Love and Addiction: 4. “Love” as an Addiction
In: Peele, S., with Brodsky, A. (1975), Love and Addiction. New York: Taplinger.
© 1975 Stanton Peele and Archie Brodsky.
Reprinted with permission from Taplinger Publishing Co., Inc.
4. “Love” as an Addiction
“I never saw a more promising inclination. He was growing quite inattentive to other people, and wholly engrossed by her. Every time they met, it was more decided and remarkable. At his own ball he offended two or three young ladies, by not asking them to dance, and I spoke to him twice myself, without receiving an answer. Could there be finer symptoms? Is not general incivility the very essence of love?”
—JANE AUSTEN, Pride and Prejudice
There is an understandable resistance to the idea that a human relationship can be equivalent psychologically to a drug addiction. Yet it is not unreasonable to look for addiction between lovers when psychologists find the roots of drug addiction in childhood dependency needs and stunted family relationships. Chein, Winick, and other observers interpret drugs to be a kind of substitute for human ties. In this sense, addictive love is even more directly linked to what are recognized to be the sources of addiction than is drug dependency.
Almost everyone knows of people who replace romantic relationships with other kinds of escapes, including drug escapes, at least until the next relationship comes along. Immediately after or immediately before an affair, such individuals are deeply immersed in psychiatry, religion, alcohol, marijuana, and the like. Just as some addicts shift between opiate, alcohol, and barbiturate addictions, so we find others using drugs interchangeably with all-consuming systems of belief or social involvements. Consider this testimony by a member of a fanatical religious commune: “I used to do acid, chug wine. I thought it was the answer. But it didn’t satisfy, just like everything else. I went to a head shrink…. Nothing ever did satisfy till I came to Jesus.” He might have added, “I used to make it with chicks,” for other converts are the spurned lovers who in an earlier era would have entered a convent or monastery.
I know of a man who started drinking heavily after a long-time woman friend left him. He wrote about his reactions at the time of the breakup:
Since Linda left I mainly just lie in bed. I’m just too weak to move, and I have the chills all the time…. I’ve been crying a lot…. I try to calm myself by drinking the scotch my sister left here…. I feel so horrible, so dispossessed—like the real me doesn’t exist anymore.
He couldn’t sleep, and his heartbeat sometimes sped up frighteningly when he wasn’t doing anything. These are symptoms of acute withdrawal. We know they can occur—perhaps quite often in certain groups and at certain ages—when one is deprived of a lover. Popular music sings paeans to the experience as a hallmark of true love: “When I lost my baby, I almost lost my mind . . . Since you left me baby, my whole life is through.” What is there about love that produces withdrawal in people we have all known, maybe even in ourselves? Can we envision a kind of love that does not bring such devastation in its wake? Let us look closely at how “love” can be an addiction, and how addictive love differs from genuine love.
In a monograph entitled “Being in Love and Hypnosis,” Freud noted important parallels between love and another psychologically compelling process—hypnotism. According to Freud, a person’s self-love can be transferred from the person’s own ego to a loved object. When this occurs, the other person more and more gains “possession of the entire self-love of the ego, whose self-sacrifice thus follows as a natural consequence. The object has, so to speak, consumed the ego.” The ultimate development of this sort of love is a state where the lover’s ego “is impoverished, it has surrendered itself to the object, it has substituted the object for its own most important constituent.” Freud goes on to say:
From being in love to hypnosis is evidently only a short step. The respects in which the two agree are obvious. There is the same humble subjection, the same compliance, the same absence of criticism, toward the hypnotist as toward the loved object. There is the same sapping of the subject’s own initiative…. The hypnotist [as a model of a loved other] is the sole object, and no attention is paid to any but him.
Love is an ideal vehicle for addiction because it can so exclusively claim a person’s consciousness. If, to serve as an addiction, something must be both reassuring and consuming, then a sexual or love relationship is perfectly suited for the task. If it must also be patterned, predictable, and isolated, then in these respects, too, a relationship can be ideally tailored to the addictive purpose. Someone who is dissatisfied with himself or his situation can discover in such a relationship the most encompassing substitute for self-contentment and the effort required to attain it.
When a person goes to another with the aim of filling a void in himself, the relationship quickly becomes the center of his or her life. It offers him a solace that contrasts sharply with what he finds everywhere else, so he returns to it more and more, until he needs it to get through each day of his otherwise stressful and unpleasant existence. When a constant exposure to something as necessary in order to make life bearable, an addiction has been brought about, however romantic the trappings. The ever-present danger of withdrawal creates an ever-present craving.
Who is the Interpersonal Addict?
