Love and Addiction: Authors’ Preface, 1991 Edition
In: Peele, S., with Brodsky, A. (1975, 1991), Love and Addiction. New York: Taplinger.
© 1975, 1991 Stanton Peele and Archie Brodsky.
Reprinted with permission from Taplinger Publishing Co., Inc.
Authors’ Preface, 1991 Edition
When Love and Addiction appeared in 1975, it was disturbing, confounding, infuriating—altogether ahead of its time. A decade and a half later, it still is. This may seem a puzzling statement in view of the success the book has enjoyed in recent years—years that have seen an explosion of interest in addictions of all kinds. Our once shocking notion that people can be addicted to love and other nondrug-related experiences has become a commonplace of the TV talk shows. Doesn’t that mean that our ideas have been accepted? Actually, only half of our thrust was accepted, and the less important half at that.
In Love and Addiction we sought to show that a person can become addicted not just to drugs, alcohol, or even food, but to any kind of experience that the person finds sufficiently rewarding and consuming. We emphasized dependent love relationships, the hidden addiction of mainstream America, to show how little addiction really has to do with biochemical reactions, as well as to let readers take a fresh look at unrecognized unhealthy dependencies in their own lives. Although the idea that personal relationships and other ordinary human experiences (such as work, shopping, and watching television) can be addictive met with some initial resistance, it has since been taken up with an enthusiasm far beyond our expectations.
By the time we suggested that love could be an addiction, people’s image of what an addiction is had been shaped by the 12-step ideology of Alcoholics Anonymous, a set of religious precepts further sanctified by the modern priesthood of medicine. Americans had learned to call addiction a “disease.” The association had become so ingrained that those who saw it was nonsense felt a need to disavow the idea of addiction itself, as by saying, “That love relationships can be addictions—how absurd.” We believe, in contrast, that relationships can be as addictive as drugs and alcohol, and that addictions of any type are not diseases.
For the most part, however, as the 1970s turned into the 1980s, many more people embraced the notion of addictive “disease” as a simple explanation for a wide range of unhealthy or self-defeating habits. And this was how “love addiction” entered the popular vocabulary. A decade after Love and Addiction, Robin Norwood’s Women Who Love Too Much (1986) became a huge best seller. Meanwhile Janet Woititz’s 1983 book Adult Children of Alcoholics continued to grow in prominence, describing people—primarily women—who were scarred by parental alcoholism even though they themselves didn’t have a drinking problem.
But Norwood, Woititz, and the others took our idea in the opposite direction from us. If human relationships were really a form of addiction, the only definition these writers had for addiction was the standard one of a “lifelong, progressive disease,” and the only remedy they could offer was the twelve steps of A.A. Thus Al-Anon groups grew for spouses of alcoholics and others who were called codependent along with Women Who Love Too Much and Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACoA) groups.
While putting love addiction in this context gave it broad popular appeal, the 12-step approach to relationship problems is ineffective. It burdens people with a new dysfunctional identity, that of codependent or child of an alcoholic. For those involved in problematic relationships, 12-step groups and the disease theory often excuse their mates for their drinking and other misbehavior, since they have the “disease” of alcoholism. And, as a growing chorus of women in these groups and other observers have noted, sitting around reflecting on how life has left one debilitated prevents women from taking action to make their lives better. For example writer Elissa Schappell noted about Al-Anon and Women Who Love Too Much meetings she attended:
I don’t know whether or not these women are truly love addicts. But I know it’s unlikely any of them could ever be remotely changed—not to mention cured—by the experience of being here. And yet they are addicted to the group, or the idea of needing it; that much seems painfully clear.
And Phyllis Hobe declared in Lovebound (1990),
ACoAs aren’t getting the kind of help they really need because most forms of treatment tend to reinforce their problems . . . We have always felt powerless to do anything about the condition of our lives; in recovery we are told that this is true—and it’s not going to change. Instead of teaching us the skills of self-sufficiency, which we desperately need, we are urged to expect a “Higher Power” to look after us.
Simultaneously, Patrick Carnes popularized the notion of “sexual addiction” with his book of that name (published in 1983 and retitled Out of the Shadows in 1985). Sex addiction differs from love addiction mainly in that it afflicts men more than women, who then often join groups of “Sexaholics Anonymous.” Here the 12-step tenets of powerlessness, loss of control, and lifelong abstinence are applied to sex exactly the way the temperance movement approached demon rum (and religious zealots attacked masturbation) in what amounts to a thinly disguised moralism. Carnes is intimately tied to the addiction treatment industry, and CompCare (one of the leading industry presses) has publicized his books alongside those for alcoholics, relatives of alcoholics, addicted overeaters and gamblers, victims of abuse, and so forth.
