I’d never heard the phrase “addicted to love” uttered outside a Robert Palmer video or bad poetry until a few years ago, when a bad breakup drove me temporarily insane. After endless cocktail hours listening to me cry and obsess over what went wrong in my seven-month relationship, my girlfriend gently suggested that I get professional help. I asked if this was like the Sex and the City episode where Carrie’s friends cut her off. She told me that our friends were feeling more like the passengers in Airplane!, who hung and stabbed themselves rather than be subjected to yet another sob story about the guy’s ex-love. The next day I was in therapy being diagnosed as a love addict.
A few days later, I was sitting in a folding chair at a Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (S.L.A.A.) meeting. Some of the women there appeared relatively normal—others seemed stone cold crazy. The woman in the pink ‘HOT MESS’ rhinestone-studded T-shirt admitted she had driven by her ex-boyfriend’s house every day for seven years, and was still obsessing over him after a further seven years.
It may not have made the shortlist for the D.S.M.-V, but love addiction is the new sex addiction. Some people criticized Dr. Drew Pinsky when he put Tiger Woods’ former mistress Rachel Uchitel onCelebrity Rehab alongside meth addicts, but Uchitel insisted that her “disease” was related to a “hole” that she was trying to fill in her heart. I was starting to believe it. Some of the women in the meeting looked like they were in withdrawal from heroin, not Hallmark. Wasn’t this all a bit extreme? Surely drunk dialing and crying into my Ben and Jerry’s couldn’t really be equivalent to chasing the dragon?
But detoxing from love addiction can be dangerous: People kill in the name of “love” every day. And former NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak was charged with kidnapping, after she drove cross-country wearing diapers and armed with pepper spray to confront her love rival.
At the meeting, I checked out the 40 Questions for Self-Diagnosis. I started to think maybe it’s our culture that is sick. After all, how can we tell if we are love addicts when the idea of confusing intimacy and intensity is so ubiquitous? “Have you lost count of the number of sexual partners you’ve had?” Haven’t we all?
The next question, “Do you find that you have a pattern of repeating bad relationships?” pretty much describes every Sex and the City plot line. Others were more intense, but I got the message: “Have you ever thought that there might be more you could do with your life if you were not so driven by sexual and romantic pursuits?”
But we are taught from a young age that we’re supposed to find our soulmates, and constantly being sold on the idea of romance. Re-reading fairy tales through the prism of self-help is not a pretty picture. The Little Mermaid had to give up her voice to stalk some guy she barely knew (in the original version, she was offered a knife to stab the Prince and turned into sea foam!). Snow White was in a coma surrounded by potential necrophiliac dwarfs, and Cinderella’s original sisters cut off their toes to fit into those glass slippers.
From Romeo and Juliet (underage bride, double suicide) to Wuthering Heights (animal torture, violent death) and Jane Eyre (insane hidden wife, arson), every great love story had two things in common: A healthy dose of suffering and a body count. Then we had Lloyd Dobler, super-stalker. For women not old enough to remember an era before trench coats in high school were considered threatening, John Cusack played a lovable teen outcast, dumped by his brainy valedictorian, who then parked himself outside her bedroom window holding a boom box. Where once I saw cute, I now see creepy codependent. Lloyd was one of a long line of romantic heroes who deserved a restraining order.
Some researchers say it’s Darwinism, not a disease. When we fall in love, we’re exposed to huge amounts of dopamine. When our “fix” gets taken away, the brain is conditioned by evolution to try and get the ex back. “I suspect that anyone can become a love addict,” says Dr. Helen Fisher, an anthropological biologist at Rutgers University, who studied the brains of people who had just been dumped and found activity in a region associated with profound addiction. “This brain system evolved millions of years ago; we all share it. But some people fall in love more often, or are more dependent on a partner, due to both their childhood and genetic propensities.” That’s when the beloved has the potential to turn into a bunny boiler. So what makes one person reach for the Pinot Grigio, and another for a pack of Pampers and a road map?
“We all have had heartbreak and excruciating pain,” says Alexandra Katehakis, Founder and Clinical Director of the Center for Healthy Sex in West Los Angeles. “It’s how you cope with that. Do you turn to family and friends, or do you start spinning out of control and stalking the ex? When something happens to blow up the fantasy, love addicts go into withdrawal, and then into psychiatric meltdown.”
“It’s complicated. So many powerful experiences CAN be addictive, and LOVE is the MOST powerful of these,” writes Stanton Peele, addiction expert and author ofLove and Addiction. “These experiences CAN form the basis for addiction, but since responses are so variable over people…they CAN’T be diseases.” He doesn’t buy into the disease model, and claims that love addiction is “not lifelong, not inbred.” According to him, as we mature in life, love “addiction” can be overcome—which is why there are more love-struck teenagers than adults.
So maybe the reason that so many of us identify as love addicts now is that we stay stuck in adolescence, constantly looking for that falling in love feeling. Do we just need to grow up and get over it?
Looking around the church basement, I thought about how relationships have almost become our religion. We get older, but we still hold on to that Prince Charming ideal. Pia Melody, author of Facing Love Addiction, points out that love addicts have typical traits: They are often abandoned by one parent and spend lots of time alone, fantasizing about connecting to someone.
So these women did have something in common with me after all: They were addicted to the fantasy, not the real person. “You have to work with the addictive process, the fantasy, the denial that protects the fantasy, the withdrawal from the fantasy, the returning to the relationship and return to the fantasy, or spinning off and doing it with someone else,” says Katehakis. “Then you have to do trauma work with the original neglect or abandonment. Then you have to do what I call core work: teaching them how to esteem themselves and how to take better care of themselves. That is where they are really weak: it is self-care and self-esteem.”
I didn’t go back to S.L.A.A. Not because I felt I didn’t belong, but because I feel like everyone has these tendencies, whether they realize it or not—and I didn’t want to put myself into a special category. If love addiction is a disease, then I think we’re all infected. My dysfunctional love life resembled a Sex and the City episode. Except that instead of walking out when the therapist said “The one constant in all of your failed relationships is you,” I listened.
For a long time, I was still drawn to outwardly strong, successful but distant men—just like my dad—who looked great on the outside but weren’t emotionally there for me. But that didn’t mean I had to jump into super-intense relationships with them! I started making better choices, but I’m still a work in progress. Sometimes, in the aftermath of yet another heartbreak, I find myself wondering if it would be easier just to be zapped with an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind-style cure. Dr. Fisher explains that some antidepressants can help after tough breakups because they elevate the brain’s serotonin levels, but there’s no magic pill. “Serotonin blunts the emotions,” she says, “so it can theoretically kill feelings of romantic love —unless you are so passionate that nothing will kill it. The best way to speed the recovery from romantic rejection would be to treat it as an addiction. Throw away the cards and letters. No contact.” She concludes, “Ultimately the only cure is time…and a new partner.”
So once love addicts get over the heartbreak and get healthy, maybe the old advice is best: The best way to get over someone is by getting under someone else. As long as you don’t end up hiding in the bushes afterwards.