Since the person who addicts himself to a lover has essentially the same feelings of inadequacy as the drug addict, why should such an individual choose another person, rather than a drug, for the object of his addiction? One characteristic which distinguishes the two groups of addicts is their social class. Opiate use is found primarily in people in lower social and economic positions, especially racial minorities. Lower-class whites more normally take to alcohol as their escape. Middle-class Americans, on the other hand, while not quite as prone to alcoholism and while certainly not interested in heroin, are no less subject to addictive tendencies; they just express them differently.
As a rule, other human beings play a role in the middle-class person’s lifestyle that they do not for the lower-class person. Lee Rainwater, who reports such social class differences in Family Design, found that sexual relationships in the lower class tend not to involve as great a degree of life-sharing. To take an extreme case, Chein’s analysis of New York City heroin addicts shows that they are distrustful of people; drugs are the only things in their lives they feel they can rely on. Even the middle-class English opiate addicts whom Edwin Schur studied in Narcotic Addiction in Britain and America are generally alienated from other people. And perhaps an explanation for widespread drug abuse among young dropouts from the middle class is that the disruptive nature of their living habits leaves them with only fragmental and temporary relationships. But though this inability to form strong interpersonal ties characterizes drug and alcohol addicts no matter what their social class, weakened and unstable social networks are more common among economically and otherwise deprived groups. Hence individuals in these settings more frequently succumb to heroin addiction and debilitating alcoholism while people (mainly lovers) serve the same purpose for those who are better off. In either case, the combination of dependency and manipulativeness that Chein observed in heroin addicts lies behind the addict’s exploitativeness. Unsure of his own identity, the addict sees other people as objects to serve his needs. But for the drug addict, using people is only a means to other ends; for the middle-class addict, possessing people is the end.
Rainwater makes these differences clear in an article entitled, “A Study of Personality Differences Between Middle and Lower Class Adolescents.” There he states that “The lower class person . . . is less dependent on people, and more oriented toward those gratifications which can be achieved without complicated cooperation of other human beings.” Among the middle-class children in the study, a distinct pattern emerged which explains how people can be the drugs of middle-class addiction. Two-thirds of the middle-class children (as compared to only one-fifth of the children from lower-class families) showed evidence of a “social dependency constellation.” The latter can be defined as the need to cling to one human object for love and support. That object may not even be a true person, but only a conception of a person.
When people are economically comfortable but still sense a large deficiency in their lives, their yearnings are bound to be more existential than material. That is, these yearnings are tied into their basic conception of and feelings about themselves. D. H. Lawrence describes such a case in his novel Women in Love. The character is Gerald Crich, the well-to-do son of an industrial magnate. When his father dies, Gerald’s world begins to fall around him, and he experiences the spiritual catastrophe which leads him to a relationship of desperation with Gudrun Brangwen.
But as the fight went on, and all that he had been and was continued to be destroyed, so that life was a hollow shell all around him, roaring and clattering like the sound of the sea, a noise in which he participated externally, and inside this hollow shell was all the darkness and fearful space of death, he knew he would have to find reinforcements, otherwise he would collapse inwards upon the great dark void which circled at the centre of his soul. His will held his outer life, his outer mind, his outer being, unbroken and unchanged. But the pressure was too great…. For day by day he felt more and more like a bubble filled with darkness….
The emotional state Lawrence depicts is very much like what R. D. Laing calls schizoid alienation, in which an individual is so detached from his or her experience that he cannot get from it a sense of himself as an integrated being. The schizoid person doesn’t feel that he is the person living his life, the personality occupying his own skin. In The Divided Self, Laing suggests that schizoid alienation is not only a common contemporary form of madness, but also a prevalent feature of life in modern society. The “ontological anxiety”—uncertainty about our very existence—that Laing speaks of is what makes some of us compulsively seek relationships.
Gerald Crich is a fictional example of someone who lacks a well-developed core being, a secure sense of himself. A person feeling this inner emptiness must strive to fill it. In relationships, this can only be done by subsuming someone else’s being inside yourself, or by allowing someone else to subsume you. Often, two people simultaneously engulf and are engulfed by each other. The result is a full-fledged addiction, where each partner draws the other back at any sign of a loosening of the bonds that hold them together.
