By DEBORAH SCHILLER, LPC, CSAT-S, CMAT-S
Valentine’s Day is my favorite holiday. It is a beautiful celebration of love. As the director of Gratitude, a service of Pine Grove Behavioral Health, I treat sex and love addicts on a daily basis. Even though I have seen in my practice some of the devastating outcomes from compulsive relationships gone badly, I still honor and cherish love.
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 that 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 well-being 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. 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 truth is, “love addiction” might be a misguiding 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.
For a love addict, the inability to think of anything else—not being able to eat or sleep—never ends. Their fear of losing the object of affection is so great that the person will go to any lengths 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 insures 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.
While this side of love can be fearful, don’t let it keep you from experiencing love. Individuals sometimes separate themselves from others in an extreme effort to avoid sexual intimacy and emotionally connected relationships. This is known as sexual anorexia. Sexual anorexics deny themselves affection, most often due to fear or anxiety surrounding what becomes of physical closeness with others.
Like with other addictions, it is usually a friend or family member who steps in to assist the addict in getting the care and support needed to break this cycle of heartache or loneliness. Intensive professional counseling, either in an outpatient or residential setting, is most often required. Getting away from the environment in which the person was so caught up in their obsessive thoughts and behaviors can also be helpful.
As you can see, love is a very powerful thing. It can bring people close and it can separate them. But in the end, it is not something that anyone should live without. So go ahead and 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—ask for help. Ask someone who really knows you to share their perspective on the situation. You do not have to be alone. Love should be experienced for the beauty that it is.
Deborah Schiller, LPC, CSAT-S, CMAT-S is the Program Director of Pine Grove Gratitude.