I Love You But: the “Dance” of Love Addiction (and Love Avoidance)
by Barbara Pawson and Chris John. (originally posted on the ‘addictiontoday.org’ website)
Since the dawn of time love addiction and love avoidance have been written about. In the biblical story, Adam is master of all and wants for nothing, yet his existential loneliness prompts God to create a helper and companion, Eve. His love for Eve is his weakness; Adam is seduced by her and eats the forbidden fruit, getting them both kicked out of the Garden of Eden, something that Eve has been blamed for ever since. In more modern tales, Prince Charming is hit with such intensity and appears to become so love addicted that he resorts to getting women of all shapes and sizes to try on a glass slipper. Once he finds Cinderella he whisks her away to live happily ever after.
Although there’s a place for such fairy tales in a child’s belief system, for people with attachment issues or dysfunctional boundaries theses stories can embed a belief that the answer to loneliness is fixed externally and only Mr or Miss Right can heal an aching heart. Very quickly the search for the perfect partner begins. The love addict is attracted to the fantasy of a relationship and the love avoidant feels he/she is able to rescue the addict. The dance, or the pas de deux, has begun…
Such relationships are built on intensity and fantasy. They are the “if only” relationships – “If only he talked more… If only she talked less… If only he took me out at night… If only she didn’t nag”.
Scratch the surface of a sex addict and the wound is most often that of a love addict. The lonely alcoholic is alone because “love” was too painful. The “chem sex” crowd are lost and looking for love.
Love addiction/avoidance is often the underlying addiction in many lives. Looking at the stories that have been passed down over the centuries and how they’re still promoted in today’s digital age it should come as no surprise that so many people live with cold or broken hearts.
What is love addiction?
Love addiction is defined as a coping mechanism whereby “an individual is obsessed with a fantasy he/she has created about another person, believing he/she is ‘loving’ the other but in fact objectifying the other person through the use of the fantasy.” (Pia Mellody)
This is usually created in childhood by a major care giver who, incapable of being relational with their child, parents behind an emotional wall. As it’s psychologically impossible for the child to believe that it’s the parent’s issue, the child has no choice but to take the blame him/herself and start feeling ‘less than’.
Although in the vast majority of cases no parent wishes to act in such a way, the consequence is a child lacking in confidence in his/her ability to look after the self.
In adulthood the person believes that, if nobody takes care of them, they will not only be alone but won’t be able to survive. As a result, the love addict has very little, if indeed any, personal boundaries, becoming resentful and creating intensity in a relationship in order to “keep it alive”.
Love addicts live in a chaotic world of desperate need and emotional despair. Fearful of being alone or rejected, love addicts endlessly search for that special someone – the person that will make them feel whole. Ironically, love addicts often have had numerous opportunities to experience the true intimacy they think they want. But they are much more strongly attracted to the intense experience of “falling in love” than they are to the peaceful intimacy of a healthy relationship. As such, they spend much of their time hunting for “the one.” They base nearly all of their life choices on the desire and search for this perfect relationship – everything from wardrobe choices to endless hours at the gym, from engaging in hobbies and activities that may or may not interest them to the way they involve others in conversations and social interactions.
What is a love avoidant?
The definition of a love avoidant is “the systematic use of relational walls during intimate contact in order to prevent feeling overwhelmed by the other person. The love avoidant associates ‘love’ with duty or work.”
This coping mechanism is usually the result of a child being parented by an adult with no personal boundaries, making the child “responsible” for the major care giver’s happiness or, sometimes, their survival. As a result, the child loses all sense of self and starts believing that esteem is directly related to how much he/she takes care of other people. For the love avoidant, being relational involves making sure that walls are in place to reduce the intensity within a relationship, as the risk of showing vulnerability is simply inconceivable.
Unlike love addiction, which is widely talked about, love avoidance is often brushed to one side.
So what are the signs of a love avoidant personality?
