I wanted to return to the topic of emotional affairs since there were over 100 messages on my posts on that subject: “Ten Red Flags,” “Breaking Up and Moving On,” “The Emotional Affair,” and “The Dangers of Head Sex.” For readers involved in an emotional affair, you might want to read through the responses, as there were some heart-wrenching stories and very good advice in there.
An excellent resource on emotional affairs and addictive relationships is Howard M. Halpern’s book, “How to Break Your Addiction to a Person.” I’ll be drawing on its wisdom in the next few posts.
First I wanted to excerpt passages from his book that explain how emotional affairs and other dysfunctional relationships are, in fact, addictions, because several readers touched on just that. He writes:
I am not using the term “addiction” symbolically or metaphorically. Not only is it possible but it is extremely common for one person in a love relationship to become addicted to the other. Stanton Peele, in his book “Love and Addiction,” recognized the addictive nature of some love relationships. Reviewing many studies of drug addiction he notes a frequent conclusion–that the addicting element is not so much in the substance (such as alcohol or tobacco or a narcotic) but in the person who is addicted.
In love relationships, this addictive element takes the form of a compelling need to connect with and to remain connected with a particular person. But is this need always an addiction? Why call it an addiction at all? Why not simply call it love or preference or a sense of commitment?
Often there is a lot of love and commitment in an addictive relationship, but to be genuinely loving and committed one must freely choose another person, and one of the hallmarks of an addiction is that it is a compulsive drive which, by definition, means that it limits this freedom. The alcoholic or drug addict feels driven toward the addictive substance even when he knows it is bad for him. And when there is a strong addictive element in a relationship, the feeling is “I must have this person, and I must remain attached to this person, even if this relationship is bad for me.”
So the first indication that we are dealing with an addiction is its compulsive quality. The second is the panic one feels at the possible absence of the substance. Alcoholics often feel panic when they are not sure where the next drink is coming from. Drug addicts experience this fear when their supply of drugs is running out. Nicotine addicts may become very uneasy about being in a place where smoking is not permitted. And people in an addictive relationship may experience overwhelming panic at the thought of breaking the relationship. I have often heard of people sitting at the telephone and beginning to dial the number of their party in an unhappy love affair, determined to tell him or her that it is all over, but their anxiety becomes so great they have to hang up.
The third hallmark of an addiction is the withdrawal symptoms. As bad as the panic is in contemplating or moving toward a possible breakup, it cannot compare to the devastation when the breakup actually happens. A person who has just ended an addictive relationship may suffer greater agony than drug addicts, smokers, and alcoholics endure when they go cold turkey, and in many ways the reaction is similar. Often, for example, there is physical pain (the chest, stomach, and abdomen are particularly reactive), weeping, sleep disturbances (some people can’t sleep, others may sleep too much), irritability, depression, and the feeling that there is no place to go and no way to end the discomfort except to go back to the old substance (person). The craving can become so intense it often defeats the sufferer’s best intentions and drives him right back to the source of his addiction.
The fourth hallmark of an addiction is that after the mourning period, there is often a sense of liberation, triumph, and accomplishment. This differs from the slow, sad acceptance and healing that follows a non-addictive loss.
Underlying all these reactions, the essential similarity between addicts, whether their addiction is to a substance or a person, is a sense of incompleteness, emptiness, despair, sadness, and being lost that he believes he can remedy only through his connection to something or someone outside himself. This something or someone becomes the center of his existence, and he is willing to do himself a great deal of damage to keep his connection with it intact.
Phew! That’s good stuff.