Are You Addicted to Your Relationship?

We’ve all been through it: the incessant checking of our phone, the tossing and turning through a night alone, the replaying of interactions in our head, the worrying about what he or she is thinking or feeling. We’ve all, at one point or another, known what it was to be consumed by the thought of someone else, and we’ve all felt that tormented longing for that person’s return, be it physical or emotional.

When two people fall in love, a swell of intense emotion (be it anxiety, fear, or desire) can be stirred both by the uncertainty of the future and the warnings of the past. It’s normal to feel a heightened focus on the other person or become preoccupied at times. After all, relationships are one of the most important parts of life. For many people, these feelings will rise and fall and can be alleviated by consistent, loving interactions with their partner. Yet, for others, it’s hard to find the calm in the storm, and they find themselves obsessively focused on their relationship to a degree that is destructive to  them and their mental health.

It’s important for anyone suffering in these ways to consider, am I pursuing a healthy, equal relationship that enhances my life or am I indulging an addiction without which I feel I can’t survive. For anyone to uncover the answer, they must look at how they’re using their relationship and what it would mean to them to lose it.

Many people use their relationship to numb pain. By this, I don’t mean to ease the pain of being lonely, but to cover over a deeper level of hurt or fear that they’re afraid to touch. For some, it can feel like their relationship fills a void inside them or that their partner is saving them. They may use the relationship to define who they are or make them feel like they are finally okay.

While the joy of any connection is that we feel lifted by the other person and that they mean so much to us, an exaggerated focus can have serious downsides. A person can lose themselves in the relationship or choose a situation in which what they think they feel is love but what they actually feel is the desperation of emotional hunger. The preoccupation can become so intense that other aspects of their lives suffer. They may begin to believe that they are somehow unable to survive without the other person or start to place unhealthy strains and expectations on their partner. Emotions like insecurity, jealousy, and anxiety can arise and spill out in ways that deepen their despair and push the other person away.

What often tends to happen in these addictive relationship dynamics is that one person seeks out and pursues, while the other increasingly avoids and distances. The lack of affection or attention from a more distant partner only serves to intensify those moments when the person does get that affection or attention, making them feel extra special and loved. They therefore continue to grasp and pursue in hopes of getting that feeling once again. Elizabeth Gilbert described this pattern perfectly in Eat, Pray, Love when she wrote:

Addiction is the hallmark of every infatuation-based love story. It all begins when the object of your adoration bestows upon you a heady, hallucinogenic dose of something you never dared to admit you wanted-an emotional speedball, perhaps, of thunderous love and roiling excitement. Soon you start craving that intense attention, with a hungry obsession of any junkie. When the drug is withheld, you promptly turn sick, crazy, and depleted (not to mention resentful of the dealer who encouraged this addiction in the first place but now refuses to pony up the good stuff anymore.

It isn’t just an intoxicating high a person chases from their partner, but a validation of their very sense of self. They feel like they are only okay if they get this love from this person, yet, their original  feeling of not being okay is also validated by the partner’s rejection. Without realizing it, they are drawn to both the reaffirmation of their negative self-perception and a desire to “fix it” by winning the other person’s love. This kind of push and pull is very often at the heart of many on-and-off relationships. A sort of stuckness is created where the person is not just addicted to the relationship but the rejection. They may have even unconsciously chosen an avoidant person to perpetuate this pattern of seeking and longing.

In this way, a person’s attachment pattern can be telling in regard to whether they become preoccupied or addicted to the relationship. For instance, studies have shown that anxious-ambivalent attachment style significantly predicted obsessive love. When someone experienced an anxious attachment pattern as a child, they often grow up to feel like they must cling to a partner in order to get their needs met. They may feel insecure or desperate toward their partner and remain in relationships that aren’t healthy or satisfying, but that they feel like they can’t live without.

One of the reasons people can be drawn to stay in unfavorable situations is that they have formed what my father, psychologist and author Robert Firestone, termed a “fantasy bond,” a largely subconscious connection with their partner in which they feel like they are not complete without the other person. This illusion of connection fosters a sense of safety or security that exacerbates the feeling of need toward the other person. However, when in a fantasy bond, the couple tends to favor the form over the substance of a relationship. In other words, more value is placed on being a unit in a couple than being two people in love.

