By Deborah Schiller, LPC, CSAT-S, CMAT
Addicted to love
I have always loved Valentine’s Day — every ritual that accompanies the day delights me. When I was young, my mother would place a nickel under each of the kids’ breakfast plates, one for each year of our ages. She would serve a hearty breakfast because she knew we would be eating sweets the rest of the day at school. I loved those family traditions. I loved making and exchanging Valentine’s cards. I loved reading them again and again throughout the day.
Valentine’s Day is still my favorite holiday. It is a beautiful celebration of love. I work at the Gratitude program at Pine Grove helping sex and love addicts. Even though I have seen some of the devastating outcomes from compulsive relationships gone bad, I still honor and cherish love.
Working with individuals who “love too much” might sound like an unnecessary profession; how can there be such a thing — love is good, isn’t it? How could anyone become addicted to it? The truth is, “love addiction” might be a misleading term. I wish there was a better way to describe the powerlessness love addicts have over their emotions and the ceaseless longing for connection that produces troublesome behaviors.
Being in love is a wonderful thing. We feel stronger, happier and more energetic. Our feet barely touch the ground when we experience romantic love! Love inspires poetry, music and romantic letters. Our hearts are full when we are in love, and life is great. It becomes natural to see things in an optimistic light. Researchers have discovered there are strong chemicals flooding our brains during the early stages of being in love, causing this brain state.
Oxytocin, a hormone once thought to be only present in the brains of mothers during childbirth and when nursing, is now known to be a powerful influence in the brains of people in love. This chemical is known to engender feelings of connection and belonging. It is a chemical associated with empathy.
Dopamine is another chemical present when we are high on love, so to speak. This neurotransmitter gives us a sense of wellbeing and enables us to feel pleasure. It has been shown that even hearing your cell phone chime can result in additional dopamine flooding into your brain, especially if it might be a call from that special person. That is, it’s the reward chemical in your brain that signals to us, “This is a good thing!”
Does knowing that something as magical as romantic love can be broken down into its chemical components take away its magic? The answer is no, not if you are the one in love. Unfortunately, for some, the compulsion toward romantic and/or erotic love completely overpowers their lives. The inability to think of anything else — not being able to eat or sleep — never ends. The fear of losing the object of affection is so great that the person will go to any length not to experience (what feels like) abandonment.
A person addicted to romantic or erotic love will tolerate extreme levels of abuse rather than be alone. Often this person will have one or more extra relationships waiting in the wings, just in case something happens to the primary relationship. Sadly, this infidelity can be the very behavior that ensures the failure of the primary relationship.
People who struggle with extreme forms of love addiction live incredibly difficult lives. They cannot find serenity, peace or fulfillment with or without a partner. Because humans are wired to be relational, our brains tell us that any separation from others is to be avoided at all costs. Unless the love-addicted individual gets into recovery, a painful breakup is inevitable.
The suffering of withdrawal from a love-addicted relationship is extreme. Because every thought centers on keeping the object of love close by, it is difficult to make the first move to get help. Like with other addictions, it is usually a friend or family member who steps in to assist the love addict in getting the care and support they need to break this cycle of heartache.
Usually, intensive professional counseling, either in an outpatient or a residential setting,is required. Getting away from the environment in which the person was so caught up in their obsessive thoughts and behaviors can be helpful.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t love fully and truly. Don’t be afraid to fall. But if you find yourself putting up with an out-of-control relationship or staying in an abusive or addictive one, help is available. Ask someone who really knows you to share his or her perspective on the situation. You do not have to be alone. Love should feel good, like Valentine’s Day when you were a kid.
Deborah Schiller, LPC, CSAT-S, CMAT-S is the program director of Pine Grove Gratitude.