Love and Addiction: 1. ‘Til Death Do Us Part

Introduction | Contents | Chapter 2

 

1. ‘Til Death Do Us Part

I need your love to survive
Without it I’m just half alive . . .
. . . I’m forgetting all my pride
I couldn’t leave you, girl, if I tried
Before I love someone else
I’d rather be by myself
Baby, I’ve got to have you Baby

—AL HAMILTON, HERMON WEEMS, WILLIAM GARRETT, I’ve Got to Have You
©1968, Jobete Music Company, Inc., Hollywood, California, U.S.A. International copyright secured. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.

Several years ago I began to think that what people call love can sometimes be an addiction. It was my way of making sense of some observations about drugs and about people. This was in the late 1960s, at the height of the drug explosion, when reports on acid-tripping and speed-freaking (along with the use of marijuana and heroin) were widely broadcast. At that time, newspapers and magazines began to print tables of drugs to enlighten the public about what effects these drugs had. Two things struck me in reading these tables—first, how many misconceptions I and the people I knew had about drugs, and second, how much inexact information the tables themselves contained. The assumptions I and others were making about the power of psychoactive drugs did not seem justified by any existing evidence. To me this signaled a large undefined area where the motivations and attitudes of people who took drugs could come into play. It also indicated basic fears and irrationalities in our society about drugs and what they could do.

At about the same time, though for unrelated reasons, I was beginning to look more critically at the concept of romantic love with which I had grown up. In today’s open society, many varieties of male-female relationships can readily be observed in life, in motion pictures, in novels, in song lyrics. What I saw in these contexts was often disconcerting. Relationships which supposedly entailed some notion of growing together were really based mostly on security and the comfort of spending as much time as possible with someone totally sensitized to one’s needs. In those cases, loving another person actually seemed to bring about a contraction in the scope of one’s life. What made such relationships stand out for me was the feeling that there was something fundamental in their nature that made them this way. I could think of only one word to describe it: addiction. The individuals involved were hooked on someone whom they regarded as an object; their need for the object, their “love,” was really a dependency.

At first this idea was only a metaphor to me. I didn’t try to apply it seriously until I read an account of the daily lives of three married couples. In its lighthearted way, the account indicates that the writer was thinking along much the same lines as I was:

It’s amazing how marriage affects people’s use of the telephone. First off, there’s Mike and Betty. Whenever I call Mike, even on what amounts to a business matter, I have to endure long silences, stretching the conversation to twice the length that would otherwise be necessary while he fills Betty in on what I have just said. Still, hers is a benign form of interference. Betty thinks of herself as a friend of mine too, and she might reasonably be said to be expressing an interest in my welfare when she jumps up and down in front of the phone screaming, “What’s he saying?” The kind of thing I’m talking about becomes malignant when you try to talk to Herman. We all know that Herman’s wife hardly ever lets him go to a basketball game, and that when she does let him go she goes with him and makes him reserve seats far away from his friends. But lately he can’t even carry on a phone conversation without muffling the receiver each time you say something and repeating the message verbatim to his wife, so that she can tell him what to say.

Janet, too, has her own style of relating over the phone. On the rare occasions when Arnold is absent for more than an hour or two in the evening, she will call me and keep a long, aimless conversation going so as to avoid having to find something to do on her own. (Often, in her desperation to find a substitute, she will get stoned—a bad move, since it makes three hours without Arnold seem like six.) But should Arnold return, even if we’ve been talking only a short time, or we’re in the middle of an important topic, Janet will scream out his name as soon as she hears the key in the door and hang up before I can even say goodbye.

He continues with a description of the study habits of two of these couples:

Janet and Arnold have worked out a modus operandi for studying which contrasts interestingly in its elaborated rigor with Mike and Betty’s primitive approach to the same problem. Mike, you see, is known not to resist distractions very well. Even so, Betty does not feel any responsibility to avoid disturbing him while he’s studying for finals. So incapable is she of passing time in their apartment without talking to him that she just goes on offering him distractions, and this makes him angry at her. It is a long way from this situation-comedy atmosphere to Janet and Arnold’s assembly-line efficiency. These two have a set of rules whereby when one has exams at a time when the other has nothing of comparable urgency, all normal life (work, acquaintances, freedom of movement) is suspended for the second partner, who must, at all times when the first is actually studying, be (a) in the apartment, (b) awake, and (c) in the same room as the first, though silent, so as to be available to meet the slightest request.

My God, what is wrong with all these people? Don’t they have any notion of two people eating and sleeping and having fun and doing worthwhile things together while maintaining at least some separate studies and interests and separate places in which to carry them out? Or at least while having dignified telephone conversations separately?

