Love Can Be An Addiction

Stanton Peele By: Dr. Stanton Peele

Posted on February 3rd, 2010 - Last updated: March 6th, 2020
This content was written in accordance with our Editorial Guidelines.

People can become addicted to other people in the same way they become addicted to drugs.

We are not using the term addiction in a metaphorical sense; we mean it literally. The interpersonal dependencies in the cases that follow are not like addictions. They are addictions.

Richard and Joan became lovers and isolated themselves from their friends while he was a sophomore in college and she was still in high school. Neither had ever had another lover. Whenever possible they spent their time together and passed the evenings when they were apart on the phone. They supported each other in conflicts with family and friends. In this way individually and as a pair, they ignored criticism from the outside. After a few years, they married and moved to a different university. There a more active social and political life beckoned them. They found they no longer needed each other as much. On the new campus Richard felt free from old male rivalries, and Joan grew more self-confident. She had no further use for a dominant man to direct her actions and her feelings about herself. The marriage ended immediately upon Joan’s revelation that she had been having a clandestine affair.

Guy, a capable, young physician, lives in constant need of a woman’s devotion. An attractive, desirable man, Guy approaches every eligible partner with a sense of weakness and desperation, which he masks with bravado. When he finds a lover and begins to feel secure with her he becomes manipulative, demanding that the woman show her loyalty by catering to him. His demands increase until the relationship is destroyed. Then he experiences withdrawal—sleepless nights, rapid heartbeat, muscle tightness and alternating periods of lethargy and frenetic movement. Until he finds another lover, his professional life suffers and he is listless and detached with friends. These symptoms show that Guy is addicted.

Something Is Missing

By addiction, we mean the classic, quasi-physiological syndrome identified by tolerance and by withdrawal. When a person requires larger and larger doses of a substance in order to obtain the desired effect, he has built up a tolerance to it. Withdrawal is the body’s traumatic readjustment to a drugless state. Severe withdrawal looks like an attack of the flu — fever, sweating and shivering, nausea, rhinitis, alternating sleeplessness and drowsiness. Most agonizing to the addict, however, is an intangible feeling that something central is missing from his body and his existence.

Since tolerance and withdrawal are known through subjective reports and observations of behavior, there is no reason to think of them, and addiction, as primarily physiological phenomena.

Over the past few years, drug researchers have realized that the pattern of addiction can be generalized. Alcohol users, barbiturate users, tranquilizer users, tobacco smokers, and coffee drinkers, as well as narcotics users, may build up a tolerance and go through withdrawal, even though each of the drugs in question is chemically distinct from the other.

Although each drug acts differently on the body, the manifestations of tolerance and withdrawal remain the same. In trying to explain why this is so, researchers have moved from the old concept of addiction as a physical dependence to a concept of addiction as a psychic dependence. The new orientation emphasizes the experience a person has with a drug. It asks, “What does the fixation do for the addict?” It suggests that drugs do not victimize a person, but that a person uses drugs to give his life a structure and to secure him against novelty and challenge.

People, including addicts, react to drugs according to their mental set and social setting. Both of these are cultural factors. Stanley Schachter’s classic studies of emotional arousal demonstrated that the way a person behaves after a shot of adrenalin depends on his expectations and the social setting of the shot. Through field observations of marijuana smokers in the 1950s, Howard Becker found that learning to be a drug user involves more than mastering techniques and implements. It means learning what sensations the user is supposed to feel and why he is supposed to enjoy them. Louis Lasagna showed that the effects of morphine can be simulated by a placebo. Andrew Weil’s marijuana research at Harvard wiped out any serious doubt about the central role of set and setting. These data suggest that the biochemical aspects of addiction are only half the story. Addiction is partially self-induced. It is a function of the way a person interprets his experience. To understand this other half of the story, we need to look at the general pattern of addiction—the pattern revealed in the case histories of Richard and Joan and Guy.

Safe, Repetitive, Predictable

As a person becomes progressively more involved with a drug, he becomes more dependent on the reassurance it offers. He becomes less able to deal with the problems and uncertainties that made the drug desirable in the first place. Eventually, that person reaches a point where he cannot be deprived of this source of reassurance without considerable trauma. This is addiction. What has happened has little to do with physical dependence. By now, the addict not only feels more helpless facing the world at large, he also feels helpless facing the drug he needs. He believes that he can neither live without it nor free himself from its grasp.

If addiction is something that happens inside a person’s consciousness, if it is largely a matter of how someone responds to and organizes his experience, then it is natural that potential addictive objects are not limited to drugs alone. Anything that is safe, repetitive, predictable, and sufficiently consuming will do. It may be a job (as in Wayne Oates’s Confessions of a Workaholic) or a socially or institutionally defined role.

The Jesus freak movement provides a striking contemporary example of the way religion can serve as the opiate of the people. Young people who join religious communes get an integrating concept for their lives. They abide by a set of rules and rituals, and in return bypass the chaotic flow of direct personal experience. They resolve any uncertainty by a cure-all faith in a higher power. Fundamentalist religion is a common form of addiction today, but not the most common. The most prevalent form, which to some degree probably touches all our lives, is interpersonal addiction, or addiction to someone we think we love.

