Perhaps addiction can best be defined as compulsively compromising one’s own best interests in favor of pursuing a substance, belief or experience.
If that is true, then I have been addicted to relationships since at least the age of 14.
I first fell in love with James, a boy in my freshman year of high school, and was quickly consumed by little else other than the thought of him for the next three years. I remember being so nervous to be dancing cheek to cheek at a party that my body literally shook.
I could no more have acted normally in that moment than I could fly.
It’s no wonder that nothing ever came of it. I was desperately in love with my own obsessive fantasy that had his face pasted on the front, and I was doing everything I could to be someone other than who I actually was in order to win him. As it turns out, that is exactly what I replicated for most of the rest of my life—until now.
Unlike many addictions and compulsions, being addicted to relationship is not something that can be cured by avoidance. Like food, we must find some way to relate to it in a healthy way rather than simply turning away altogether. People are everywhere, we have to relate to them and—for those of us who feel that pull—needing an intimate relationship then becomes a sticky, interwoven, compelling and consuming problem.
After my young agony and heartbreak with James, my illusions of love simply transferred to the next object of affection, and the next, and the next until they finally affixed themselves securely to the man who became my husband. Each, in my mind, had their pictures neatly pasted over reality in order to create what I hoped would finally make me happy and maybe even save me.
To be honest, even as I began to recognize my obsessiveness and desire, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be cured of relationship addiction. I was drawn to the intensity, to the highs, lows and unknowns, to the endless quest for some kind of real fulfillment—and that is the voice of a true addict.
I was compelled by desire, and worse I was compelled by the desire for desire. I wanted to want and I courted the drama. Without such obsession I imagined a dull, grey, boring world devoid of life—one that lacked thrill, communion, consummation, or, at the very least, an epic tragedy of love lost. Many of my clients fear loneliness, but for me even that paled in comparison to the fear of being just bored and devoid, as though my reason to live had simply departed.
When I left my marriage I expected that maybe now I would finally find fulfillment, but surprisingly something different happened. I started using the raw material of relationship—with all of its longings, ecstasy, devastation, confusion and downright agony—to change me. That was eight years ago and my relationships haven’t been the same since.
Each meeting with a romantic partner has been leagues beyond the last, showing me that I am not repeating patterns any longer but actually transforming. The final bit of proof was actually anticlimactic. It came a few years ago when I suddenly realized that I didn’t even think about being in a relationship or not, and I certainly didn’t long for it when it wasn’t there.
My relationship addiction had apparently given me up.
The cure for me began in this way: About six years ago, I was in the kitchen of my lover’s house during one of our many intermittent breakups. We were wrecked and insanely desiring the other. As we began to move toward each other he paused, saying, “I don’t know about this. I can be a real a**hole sometimes.”
This was him kindly warning me that connecting again didn’t mean that anything would be different this time.
Something strong welled up in me, and I looked him straight in the eye. “Actually, I find that kind of insulting,” I said to him. “If I don’t want my heart broken, I know where the door is.”
At that moment, something shifted in me: I began to take responsibility for what I was doing. I had just said out loud to another human being that I knew exactly what I was doing and what I was signing up for.
I was choosing it, consciously.
It was as if a bottle of wine or other potentially addictive substance, could say to you, “Hey, you should know that I could get you drunk and you might feel sick, or puke or even die if you drink me,” and you said back, clearly and concisely, “I know, and whatever happens from here is something I take full responsibility for.”
It wasn’t the cure, but it was the first step.
After that, I started noticing each time that I gave up some part of myself and afterward felt pain because of it, or else resented my partner. I had to do it step by step, betraying myself and then realizing again that I couldn’t blame him for my choices and actions anymore—that I was actually signing up for this. Slowly, I stopped selling myself out, just one instance at a time. He would ask to make plans for next Saturday night, and I’d remember that he often cancelled or changed things last minute without consulting me. I saw that I would feel disappointed and hurt, and then I’d blame him if it happened again. So, biting back my huge desire to do anything just to be with him, I’d say “no.”
