Do you find yourself repeatedly in dysfunctional, unfulfilling, or emotional distant relationships? You are not alone; many people find themselves in these situations and struggle to break the cycle. Check out my article where I discuss some of the underlying causes that drive many people to end up in these situations, even if they are in recovery.
I was watching a great movie the other day, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and there was a line in the movie that stood out to me so strongly I had to write it down. The scene was two people talking about past dysfunctional relationships, specifically the young woman was wondering why she always chooses unhealthy men. “We accept the love we think we deserve” replied her friend. I thought that was an excellent way to sum up an answer to a question that has been asked over and over by clients, family, and friends.
One concept I often talk to my clients about is building a positive sense of self from the inside out, rather than the outside in. If we feel inadequate and don’t like ourselves internally we are likely to seek external sources to make us feel better. This is not such a bad thing if those external sources are turning to close friends, meditation, exercise, or prayer; but these could also be negative sources that help us avoid or numb ourselves; such as materialism, drugs, sex, codependent love, or isolation. People in early recovery are especially prone to fall into this cycle. However, if we feel good about ourselves internally we won’t be so quick to seek out the external distractions to soothe the internal discord. This is easier said than done of course but is possible if time and energy are devoted. For many people this internal struggle, this distorted sense of self, is rooted in early childhood experiences and has been reinforced by other wounding experiences and repeated pains over the years.
Trauma is often linked with addiction, whether that trauma is overt or not. Many addicts, without even knowing it, have experienced trauma, they just may not think of it as trauma because it is a more subtle than the obvious forms such as near death experiences, rape, molest, or abuse. In the 12 years I have been working in the addiction field I cannot tell you how many times I have heard someone talk about growing up feeling out of place, misunderstood, awkward, and difficulty connecting to others. I hear this message from my clients, in meetings, and in the recovery group I run. Their stories are riddled with examples of this “relational trauma” going back into the early years of their life. Our childhood years are some of our most vulnerable years, where the foundations of how we feel about ourselves and the world around us are built. Of course we can always change and develop later in life, but early childhood can be a very challenging time; especially without the verbal skills to be able to communicate our internal experience or even the cognitive insight to understand it, let alone share it.
A fantastic book I recommend everyone should read, whether you’re in a relationship or not, is “The Five Love Languages.” In it Gary Chapman says this about love: “Child Psychologists affirm that every child has certain basic emotional needs that must be met if he is to be emotionally stable. Among those emotional needs, none is more basic than the need for love and affection, the need to sense that he or she belongs and is wanted. With an adequate supply of affection, the child will likely develop into a responsible adult. Without that love, he or she will be emotionally and socially retarded.” While this is a strong statement it is a true one. Feeling attached and taken care of is a necessity in nature. In fact, in the wild if this does not happen most animals cannot thrive and they die. This is also true for humans and part of what builds a healthy attachment is feeling unconditional love, which is different than entitled, don’t get the two confused, that’s a whole other article in itself!
When we experience neglect, abuse, or don’t feel close and connected to others, especially our primary caregivers and peers, it is difficult to love ourselves or feel worthy of love, which brings us back to the quote at the beginning: “We accept the love we think we deserve.” This makes substance abuse and mental health struggles more likely, as well as codependent behavior, codependent love, or love avoidance (which is keeping others at a distance to prevent from getting close and vulnerable. It’s a way to stay protected emotionally).
Not only can the early childhood experiences influence how we feel about ourselves, but the images and experiences that come with the drug culture sets people up to be taken advantage of, hurt, and betrayed; repeating the cycle and reinforcing their internal negative beliefs. Recovery is not only about overcoming the beliefs associated with drugs but also the beliefs about ourselves and others. If this work is not done in sobriety then people can develop mental health problems, struggle building meaningful friendships, and often slip into dysfunctional relationships, or worse, relapse. Below are some signs of codependency, codependent love, and love avoidance.
Signs and Characteristics of Love Addiction:
- Lack of nurturing and attention when young
- Feeling isolated, detached from parents and family
- Try to avoid rejection and abandonment at any cost
- Highly manipulative and controlling of others
- Unrealistic expectations of others in relationships
- Mistake intensity for intimacy (drama driven relationships)
- Hidden Pain /Denial
- Afraid to trust anyone in a relationship
- Inner rage over lack of nurturing, early abandonment
- Sense of worthlessness or emptiness without a relationship or partner
- Overly needy for repetitive positive regard
- Presence of other addictive or compulsive problems
- Using others, sex & relationships to alter mood or relieve emotional pain
- Confusion of sexual attraction with love at first sight
- For some, a tendency to trade sexual activity for “love” or attachment
- Outer facade of “having it all together” to hide internal disintegration
- Existence of a secret “double life”
- Refusal to acknowledge existence of problem
- Tendency to leave one relationship for another. (Inability to be without a relationship.)
Characteristics of Codependent Relationships (Love addiction and CoDependency often go hand in hand)
- People in codependent relationships lose interest in their own life and overly focus on others.
- Feel responsible for other people–their thoughts, actions, choices, wants, needs, and well being, instead of focusing on themselves.
- Individuals in codependent relationships do not receive compliments well…they feel guilty.
- Codependents leave bad relationships and immediately find themselves in another one that doesn’t work.
- Codependent relationships consist of two people completely focused on each other and not on self. Often staying in the relationship even if it is not working and tolerating abuse.
- Codependents are unable to stop talking, thinking, and worrying about the person they are in a relationship with.
- Codependents are terribly anxious about problems and people and worry about the silliest things.
Signs and Characteristics of Love Avoidance:
- Avoid intimacy in the relationship by creating intensity in other activities outside the relationship; such as over working, extreme sports, extended periods apart, etc…)
- Avoid being known or “seen” in the relationship.
- Distance themselves from intimate contact to keep from feeling engulfed.
- Over controlling parent/s when young…often one parent.
- Secretive behavior
- Need to be seen and adored and then escape
- Refusal to acknowledge existence of problem
If you can relate to any of these I urge you to do the deep internal work; connecting to (or maybe discovering) a sense of self. Embrace vulnerability, let your walls down, and connect with others. Practice love, compassion, and tolerance for yourself and those around you. Learn to be okay with yourself and not seek to fill the hollowness inside with external sources of instant gratification.
Thank you for reading and sharing!
Curtis Buzanski, LMFT, LAADC