Few Are Free

The susceptibility to addiction, interpersonal or otherwise, is not an all-or-none proposition. Very few of us are free from the impulse to retreat to safe ground. The shadings that separate interpersonal addiction from real love are as imperceptible as the changing color of the sky at twilight. But so are the shadings separating a drug addict from a drug user. Addiction is not only a quasi-physiological syndrome. It is a state of being. It is a word we often use to describe persons with a set of specific, interrelated personality traits.

In The Road to H, Isidor Chein lists some of the traits that go into the making of heroin addicts in the ghetto: passivity, low self-esteem, excessive consciousness of life’s dangers, distrust of other people, high need for predictable oral gratification, defensively constricted personality structure, lack of creative motivation except when pushed, and an exploitative orientation toward others. Among the GI heroin users in Vietnam these characteristics were often absent. It was only the perils and constraints of their immediate situation that turned them into drug users. Thus, when the GIs returned to U.S. civilian life, most of them quit heroin, even though according to all the clichés about “drug fiends” they were physically hooked on heroin [see “A Conversation with Jerome Jaffe,” Psychology Today, August 1973].

Most of us come from the middle class. Passivity, low self-esteem and other interrelated personality traits curse the suburbs as they do the ghettos. But drug addiction, with its disruption of stable living habits, does not fit into the middle-class lifestyle. Interpersonal addiction, which accentuates possessive love and family privatism, fits only too well. Lee Rainwater has shown that lower-class persons are likely to form dependency relationships with concrete objects (e.g. alcohol, drugs), while middle-class persons are inclined to seek self-gratification through emotional attachment to other people.

The middle class prepares its offspring for an exclusive, one-to-one relationship in adulthood. Not finding many sure sources of interpersonal gratification in the open community, the middle-class adolescent comes instead to expect a single relationship to provide compensatory comfort. “The rest of the world may be cold and forbidding, but my spouse will still be with me.”

Just as ghetto residents are constantly exposed to drugs, we in the middle class are constantly tempted by the false security of interpersonal addiction. Which of us succumb? It is possible to have a close relationship, or a marriage, without becoming addicts. An addictive relationship, like drug addiction, is a single overwhelming involvement that cuts off a person from life.

Addicted lovers become less able to cope with anyone or anything else. The relationship itself becomes paramount. It becomes the only point of certainty in a bewildering and dangerous world. The addicted lovers gradually let go of all other interests and activities.

Using a Lover

In contrast, a mature conception of love involves a desire to grow and expand oneself through the relationship, a desire for one’s lover to do the same. If you love someone, you welcome anything that adds to the richness of your partner’s experience, partly because it makes him or her more stimulating. If you are self-completed, you can welcome even the kind of experience that draws your lover away from you. Only if you are using your lover to fill up the emptiness within yourself do you begrudge him or her personal growth. This begrudging leads to jealousy and possessiveness.

An addictive relationship shows through when it ends in an abrupt, total and vindictive breakup—as traumatic as heroin withdrawal. When two people who have been extremely intimate suddenly turn around and hate each other, it is usually because they have been thinking more of themselves than of each other. When Richard and Joan broke up, their acquaintances were shocked that two people who had seemed so much in love could walk away from each other with such callous disregard for each other’s feelings. But their love had been merely a temporary solution for their individual problems.

“Addiction” and “mature love” are words, black and white words. Some persons are “interpersonal addicts”; others are “mature lovers”; but most relationships only tend toward one extreme or the other. Most relationships are a combination of the two.

Addictive Vs. Mature Love

Are the lovers improved by the relationship? By some measure outside 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 set off from, the totality of the lovers’ lives?

Are the lovers also friends? Would they seek each other out if they should cease to be primary partners?

Does each lover have a secure belief in his or her own value?

Answers to questions such as these only begin to untangle the subtleties differentiating addictive from mature love.

As an addictive relationship unfolds, the lovers may seem to be seeing each other for the pleasure and excitement of it, but this doesn’t last. After awhile, the lovers are just there for each other, not for mutual growth or self-expression, but for comfort and familiarity. They reach a tolerance for each other. As for withdrawal, we have all seen the emotional and physical havoc that follows in the wake of some breakups, and the desperate ploys a jilted lover will try in order to get another “shot” of his or her beloved.

Trajectory of Self-Destruction

An addictive relationship is ultimately self-destructive, for the pair and for the individuals involved. The case history of Larry and Sheena traces the trajectory of this self-destruction.

When Larry arrived in New York to start his first job after taking a graduate degree in mechanical engineering, he contacted Sheena. On a previous visit to the city he and Sheena had enjoyed a brief fling together. Actually Larry had another woman in mind with whom he wanted to live, but that would take some working out, and in the meantime he needed a place to stay.

Larry told Sheena that he did not plan on staying with her long. He told her about the other woman. Sheena was a practicing clinical psychologist, and Larry thought of her as an independent professional woman who might enjoy a casual affair. He misjudged her. Sheena had married while still in her teens. She had become a mother when she was 19. Ever since her husband had drowned in a boating accident she had moved from one intense clinging relationship to another.

