Love addiction. It’s a very real issue, yet many haven’t even heard of it — or understand it. Now, we delve into this complicated topic with expert Pia Mellody.
Love addiction is a condition in which individuals do not fall in love with someone who will return their affection. Rather, they are attracted to somebody who will neglect the relationship. For more insight into the subject, we turned to an expert: Pia Mellody, Senior Clinical Advisor for The Meadows and Clinical Consultant for Mellody House and Dakota, who traces the origins of love addiction to early childhood trauma caused by neglect or abandonment.
In the following interview, Mellody discusses the ideology of the addiction, how to recognize it, the stages of addiction from attraction and fantasy to denial and obsession, and the recovery process for love addicts based on 12-step work and counseling. Truth be told, Mellody reveals that she herself was the inspiration that led her to research the subject, which led to her writing the book Facing Love Addiction.
“I originally really watched myself doing this crazy stuff and my partner reacting to me and me reacting to him,” she says. “I told a friend about it and she about fell on the floor. She copped to it, too. I started talking about it to the patients here at The Meadows, where I have worked for years, and they [admitted], ‘I do that.’ It was stunning. I was surprised that everybody else was doing it, so I wrote a book. Of all the stuff that I do, and I have been around a long time and have written four books with two more in the hopper, this is what people really relate to.”
What are the signs of love addiction?
Pia Mellody: The ideology of it has to do with neglect or abandonment in early childhood, where somebody is getting neglected or the parents aren’t really being very relational with the child because they are wrapped up in their own life, they leave or they die. This is somebody who the mother doesn’t attach to. Birth through five, if you have a lot of neglect in there and that continues that is when you will form these dynamics.
Is there a personality type that is more susceptible than another?
Pia Mellody: What makes people more susceptible is simply neglect. There is not a personality type. You can be the king — or queen — of the world, but if you have neglect, this type of thing is going to go on, although people may not recognize it for what it is.
Is there something that people can recognize in themselves or their family should recognize?
Pia Mellody: This is what goes on with them: First of all, when you are getting neglected and you are spending a lot of time alone, what happens is you don’t know what it means to be connected or relational to other people. You spend a lot of time alone daydreaming and making up fantasies in your head that make you feel better because what you are making up in your head in fantasy will chemically change your body and create a sense of joy or relief. That [chemical change] is what they are actually addicted to. The addiction isn’t to love as much as it is to the fantasy.
When these individuals get old enough, they begin to form a fantasy in their head of somebody rescuing them from being so alone, of making them matter. The fantasy usually takes the form of being rescued by – it is like Cinderella — a knight in shining armor or a wonder woman, who will take care of them and help them come out of their dilemma of being too alone and worthless and not knowing what to do. They will put that face of fantasy over the face of someone who comes into their life and is walled-in, non-relational and shut down. That will be the trigger. Then they go into the fantasy and somehow who the person really is will show up and they go into withdrawal from the fantasy.
Then what happens is they will either go into treatment, or they will medicate the fantasy by sexually acting out to get even, or eating themselves into fat serenity, or drinking, or smoking, or working to stabilize the withdrawal experience. Then if the person comes back into their life, they go, “You really love me,” and they go back into the fantasy. It is a whole cycle. I have treated people who were love addicted to their boss, but the boss knew nothing about it, because it was all in their head. There was no relationship whatsoever except a boss and a secretary, say, and it was all in her head. She was high as a kite at work all the time and the guy didn’t even know it. There are people love addicted to Elvis Presley. They get high from making up that they have a relationship with somebody.
Do you think this is a real addiction like drugs or alcohol?
Pia Mellody: Yes. Let me tell you what happens. It is called love addiction because they describe what is going with them emotionally inside their body as love. It makes them feel like they are loved or as if they are in love, which has a sexual component. What happens is they get high off the fantasy. They get addicted to the fantasy. They get addicted to the effects of the fantasy. When something happens that blows the fantasy up, like they discover their partner being sexual with their best friend in their own bed, or something crazy like that — that is an exaggeration, but you get the drift — the fantasy blows up and they go into withdrawal. When they go into withdrawal from the fantasy, they go into a psychiatric meltdown. They get homicidal, they get suicidal, they get into cycling panic attacks and they often wind up in the emergency room in the panic attack. It is a psychiatric withdrawal that can be very pathological.
I was going to ask if love addiction could be two-sided, but it sounds as if not because it is one person’s fantasy?
Pia Mellody: Sometimes two love addicts get together and form what I call a dependent relationship, but they never go into treatment because they hang on to each other for dear life and go through life like that.