When a person is in a fantasy bond, instead of feeling like a unique and autonomous individual appreciating their partner as a separate person who enhances their life, they can start to feel like their partner is a part of them. They may start to impose certain expectations and acts of control out of fear of losing this sense of security. Even as the life force of the relationship is deadened or diminished by this extreme need for connection, it feels like a challenge to break it. The person is willing to give up parts of themselves and parts of the relationship that are more vital in order to establish a wall around themselves and their partner that makes them feel safe. They have the illusion that the other person can save them or keep them out of pain. This makes the idea of a breakup or any other perceived “threat” feel magnified.

In an addictive relationship, particularly one in which a fantasy bond has been formed, the person may feel like they constantly need reassurance. They may feel jealous, insecure, pained, reactive, or desperate. They may feel pressure to “work” at the relationship all the time to make sure everything is okay. They may walk on eggshells to ensure they not do anything to rock the boat. They may accept,  rationalize and excuse bad treatment, coldness, rejection, or  being controlled and manipulated. There can be a compulsion to stay in the situation regardless of how the relationship is making them feel.

Naturally, this puts a lot of pressure and strain on the person’s mental health, the relationship and their partner. Often, a relationship with these dynamics at play comes to a painful end, but the person experiencing the longing continues to suffer and may repeat the same pattern in a future relationship. However, the outlook is not bleak for those who find themselves preoccupied, because the real work that needs to be done is not on their partner or even the relationship but within themselves.

Any two people who fall in love need to be okay on their own in order to form a healthy satisfying relationship. When a person who has had this pattern comes to recognize it and explores the real, deeper reasons they feel this need for or dependence on another person to make them whole they can start to shift the way they feel toward themselves and relationships for the better. They can start by being curious and open about what their underlying pain is really about. Where does the feeling come from that they need another person to make them okay? How can they begin to realize that they’re a whole person on their own? How can they grow their own capacity to accept real love rather than seeking out situations that repeat familiar levels of desperation and rejection?

By exploring their story and looking at their early attachment patterns, a person can make sense of their personal perceptions and expectations around relationships. They can develop self-compassion for whatever pain led to their patterns, and they can start to shift those patterns to enjoy stronger relationships in which they feel more security within themselves.

About the Author

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. Dr. Lisa Firestone is the Director of Research and Education at The Glendon Association. An accomplished and much requested lecturer, Dr. Firestone speaks at national and international conferences in the areas of couple relations, parenting, and suicide and violence prevention. Dr. Firestone has published numerous professional articles, and most recently was the co-author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships (APA Books, 2006), Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice (New Harbinger, 2002), Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion: The Wisdom of Psychotherapy (APA Books, 2003) and The Self Under Siege (Routledge, 2012).Follow Dr. Firestone on Twitter or Google.

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6 Comments

Mikhael Scheelhardt

Hey Lisa

Very Good artikel, do you know of any, or have you written any books on this subject?

Kind regards

Mikhael – Denmark

Reply
Silvia Cortese

One book you could read on the topic is ‘Women who love too much’ by Robin Norwood. Another author who has written extensively on the topic is Melody Beattie. All the best to you.

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Samira Lynne Smith

I’m finally starting to find information that makes sense of my toxic behavior in relationships. The description of anxious attachment style and fantasy bonding and relationship addiction sums it up perfectly. However every one of these articles says that there is hope, that I can begin to do the healing, that awareness is the first step. The question is: what are the rest of the steps??? How do I do it? I’m so tired of being this way, when relationships keep turning out the same… Or ruining them with my toxic behavior because I’m trying to protect myself from betrayal that doesn’t even exist.

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Michelle Dreksler

Finding this website has been a God send! Thank you for all your work. I had read ATTACHED a couple of years ago, during a period of taking a break from dating. I have had a year in a half of EMDRA therapy. I have been in a loving relationship with a man for 10 months and found this right in time! I have purchased your seminar on Developing a Secure attachment and watched the Dare to Love webinar. I plan on sharing with my partner so we can move forward to a more fulfilling relationship. Thank you!

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Tracey

Samira I can relate to you too. I need to know the next steps as well. I’m in therapy but not getting better in this area. Is there a type of therapy that addresses this area.

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Tania C

I’m not sure I find this set of explanations respectful to people with anxious attachment styles. The way information has been presented individualises the issues and locates judgement on those people. Those with anxious attachment come to this style through trauma, neglect, abandonment and require much more empathy and support. Describing them as ‘addicted’ is unhelpful.

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