1: Fear of intimacy and emotional closeness
For an avoidant, intimacy equals the risk of being hurt. Although in a healthy relationship emotional intimacy is essential and sought after, emotional closeness is the love avoidant’s ultimate fear. For the avoidant, intimacy is identical to, amongst other things, suffocation and being controlled. The love avoidant therefore use walls as boundaries to make intimacy more or less impossible.
2: What you see is not what you get…
After a while in the relationship the love avoidant seems to change from a hero to a cold, unavailable or unreliable partner. Indeed, the love avoidant cannot continue the charade and starts using certain coping mechanisms that allow him not to get closer!
These stratagems usually come across as not being “committed” to the relationship. From being suddenly super busy at work or volunteering an extravagant number of hours to a charity, to creating drama through arguments or simply avoiding physical intimacy – the love avoidant will do anything to avoid risking intimacy.
3: The presence of an addiction or a compulsive problem
This is a typical characteristic of the love avoidant. Undeniably there’s nothing better than an addiction to keep people away! From substance abuse to behavioural addiction, the avoidant person may use sex or work to escape connection.
Often the love avoidant displays a number of narcissistic features. Although it may not be a full-blown case of narcissism, there’s a sense of entitlement, the two faced personality – from “Mr Nice Guy” in public to “it’s all about me” in private. Becoming defensive at any challenge, to having major difficulty with admitting a mistake, the love avoidant can very often be mistaken for a person with narcissist personality disorder.
5: Resistant to help
Finally, and this may explain why we often hear much more about the addiction part of this illness than the avoidance aspect, the love avoidant is highly resistant to asking for professional help, either for themselves or their relationship. Indeed asking for help from anyone, let alone a professional, would require the ability to open oneself up to vulnerability and connection….and of course emotional connection is what the love avoidant fears most. Being in a relationship with a love avoidant is more to do with a fake emotional interweave than being in an intimate relationship.
However let’s not forget that the love addict and love avoidant will inevitably find each other. The love addict, having experienced childhood emotional and/or physical abandonment, will look for someone who can “save” them. The love avoidant, having experienced childhood emotional and/or physical enmeshment, will look for someone to “rescue”. This interplay is what we refer to as “the dance”.
So what does a love addict/avoidant relationship look like?
1. While the love addict is responsive to the avoidant’s seductiveness and enters the relationship in a haze of fantasy, the love avoidant feels compelled to take care of a person who presents as needy.
Addict: “I am SOOOOO happy…I met this man and he’s everything I’ve always wanted…he has a fantastic job, loves travelling and loves children. We’re trying to see each other every day and we text each other at least 50 times a day….”
Avoidant: “I met this girl, I’m not too sure, but she’s nice, I mean… I may as well give it a try….”
2. As the love addict uses denial to protect the fantasy, not wanting to look at the distancing happening, the love avoidant, in order not to be controlled and to fulfil his duty, appears to be relational behind a wall of seduction.
Addict: “It’s great, I mean, he’s working a lot – weekends included – and with his busy social life we don’t spend a lot of time together but that’s OK… Guess what? He’s invited me for a weekend away in five weeks’ time…”
Avoidant: “OK…I’d better organise something or she’s really going to feel bad….I’m going to send her flowers and book a weekend away….”
3. An incident happens that crushes the denial of the love addict, who enters an emotional withdrawal from the fantasy. This may take the form of an overwhelming sense of pain, shame, rage or panic. At the same time, the love avoidant starts to feel invaded and the wall of seduction becomes a wall of anger.
Addict: “You’ll never believe it…first he said he’d phone me and didn’t. Then, at the last minute, he cancelled the weekend away because he needed to work… I feel awful… I don’t know how I can get through this: I feel like dying…”
Avoidant: “I can’t believe she’s so angry…I mean, one of us has to work. Where does she think the money comes from for all those restaurants, flowers etc?… you know what?… it’s never good enough….”