I would risk being alone—and often I was.
Doing this time and time again meant that I had to ride a wave of fear and dread as I faced squarely the possibility of losing my beloved as I chose myself, my honesty and my integrity instead.
Oftentimes it was profoundly unsatisfying.
For me, however, it also morphed into an unprecedented adventure of staying true to myself and over time that replaced the simpler desire of just wanting the relationship at any cost or coming back to it even when it wasn’t right for me. The true adventure became courting myself—my authenticity, my voice and my sincere disclosures. Quite honestly, it scared the hell out of me. In fact, it turned out to be all the drama, connection and aliveness that I could ever want.
Loving myself, as I knew intellectually that I needed to, became a much more interesting ride than I had anticipated. Before this I imagined that giving up relationship addiction would be like a lukewarm bubble bath, sitting alone on a Saturday night trying to pretend that the soak could even begin to compare to real connection and ecstasy with a lover. Instead I found that it was like playing inner “Extreme Games” as time and time again I asked myself, “Am I willing to lose him in order to stay true to myself—even for what seem like a small, perhaps even insignificant part of myself?” And the answer kept coming up, “Yes.”
I’m not going to candy-coat it. My relationship in this case ended badly, very badly. I will write future articles about how spectacularly badly it ended but when it did, a pattern in me was also finished. It was like having lived a beautiful, long life that was finally spent—perfect, whole, complete and simply over. I mourned (a lot), and spent the better part of a year in the worst emotionally agony I had ever experienced (at the time I compared it to being like an animal set on fire and then put into a cage), but the pay-off was that I had finally discovered and made good on the real deal with myself.
Even the agony was a price I was willing to pay if necessary. That is how true to myself I had become.
My desire to be in relationship or have a partner then stabilized, like seeking out good, healthy food when you are hungry rather than courting the peaks and crashes of chocolates, caffeine, sugar or drugs.
Interestingly, as my relationship addiction ended, my openness and love for people did not decrease. In fact, I began to meet and connect with men in the same way that I had always wanted them to connect with me. Before, I had longed for them to see me as whole, beautiful and lovable, to act on an honest connection if there was one, and to be both caring and committed to me. I became free to do just that—to love people in that way and to trust where it took us in any particular case. My love for friends, acquaintances, family, strangers and even my own kids was the same.
As I was ever more true to myself, my interest, love, devotion and compassion for others correspondingly increased.
I have had some pretty amazing experiences since. I have loved and attended to men through some of their deepest pain without any attachment to becoming their beloved. I also became deep friends and occasional lovers with unbelievably compassionate, open and honest men—ones I literally couldn’t have even imagined before—again, without any compelling desire to enter into relationship. I no longer sought out love, nor artificially denied it when it was present. Although human relationship is infinitely more robust and nuanced than my myriad food analogies here, I can say that it was like I had finally learned to eat well and to put it down when I was no longer hungry or when it didn’t nourish.
I got my heart broken a few times, but now it was a normal heartbreak—unlike the indescribable agony, panic and loneliness when my addictive relationships ended. Now it was just honest sadness and disappointment and it passed naturally. I also broke a few hearts, and I continued to care for them even as our interests were not mutual. Many are dear friends of mine to this day.
What happened is that relating to others became an ever more subtle discernment of the unique pulse of each particular connection, and I acted ever more precisely and profoundly on the same inner knowing that I had started courting back in my lover’s kitchen. I became more interested in the particular karma, or meaning, of each interaction than in any particular outcome. That is the beginning of non-attachment, and the end of relationship addiction.
For example, I became deep friends and occasional lover with a man whom I have profound respect for, as he does for me. Although we had mutual attraction and a great physical and emotional connection, the nature of our friendship simply wasn’t that of becoming a couple. I could feel it and so could he. It wasn’t denial—it just wasn’t our path together. I felt preemptively delighted for the woman he may eventually pair with. This man is amazing. He’s just not “mine.”
