So the question is can relationships be addictive? Many of us have known one of those couples who keep breaking up only to then make up, again and again. This can be very confusing to us watching from the side lines. Can you make up your mind already? Didn’t you want to kill that person just the other day??? We wonder, why do they stay in it??
The most common question I get as a therapist from my clients is “have you ever done drugs?” The reason for this is a common belief that if you have never experienced “that thing” you are incapable of understanding. And if you can’t understand me, you can’t help me. So the purpose here to understand not judge.
Since “addicted to love” all the way to “love the way you lie” or “rehab” pop culture has shed light on this very interesting phenomena – relationship addiction (for lack of a scientific label). Here’s what addictive relationships have in common with actual drugs:
1. They are one of a kind: you actually fully believe you will never be able to find anyone quite like this person, which makes you pretty special for just being in their presence (some cognitive distortion is at play here, which is fueled by only remembering the good and great and filtering out the bad).
2. They are equally wonderful and hurtful: when things are good they are great, when they are bad they are horrible, there is no in between. Also there is no way to moderate your “consumption” so to speak, you find your world revolves around this relationship; there is nothing average about the emotions involved either, there is a fine line between love and hate. Withdrawal symptoms may even be present: being without them is as painful as the ecstasy of being with them (I expect this to have an actual chemical base given the effects that excitement and turmoil have on the body and brain chemistry)
3. They make you lose control. You are no longer calling the shots, even when you convince yourself that you are. You are passive and submissive (I would speculate here that people who already have these personality tendencies are more vulnerable to addictive relationships contrary to a general belief that low self-esteem is a contributor).
4. These relationships are led by emotions and have no regards for logical or moral consequences. They are often fostered by the thrill, challenge and sometimes danger of the consequences (as in the case of illegal drugs). Also the more forbidden the better – what I like to call the “Romeo and Juliet” effect.
5. They brainwash you: you have a tendency to isolate yourself from friends and family, losing sense of reality at times (especially true in the case of abusive relationships).
6. Just like drug addiction, relationship addiction has a relapsing nature: you may break away from the object of your addiction, get clarity, swear you’ll never get back with them, get some sobriety…and then one day, you find yourself back with them as if nothing ever happened (I would argue that the second, third, fourth time around things are actually different and often worse, so much so that the natural course of this vicious cycle will help someone break way from the relationship for good).
There are two groups of relationship addicts. The first group is people who are oblivious to the dynamics of the relationship. They know the roller coaster is exhausting but they can’t tell they are actually riding it. They do this in the same ridiculous way that someone who’s nodding off in your office, swears to you, with the out most seriousness, that they are absolutely sober. The second group knows exactly what’s going on but they can’t do anything about it. Seriously. They are absolutely, desperately, incorrigibly and pathetically paralyzed. Either way, all they need is someone who gets it. Hopefully, the relationship does not have lifelong irreversible consequences. Sometimes unfortunately it does. Gaining awareness is crucial in helping someone who is struggling with this but ultimately, as in the case of drug addiction, the addict has to make a commitment to change him/herself.