Love Addiction: How to Avoid an Abusive and Destructive Relationship
Dr. Stanton Peele, founder, Life Process Program for harm reduction coaching
How can you avoid getting into a relationship with someone who physically assaults you — may even kill you? And how do you extricate yourself without being harmed?
People refer to addictions to drugs as “bad decisions.” But the worst decisions people make are often in love relationships. These can even be fatal. We choose the example of one beautiful, talented, privileged 22-year-old woman who was killed by the partner she rejected.
Who Was Dominique Dunne?
Let’s start at the end. Dominique Dunne was strangled to death in 1982 at the age of 22 by her ex-boyfriend, John Sweeney, in the driveway of her apartment that they previously shared. Sweeney was convicted of manslaughter and was released a little after three years in prison to resume his life.
Now to the beginning. Dominique Dunne was an extremely privileged person from one of the premier families in the arts in the US. Her father, Dominick Dunne, was a prominent journalist and her mother, Ellen Griffin, was the heiress to a ranching fortune. Her aunt and uncle were famed writers John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion. Her older brother Griffin has been a successful actor who is best known as Nicky Pearson on the NBC series, This is Us.
At her young age, Dominique had already had remarkable successes. The most prominent example was her role in Stephen Spielberg’s movie Poltergeist, in which she played Dana Freeling, the sardonic teenage daughter of the family terrorized by spirits that haunted their house.
I don’t like to say things like this, but if it could happen to Dominique Dunne, then. . . . But this blogpost is about making sure it doesn’t happen to you.
A year before her murder, age 21, Dominique met chef John Sweeney. Within a few weeks she moved in with him.
Sweeney very quickly showed himself to be jealous and possessive — and violent. He objected to her talking to and being with other people — including her family — and physically abused her.
After a year, Dunne reacted against her abuser, sneaking out of their apartment to move in with her mother. She moved back to their apartment and changed the locks after Sweeney left. Sweeney continued to pursue and harass Dunne, however. (Sweeney claimed that they had reconciled and planned to get married and have a child. Of course, he was shifting the blame for his murder onto the victim.)
The night of her murder, Dunne went outside to argue with Sweeney saying their breakup was final, when he knocked her down and strangled her to death.
How can you protect yourself?
We can’t blame the victim for being murdered. But Dunne obviously did some things wrong, and paid the price. This can’t happen to you, your children, or anyone you know. These are the steps you need to know to avoid being harmed (possibly dying) at the hands of a love monster.
- You can’t make a “permanent” life decision based on love after a few weeks. A decision to live with someone can’t be made based on simple attraction. Think about whether this person is a solid human being who will be good for you in the long run.
- When someone seeks to constrain and isolate you, they are harming you — not expressing love. Don’t allow it. Danger signs up front are a person’s preventing you from seeing family and friends, asking you to give up jobs or schooling, belittling you and your life goals.
- People expressing addictive love behavior, no matter how many promises they make, are not going to change overnight. It is common for abusers to apologize and ask for forgiveness — repeatedly. I’m not saying people can’t change and be less addictive. But they need to prove that completely, taking time to do so, before you give them another chance. And only reconnect gradually, as they demonstrate the change. Make clear what it is you expect and demand. If they don’t meet these marks, you must be merciless. It could mean your life.
- Pay attention to their personality traits upfront, and reject intimacy quickly when a person displays addictive love patterns and behavior. The murderer in this case really showed what he was like from day one. He was always jealous and angry and ready to strike out at Dominique and others. Unfortunately, she wasn’t sufficiently mindful of this.
- Don’t be alone with someone who is displaying uncontrollable anger; don’t participate in the interaction; extricate yourself as quickly as you can. Someone who expresses unrestrained anger at any point is always a risk for assault, bodily harm, and possibly killing you. They have learned to get away with this behavior throughout their lives. (Remember, Sweeney ended up spending a little over three years in a minimum security prison then proceeded merrily along with his life.) Don’t expose yourself to it.
- Only you can save yourself. When Dominique’s costar contacted the police, they at first refused to come out to the apartment, only doing so after she lay dying on the ground. Her costar called the police, but otherwise didn’t intervene as he heard arguing, screaming, and violence outside the house. Worried for his own safety, he called a friend to say that if he was found dead, his killer was John Sweeney. Even Dominique’s loving family couldn’t interject themselves into her relationship. For better or for worse, YOU are your best — perhaps your only — protection in this life-and-death situation. COUNT ON YOURSELF.
And never apologize for anything you do to take care of yourself, including all of these steps.
If you enjoyed this blog, you may also enjoy our podcast in which Dr. Peele differentiates love and sex addictions. Subscribe to the channel if you’d like to see new content, weekly!