Note: This article was originally published in the Spring 2005 issue of MeadowLark, the magazine for alumni of The Meadows.
The Co-Addicted Tango: Pia Mellody's Theory of Love Addiction and Love Avoidance
By Lawrence S. Freundlich
When Ms. "Crazy for Love" meets Mr. "Give Me Some Room to Breathe," the stage is set for what Pia Mellody calls "The Co-Addicted Tango." Ms. "Crazy for Love" is in Mellody's clinical terms, "The Love Addict," and Mr. "Give Me Some Room to Breathe," is "The Love Avoidant." They will each find something attractive about one another and inevitably something that will detract from one another, making their dysfunctional relationship as painful as it is frenetic and a back-and-forth "Co-Addictive Tango."
The Love Addict, to whom I have just referred to as "Crazy for Love," I identify as a woman, and the Love Avoidant, to whom I have just referred to as "Give me Some Room to Breathe," I identify as a man. Is this gender typing accurate? After all, men can be Love Addicts and women can be Love Avoidants? In fact there are powerful forces at work in American culture that distribute Love Addiction to women with significantly greater frequency than to men, and Love Avoidance to men with significantly greater frequency than to women. The most powerful generator of this disproportion is revealed when we understand the psychological concepts of "disempowerment" and "false empowerment."
Trauma results from either disempowering abuse or "falsely empowering" abuse, which, because of its falseness, disempowers as well. Abusive parents either shame the children into silence as a way of diminishing their own external stress, thereby disempowering the children, or assigning the children roles for which the parents should be responsible, thereby falsely empowering the children.
In our culture, young girls are trained to believe that men are the source of value, power and abundance; it is the female whose prevailing dysfunction is the outcome of "disempowering abuse." Her need to be taken care of by a man greater than herself is consistent with Love Addiction. The main conscious fear in relationships from which Love Addicts suffer is fear of neglect and abandonment. In childhood their parents have shamed them into thinking of themselves as unworthy. Without the help of an outside agency, like a husband, for example, they do not feel they have what it takes to be whole.
On the other hand, young males in our culture are raised to believe that it is their job to control and dominate- to be the source of value, power and abundance. They are trained to care "for the little woman," because she can't care for herself. It is the male whose prevailing dysfunction is the outcome of falsely empowering abuse. His need to caretake the needy female is consistent with Love Avoidance. The primary conscious fear of the Love Avoidant is fear of being drained, suffocated and overwhelmed. In their childhoods, the parents of Love Avoidants have forced on the child the role of caring for the needs of the parents. In this role reversal, the parent is being taken care of by the child. Giving the child the adult role is a form of enmeshment, which causes the love avoidant to think of intimacy as a job. They learn to resent this job as the neediness of the Love Addict becomes overwhelming.
The Love Addict enters into the relationship feeling an unbearable sense of inadequacy. Her relationship with the Love Avoidant is as doomed as it is inevitable. Having been neglected and abandoned by her own parents, she has learned that all attempts at intimacy will be painfully unsuccessful. When she seeks a love mate she will, therefore, find someone familiarly not intimate, but someone who will be good at mimicking intimacy. She deludes herself into believing that the mimicry is the real thing by creating her lover in accordance to a fantasy of her own making. The Love Avoidant becomes her knight in shining armor- "armor" being the operative psychological irony- shiny, but impervious to intimate contact.
The Love Avoidant, on the other hand, enters the relationship not because he is seeking confirmation of his own worth but out of a sense of duty. In his childhood, his parents taught him that it is his job to care for people who cannot care for themselves. As an adult, the Love Avoidant, while feeling superior or pity for the neediness of his Love Addicted partner, thrives on the power it gives him over her. Eventually, he grows resentful of all the work it takes to be a caretaker. He begins to feel suffocated and lifeless.
The suffocating Love Avoidant begins to distance himself from the Love Addict, who after several bouts of hysterically trying to get him back, eventually becomes exhausted with the pursuit of the Love Avoidant and turns to someone else with whom to be helplessly Love Addicted or to some other addiction to cover her pain of inadequacy. The substitute addiction could be food, alcohol, sex, work, spending or exercise- any addictive activity.