In the big city, Larry eagerly went ahead with his plans. At the same time he took advantage of the domestic comforts Sheena was only too happy to provide. One evening he went out to see the other woman. He returned to find Sheena hysterical. She had badly injured herself in a fall from a ladder, though whether accidentally or deliberately was uncertain. By the time Larry realized that his other, more passionately conceived affair was not going to get off the ground, he began to feel that he had stumbled into a horrible bind. He moved out of Sheena’s apartment and in with a male friend. But when he returned to Sheena’s to pack up his belongings, she implored him to stay, and he changed his mind again. He stayed on for several months more.

Next, Larry announced that he was moving out because he was not prepared to live with Sheena’s child. He said he did not want the child getting too accustomed to him. He thought this would force a separation from Sheena, but Sheena sent her child to live with her former in-laws.

Larry stayed on in the apartment for two more years. Whenever he told Sheena that she was little more than a roommate to him, she would tell him he was crazy, that he was out of touch with his feelings. He, by not making good on his threats to move out, made her interpretation of the relationship as plausible as his own. In a sense, they had two relationships going on simultaneously, both of them self-serving and self-deluding. Nonetheless, neither partner had the self-respect to walk out.

The pair frequently fought, but no changes in behavior ever resulted. Finally, Larry found an engineering job in the north of England. He justified the move to Sheena as a step forward in his career. He told friends that by going to Europe he would be able to get away from her. But Sheena found an opening in a psychiatric program in London, and the couple flew to Europe together.

Larry settled in the north of England and Sheena settled in London. In her letters and phone calls to him, Sheena sounded sane and reasonable. Like a heroin addict feigning a cure to gain some ulterior end, she spoke of a new lover—not to make Larry jealous, but to reassure him that she would no longer cling to him.

Intimacy Begrudged

Larry invited Sheena to come for a visit. He knew he was in trouble when he got a call from her at the local railroad station the night before she was supposed to arrive. The visit was a running battle reminiscent of their days in New York. Sheena demanded, and Larry begrudged her, promises of future intimacy. Sheena’s London lover either did not exist or did not matter. But Larry still did matter to her, above all else, and he apparently could not do without her.

Today, the relationship goes on in this manner. It takes a heavy toll. For one thing, it seriously retards Sheena’s growth because it cushions her from reality. Instead of developing a broader, more open outlook in the aftermath of her husband’s death, she has continued to live by the same limited conception of choices that led to her early marriage. “If we break up now,” Sheena has said to Larry, “then all the time we’ve spent together will have been wasted.’ She is like a heroin addict obsessed with the next fix. She does not value the relationship for any meaning it has for her, or for what it contributes to her experience. She is interested only in Larry’s continuing presence.

As for Larry, outwardly more adventurous and self-contained, his behavior is no more rational than Sheena’s and just as self-destructive. Despite his efficient, expeditious air, Larry does not seem sure about what he wants from life. He is powerfully moved by someone who looks after him in small, domestic ways. Perhaps this makes him think he is being taken care of in larger ways. Incapable of dealing with his emotions, he needs a person like Sheena who bestows her affection indiscriminately. Larry is not only an ideal foil for an addict. He is an addict himself.

Larry and Sheena, as well as other interpersonal addicts, are not afflicted by an act of fate. Parents transmit their tendency toward interpersonal addiction to their children. Usually parents simply pass on to children their own need for external supports, their own need for an outside organizing principle for their lives. Sometimes, however, parents are directly dependent on their children, and in turn get their children addicted to them. This may lead to a situation where a child remains dependent on his or her parents long after becoming an adult, as when a young divorcee moves back in with her parents and accepts their management of her personal and sexual affairs. Or it may lead to the kind of complicated mutual dependency depicted in Portnoy’s Complaint—mutual, because Portnoy’s obsessive preoccupation with his parents prevents him from acting autonomously.

Take the case of Alice, a clerk working in a large downtown office. Every day precisely at 4:00 p.m.. Alice’s telephone rings. Her 10-year-old son is calling to say that he is home safely from school. If the boy does not call, Alice frantically dials dozens of numbers all over her neighborhood. She will leave the office early it she cannot locate her son. But more often it is the boy himself who makes the extra calls, consulting his mother for detailed advice about some minor problem.

The broader outlines of this case history are more familiar. Alice is bright. She is a single parent. She wants to go back to school. She says she can’t because of her boy. In this way she avoids confronting her predicament. In return, Alice is teaching her son dependency instead of how to deal with life.

Love Vs. Exploitation

We believe that our concept of addictive love sheds light on the nature of middle-class family life as well as on the nature of addiction. Juxtaposing “love” and “addiction” gives us another way of looking at the world. By generalizing the pattern of addiction we can see that heroin users, for instance, are not a race apart. Dependency on drugs is akin to middle-class dependency on spouses. It just so happens that society finds drug addiction unredeeming and so outlaws the syndrome.

The concept of addictive love can provide us with another means of self-examination. Like Erich Fromm in The Art of Loving, we believe that if persons are to work toward mutual understanding and actualized love, we must learn to distinguish between love and the destructive exploitation of self and others that takes the name of love.


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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.

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