Hospital, Johannesburg. I discovered there was a possible link between cravings and the role of cortisol in the body. Cortisol is the stress hormone. Trauma in childhood causes overproduction at first and later underproduction.
Dr Gabor Mate, author of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction suggests:
“Not all addictions are rooted in abuse or trauma, but I do believe they can all be traced to painful experiences. A hurt is at the centre of all addictive behaviours. It is present in the gambler, the internet addict, the compulsive shopper and the workaholic. The wound may not be as deep and the ache not as excruciating, and it may even be entirely hidden—but it’s there. As we’ll see, the effects of early stress or adverse experiences directly shape both the psychology and the neurobiology of addiction in the brain.”
Relationship addiction – attachment and stress.
Although I quit alcohol, cigarettes and I was no longer depressed, to this day I can not handle stress. When I met my husband all my past pain came to the fore. Dating was more stressful than fun. My own relationship addiction rose once again.
He introduced me to a book called Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff. A fascinating study of an indigenous community uninfluenced by the west. No symptoms of addiction or relationship abuse existed. Why?
From birth, a baby was held skin to skin by her mother. She was never apart from an adult until she indicated a desire to start exploring the world on her own. Breastfeeding only stopped when a baby chose to stop.
Babies are carried in the front, not as the centre of attention but facing outwards as a participant in the world. The movement a child experiences as a mother walks the hills, dances, fetches water and hoes the land; together with the connection to the caregiver, gives the child what he needs to gain a quiet confidence and a sense of safety in the world. Children growing up without the restlessness, anxiety, and addiction problems seen in the west.
When a baby can not feel the presence of his mother the pain is akin to terror. His very life is at stake. In the west, from the birth in hospitals to his first years in cots and prams, our systems sets up separation. Children also do not experience the much needed movement and participation in life’s activities when stuck in a box.
According to Dr Gabor, our children learn the world is not safe and this later turns into a compulsive craving. Any physical and sexual traumas growing up adds fuel to the fire. Imagine what apartheid has done.
In a relationship addiction pattern this can manifest as emotional or sexual neediness and control. People call me for couples coaching convinced that if their partner only did what they wanted they’d be relieved of their pain.
Founder of Imago therapy and author of ‘Keeping the Love You Find’, Dr Harville Hendrix, says that the stage a wound occurs in, influences the degree and type of acting out behaviours.
A separation at the attachment phase (0-18 months) becomes compulsive clinging if not stalking as an adult.
A wound during the exploratory phase (18 months – 3 years) becomes someone who pursuits their partner. Later wounds cause controlling and competitive behaviours.
A child grows to believe “I have no right to exist” and “I am not loved”
Healing relationship addiction, like any other lies in a a lifestyle change with love and compassion
For the adult caught in an addictive cycle, the answer lies in deep self acceptance, compassion and love. Dr Moch treated us holistically to lift our stress thresholds:
- A plant-based whole food diet,
- more water and sunlight,
- deep breathing,
- relaxation exercises
- and coaching techniques that changed the stories we had about our lives.
- But the most effective method was meditation.
For relationship addiction, as spiritual teacher and author, Deepak Chopra puts it, “Self-destructive behaviour is unrecognised spiritual craving.” Whatever we think someone or something can give us, it’s about learning to give it to ourselves from within.