Does love addiction require an intervention?
Pia Mellody: Usually they are deluded about it. What usually happens is when they go into withdrawal, they are put in some sort of a psych unit or somebody understands that they really need psychiatric help or counseling. If somebody can recognize it for what it is — love addiction — and not treat it as depression, rage or something like that, but recognize the dilemma this person is in in their own head and the cycle, they can get help.
What is the treatment? Is there a program you work, or do you have to go to rehab for treatment?
Pia Mellody: Usually if you are in withdrawal, you are going to have to get some professional help, be put on antidepressants probably and then hope that somebody follows up and engages this as an addiction. Usually if you go into that full-blown withdrawal, somebody is going to notice that you are really failing and get you some help. When you go into withdrawal is when you are treatable. When you are in the fantasy, you are not treatable because you are into that just like somebody smoking dope, snorting cocaine or medicating on tranquilizers. That fantasy is like dope for them. You can’t treat somebody that is medicating with the fantasy. It is only when they go into withdrawal that they are treatable.
Sometimes they will kill their partner, sometimes the affair, sometimes both of them. Sometimes they kill themselves. There was an incident here where I live where a young woman was married to a policeman and had two little babies. What happened was the policeman started an affair and left her, divorced her, for the other woman and she went into this withdrawal. When he went on his honeymoon, she broke into his house, shot her two kids and shot herself, so when he came home from his honeymoon, he found that mess, which blew up his marriage.
Note: Mellody cites as love addiction the murder that took place in Houston in 2002 when Clara Harris, a dentist, ran over her husband and deliberately killed him with her Mercedes when she discovered he was having an affair. Harris is still in prison and her sons were placed with family friends. Another instance she believes was a case of love addiction was married astronaut Lisa Nowak, who, wearing diapers, drove 900 miles from Texas to Florida, and armed with a BB gun and pepper spray confronted a woman she believed was a competitor for the affections of Navy Cmdr. William Oefelein, an unmarried fellow astronaut.
Are there different levels of love addiction? If someone isn’t an extreme case, can they just attend a group similar to AA without checking into rehab?
Pia Mellody: Oftentimes, we do work on it in a 12-step program called SLAA (Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous). Sometimes there is a sexual addiction component to what they are doing and sometimes not. But people can get help there. Some of them spin off and form their own love addiction 12-step meeting, where they focus on the fantasy as the drug and really examine who the person is they formed the fantasy around: Who they think they are, who they really are and gradually work into the reality of who the other person is instead of what they made up about the other person.
Most of the time, they need to be under the care of a counselor plus going to a meeting like that where they get a sponsor, get some help and get some backup counseling or therapy. But it is really a very intense addiction issue and it is very hard to treat. It takes a long time to get over it. The usual thing that happens is that if they meet somebody who is walled in and shut down, and kind of attending to them out of their own issues, they will go into a fantasy with the next person who mimics the dynamics of the last person they are withdrawing from. They will leave treatment, get into that and then they will go into withdrawal again and then they will go back to the counselor for help and they will cycle like that — back and forth with other people — until somehow they finally wake up and say, “I can’t do this anymore. I am destroying myself.” Then they will get help. Usually they don’t just get over it. Usually they have to go through cycles — with the same person or with different people — before they can give up the fantasy. When they go into withdrawal, they go into a very young state. They have a trauma reaction. This is not as simple to describe as someone who is addicted to marijuana or alcohol. It is more complex because they are addicted to a fantasy.
Is love addiction widely recognized?
Pia Mellody: It is not widely recognized, but I have worked at The Meadows for many years and I have trained many, many therapists on this model. If they go to a therapist who is trained to pick this up immediately by their assessment techniques, they will get proper treatment.
Anything else we need to know?
Pia Mellody: What happens in terms of treatment or getting over it, generally speaking, what you have to have is somebody work with you on fantasy vs. reality on the person they are addicted to. Who is he/she really is vs. what your fantasy is and really keep on them so they can move into reality. But basically, you have to work with the addictive process, the fantasy, the denial that protects the fantasy, the withdrawal from the fantasy, the medicating withdrawal and returning to the relationship and return to the fantasy, or spinning off and doing it with someone else. That is what happens at a 12-step meeting where they really look at that, or with a therapist or counselor who knows what they are doing. Then you have to do trauma work with the original neglect or abandonment. Then you have to do what I call core work: teaching them how to esteem themselves and how to take better care of themselves. That is where they are really weak: it is self-care and self-esteem. That is what they have to do recover from it.