What comes through in the writer’s exasperated tone is a sense of waste—of seeing individual identities distorted, and individual possibilities circumscribed, by an intensely felt pressure to seek security in one other person. It is a universal pattern, expressed in a variety of personal styles. My reaction eventually was to consider just how closely this pattern fit the addiction model. As an illustration, I have put together a composite case which conveys the essence of relationships like the three that have been described. Since this is meant to be a straightforwardly schematic example of addiction, I have deliberately kept it free of distracting detail and complicated motivations. In it there is none of Mike and Betty’s chaotic loving conflict and comical domesticity, none of the coercion worked by Herman’s wife, none of Janet and Arnold’s bizarre regimentation. Bruce and Vicky’s relationship is smooth and harmonious, its terms mutually agreeable.

An Egoisme a Deux

Vicky and Bruce are individual human beings in body only; they are constantly struggling to overcome the separation of skin that is the one barrier to their total union. Their backgrounds explain some of the story. Both of them grew up, comfortable and protected, in a suburb of Los Angeles. From an early age they thought in terms of professional careers and a domestic existence. Bruce, who graduated from high school a year ahead of Vicky, turned down a scholarship to an Ivy League university he had always dreamed of attending. Instead, unwilling to leave Vicky, he went to a university in the Los Angeles area. Vicky followed him there a year later. She hadn’t wanted to go too far from her parents, and in fact she lived at home rather than on campus, just as Bruce had done the year before so that he could be near her. The couple made the hour-long trip to and from school every day together, and they continued to see each other in the comfortable settings of their old neighborhood and their parents’ homes. It was as if they were biding time, waiting simply to reach an age when they could marry without arousing comment. Their lack of experience with other people at college naturally did not give them a chance to gain a very accurate impression of themselves as others saw them. The result was that they didn’t develop adult qualities that might have made them attractive to people who didn’t already know and love them.

And there you have it. Two people reluctant to leave the security of their high school relationship, probably as much from a fear of disappointing each other, and of never finding anything better for themselves, as from inherent desire, had joined themselves together “’til death do us part.” In the meantime, they had missed the opportunity to live away from home, an experience their upper-middle-class parents would willingly have subsidized. The price they extracted from each other for the sacrifices involved in maintaining the relationship was the constant reassurance of each other’s company. Having spent so much of themselves simply to stay together, they both felt the relationship owed them a great deal. And, to justify this commitment, they steadily inflated each other’s worth to the point where nothing else seemed of any consequence to them.

They soon gave up whatever independent interests they had. Vicky discarded the idea of joining the college drama club because it would have taken too much of her time from Bruce. They did not see much of their old friends, most of whom had gone away to college. Nor did they make new friends at the university, except a few classroom friends. They talked about courses and teachers with these people, and together went to occasional parties with them, but because so little of their free time was spent on campus, these outside relationships didn’t amount to anything. The couple grew more and more clinging, turned to each other for more and more of what they wanted, and gradually severed all connections with the rest of the world except for school and their parents.

Vicky and Bruce got married upon Bruce’s graduation. Together, they decided to move to San Francisco for their graduate training. Bruce was to go to law school, while Vicky planned to take her Ph.D. in history after completing her senior year at a college in the area. Not that she had any intention of being a historian. She found her history courses boring and, worse, tremendously stressful. Constrained but not inspired by the curriculum during her undergraduate years, she had made her way through with the help of stimulants and tranquilizers. One may wonder why she didn’t rise up against this agony and get off the academic treadmill, but it is not surprising that a person so little disposed to question the security of her family home and her marriage would not seek something more purposeful than continued, meaningless academic activity. In fact, she saw no alternative for herself while her husband was in law school.

Vicky and Bruce were concerned about moving so far away from their families. However, they enjoyed regular weekend visits from their parents. They frequently returned these visits, carefully dividing their time between the two families, as well as bringing them together for joint gatherings. And they had hardly arrived in San Francisco before they began making detailed plans for their eventual return to Los Angeles, where they would buy a house near both families once Bruce was earning a lawyer’s income and their San Francisco “bohemian” period had come to an end.

At this point they settled into the kind of married life described in the account at the beginning of this chapter. Marriage gave their relationship, blessed with parental indulgence from the beginning, the added comforts of a home life. Occasionally they roused themselves to attend an evening lecture or other university cultural event. However, their penetration into San Francisco never went much deeper than that. With few friends, their social life was as limited and superficial as it had been in college, and although they espoused topical viewpoints, they were certainly not part of the new West Coast scene.

Thus two underdeveloped egos merged into what D. H. Lawrence called an égoisme à deux: two people banded together, not because of love or an increasing understanding of each other, but rather because of their over-entanglement and mutual self-deprivation. With each step in their growing interdependence, Bruce and Vicky broke a few more of the ties they had had with other people, things, and activities. And as these disappeared, they hung on to each other that much more frantically to bolster themselves against an increasingly alien environment.