F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sheilah Graham
To show concretely what it means to be hooked on a lover, we can take a well-known example—F. Scott Fitzgerald’s love affair with Sheilah Graham. In the period following his wife Zelda’s final emotional breakdown, Fitzgerald felt that his life’s promise had in large part gone unfulfilled, and that he had exhausted his spiritual and emotional energy. All his life he had tried and failed to achieve a firm sense of his place in the world. He aspired to a social standing he never had possessed, a financial standing he could never gain, and a literary standing that was often questioned in his lifetime. In The Far Side of Paradise Arthur Mizener shows that all things seemed to conspire to deny psychological peace and security to Fitzgerald, who had written of himself, “Generally—I knew that at the bottom I lacked the essentials. At the last crisis, I knew I had no real courage, perseverance or self respect.”
After his initial success as a writer, Fitzgerald and Zelda entered a downward spiral that was relieved only a few times before his death in 1940. During this period he had difficulty sustaining his work, which he and Zelda frequently interrupted with their drinking and moving around, and with their generally taxing pursuit of pleasure. In the aftermath of such periods of abandon, Fitzgerald would be stricken with remorse. To allay this guilt and consciousness of failure, he would then often embark on another bout of drinking and abandonment. By the end of the twenties, the frantic emptiness of his existence had begun to claim a horrible toll. Zelda suffered a breakdown which finally led to institutional confinement. Fitzgerald himself began to have physical and mental collapses and many more uncontrolled alcoholic binges. His finances, with which he was always preoccupied, became an even bigger problem. When he was finally able to complete his last novel, Tender Is the Night, it was not well received at its publication in 1934. The period following this shock to his confidence, during which his personal tragedies also increased unbearably, was more painful than any that had come before. His alcoholism reached unmanageable bounds.
In 1937, Fitzgerald moved to Hollywood to write movie scripts, leaving, but not deserting, Zelda in a sanitarium in North Carolina. In July of that year, he met Sheilah Graham, a movie columnist. She became his mainstay for the rest of his short life, helping him to stay on the wagon for the most part and to remain relatively content while he did a creditable stint as a screenwriter and was at work on a novel. Though it was some salvation for a tormented soul, their relationship, as described in Sheilah Graham’s book Beloved Infidel, portrays the distorted, addicted form human intimacy can take when it is wrapped around a misshapen life.
In the first place, Fitzgerald did not entirely relinquish chemical help in the absence of his drinking. Sheilah Graham relates that “. . . he was once more on his Coca-Cola and coffee regimen,” and that he relied on “sleeping pills and, to wake him in the morning, benzedrine.” But his main stimulant and sedative was his love. Although he had been dramatically attached to Zelda (as one of the faults of Dick Diver, a character who embodies his own downfall, Fitzgerald listed “the desperate clinging to one woman”), it was now—when his original enthusiasm for life had been so thoroughly extinguished—that he shed all of life for one woman and demanded the same sacrifices from her. Graham writes:
By early 1938 we were virtual recluses in Hollywood. I attended few evening events or industry parties. So that I could be with Scott [and still write her column], Jonah Ruddy for a weekly fee covered these occasions for me. We rarely went out: it was enough for us to be together, and when we were not together hardly an hour went by that Scott did not make me aware of his presence. He telephoned me five and six times during the day.
Once, when she wanted to make a trip to New York, Fitzgerald remonstrated:
“But who are the people you see . . . ? They’re not real. I have been there. I have given all that up. What can you get from such people? What can you get from New York?”
“Oh . . .” I could not find the words. “New York excites me. It thrills me.”
“Sheilah, what you are looking for, you have found. You are looking for love, for someone to understand you. You have me. I love you and understand you. There’s no need for you to go to New York.”
Moreover, when her best friend was coming to Hollywood from New York, Fitzgerald insisted that they go away the weekend she was to arrive, and that the friend move into her own apartment immediately. He even went to the point of picking an apartment out for her and putting down the deposit. When the friend arrived at Sheilah’s residence, she found an apologetic note and a key. Graham comments: “This Scott made me do to my best friend. He was jealous of her. He was so obviously unhappy, I could not refuse him.” Perhaps even more extreme was the way Fitzgerald and his lover reacted to a prospective visit by her boss, John Wheeler:
As the day of Wheeler’s arrival approached, Scott grew more and more glum. He would not be reassured. And as had happened many times before when I found myself in difficulty, inspiration came. The night before Wheeler arrived, I went into the Good Samaritan Hospital for a minor operation, something my doctor had said could be done “any time—no hurry about it.” I chose this time so that I would be too ill to see John Wheeler. Scott took me to the hospital, reassured at last.
While she found Fitzgerald’s grasping behavior peculiar at times, Graham did not find it unattractive. She regarded these last two stories as examples of “Scott’s unceasing tenderness.” Her own attitude was characterized by her feeling that “my living began when he arrived.” She relates her desire for enclosure by her lover:
I looked into his face, searching it, trying to find its mystery, its wonder for me, and I said, almost prayerfully, “If only I could walk into your eyes and close the lids behind me, and leave all the world outside—”
He held me close and I clung to him….