In 1987, love addiction of the mainly female variety took a new turn in its evolution with the runaway success of Melody Beattie’s Codependent No More. Codependence, a term originally applied to the spouses of alcoholics and drug addicts, has become such an elastic characterization that it stretches to fit almost anyone. One often-quoted claim is that 96 percent of the population is codependent—the same percentage said to come from “dysfunctional families.” According to Beattie, if you have any addictive habits yourself or any problems connected with your relationships with people, “chances are you’re codependent, too.” This imprecise formulation encompasses everyone as a potential subject, thereby expanding the market for books and treatment programs.
Beattie followed her original book with several others, including Codependents’ Guide to the Twelve Steps (1990). She, along with Woititz, Pia Mellody, Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse, and others in the field, have in a multitude of books and workshops on the subject aimed the full artillery of the disease model at codependence and adult children of alcoholics. All these variants of love and relationship addiction rely on the mythology of addiction as a disease. According to the orthodoxy, addiction is an all-or-none thing; either you have it or you don’t. Its cause is some overpowering force originating early in life (perhaps even a genetic disability) that cannot be avoided or overcome. If you were born into an alcoholic family (like, it is claimed, a quarter of all Americans) or one of the ubiquitous dysfunctional clans, your life will be marked by codependence and addiction in ways you cannot fully understand or modify on your own.
Once you have the disease of addiction, you have it for life, and you must accept it as a badge of identity (“I am an alcoholic”; “I am a sex-and-love addict”; “I am the child of an alcoholic”). For the disease will inevitably expand and take over your life unless you abstain forever in addition to entering medical treatment and/or a spiritual support group. Finally, once someone suspects you are not accepting your identity as codependent or child of an alcoholic, just like the drinker who refuses to accept that he is an alcoholic, you are judged to be “in denial” by those in recovery who know your inner life better than you yourself do.
This catechism is applied not only to love addiction and children of alcoholics, but to gambling, shopaholism, bulimia-anorexia and other types of compulsive eating, perpetrating or suffering abuse, being a grandchild of an alcoholic, and every excess known to man or woman. In short, the idea that addiction can appear in any area of life has been expanded to mean that we are all addicted to something and that we must join a group or enter treatment. And since addiction is permanent and can’t be outgrown, this group membership or treatment must become a permanent feature of our lives.
The perversion of our explanation of addiction has occurred as a result of the rush to fit newly recognized addictions like love addiction into well-worn models of thinking about addiction. For us, the main purpose of opening up the realm of addiction to nonchemical involvements was to free people’s minds from commonly accepted (but incorrect) beliefs that some substances are universally addicting (like narcotics or, more recently, crack) or that some individuals are born to be addicted (for example, alcoholics).
Instead, we reasoned, if people can be addicted to any consuming experience, then addiction is not what we are accustomed to thinking it is. If what people get addicted to is an experience (whether precipitated by a psychoactive drug or by the feelings associated with an intimate relationship), if another person can be as predictable and comforting an object as a drink or a “fix,” then we need a new understanding of the addictive process. An addiction is an experience that takes on meaning and power in the light of a person’s needs, desires, beliefs, expectations, and fears. Compulsive, dependent attachments arise from the contrast between the barrenness and anxiety people sense in the rest of their lives and the immediate fulfillment they expect to feel when engaged with the addictive object or sensation.
Everyone has habits and dependencies of varying severity. An addiction is a habit that gets out of hand. The key to understanding addiction is to realize the function the addiction serves in the individual’s life. For example, addiction is not an unfortunate side effect of powerful painkillers like narcotics. Rather, powerful pain relievers are addictive to the extent that they remove pain quickly and effectively. It is pain relief, feelings of power or reassurance, and other essential human experiences that some people, and many people under some circumstances, seek in addictive drugs. Understanding the conditions that allow an involvement to dominate a person’s life allows us to help the person overcome the addiction. In Love and Addiction we went beyond individual psychology to look at the influence of the social setting—how addictions often occur in response to deprived and disturbed environments. If people believe that alcohol or drugs are better than available alternatives, the powerlessness they feel expresses itself as alcoholism or drug addiction.
