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Five Crucial Truths About Love Addiction. Seriously.

Love addiction sounds like the quieter, less raunchy cousin of sex addiction. For many of us it is emotionally and psychologically damaging beyond measure.

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By Laura Barcella

05/12/14

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Virginia Stirling Chapel was at work, crying on the boardroom floor in the dark, when she first realized she had serious trouble when it came to love and relationships. “I suddenly said to myself, “Maybe this is not just luck. Maybe I have a problem,” she recalls. At the time, Stirling Chapel was dating a man her friend had dubbed “the hamster man” - a guy she “didn’t even like” and “wasn’t attracted to,” yet she still felt completely devastated that he was flirting with other women. 

“Lenny” (name changed), a 31-year-old sober woman in San Francisco, remembers the roots of her problem being planted further back, as a child. Early on, she explains, “the devastation I felt in and after a relationship was out of proportion to the circumstances. After a ‘break-up’ in second grade, my best friend had no idea why I was upset. I remember friends pointing out to me in 8th grade that I was choosing boys over friendships, and that I was obsessed.”

Both Lenny and Stirling Chapel (author of Stalking Sly Stallone and Other Unfortunate Choices: a Memoir by a Love and Sex Addict) identify as love addicts, a term made popular in recovery circles at least partially by Pia Mellody, whose book Facing Love Addiction has been used as a sort of mini-Bible in addressing the issue for more than 20 years. Mellody didn’t coin the term or create the concept - the term “love addiction” was reportedly first used by Otto Fenichel in his 1945 book The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis, expanded on in the ‘70s by Stanton Peele in Love and Addiction, and further popularized in 1976 after Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA) was founded, in Boston, by a member of AA.

Since then, love addiction has generally been lumped in with sex addiction as its quieter, less raunchy cousin - sides of a similar coin that can be tackled via the 12-step SLAA route. But both love addiction and sex addiction are controversial “diagnoses,” and  psych experts have wildly contrasting opinions about their legitimacy. There has yet to be a mention of love addiction in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), and it’s often not considered a “real” addiction with real consequences, like drug addiction or alcoholism. 

Here are five essential realities of love addiction:

1. Love addiction is a “process addiction,” or an addiction to mood-altering activities and behaviors, according to Sherry Gaba, LCSW and author of The Law of Sobriety: Attracting Positive Energy for a Powerful Recovery. But not taking it seriously is a mistake: “It is confirmed scientifically that process addictions such as love addiction affect the same brain reward system as chemical addictions, and in fact can be equally debilitating as drug or alcohol addictions.”

2. While other addicts may obsess over their next fix of whiskey or cocaine, love addicts obsess, in a near-constant state of preoccupation, about a person, romance, intrigue or fantasy. “Love addiction is an illusion where the love addict makes up who they want their partner to be rather than who their partner really is,” Gaba says. It’s a chronic craving for romantic love, which the addict pursues via “maladaptive, compulsive, and self defeating behaviors” that result in the addict’s diminished capacity for healthy or loving relationships - with other people as well as herself. “During the infatuation phase you believe you have security, only to be disappointed and empty again once the intensity fades,” Gaba describes. 

3. The roots and “causes” of love addiction are murky and variable depending on the person, but it can often be traced back to childhood experiences of rejection, abandonment, or physical/sexual abuse. A result of these tenuous childhood attachments is that adult love addicts might feel insecure in their relationships, their identities and their sense of self. The idea of fulfilling some grand, dramatic quest for a perfect love can help the addict escape their uncomfortable everyday reality by slipping into a safer fantasy world.

4. It’s unclear how many love addicts are out there. It’s obviously not as measurable or easily defined a condition as alcoholism or drug addiction, and many people don’t even realize they ARE addicted, or that such a condition exists. But one thing many love addicts share, as Pia Mellody outlines in Facing Love Addiction, is finding themselves inexplicably drawn into toxic cyclical relationships with “love avoidants.” Mellody dubs this the “addiction/avoidance relationship cycle,” and it’s marked by an addict pursuing - and then getting rejected by - a distant, closed-off love object over and over. 

It’s a painful cycle that can be fraught with jealousy, manipulation, fighting, and always the old addictive stalwart: obsession. Love addict “Lenny” remembers, “My crazy destructive jealousy made [my addiction] real apparent.” She had been sober in AA for a while before realizing, at age 23, that she might need a different sort of help, from SLAA (Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous). “After I stopped drinking, I realized I really couldn't stop calling to check up on my boyfriend or [driving] 80 miles to see where he was, and I couldn't blame it on being drunk anymore,” she recalls.

5. As Lenny illustrates, being in a different 12-step program is a common way for recovering love and sex addicts to stumble into SLAA, which has a similar format and abstinence-based approach, but its own literature. Stirling Chapel was in her late thirties when she first learned about SLAA’s existence. She remembers, “A woman said to me on the way into a Long’s Drug store after an Al-Anon meeting, ‘Have you ever considered Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous?’ I’d never heard of it and I’ve never seen her again. She saved my life.”

Stirling Chapel then dove headfirst into SLAA, where she attended four or five meetings per week as well as four Al-Anon meetings. This combination worked for her eventually - but it took lots of time and lots of work, including assistance from an outside professional. “The 12-step model works, sponsorship works, and I didn’t make full use of that; if I had, I would have recovered more quickly,” she says. 

There are other modes of treatment beyond the 12-step route, of course - just like with other addictions, love addicts can also try residential, intensive outpatient, or psychological counseling/therapy. Just don’t expect to see a ton of men there - though men are as likely to suffer from love addiction as women are, they’re less likely to reach out for help, instead choosing to stuff their feelings and “not express their emotions as openly and honestly when answering research questions, out of fear they will appear weak or unmanly,” Gaba explains.

So, what does “recovery” from love addiction look like? Gaba’s professional verdict: “more awareness, more boundaries, less manipulation, and less attacking” in relationships. Recovery allows for “realistic expectations in what one expects in a partner,” she says. 

Stirling Chapel agrees. For her, recovery has meant “learning to live alone, to be happy alone, to have bottom lines and to stick with them.” She eventually married a man she met in recovery; though they’ve been married for 13 years, she’s quick to mention that it hasn’t been easy. The couple have long attended Recovering Couples Anonymous meetings together, which helped them grow by leaps and bounds.

For Lenny, overcoming love addiction has meant “not using love and relationships as a replacement for dealing with my issues.” How she’s tackled that? By consciously working on “building a life that is rich and fulfilling outside of a relationship, as well as working on building self-esteem.” Not the “self-esteem” that comes from external sources (looks, car, money, etc.), but “really feeling good about who I am as a person on this planet.”

Laura Barcella has been a regular contributor to The Fix since 2011. She has recently written about the rise of court mandates to AA and secret "sober" pot smokers.

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