The relationship was an addiction. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sheilah Graham sealed themselves off from the outside world by neglecting their work and by dropping all their other personal relationships in Hollywood. Each seemed to feel that all experience was only valuable, or allowable, if it was mediated by the other. The belief which underlay this feeling—and all of the relationship—was expressed by Graham when she said that “my living began when he arrived.” If there is a need to participate in every aspect of another’s life, its conclusive form is the complete control of or reliance on another, so that one person does not exist without the other’s being there, too. This is the essential similarity to drug addiction, where a person feels he is living only when he is on the drug. The ultimate statement of the desire to be consumed by love is in the last passage quoted from Graham, where she wanted to crawl into Scott’s mind, lose her consciousness in his, and form one human entity out of two incomplete beings.
In their interactions, Fitzgerald claimed most of the prerogatives. He retained the right to return East to visit Zelda, and to have his daughter visit him, at the same time that he denied these things to Sheilah. He also generally insisted on keeping up his work schedule (when he wished) while disrupting hers. Fitzgerald’s personal domination was characteristic of the relationship even where he helped his lover, as when he tutored her in history and literature. Such male domination, while hardly constituting the only form an addictive relationship can take, is not uncommon in these relationships. But it shouldn’t be interpreted as an indication that the one partner is more in control of himself, or of the situation, than the other. Fitzgerald’s need for Graham was every bit as strong as hers for him. Consider Erich Fromm’s description, in The Art of Loving, of mutual need within an unequal relationship:
The sadistic person is as dependent on the submissive person as the latter is on the former; neither can live without the other. The difference is only that the sadistic person commands, exploits, hurts, humiliates, and that the masochistic person is commanded, exploited, hurt, humiliated. This is a considerable difference in a realistic sense; in a deeper emotional sense, the difference is not so great as that which they both have in common: fusion without integrity.
The intensity of Fitzgerald’s need is shown by his behavior when Graham finally broke up with him during one of his alcoholic binges. Eventually he succeeded in getting her back by vowing to give up drinking, but first he attempted a number of futile ploys that clearly revealed his desperation. For example, he phoned her all night, and he threatened to kill her. His most hateful act was to send a telegram to her boss with the intention of destroying her career. SHEILAH GRAHAM TODAY BANNED BY EVERY STUDIO . . . SUGGEST YOU SEND HER BACK TO ENGLAND WHERE SHE BELONGS STOP DO YOU KNOW HER REAL NAME IS LILY SHEIL? Deeply insecure about her origins, Graham had imparted her real name to Fitzgerald alone of all the people she knew in Hollywood.
There is no way to discount the malice behind this attack on her livelihood and personal identity. Fitzgerald may have been insanely drunk, but his behavior reflects an antagonism that could only be directed toward someone whom he hated. Could this be the way he felt toward the woman to whom he was totally devoted a few days before? The process on the other side, in Sheilah Graham’s thoughts, was the same:
I was not sorry for Scott’s predicament . . . Let Scott suffer. The more I thought about it the angrier I became. I’ll fix him. I took the first editions he had given me of his books—each with an inscription in it—and deliberately tore them from cover to cover . . . I don’t want to see his name again, I don’t want to hear his name again, I don’t want to be reminded of him. I hated this man. He had betrayed me.
Naturally, she had good cause to act this way, and perhaps her attitude was momentary, a fit of pique. Yet it still represents complete alienation from that with which she formerly felt as one.
Above all else, these extreme emotional reactions conclusively establish that the relationship was an addiction. All along, the lovers’ actions toward each other were dictated by their own needs. Therefore, when their connection was severed—even temporarily—they had no basis on which to relate. Each was incapable of respecting, or even conceiving of, the other in his or her own terms, as continuing to live his or her own life. It was impossible for either to be concerned about the other’s well-being; if the one lover wasn’t there to satisfy the other’s needs, then he or she ceased to exist. In addition to this, when viewed in isolation from the ongoing relationship, the weird behavior which the two of them had participated in together now appeared grotesque. These love addicts were like the person who cannot use moderately a drug to which he was addicted. An addict, when he stops, must stop altogether. Because an addiction is sought only for the total experience it provides, it can only be accepted emotionally in that form. The ex-addict cannot conceive of relating to what was formerly the addictive object in anything less than a total way.