For the most part, however, conventional beliefs have overpowered our reinterpretation of addiction. In the current atmosphere of excruciating anxiety about drugs and addiction, it is almost too much to expect a realistic, pragmatic approach to addiction to make quick headway. When we first presented this new, commonsense vision of addiction, we thought it would be welcomed as liberating. We were saying that people are capable of choice, even in the face of seemingly overpowering sensations. By reducing addiction to life-size, we pointed to practical remedies by which people might change their lives to be more productive. Naturally, it is a sad irony for us that our work contributed inadvertently to the labeling of yet more “diseases” over which people are “powerless.”
As it turned out, Love and Addiction came up against the very social forces it identified as sources of addiction—forces that work against self-assertion by making people feel that they are incapable of influencing their lives. Americans in the 1980s have been all too willing to forswear autonomy and choice; consider, for example, the enthusiastic revival of genetic determinism, which tells us that we are doomed by our genes to mental illness, hyperactivity, alcoholism, overweight—even excessive television viewing, love-sickness, and shyness. This dispiriting atmosphere has diluted and reduced our challenging views to fit the prevailing ethos.
Our response has been to change the emphasis of our writing. In Love and Addiction we gave readers a feeling for the inner reality of addiction and how people get caught up in a cycle of fear, avoidance, false reassurance, and guilt from which they find it increasingly difficult to extricate themselves. In 1991, describing the feelings of addiction in ways we can all relate to is still worthwhile. But now, with so many people eager to detail their many addictions, we also have had to show how addiction depends on circumstances: how it varies with time, place, and mood; how it can be temporary; how its destructive course is by no means inexorable; how people can and do choose to quit, to control, to leave addiction behind or outgrow it. All of these ideas are central to Love and Addiction, but today they need to be reemphasized in order to debunk disease notions of addiction.
Since Love and Addiction, Archie Brodsky has written If This Is Love, Why Do I Feel So Insecure? (1989) with psychologists Carl Hindy and Conrad Schwarz, about the sources of romantic insecurity in people’s family backgrounds and early life experiences. For the most part, however, our work has concentrated on alcohol and drugs, the areas where debates about treatment and public policy are most explosive. Although our focus has shifted from the narcotics and psychedelics of 1970 to alcohol and cocaine in 1990, we have presented a consistent view of addiction in a changing clinical, scientific, and political context. In Diseasing of America (1989), Stanton Peele showed how the increasingly authoritarian and expansionist character of the 12-step movement and addiction treatment industry fails and even harms many individuals. Diseasing also analyzed how the reliance on pseudo-medical explanations for human behavior has reinforced the erosion of values, responsibility, and community in contemporary America.
Then, in The Truth About Addiction and Recovery (1991), the two of us (with Mary Arnold) revealed the best-kept secret in the addiction treatment industry: that people most often give up addiction through the natural evolution of their lives. Just think of how many people you know who have quit cigarettes without treatment (keeping in mind that five times the percentage of regular cigarette smokers become addicted as crack smokers). This natural process of self-cure is far more common, and often more effective, than existing treatments or support groups. At the heart of our analysis is the simple realization that the solutions for addiction, like its sources, can be found in the circumstances of people’s lives and the ways people cope with these. People outgrow their addictions when they learn to value new associations and ways of spending time aside from the addiction, when they can cope better with the everyday demands of life, when they have accomplished enough so that losing the new roles and responsibilities they have attained would be unthinkable, when they come to feel capable of managing their lives—in short, when they develop an identity that precludes their old self-destructive behavior. These observations have enormous implications for treatment and self-help, implications we spell out in The Truth About Addiction and Recovery.
Just as we have confronted the prevailing irrationalities about addiction in the areas of clinical treatment, scientific research, and popular social movements, we also confront them in public policies. Our understanding of drugs and addiction, which acknowledges personal choice and control, opposes the hysteria used today to justify random drug testing, coerced treatment for alleged alcoholics and addicts, and mandated referrals (such as for drunk drivers) to religiously oriented 12-step groups. In other words, the disease model is not a nonpunitive, nonmoralistic approach to drug and alcohol abuse. On the contrary, it punishes behavior of which it does not approve, including what it decides is addiction.
