When love is the drug

If you're repeatedly drawn to the 'high' of destructive relationships, you may have a clinical addiction, psychologists believe. Julia Stuart reports

Jack, the son of a millionaire, had already done his time at both Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. He had even sorted out his obsession with porn and prostitutes at Sex Addicts Anonymous. At last, it seemed, his life was in some kind of order.

Jack, the son of a millionaire, had already done his time at both Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. He had even sorted out his obsession with porn and prostitutes at Sex Addicts Anonymous. At last, it seemed, his life was in some kind of order.

But, in 2001, when the 38-year-old company director went to The Meadows, a therapeutic clinic in Arizona, to do some further work on his "issues", he was diagnosed with a whole new addiction - love.

"Just before I arrived, I fell in love with my yoga teacher," explains Jack, who lives in London and Devon. "People [at the clinic] said I was creating a stash - I'd given up drugs, booze and sexual acting-out, but I still needed something to medicate my feelings, so I'd developed a relationship with someone just as I was leaving for treatment."

While the notion of people being "addicted" to love may send many eyes rolling up to heaven - even publicity-hungry celebrities rarely admit to it - it is a very real concept for some in the (highly lucrative) therapeutic world. It is treated in a number of private clinics in the UK, and sufferers can share their troubles at Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous meetings.

But what is love addiction? Dr Brenda Schaeffer, an American psychologist who has written a self-help book on the subject, Is It Love or Is It Addiction?, defines the afflicted as those who "get obsessed or go out of balance" because of their love relationships. "It's any time that we look outside ourselves to satisfy our hunger for security, sensation, power, identity or sense of belonging.

"The love addict generally has a lot of separation anxiety," Schaeffer says. "They will say 'yes' when they mean 'no'; they will compromise their values in order to stay in the relationship, and after a while many of them become depressed and very anxious and almost have withdrawal symptoms when they think about leaving a relationship. I think that all relationships have elements of health and disease and love addiction. It can range from a mild co-dependency to a fatal attraction, where people begin stalking."

Schaeffer says it is the pattern of behaviour that sets the addict apart from those who have simply experienced a bad relationship. Love addicts repeatedly attract the wrong person: the emotionally or physically abusive, people who will eventually leave them or those who quickly bore them.

"It's based on fear. It could be fear of rejection, of being alone or fear of being made a fool of. It's trauma related. There's one type of trauma that we don't talk enough about, which is the trauma of omission. There are certain developmental paths and certain words we need to hear at each stage of development and none of us got everything we needed. There are literally holes in our psyche that we are trying to fill unconsciously."

Schaeffer claims that addicts can be drawn to the euphoria of romantic highs and become addicted to the feel-good surges. When these eventually wane, they look for a new relationship to get another hit. According to Dr John Marsden, the research co-ordinator of the UK National Addiction Centre, dopamine, the drug released by the brain when it is aroused, has similar effects on the body and mind as cocaine or speed. "Attraction and lust really is like a drug. It leaves you wanting more," he says.

Men and women are equally prone to love addiction, says Schaeffer. Half of her clients are male. Those more likely to become addicted are people who have suffered from trauma, people who have been sexually or physically abused and those who for other reasons have grown up believing that they are not deserving of love.

The consequences of love addiction can, at times, be fatal, the therapist warns. "I have seen too many people become depressed, suicidal. There is domestic abuse and violence. All those things to me are because of what I call love addiction. Their drug has been taken away. More men will get into a relationship and become depressed or even attempt suicide in the first year after a break-up than women."

Jack has now been treated twice for love addiction at The Meadows. What made him agree with the diagnosis? "I had these relationships with people when I fell in love very heavily and was very intense, and if it broke down I still obsessed about what I could have done differently," he says.

"I was a serial monogamist. I would find a woman who I thought was amazing and give her magical qualities that maybe she didn't have, and then pursue her. And then once I got her and had to face the intimacy, I would then probably go into my avoidance. Love addicts love the seduction, and the intensity of the infatuation, and they mistake sexual contact with intimacy.

"When I started dating this yoga teacher, I said, 'I'm on a celibacy contract, but I've had visions of delivering my baby out of your womb in the surf in Barbados, yet I haven't even had coffee with you.' I think love addicts build these huge fantasies in their heads and assign magical qualities to these people. You build up expectations that turn into resentments, so it's pretty debilitating. I think normal people would learn from bad relationships."

Love addiction is usually treated with psychotherapy. Since it opened in February, the Life Works Community, a residential addiction and treatment centre in Surrey, has had about a dozen such patients, whose treatment lasted from five to eight weeks. Its founder, Don Serratt, says: "A lot of people with love addiction have severe abandonment issues, and what we do is to look at the whole family-of-origin dynamics and what went on with them in their childhood.

"We give them a lot of education about dysfunctional family patterns and how that sets them up for love addiction. Then we help them to go back and make peace with that past."

Many love addicts have previously suffered from drug and alcohol dependency, and their problems with relationships surface once their original addictions have been treated. Once free from love addiction, some will then transfer their obsession to food. "We go very deep and treat what's driving the addictions, so that people don't shift addictions, or stay sober but lead a miserable life," Serratt says.

Jack still attends 12-step meetings and therapy sessions, but he has now found what he hopes is true love. "I've got a lovely girlfriend at the moment," he says. "It's the healthiest relationship I've had. But I'm not looking for her to fix me."

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