Erich Fromm: A Positive Concept of Love
Love is the opposite of interpersonal addiction. A love relationship is based on a desire to grow and to expand oneself through living, and a desire for one’s partner to do the same. Anything which contributes positively to a loved one’s experience is welcomed, partly because it enriches the loved one for his own sake, and partly because it makes him a more stimulating companion in life. If a person is self-completed, he can even accept experiences which cause a lover to grow away from him, if that is the direction in which the lover’s fulfillment must take her. If two people hope to realize fully their potential as human beings—both together and apart—then they create an intimacy which includes, along with trust and sharing, hope, independence, openness, adventurousness, and love.
When we speak of a desire for intimacy that respects the loved one’s integrity, we naturally think of Erich Fromm’s classic work The Art of Loving. Fromm’s theme is that man or woman can only achieve love when he has realized himself to the point where he can stand as a whole and secure person. “Mature love,” Fromm states, “is union under the condition of preserving one’s integrity, one’s individuality.” It requires “a state of intensity, awakeness, enhanced vitality, which can only be the result of a productive and active orientation in many other spheres of life.” This permits us, as lovers, to manifest an “active concern for the life and the growth of that which we love.”
Unless we have reached this state, and “unless we have faith in the persistence of our self, our feeling of identity is threatened and we become dependent on other people whose approval then becomes the basis for our feeling of identity.” In that case, we are in danger of experiencing union without integrity. Such a union is a “full commitment in all aspects of life,” but one which lacks an essential ingredient, a regard for the rest of the world:
If a person loves only one other person and is indifferent to the rest of his fellow men, his love is not love but a symbiotic attachment, or an enlarged egotism.
These comments, and much else that Fromm writes, reveal a sharp awareness of the potential for addiction inherent in the “powerful striving” man feels for “interpersonal fusion.”* Fromm notes that two passionately attracted people “take the intensity of the infatuation, this being ‘crazy’ about each other, for proof of the intensity of their love, while it may only prove the degree of their preceding loneliness.”
Fromm is a social critic who wants to alert his readers to the harmful effect which society, particularly modern capitalist society, can have on the individual and on personal relationships. Thus he emphasizes the materialism in self-seeking behavior toward others, especially lovers—that is, the tendency to regard social partners as commodities. People who show this orientation “fall in love when they feel they have found the best object available on the market, considering the limitations of their own exchange values.” Fromm feels that any such person is seriously disabled in going about the business of making love, for “the marketing character is willing to give, but only in exchange for receiving; giving without receiving for him is being cheated.” Seeking lovers in this way is like “buying real estate, [where] the hidden potentialities which can be developed play a considerable role in this bargain.” Fromm therefore stresses that the respect inherent in all love requires a lover to think, “I want the loved person to grow and unfold for his own sake, and in his own ways, and not for the purpose of serving me.”
As Fromm rightly insists, this altruism encourages the loved one’s growth. But we have to ask also whether it allows for an uncritical attitude toward the lover that is reminiscent of the mindless romanticism Fromm criticizes. Fromm sees any evaluation of what another can contribute to one’s own successful dealing with life as an illegitimate consideration in love. What misleads him, and many others, is the habit of conceiving of love exclusively in terms of the lovers’ relation to each other—as if this could be separated from the contexts of the lovers’ individual lives. This is actually a romantic perspective, and within it judgments of another’s worth can only be viewed as self-serving. Yet a different order of judgment is implied by Fromm’s rejection of sterile, solely self-gratifying interdependency. For if you aren’t just going to use someone else as a dehumanized substitute for—or extension of—yourself (just like any other addictive object), then you will want to ask whether that person is himself mature and strong. Mature people, concerned with the quality of their lives, engage naturally in a continuing evaluation of their relationships, testing alternatives and questioning their commitments. An independent, open person exploring life seriously will instinctively (if not consciously) consider whether someone has anything of substance to add to his or her existence.
Germaine Greer makes a similar point in her book The Female Eunuch. While sharing Fromm’s dislike of superficial, commercial standards for assessing potential mates, she accepts the need for some external means of validation in a relationship: “A woman shows her own value to her sisters by choosing a successful and personable man. It is probably a part of the process of natural selection, operating at the very outset of the courting game, and a healthy egotism at that, if only the criteria involved in such judgments were not so ersatz and commercial, and so trivial.”
Criteria For Love Vs. Addiction
In Fromm’s notion of integrity in love and Greer’s emphasis on self-actualization and personal pride, we have the elements of a positive concept of love. By contrasting this model with that of addictive love, we can develop specific criteria for assessing the character of our relationships. These criteria follow from our more general standards for distinguishing between the addictive and the nonaddictive approach to life. They are points at which a relationship either expresses health and the promise of growth, or leans toward addiction:
- Does each lover have a secure belief in his or her own value?