4. To return to the fantasy, and avoid feeling this sense of helplessness and hopelessness, the love addict either medicates and obsesses or starts getting even. It triggers a need in the love avoidant to create distance and an intensity outside of the relationship, often manifesting itself in risk taking, with money or life threatening activities such as alcohol, drugs or sexual acting out.
Addict: “That‘s it, I can’t take it anymore….I know I’m useless and that you don’t love me any more…what am I going to do on my own?…..maybe if I change, if I go on a diet …”
Avoidant: “I can’t breathe any more…I need some space…I need to relax, let off some steam… it‘s OK, it was just a one off (affair)…”
5. The final part of the dance is for the love addict to return to the fantasy with the same partner or a new one…and for the love avoidant either to return to the relationship out of guilt and a fear of being abandoned or, like the love addict, move on to a new partner.
Addict: “He called me, it‘s fantastic! He has asked me to marry him!” or “You won’t believe it, I met a new guy, he just split up with someone…”
Avoidant: “If I ask her to marry me, she’ll forgive me for my affair…” or “I can’t handle her anymore…and I met this girl last night…”
So why do the love addict and love avoidant find each other?
The love addict has a conscious fear of being abandoned and a subconscious fear of being controlled. In contrast, the love avoidant has a conscious fear of being controlled and a subconscious one of being abandoned. They are one in the same – two sides of the same coin, two ends of the continuum. Both have childhood trauma, both need to learn about healthy intimacy.
The love addict usually only seeks help when there’s a break in the fantasy and he or she is in withdrawal. “ I looked at my therapist and thought I was going to die, the pain in my chest was so real.” The love addict feels the loss, pain and anger associated with the relationship, and this allows them to connect with their own vulnerability.
Although as a therapist it may be tempting to concentrate solely on the pain and anguish the client displays, it’s also the best moment to help the client identify the cycle of love addiction. Talking about the fantasy of the relationship will often highlight how the client’s denial has been maintained. It will also help the client to see how and where these fantasies were created in their history. “My therapist asked me to write down ten reasons why I wouldn’t go back to my ex – I wrote over 40. Three months later, when I was back in fantasy, my therapist handed me the list.”
Another important aspect of working with love addiction is to help the client to understand how they’ve been in a relationship that didn’t respect or promote good protection or containment boundaries. Reflect on how they tolerated abusive and neglectful behaviours as a result of their own upbringing, when they were taught, “this is how to be in a relationship”. Explore and coach them in boundary work on other relationships.
It doesn’t matter if it’s Adam and Eve, Adam and Steve, or Eve and Eve, love addiction is real. Love addiction, like all addictions, doesn’t discriminate by race, gender, sexual orientation or religion. As with other addictions the consequences are – at best – destructive and – at worst – fatal. It’s therefore essential for professionals to recognize both the symptoms and the causes of love addiction. Only then can the client truly be helped to break the perpetual cycle of love addiction.
Chris John is a London based psychotherapist who is well known for his innovative and empathic style of therapy. Having trained extensively with Pia Melody Chris is one of Europe’s leading trauma reduction specialists. An expert in issues relating from developmental and attachment trauma he draws on his years of experience and a rich combination of theories to provide the most effective therapeutic outcome for clients who have struggled with relational issues, including co-dependency, betrayal, sex and love addiction and low self-esteem. Chris also trains and supervises professionals in Trauma & re-parenting and working with love addiction.
Barbara Pawson, psychotherapist with 18 years experience, was born and brought up in Brussels and is bi-lingual (French/English). She achieved her Masters (Addiction Psychology and Counselling) in London and gained further experience while training in Arizona with Pia Melody. She is a leading expert in Developmental Trauma, practising in Europe but mainly in London. She also has trained therapists in Holland and Bangladesh. Currently Barbara is concentrating on her private practice, as well as organising trauma workshops and CPD trainings.