"In desperate love, we always invent the characters of our partners, demanding they be what we need of them, and then feeling devastated when they refuse to perform the role we created in the first place." - Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love)
In Facing Love Addiction, Pia Mellody outlines how childhood trauma creates relational patterns of love addiction and love avoidance in adulthood. Love addicts "invent the characters of our partners." We enter relationships from a wounded child ego state, believing that we are less-than and making up a fantasy about our partners. We make ourselves completely vulnerable, we tell ourselves that we are "bad" when our partner pulls away from us, we become needy, and we act out-of-control. We demand that our partners become what we "need." Often, we look at them to give us the love that our parents did not. As a love avoidant in relationship, we become the "character" that is expected of us. We enter relationships from a better-than position, we act invulnerable, we demand perfection, we are needless, and we attempt to seek control by creating intensity to feel alive. We get our sense of worth from taking care of someone we perceive as needy, but we resent him or her for it.
At The Meadows, patients often ask me what a "normal"relationship looks like. Of course, this is relative to the individual's experience of what is "normal." And it begs the question: What do functional adults do in relationships? What do recovering love addicts and love avoidants do? How do we date again? In order to address these important questions more completely, we are introducing a new workshop. It will help patients explore what a healthy relationship looks like by first tracing their own relationship histories and then considering what they want in potential partners.
First things first, sobriety must be established from any addiction that is present. Patients also must begin to examine their childhood traumas and identify whether they were abandoned or enmeshed in their families of origin and how this impacts their current relationships. Then we identify how they operate from a love-addiction or love-avoidant relational cycle. Often patients will tell me about how their partners have wronged them. In this process, participants begin to discover how they have re-created their own families of origin in their relationships and can understand what they bring to those relationships. Before someone can be intimate, he must begin the process of loving himself and knowing who he is. In our dating workshop, we will start by studying an individual's value system. In active addiction, people live outside of their values, so we want to remind them to reflect on their values. This way, they can begin to live in integrity and choose partners who have shared values. Next we have a patient define what is non-negotiable, negotiable, and "gee, it would be nice if..." about a future partner. For example, if you are a sober person, a non-negotiable may be drug use and "gee, it would be nice if he was 6 feet tall." Examining values and what is non-negotiable is important because love addicts are notorious for abandoning themselves to be with partners. This exercise helps them gain understanding of who they are and what they want.
The next step is to clearly define the impact that sobriety has on dating. Just like we define our sobriety when we get sober, we must have a plan when we enter the single world. This plan should include specifics, such as how many dates per week, how much phone/text contact, when physical contact is okay, how to discuss sobriety, social networking contact, etc. In essence, we are establishing boundaries. It may be helpful to have the patients set an intention for their dating experiences and future relationships. For example, they may say, "It is my intention to be myself while dating."
The goal is to be a functional adult when dating. This means entering relationships from a position of equality, with realistic expectations. We are authentic, we maintain our lives outside of the relationship, and we are mindful of our partner's walls in addition to our own. As the relationship progresses, we acknowledge our disappointments and feelings of overwhelm, and we communicate. The goals are to resolve conflict, negotiate, and repair disharmony while acknowledging our own childhood woundings that may be surfacing. We also bring our sober living skills into our relationships. The idea is that we enter relationships with self-esteem, boundaries, reality, willingness to express needs and wants, and a commitment to moderation.
Lastly let us remember love and respect. To quote Pia Mellody's book The Intimacy Factor, "Love is a continuum that ranges all the way from respect to very warm regard, the latter of which most people call "love." For many years, I mistakenly thought that if I loved someone, all I needed to do was to continually have a deep sense of warmth for him. Although that deep sense of warmth is basic, there are also other degrees of love that have to do with the condition of the relationship. As we experience the truth of another person, that person may be difficult- human. We might naturally feel fear, pain, and shame - not exactly pleasant. I had the idea that if I felt these unpleasant emotions, I was not loving the other person. And early on I actually wasn't, but as I got into recovery, I began to feel something healthy in its place. I learned to recognize another ingredient, and that was respect."
First we respect and love ourselves, then we practice respecting and loving others.