- Are the lovers improved by the relationship? By some measure outside of the relationship are they better, stronger, more attractive, more accomplished, or more sensitive individuals? Do they value the relationship for this very reason?
- Do the lovers maintain serious interests outside the relationship, including other meaningful personal relationships?
- Is the relationship integrated into, rather than being set off from, the totality of the lovers’ lives?
- Are the lovers beyond being possessive or jealous of each other’s growth and expansion of interests?
- Are the lovers also friends? Would they seek each other out if they should cease to be primary partners?
These standards represent an ideal, and as such they cannot be fulfilled completely even by the healthiest relationships. But given that every relationship is bound to contain some elements of addiction, we can still tell what makes one predominantly addictive. This occurs, as in drug addiction, when a single overwhelming involvement with one thing serves to cut a person off from life, to close him or her off to experience, to debilitate him, to make him less open, free, and positive in dealing with the world.
Interpersonal addiction need not be a one-to-one affair. An addict may form successive or simultaneous relationships, either because he or she never allows himself to become seriously involved, or because he can’t find a partner who completely accepts him. In all cases, however, addiction has at its center a diminished sense of self. The addict uses relationships to seal off his inner self from a frightening environment. In the process, the already weakened self ceases to develop, and the addict’s life contracts further.
D. H. Lawrence used the term égoisme à deux to describe the overgrown, quasi-permanent connection between two lovers. Like any form of addiction, an égoisme à deux involves people who have not received from life a self-completeness that would enable them to come to an experience whole in themselves. The result is that they are drawn to an object—the lover—which can secure their shallow or fragmented selves. But they become trapped by this object, because even as it stabilizes them, it prevents them from extending themselves outward to meet other people or events that they encounter. As their inadequacy and rigidity worsen, each must lean more heavily on the other. Thus they draw each other into an increasingly closed, isolated, and mutually protective relationship.
Because the partners in an addictive relationship are motivated more by their own needs for security than by an appreciation of each other’s personal qualities, what they want most from each other is the reassurance of constancy. Thus they are likely to demand unchallenged acceptance of themselves as they are, including their blemishes and peculiarities. In exchange, they are willing to tolerate passively all similar quirks in each other’s makeup. In fact, to justify their total involvement, the lovers may identify each other’s idiosyncrasies as their standards for attractiveness. In this way they create a private world which others can’t enter and would not want to enter.
Such lovers do, of course, require each other to change in certain ways. But the adaptations expected or demanded are entirely toward each other and do not entail an improved ability to deal with other people or the environment. On the contrary, the changes one partner requests of the other to better satisfy his own needs are almost always harmful to the other’s general development as a person. The lovers are not concerned if an “inward” adjustment is a debilitating one overall. In fact, a lessened ability to cope with anything or anyone else is welcomed in the other as a stronger guarantee of allegiance to the relationship. This is why jealousy and possessiveness are so much a part of addictive love. It is why an addict actually hopes that his lover will not meet new people and enjoy the world, since this suggests competing ties and interests that would make her less dependent on him. As Germaine Greer’s penetrating analysis puts it:
The hallmark of egotistical love, even when it masquerades as altruistic love, is the negative answer to the question “Do I want my love to be happy more than I want him to be with me?” As soon as we find ourselves working at being indispensable, rigging up a pattern of vulnerability in our loved ones, we ought to know that our love has taken the socially sanctioned form of egotism. Every wife who slaves to keep herself pretty, to cook her husband’s favorite meals, to build up his pride and confidence in himself at the expense of his sense of reality, to be his closest and effectively his only friend, to encourage him to reject the consensus of opinion and find reassurance only in her arms is binding her mate to her with hoops of steel that will strangle them both. Every time a woman makes herself laugh at her husband’s often-told jokes she betrays him. The man who looks at his woman and says, “What would I do without you?” is already destroyed. His woman’s victory is complete, but it is Pyrrhic. Both of them have sacrificed so much of what initially made them lovable to promote the symbiosis of mutual dependence that they scarcely make up one human being between them.
Paradoxically, at the stage where they have rejected the rest of the world—when they need each other most—the lovers have become least critical and aware of each other as unique individuals. The partner is just there, a completely necessary point of certainty in a bewildering and dangerous world. Under these conditions, acceptance of another is not a recognition of that person’s integrity. Where need is so intense, there is no room in the lovers’ minds for such a concept of dignity, either the other person’s or one’s own. Their lack of feeling for themselves makes them want to be absorbed by each other, and their lack of self-development and ability to express themselves individually makes it possible for them to be so engulfed.