We can partially trace the genesis of these addictive personalities in Vicky’s and Bruce’s upbringing. Neither of them had broken from a childhood dependence on their parents. They approached all experience outside the family as somehow external to themselves. Although they were both successful students, and both accepted the yoke of school’s demands, their schoolwork had little meaning for them, and they spoke of it cynically. Nor were they capable of forming relationships outside the family, but for one—with each other. It was as though this isolated excursion drained them of all the energy they might have applied toward knowing other people.

Their parents had been so generous, so quick to bend the environment to Bruce and Vicky’s needs, that they could not realize how they were limiting their children’s experience. When Vicky became involved with Bruce, her parents, with his parents’ blessing, turned over their beach house to the young lovers, and rented a smaller place at Lake Arrowhead. The couple could go to the beach house and be together without interference. Except, of course, it was total interference, for the young people were never allowed to develop distinct wills of their own. Vicky had no reason to go out into the world when her mother and father were so attentive to her needs, so appreciative of her charm and intelligence, that she could not have hoped to find better treatment anywhere else. Moving straight from her parents’ home to her husband’s, this woman never had the experience of living alone, on her own emotional resources, and probably never will. In this way, Vicky’s and Bruce’s parents incorporated every stage of their children’s growth except for the last stage, independence—not only a healthy separation from the home, but a true psychological independence; something a person carries with him or her for all time. And it is this kind of self-completion which instills the integrity that every real coming together of two or more individuals presupposes.

The Parallel With Opiate Addiction

How does this story resemble the more familiar pattern of addiction we see in habitual drug users? Showing just how deep the resemblance goes is what this book is about. The addict is a person who never learns to come to grips with his world, and who therefore seeks stability and reassurance through some repeated, ritualized activity. This activity is reinforced in two ways—first, by a comforting sensation of well-being induced by the drug or other addictive object; second, by the atrophy of the addict’s other interests and abilities and the general deterioration of his life situation while he is preoccupied with the addiction. As alternatives grow smaller, the addiction grows larger, until it is all there is. A true addict progresses into a monomania, whether the object of addiction is a drug or a lover. Vicky and Bruce’s sheltered childhoods denied them the self-confidence and the well-formed enthusiasms that a complete life is built on. As a result, they fastened on each other as a daily habit, and this habit became the raison d’être of their existence.

It is important to note the vicious cycle at work here. The addict’s lack of internal direction or purpose creates the need for ritualized escape in the first place, and is in turn exacerbated by exclusive involvement with the addiction and abandonment of the substance of a normal life. Operating on the personal malaise an addict feels, drugs give him an artificial sense of self-sufficiency that removes what small motivation he has for complicated or difficult pursuits. Similarly, Vicky and Bruce came to each other originally in a state of ennui, without interests that extended deep enough to engage them. Once they found each other, they became even less motivated to cultivate friends or apply themselves to their work in any but the most external way. Their dependency, like the drug addict’s, could only increase as other concerns dropped off.

The one major feature of the addiction cycle that the case of Vicky and Bruce does not directly illustrate is withdrawal—the addict’s anguished reaction to an interruption of his supply. Vicky and Bruce organized their environment so totally around each other that there never was the slightest threat of a breakup. The couple had at some cost resisted even temporary separations, as when Bruce resigned himself to a school he didn’t like in order to stay with his fiancee. Lovers often do suffer withdrawal symptoms when breakups occur. With Vicky and Bruce, the passion for staying together was in large part a fear and avoidance of withdrawal. Vicky and Bruce are like the well-to-do, respectable opiate addict who is able to guarantee that he will never have to feel the pain of withdrawal.

Addiction to a person is just an extension of the social side of all addictions. People who share an addiction form a private world for themselves. For example, a group of people who are addicted to the same drug tend to give their experience a collective interpretation which is incomprehensible to those outside the group. They are not concerned with this discrepancy because only the approval of other group members matters to them. The same is true for Vicky and Bruce, with their family and household rituals, their exclusive concern to please each other, and their inflated estimation of themselves. In fact, an addictive romantic relationship like theirs is the smallest, most isolated group possible.

But it is not enough simply to make the description of two things sound alike. In order to show why and how the parallel is a real one, we have to confront the question of what addiction is and how it works—both with drugs and elsewhere. Then we will see that certain interpersonal attachments can genuinely be called addictions.

 

Chapter 2

Stanton Peele

Dr. Stanton Peele, recognized as one of the world's leading addiction experts, developed the Life Process Program after decades of research, writing, and treatment about and for people with addictions. Dr. Peele is the author of 14 books. His work has been published in leading professional journals and popular publications around the globe.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.