As children, we inherit from our parents and family a template for relationships and attachment. We use our template as the foundation or reference point for creating adult relationships. When the template we’ve inherited is based on or includes some form of dysfunction, abuse, or emotional neglect, we become preconditioned to experience greater feelings of insecurity. Moreover, we display an insecure attachment style.
Insecure attachment triggers painful emotional distress and results in predictable coping strategies. Coping strategies are fueled by a need to return to a sense of security. These strategies are all normal, neurologically-based responses woven into our brain and nervous system functioning with the sole purpose of survival.
Attachment distress is part of our evolutionary design. This is why being separated from or experiencing the absence of a loved one can feel like an urgent, life or death situation. Because of their extreme emotional intensity, attachment distress and relationship anxiety have been called “primal panic.”
We now know that the many coping strategies to reunite with a loved one are in fact the same symptoms used to describe love addiction. From an attachment theory perspective, love addiction is less about addiction and more about the drive to get emotional, relational needs met, acknowledged, and satisfied.
With love addiction, relationships manage to turn themselves upside-down or become inverted. Healthier relationships are about presence and the exchange of emotional intimacy. Love addiction results in just the opposite; relationships become more about the absence of emotional connection (non-presence).
Love addiction denies the very thing that we want the most, which is emotional responsiveness in a partner (connection, warmth, and intimacy). Often, those of us who come from a family background of dysfunction or insecure attachment will find we have a high tolerance for accepting and living with the lack of emotional responsiveness. We tolerate the absence of intimacy because this is familiar; familiar means of the family. We choose partners who either withhold their affection or are incapable of sharing it.
Healthy relationships need to have periods of time when relating comes with ease and simplicity; however that is not the experience of those caught in the dysfunction of love addiction. Instead our intimate partnerships become filled with worry, anxiety, and fear.
We generally will have one of two responses (or evidence both responses). One response is to work harder at connecting and then feel even more desperate or needy for emotional connection; the other response is to disengage dramatically, push others away, or avoid intimacy all together.
When it comes to describing relationships suffering from love addiction, I like to use a metaphor of floating down the river on a raft. The journey on the raft starts out innocently enough as a leisurely and enjoyable trip down the river; it quickly turns into a highly stressful situation. Imagine when love addiction is present, it is as if timber logs have been released into the river’s current and now, all of the sudden, there is confusion, danger, and gridlock. The ease of floating down the river stops abruptly.
Anyone who sincerely enters a new relationship wants relating to feel positive, uplifting, and carefree. All anyone really wants is to love and be loved; what’s wrong with that? However instead of loving or being loved, we find ourselves distracted, overly preoccupied with cleaning up a logging accident in love's river. We find ourselves working very hard to calculate how to maneuver in such precarious and impossible situations.
Healing love addiction is about understanding relationship styles and their physiological responses to relationship distress.
Healing focuses on how to let in and welcome higher levels of emotional responsiveness, while also not engaging with those who withhold emotional connection. When I work with clients to improve their intimate relationships, we focus on recalibrating their levels of tolerance for absence and non-engagement. This process incorporates experiencing the client-therapist relationship as supportive, encouraging, and warm. We use the actual therapeutic relationship as the basis for a corrective attachment experience. Or in simpler terms, together we remove the logs from the river.
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