The War on Drugs and the addiction-as-disease movement are two sides of the same coin. In fact, they work in tandem to invade people’s privacy, prevent the exercise of individual and communal responsibility, and ultimately infantilize the population. Just attend a legislative hearing for a proposed needle-exchange program to reduce the spread of AIDS and see how moralistic the 12-step zealots can be in denying a public-health measure that might help those who want to avoid catching a true disease. Arguing that addiction is a “disease” is just as useless as claiming it’s a “sin.” Instead, we must empower people to resist and overcome destructive habits, while holding them accountable for their actions toward others and toward the community, regardless of what drugs they ingest. It is the public behavior, not the private ingestion, that it is society’s business to regulate.
Inevitably, there has been a reaction against the indiscriminate invocation of “addiction” to explain or justify anything people do, especially anything bad. The criticism is misdirected, however, when it simply reasserts the conventional distinction between “real” (“physiological”) addictions and what it views as the trivial complaints of middle-class whiners. Although the impatience with “addiction chic” is understandable, we stand on the radical propositions we advanced in Love and Addiction: (1) that physiological habituation plays at most a small part in any kind of addiction; (2) that addiction is created not by the substance or object, but by how the person experiences it, so that a person can use anything in either a healthy or unhealthy way; (3) that the experience of addiction is essentially the same whether or not a drug is involved; (4) that the causes of addiction are not mysterious, but are part and parcel of the circumstances of a person’s life. Against the “invasion of the body snatchers” model that portrays addiction as an alien force, we have shown that addiction is grounded in ordinary human experience.
In When Society Becomes an Addict (1987), Anne Wilson Schaef presented a panorama of a corrupt, addicted society, just as we did in Love and Addiction. Schaef proposed, however, to save the world with a vast 12-step recovery program for everyone and everything. How far Schaef’s view of addiction is from ours is expressed in her belief that an addiction “takes control of us, causing us to do and think things that are inconsistent with our personal values.” This simply builds up the addiction bogey that we tried to slay in Love and Addiction. We contend instead that addiction is a reflection of an individual’s—as well as a community’s and culture’s—values.
Beyond these debates and our current activities, Love and Addiction goes on. We are grateful to the many people who have found value in Love and Addiction and used it to help themselves and others, to a publisher (New American Library, part of Penguin USA) whose faith in the book has been matched by its efficacy in keeping it on the shelves, and to those following us in the addiction field who have had the decency to acknowledge our contribution. As time goes on, the enduring value of Love and Addiction is testified to by the regular citations in new generations of books on the topic—including, along with Norwood’s Women Who Love Too Much, Howard Halpern’s How to Break Your Addiction to a Person (1982), Sandra Simpson LeSourd’s The Compulsive Woman (1987), and Brenda Schaeffer’s Is It Love Or Is It Addiction? (1987). Norwood’s integrity in acknowledging our earlier contribution was a big boost for Love and Addiction, which began to prosper as it rode the waves created by the best sellers of the mid-eighties.
We are amused, at the same time, by the usual bouts of amnesia on the part of authors of popular books who adopt our ideas in ways perhaps even they do not realize, as Susan Forward did in her 1991 book, Obsessive Love. Forward’s reading list apparently had a statute of limitations, including nothing published before 1978. Likewise, Melody Beattie’s Codependent No More listed characteristics of “love” versus “addiction” which echo very closely Chapter 4 of Love and Addiction. When we requested a correction of this oversight, Beattie’s publisher refused for a year and a half, citing as a reason that we had taken issue with Beattie in an article in Time magazine. In this view, it is only necessary to cite those who agree with one’s work, no matter how much material one borrows from anyone else! Finally, after the intervention of the National Writers Union, the publisher agreed to include an appropriate reference to us.
At the other extreme from the slights of the popular writers who capitalize on our work without acknowledgement was Elayne Rapping’s review of Norwood, Beattie, Schaef, and Love and Addiction in The Nation on March 5, 1990. Rapping’s review was one of several feminist critiques of the recovery movement and codependence as being apolitical and disempowering. According to writers like Carol Tavris, Wendy Kaminer, and Harriet Lerner, the notion of codependence as a disease provides a safe outlet for women’s discontents which otherwise might be expressed in demands for political and economic power. Rapping made this point by contrasting Love and Addiction with the other books she reviewed. Calling our book “unsettling and instructive,” she noted that it “makes connections between addictive relationships and the larger social context.” We think such qualities obligatory in a book analyzing the complex social-psychological phenomenon that is addiction. After more than a decade of new books on love addiction, Rapping’s review labeled ours “the most interesting” and best book on the topic. Her review justified the hope we had for Love and Addiction when it was first published.