I also had multiple romantic encounters with a man who said, on our first date, that he wasn’t sure about me because he knew that he wanted children (I already have two and had no intention of having any more). I immediately felt happy for him, imagining what a brilliant, kind and wonderful father he will likely be. Did I have a moment of disappointment? You bet, but then we became deep friends, occasional lovers and impacted each other’s lives greatly. It is likely that we are both now in long-term relationships with other people because of the influence our relationship had on one another and, even in the midst of it, neither of us wasted any time wishing or believing that it should have been different.
Importantly, I also had many years of being mostly alone. Honestly, I think to repair relationship addiction we have to cross a “relationship desert” first. I had no idea how powerful this would be for me. I did not choose it, reject people or “go celibate,” and I had no idea if it would be a matter of months, years or for the rest of my life. I began looking forward to being alone forever, not as a way to fortify or protect myself, but just honestly realizing that it could happen and seeing that I wanted to be happy, free and at peace either way.
Being alone for those years turned out to be the thing that cemented my relationship to myself. I enjoyed my time just with me—we had a wonderful time! It had ups and downs, like every relationship, but I cannot think of one day in those three years that I longed to be with someone else. I slept with just myself, ate with just myself, made love to just myself, and yes, even talked aloud to myself like a crazy-as-bat-sh*t cat-lady.
I pretty much thought that nothing was happening relationally for me during that time, but it turned out not to be the case. When I stumbled into my present, relationship I discovered that I had developed a foundation of ease, trust and delight with myself that came along with me. I was simply no longer coming from a place of need, fear or lack. The man who came along somehow felt like “mine,” like “the one for me,” for no particular reason—but still he was just icing on an already perfect cake, and the cake was me.
Today I live with my beloved in what appears to be a non-addictive relationship. We are friends, lovers and committed partners, and I feel no urge to betray myself for it as I have in the past. If it ends I imagine I will be very sad, even grieving, but my identity is not vested in it. My identity is firmly vested in myself and it doesn’t seem to want to leave that warm embrace for anything, or anyone. Paradoxically, this seems to make me more available to my relationship and to others.
The key? Be willing to experience loss in favor of staying fiercely committed to your own truth, to your own authenticity—whatever that looks like. It’s very exciting, even if it’s a small thing—and often it is—simply because you have no idea what will happen next.
“Would you like to go to this party?”
“Actually, no, and thank you for the invitation.”
“Don’t you want to see me tonight?
“I love you and actually I don’t want to see you tonight. I’m really happy alone right now.”
Those are examples of expressing our authentic “no’s,” but it works the other way too, that is, revealing our vulnerable “yes’s.” For example I actually met my current partner by leading with this statement: “I am mainly talking to you because I am sexually attracted to you.” Turns out it was mutual.
Will saying “no” when it’s authentic for you herald the end of your relationship?
Will asking honestly for what you really want freak your partner out, push them away, or else make you feel embarrassed or ridiculous?
But either way you will have given yourself the very things you probably wanted from them: respect, connection, honesty, authenticity, kindness, freedom, intimacy, as well as being seen, heard, acknowledged and honored. That’s a long list, but until we can give it to ourselves—simply by listening to ourselves enough to know what our actual authenticity is, and then being willing to reveal it and act on it—then it is impossible for us to receive it from anyone else.
That’s just cause and effect, not rocket science.
Once we have that down, everything is just gravy. Really, really good gravy.
Why do we get into relationship addiction at all? That is a deeper question and an important topic for another time. What I can say is that in my experience there are good reasons and that addiction is always just an innocent and good-hearted attempt to get our emotional needs met.
We often think that we have to fix or change something, including ourselves, but really it is the absence of an old way of being that constitutes true change. When there is simply the uncontrived absence of obsessively needing something to fill the void, and the absence of fearing our lives without at least someone, then we are free—and that doesn’t mean we won’t get relationship anyway.
Usually, it’s quite the opposite and the beauty of what lies beyond can’t be described.
Author: Kristin Luce
Editor: Renée Picard
Image: Hernán Piñera at Flickr
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