Then, too, the lovers’ ultimate lack of interest in each other gives the lie to the romantic notion of addicted love as a kind of intense passion. The intensity that we see is that of desperation, not of a desire to know each other better. In healthy relationships the growing attachment to another person goes with a growing appreciation of that person; among these relationships are those inspiring love affairs where two people continually find new facets of each other to admire and delight in. In addiction what is apparent is not the intensity of passion, but its shallowness. There is no emotional risk in this sort of relationship, or, at least, the addict tries to eliminate that risk as much as possible. Because he is so vulnerable, what the addict is ideally striving for is perfect invulnerability. He only gives of himself in exchange for the promise of safety.
From this perspective, love at first sight becomes understandable in the sense that addiction to heroin on the first injection is understandable. A description by an addict in The Road to H of his first shot of heroin can apply equally well to the addicted lover’s experience: “I felt I always wanted to feel the same way as I felt then.” Both addicts have discovered something reassuring that they hope will never change. From the turmoil of their inner worlds, they recognize and latch onto the one sensation they have encountered which they feel can bring them peace.
Addicted lovers see each other more and more in order to maintain this secure state. They settle into each other, requiring ever more frequent interactions, until they find themselves consistently together, unable to endure significant separations. When they are apart, they long for each other. The two people have grown together to such an extent that, as in our example of Vicky and Bruce in Chapter 1, neither feels like a whole person when alone. This is the development of tolerance in a relationship. The excitement that originally brought the lovers together has dissipated, yet the lovers are less able than before to be critical of their arrangement. Even if their contact degenerates into constant conflict, they cannot part.
As with heroin and its irrecoverable euphoria, or cigarettes smoked in routine excess, something initially sought for pleasure is held more tightly after it ceases to provide enjoyment. Now it is being maintained for negative rather than positive reasons. The love partner must be there in order to satisfy a deep, aching need, or else the addict begins to feel withdrawal pain. His emotional security is so dependent on this other individual around whom he has organized his life, that to be deprived of the lover would be an utter shock to the system of his existence. If the world he has built with the lover is destroyed, he desperately tries to find some other partner so as to reestablish his artificial equilibrium. For as with heroin and other addictions, it is traumatic for addict lovers to reenter the broader world with which they have lost touch. “It was as though I was lost in a dream world,” they say, “I thought everything we did was so cool, and now I see it was all so sick.”
The addictive foundations of such a relationship are revealed when it ends in an abrupt, total, and vindictive breakup. Since the relationship has been the person’s one essential contact point with life, its removal necessarily leaves him in a disoriented agony. Because the involvement has been so total, its ending must be violent. Thus it is possible for two people who have been the most intimate of friends suddenly to turn around and hate each other, because they have been thinking more of themselves than each other all along. The exploitation that has been going on throughout the relationship simply becomes more overt when the breakup occurs; then the two ex-lovers withdraw emotionally, perhaps to the point of trying to hurt each other. Such betrayals are most striking when a lover breaks off from an established relationship in favor of a new partner who better satisfies his or her needs. Only where “love” is a self-serving device can an external accident destroy the feelings that two people supposedly have for each other. The addict’s haphazard, seemingly innocent couplings are more volatile and more destructive than those formed by people who maintain a questioning attitude toward their lives and relationships.
When there is a willingness to examine one’s motivations and behavior toward others, the idea of addiction can be treated not as a threatening diagnosis, but as a means for heightening the awareness of some dangers which are very common in relationships. By establishing the antithesis of addiction, we can delineate an ideal with which to oppose the tendencies toward self-suppression and suppression of others that can appear in love. Just as it is important to keep the addictive elements that are somewhere present in all human contact from becoming full-blown addictions, it is at least equally valuable to expand the positive, life-seeking potential that also exists within any relationship.
A loving relationship, as Erich Fromm makes clear, is predicated on the psychological wholeness and security of the individuals who come to it. Out of their own integrity, the lovers seek a constant, nondisruptive growth for each other and for the relationship. Respecting the people they are and have been, and the lives they have formed, they try to maintain the prior interests and affections they have known. Where possible, they want to incorporate these things into the relationship, in order to broaden the world they share. They also reserve the time—and the feeling—to keep up those activities or friendships which it would be impossible or inappropriate to offer each other.
Because they are well-composed individuals before the relationship is conceived, their approach to that relationship is not frantic. They may be passionately attracted and want very much to become better friends, but they also recognize there are points at which pressure and intensity are hurtful to what they desire. They accept the need for privacy and for different viewpoints and tastes, they realize that forcing certain commitments or declarations is unwise and ultimately self-defeating, and they appreciate that it takes time for two people to know each other and to discover the extent and depth of their compatibility. They can now carry over to their relationship together the same good feelings that they have about themselves as whole, secure, and reasonable people.
