This post was originally published on February 24, 2015.
You hear a lot in the media about sex addiction, and less about love addiction, and maybe that’s because love addiction is so much more common and seemingly innocuous. Though common, innocuous it’s not.
In previous posts, I’ve described myself as a recovering sex addict but the truth is, I’m also in recovery from love addiction. A simple definition of love addiction is a preoccupation with romance, intrigue or fantasy to the extent that it creates unmanageability in your life. It’s the constant searching for a partner, even when you’ve got one. For a love addict, even innocent interactions with people you’re not even really attracted to can become a “thing.”
One day, the gears of my bike were caught on the gears of another person’s bike, and Elliott came over to help. “My hero,” I said after watching him struggle and finally disentangle my vintage frame. Elliott was in the fiction program at my school, a friend of a friend, and I’d heard about him and maybe seen him from across the room before this chance encounter one evening in front of our school.
At the age of 25, I was just barely holding it together. I had recently left a secure job in the nonprofit sector for a lesser position somewhere else so that I could go back to school and more seriously pursue my goals as a writer. Even though it had felt like a risk, doing so with my fiancé’s encouragement had made it seem possible (oh yes, I had a fiancé). Rick and I had been together since high school. Never mind that we were neither intellectually nor sexually compatible, I needed Rick. Rick was familiarity, security. After six years of dating, our engagement had seemed like the next natural step.
And yet, even before Rick and I had gotten engaged, I’d already demonstrated a destructive pattern of obsessive thinking and compulsive acting out. I’d cheated on Rick throughout college, and had done a lot of other stuff he didn’t know. From one affair, I’d even gotten pregnant and had an abortion without his knowledge. A lot of my conduct had to do with repressed sexual desires, and feeling ashamed for feelings I didn’t need to be ashamed of and stuff I couldn’t control. Growing up in a sex negative culture can do that to the best of us, but mine was more than your typical acting out.
For the past three years, I’d been trying to be “good,” which—as any addict knows—can feel exhausting. Underneath the effort, I felt fear and anxiety. Given the wrong circumstances, I always knew my sexual behavior could tip out of my control.
In that moment, Elliott looked at me in a familiar way. It’s a look any addict knows, the look that sets off a familiar feeling, a craving I knew would not simply subside but would only get worse. Like an itch, my attraction to him felt like something wanting, needing, to be scratched and so, being an addict not in recovery, I scratched it. I thought about him. I asked about him. I got other people to talk about him. Out in a group, I positioned myself by his side.
One night, Elliott walked me home from a bar, all the way from the West Village to the Lower East Side. Whatever we talked about that night was less interesting than the feeling that I was interesting. I could tell that Elliott wanted me and I liked the feeling of being wanted. Elliott’s returned desire felt like relief.
From that day on, Elliott and I flirted and scratched and flirted and scratched. Under the pretense of having something to do with school, we started exchanging emails. Our relationship became a daily activity until it had become the only source of esteem and pleasure in my life. The impossibility of actually being together made it all the more exciting. Elliott suggested once, casually, that I ought not flirt with him because I had a fiancé. If only things were different, I began to think. I hated hearing no.
I’d like to say that leaving Rick was brave but the truth is that I only did it because I thought I had something to fall back on. When I called off the engagement, the security my relationship with Rick had provided was suddenly stripped of me and I expected Elliott to replace it. Without Rick, I felt anxious, agitated, fearful and dis-eased. I didn’t trust myself or the decisions I made. When Elliott didn’t step in to rescue me, I began to feel desperate.
I told Elliott I was thinking of getting into therapy— “that,” I said, “or horseback riding lessons.” He laughed and told me I ought to write that down. He told me a thousand times in a thousand different ways that he didn’t want to be with me. He told me that he valued me as a friend, but that it could never be anything more. “I thought I made this clear,” he said gently, “before you left Rick.”
But I was in love with him! I was sure of it! And he was in love with me, I thought—only he refused to admit it. When Elliott told me that he didn’t want to be with me, I refused to hear him. I would not take no for an answer. I’d position myself in Elliott’s company when we were both drunk and I’d let him take advantage of me. When we were both drunk, things felt almost like how I thought they were supposed to be.
At the heart of it, so to speak, sex and love addiction is really about intimacy. The sex and love addict wants intimacy as much as we fear it. In order to feel intimacy, however counterfeit, we “force solutions,” play pretend and live in fantasy instead of real life. We’ll cling to a partner, even when it’s an ill fit. When this person doesn’t satisfy our insatiable craving, we cheat or move on to someone else. A love addict will idealize a romantic target, sometimes to the extent of assigning them magical characteristics. Ultimately, we do all this to avoid responsibility for ourselves. We take what scraps we’re given, giving just as little in return. By moving from one relationship to the next, or by cheating, we’re never being fully present in any one relationship. Thus, we avoid being vulnerable. Underneath it all, our actions are motivated by the fear of abandonment and loneliness. When a relationship ends, or when a partner refuses us, this can feel like confirmation of our greatest fear. Deep down, a love addict is afraid they are unlovable.
Eventually, Elliott stopped returning my emails. He was doing me a favor, but of course I didn’t see it that way then. Elliott out of the picture, I started meeting strangers in the park. That led to meeting strangers online, which ultimately led to my trading sex for cash. In retrospect it’s easy to see that what I felt for Elliott wasn’t love—it was addiction. Today I recognize the difference between intensity and intimacy. The intensity of my obsession for Elliot felt, at times, painful. Love doesn’t hurt, nor does love swallow up your whole life—that’s addiction. Love requires a true appreciation for who a person is. Though I had some authentic moments with Elliott, both of us were rarely ever our true selves. Ironically, I felt closest to Elliott when I was concerned about what I perceived then as his problem with drugs and alcohol. Confusing love and pity is a red flag. Today I know that feeling sorry for someone is the opposite of respecting that person. I get that manipulating someone into violating their own moral principles is a not a good way to make him like you. Relationships should be built on respect, and trust.
For me, recovery from love addiction has been a slow, less-than-perfect practice. Though stopping all addictive patterns at once is what’s recommended, this wasn’t my path. I got into a codependent relationship in the early days of recovery. Even so, I was able to put down a lot of my “bottom line” behaviors in this relationship (I never cheated, for example). The biggest tool that 12 step recovery for sex and love addiction gave me was that it taught me to become aware of my thoughts, and to realize how obsessive thinking leads to compulsive behavior. For a long time I avoided Elliott and any dude from my past I’d had a “thing” with.
While some people might be able to “get away with” carrying on emotional affairs, I can’t. For a sex and love addict, even seemingly innocent flirtation is not innocent. The moment I feel myself triggered, I disengage.