Guest Post: THE PSYCHOLOGY OF ADDICTIVE LOVE
The past, the present, and the future are all really one.
We are only looking at the past that is present now and influencing our future.
Behind each addictive love relationship–romantic or otherwise–lurks a childhood story dominated by magical thinking and strongly held beliefs that become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Every life event is recorded in the neurology of our body whether we remember them or not. And though it is not possible or necessary to access all memories, it is important to find out what in our psyche now is the drive behind addictive love patterns keeping us from the love relationship we deserve or want. Once we unveil the psychology behind our unhealthy dependency, we have a chance at a more fulfilling life.
Brent was a financially successful professional, well respected in the community, who actually came into therapy with high self-esteem. His problem was his inability to establish an intimate relationship that met his needs for support and closeness. He seemed to have a pattern of selecting partners whose needs were so great or who were so independent they would not respond to his needs. This in turn gave him justification to sexually act out his frustrations in secret. Intellectually, he was aware of his patterns and selections; still, he was unable to understand them. In exploring his background, much of which he had consciously forgotten or dismissed as not important, the following story emerged.
One ordinary day, four-year-old Brent hugged his mother and ran outside to play and explore; life felt good. Time passed, and as children do, Brent went home for his periodic check-in with Mom to assure himself that his world was in order. When he walked into the house, he found his mother crying, holding his baby brother, who was also crying. (Although Brent had no way of knowing it at the time, his mother and father had just argued over the phone.) Brent’s world suddenly seemed threatened, and he felt terror. What have I done or not done? he asked himself. Looking for comfort and reassurance, Brent asked, “What’s wrong, Mommy? Is everything okay?” Brent’s mom said, “Oh, honey, I’m so glad you’re here. Tell Mommy everything will be okay.” Brent felt momentary confusion and then quickly acted on his mom’s suggestion. He patted her arm, smiled into her eyes, and proudly and magically said: “That’s okay, Mommy, everything will be all right. I just know it!” Mother smiled and said, “You are my wonderful little man. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
Brent’s world was in order once again. But something significant had happened. The four-year-old boy could not perceive that the incident was a natural and isolated occurrence and that the comfort he offered his mother was not the result of some magical power he possessed. A myth was born, and grandiosity established: Brent began to believe that somehow, he had the power to make his mother (and perhaps everyone) feel good; moreover, he had to do so in order for his own needs to be met. The child-belief that prevailed was: “I’m in charge of making people feel good or bad; what I say, think, feel, or do will keep them around or drive them away.”
Brent’s childhood story may sound rather poignant and sweet: a child caring for his melancholy mother. But Brent was a child who needed his mother to be a big person who would care for him. Like other children of this age who are as yet unable to separate pretend from reality, he feared that if something happened to his parents, his world would not last. He also believed he might be the cause of his mother’s pain; parents often unwittingly say things like “You make me feel bad” that a child takes quite literally at this age. As an adult, Brent would have responded to the situation by reasoning,” Mom is upset. I’ll offer her sympathy, though I can’t make everything better”.
As a child, Brent needed both information and reassurance he did not receive. He needed Mom to say: “Thank you for caring about me, Brent, but I’m fine.” Instead of receiving maternal comfort for his frightened inner child, Brent was invited to take care of his mother’s sad inner child, suppressing his own fears and needs in the process. Brent had cared for his mother at his own emotional expense; he continued to do so in his adult relationships. From a child’s point of view, Brent’s decision was creatively adaptive: “I’ll stop feeling scared and needy and take care of her”. And it did seem to work! Mom did stick around. And she even smiled!
Because Brent brought his unconscious pattern of suppressing his feelings and needs into his adult life, he would unconsciously choose needy women who supported his belief system. Thus, as crazy as it may seem, he actually had what he wanted in his troublesome addictive relationships; they were psychologically self-serving. Dependent partners prevented him from having his own needs fulfilled. In a variety of subtle ways, his partners supported his earlier conclusions: “My needs are not important”, and “I have the power to make a woman (Mom) feel good”.
The tragedy is that Brent needed and had a right to his own feelings, desires, and support; he needed to be cared for without always having to care for others first. Only when Brent was able to examine his unconscious fears and child beliefs connected to his unmet needs from a new adult perspective, was he psychologically free to establish healthy interdependency with women and address his secret sexual life.
Healthy and Unhealthy Dependency
In addictive love, the ties of dependency run from one partner’s inner child to the other’s inner child. Something within addictive lovers makes them believe they need to be attached to someone in order to survive, and that the other has the magical ability to make them whole. This is why love often goes wrong. The pervasive feeling that something is missing directs them in adult relationships to unconsciously seek out others to meet their unmet needs. The difficulty is that a person, such as Brent, out of touch with what his or her real needs are tends to seek out people similar to the original person (i.e., a parent) who did not have the capacity or information to meet those needs in the first place. Thus, it is like hitting one’s head against a brick wall—a self-defeating exercise.
Immature, childish love believes: “If I take care of you and love you the way I want you to love me, then you’ll love me that way, too.” We may think of a child’s love as generous and innocent; but often it is not. Children are not yet capable of spiritual love; their love is egocentric. They love in order to survive, in order to avoid pain, fear, and want. And that pattern, as we’re seeing, haunts adult addictive lovers.
Brent’s story, and others in the blog series, demonstrates that there are three dependency systems we experience in our life. The first is a Primary Dependency. When we are children we do not have the capacity to care for self and we are healthily dependent on parent figures until we grow up and have a full spectrum of ego states—Child (feels and identifies needs), Adult (thinks and problem solves), and Parent (nurtures and protects)*,–to identify our needs and either take care of them ourselves or seek to have them filled in an Autonomous Dependency (interdependence) where two adults are equal and open as far as needs are concerned. The third system is Addictive Dependency described in Brent’s story. It is based on fear and control and limits our capacity for spontaneity, creativity, and true emotional, romantic and sexual intimacy. Most, if not all human relationships, have all three dependencies.
The story also demonstrates that because of the human dilemma it is likely that none of us got everything we needed in just the way we needed it; thus, we are prone to addictive love.
Excerpts from Is It Love or Is It Addiction? Third edition.
*Eric Berne, M.D.
Read more at www.brendaschaeffer,com