Mrs. Love Avoidant
I never knew I was a love addict until I said the words “I do.”
I remember when I first heard about love addicts. I was working on a book I was helping to edit, and the author described the love addict as the “princess always waiting for Prince Charming to come save her.” I could relate to that. For years, I waited for Prince Charming. And waited and waited and waited.
And then he did show up. Although he wasn’t a prince. He was a man, who at times could act like a prince, and at others more like an ass. Because this is reality, and even princes have bad days. I also remember what the same author had said about another new term: “love avoidants.” Because Prince Charming is actually just that. He loves to come in and save the day but once the deed is done, he is looking for the next princess to save. He can show up with flowers and pretty words but the problem with Prince Charming is he can never stay.
For years, I dated this man. In various guises with different names, jobs, and personalities, he broke my heart over and over again. So imagine my surprise, when after taking the plunge and getting hitched, I realized I was just like him. It was the morning after my wedding when the uncontrollable, irresistible desire to run swept over me. I wasn’t sure if it was because my new husband’s tagline—“You can’t get away now”—was inducing an anxiety level I simply couldn’t live with or whether that urge had been there all along. Whether underneath the love addict always searching for Prince Charming had been that damn avoidant prince himself.
When a couple is not well-regulated, they set up a hyper and hypo arousal with each other—meaning one will get energetically big and the other will shut down and collapse.
According to Kent Fisher, a psychotherapist and the founder of Memphis’ Experiential Healing Center (EHC), I am not alone. He explains, “You end up being the opposite of what you think you are. For folks who are love addicts, they lead with what they think they are. The love addict will think they are the pursuer and controller but underneath that is their primary fear of engulfment. The love avoidants think their job is to compulsively avoid the pursuer. Often they are more addicted to the fantasy; it’s the reality that they are afraid to be with intimate.”
It didn’t take me long to realize that I had always fantasized about my wedding but not once during any of those fantasies did I embrace the reality of marriage. To me, marriage was centered on the idea of a white dress and pretty flowers but anything past that felt like a deep and dark void absent of meaning and filled with prospective pain. A week after our marriage, I Googled the word, “divorce” and I knew something wasn’t right. I knew I loved my husband. In fact, for the first time in my life, I was in a healthy, independent, and supportive relationship. My husband and I loved being with each other and yet we still had our own lives, interests, and dreams. We were and are best friends, and every time I saw his face, I felt at peace. So if it wasn’t him, I figured it had to be me.
When I explained the situation to Kent Fisher, he laughed. “There is probably a reason why you have put off marriage until now,” he said. “A subconscious reason certainly. Consciously, you have spent the last few years getting sober, dating men, seeing what you like. But unconsciously, there has lived the fear that if you actually found someone, he would suddenly be tied to your hip. For chemical addicts, they use drugs and alcohol as a way to avoid relationships—that way they don’t have to give a shit. But the truth is that if you sober them up and get them in a relationship, everything in them tells them to go.”
Fisher continues, explaining more about the nature of love addiction: “You see, it’s not just about your romantic relationships. You can be love addicted to your children, your boss, your mother. It’s about how we attach, or fail to attach, to the people around us—either coming from a place of enmeshment and emotional incest or neglect and abandonment or some combination of those two. And then you add in the cultural mythology of Disney and princesses and rescuing and enabling and you have a pretty good cocktail of love addiction as a primary attachment style.”
Well, that explains that. The truth is that my psychological makeup is based on enmeshment and abandonment: I was over-loved by some and neglected by others so it's no wonder that sometimes my husband says he feels like he’s married to two different people. I didn’t shy away from telling him that I was freaked out by what we had done and I don’t think hiding in bed for two days was any great evidence to the contrary. I was freaked out. I wanted to run, to annul the whole damn thing and get out before either of us got hurt any further.
Fisher describes this process as typical for love avoidants in commitment. He says, “You don’t realize how deeply buried that fear is until you’re in a committed relationship. I often tell people, ‘Be careful what you ask for’ because they think they want to get married but they don’t quite understand the paradigm they are about to enter. Because in relationships, everything in you that is unresolved about commitment and attachment will be called up. It’s that old idea that love will call up its opposite.”
He adds, “When a couple commits, they become energetically attached and connected. Two separate psyches becomes one and there is a coupling of the nervous systems as they start to mirror each other. And when a couple is not well-regulated, they set up a hyper and hypo arousal with each other—meaning one will get energetically big and the other will shut down and collapse.”
As I lay in bed during those days, my husband got up at 5 am. He was surfing, he was working, it seemed he couldn’t sit down. It took him a couple of days to see what was happening. To see that as energy seemed to surge through him, as he continued to taunt me with words like, “You can’t go anywhere now,” I seemed to shrivel up in our queen-size bed, incapable of partaking in the life we had now joined together.
Fisher has seen it many times before and suggested how I could change that dynamic. “Ideally you want both people entering into a healing process where they can become more regulated,” he said. “You want the person in collapse to get them some emotional energy. They need some safety and peace to begin rising out of that fear. And the other one needs to work on containment, on recognizing that they are responding to the stimulus of commitment in that hyper-aroused way.”
Finally, my husband broke the spell. He stopped moving and started listening to me. We began talking about our fears and about what we both expected from our relationship. I didn’t want to run away from my new husband, I was just terrified of the level of commitment I had just made. Lifelong, under oath, with contracts. But I wouldn’t have done it if it wasn’t worth it. And I knew that, too. I knew that despite both my tattered upbringing and my husband’s own fair share of baggage, we wanted to do this differently than our parents and our parents' parents. We wanted to greet the new frontier of marriage with our fears, fantasies, dreams, old ideas and new—and our willingness to confront it all.
Fisher says that after the couples’ weekends they offer at the Experiential Healing Center, he has each couple “thank each other for teaching one another things about themselves that no one else could or has been willing to do. And to thank each other for sticking it out this far. Couples come together to teach each other things that only that person can teach and to learn the lessons that they need to learn so that they don’t keep recreating that pattern.”
I know that I don’t want to repeat old patterns—either of my life or those who came before me. And I know that my husband feels the same way. Which is why we are together, which is why we got married, and which is why I have learned that sometimes love persuades us to stay, even when we most want to run.
Kristen McGuiness is a freelance writer and regular contributor to The Fix who has written about old timers in AA and sober travel, among many other topics. She is the author of 51/50: The Magical Adventures of a Single Life.