What makes this relationship fulfilling to them, what convinces them that it is love, is their seeing that what they have together is particularly rewarding among the alternatives that each of them has. Rather than making the relationship dry or emotionless, this perspective enables them to give without reserve as mature people who know why they love and sacrifice, and why they can inspire these feelings in someone else. The fact that they are discriminating makes clear that their choice of each other has been made on both sides out of something other than desperation, and thus cannot be blown away by a chance wind. There is no reason for them to doubt that their feeling for each other is genuine, substantial, and long-lived, and hence there is no reluctance to explore life both within the relationship and outside it.
The impetus for this exploration is the life instinct of the individuals involved: they were growing beings before they met, and they entered upon their union as a positive choice for continued growth, only this time to be carried out in conjunction with—though not exclusively with—another person. The lovers approach the relationship itself as an opportunity for growth. They want to understand more about it, about themselves, and about each other. For this reason, a love relationship necessarily becomes deeper, out of the experience the lovers share, and out of their constant desire to uncover new facets of their connection and to better understand its old facets. Each of the lovers wants to become a better person and wants the other to become a better person, both out of a love for that person and a desire to see the best things happen to him or her, and out of the knowledge that this will make him or her—and oneself—a more stimulating, accomplished, happy person to love and be with.
For these things to come about, a loving relationship must be a helping relationship. The lovers have to support each other in their areas of weakness and their areas of strength, though with a different attitude toward each. The first is understood as something undesirable which it may be hard to change. The second is welcomed, admired, utilized, and expanded. In both cases, there is a loving attention, an appreciation of each other’s individuality, and a striving to bring out what is best in each other. To do this may require gentle but persistent reminders, on the one hand, or encouragement and congratulations on the other. But the aim of both is the same: support for one’s partner to become the best human being he or she is reasonably capable of being.
While it is impossible to overstate the role of nurturance and reassurance in love, it is also true that love itself is demanding and sometimes exhausting. The issue between addiction and love is whether the demands will be preordained and immediately self-serving, or whether they will be in the service of some larger sense of individual and mutual progress. The exhaustion that sometimes results from intense contact between two people can be due either to the self-disgust and despair of addiction, or to an impatience and dismay at seeing challenges go unmet. Human emotion necessarily involves risk. The risk may stem from the possibility that a rigid coupling will be cataclysmically disrupted by some new, unanticipated experience, or from the chance that two people who do not allow their lives to be totally defined will evolve in different directions. There is always this danger in love; to deny it is to deny love. But where the people involved are genuine and self-sustaining, and where they have been in love, the parting—made with whatever pain and regret—will not be the end of them as individuals or as loving friends.
This feeling of existential confidence in oneself and one’s relationships is hard to achieve, and may only very rarely be encountered. A host of social forces work against it, and, as a result, it is unfortunately easier to find examples of addiction than of self-fulfillment in love.
Chein, Isidor; Gerard, Donald L.; Lee, Robert S.; and Rosenfeld, Eva. The Road to H. New York: Basic Books, 1964.
Freud, Sigmund. “Being in Love and Hypnosis” (1921). In Group Pschology and the Analysis of the Ego, pp. 54-61. New York: Bantam Books, 1965.
Fromm, Erich. The Art of Living. New York: Harper & Rowe, 1956.
Graham, Sheilah, and Frank, Gerold. Beloved Infidel. New York: Bantam Books, 1959.
Greer, Germaine. The Female Eunuch. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971.
Laing, R.D. The Divided Self. Middlesex, UK: Penguin, 1965.
Lawrence, D.H. Women in Love. Middlesex, UK: Penguin, 1960.
Mizener, Arthur. The Far Side of Paradise. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1949.
Rainwater, Lee. “A Study of Personality Differences Between Middle and Lower Class Adolescents.” Genetic Psychology Mongraphs 54(1956):3-86.
_________. Family Design: Marital Sexuality, Family Size, and Contraception. Chicago, IL: Aldine, 1965.
Schur, Edwin M. Narcotic Addiction in Britain and America. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1962.
* In fact, one way in which Fromm sees man trying to overcome his feeling of separateness is through orgiastic states, including drugs. In a culture like ours where this behavior is disapproved of, “while they [drug users] try to escape from separateness by taking refuge in alcohol or drugs, they feel all the more separate after the orgiastic experience is over, and thus are driven to take recourse to it with increasing frequency and intensity.” (back)