At this point in the Co-Addicted Tango, the Love Avoidant, who is no longer the object of the Love Addict's desire, feels the pain of no longer being needed. Without someone whose weakness cries out for his strength, his sense of superiority wavers. What value does he have if he cannot care for the needy? This triggers deep, underlying abandonment fears- sardonically the same kind of abandonment fears that lie at the heart of the Love Addict's emotional dysfunction. Love Addicts, never having been unconditionally loved by their neglectful and/or abandoning parents, look for a knight in shining armor to provide them with the self-esteem with which they never had mirrored for them by their own parents. Love Avoidants, on the other hand, almost never got a chance to feel their inherent worth, because in childhood they were empowered to care for their own parents. While not having received love from the parents, their caretaking gives them a sense of grandiosity, while masking the haunting truth that they have never been intimately loved. This false empowerment very effectively hides the crucial truth that they, like the Love Addict, were starved of intimacy. The contempt they feel for the neediness of the Love Addict, is the masked contempt they feel for themselves at not having been worthy of their parents' love. Contempt is shame turned outward on anyone whose weaknesses reminds us of the intolerable shame of our inadequacy.
Deprived of the caretaking role by the withdrawal of the Love Addict, the Love Avoidant finally feels the jolt of the carried shame of abandonment; and the Love Avoidant, who once feared being smothered by the Love Addict, now turns around to get close to the Love Addict again, using all of his powers of seduction to get back into control of the relationship.
One is running and the other is chasing all the time. When the one who is chasing finally gets close to the one running away, they both erupt into intensity, either a romantic interlude or a terrific fight. As the lyrics to the classic song say, "You Always Hurt the One You Love." This behavior is what most people call "normal"; and if it isn't "normal," it certainly is "familiar."
This attraction to what is familiar, says Pia Mellody, starts in our family of origin. "Familiarity" is the central engine of child hood character formation. In the case of Love Addicts and Love Avoidants, each person is first attracted to the other specifically because of the "familiar" traits that the other exhibits. These traits, although painful, are familiar from childhood and appear a safe way to keep the family system stable.
Both the Love Addict and Love Avoidant are traumatized children who originally adapted in order to survive within the abusive family system. They believed that only by adapting to their parents' expectations of them would they remain protected. Maintaining the status quo, even if it was a dysfunctional status quo, was for these children better than being abandoned or losing their identity (role) within the family.
The abandonment pain felt by Love Addicts in their families of origin teaches them as children to be quiet, alone, needless and wantless so as not to bother the parents. Later, they are unconsciously attracted to people who do not aggressively seek attachment to them. They unconsciously seek to replicate their childhood relationships. A part of self-esteem was wounded in the childhoods of Love Addicts. Abandonment and neglect send the message that they were not worth being with. A large part of their attraction toward Love Avoidants is that Love Addicts find in people who walk away from them an opportunity to heal the wound to their childhood self-esteem. If they can make an adult who withholds intimacy connect and fall in love with them, they can prove that they have inherent worth. Only a child can be abandoned; adults cannot. Healthy, mature adults have it within their capacities to deal satisfactorily with the vagaries of relationships without calling their inherent worth into question.
Love Avoidants are accustomed to needy, dependent, helpless people whom they can rescue, which gives them control and a 7 feeling of safety and power. When they pick up the right signal, Love Avoidants move in seductively and powerfully. People who think for themselves, say directly what they mean, solve their own problems and care adequately for themselves are not interesting to Love Avoidants.
The conscious fear of Love Avoidants is the fear of being drained and used. The unconscious fear of Love Avoidants is the conscious fear of Love Addicts, and that is the fear of abandonment. Abandonment is the core issue for both, but getting at the abandonment issue through shame reduction therapy is much more difficult with Love Avoidants than it is with Love Addicts. Disempowering abuse keeps Love Addicts close to their shame core all the time. Love Avoidants are walled off from their shame core by the grandiosity of their childhood false empowerment.
Pia Mellody's elegant charting of the dance of avoidance and pursuit between the Love Addict and the Love Avoidant is a fascinating anthropology of failed relationality, which deserves the name "Co-Addicted Tango." But understanding the various stages through which Love Avoidant/Love Addicted relationships travel is not enough to effect healing from the traumatic wounds that set these relationships in motion. For that healing to hap pen, as with all childhood relational trauma, shame reduction must take place.
The therapeutic contribution of presenting Pia Mellody's modus operandi of the Co-Addicted Tango to the patients is that the compelling accuracy of her models reduces the patients' shame by exposing their delusions to reason. As they come to see the delusions of Addiction and Avoidance in their own emotional lives, they see that they are not alone in the world of relational dysfunction. More importantly, they come to see that the emotions that seize them during relational trauma are not their fault, that they are not worthless. Undoing the automatic descent into shame and worthless ness during relational stress takes more than intellectual understanding.
Love Addicts and Love Avoidants must revisit the scenes of their childhood wounding by going back in time with the help of a therapist to confront their childhood abusers with their honest testimony of how their parents' abuse caused shame, pain and bewilderment. There comes a moment in this process of shame reduction when patients are able to rid themselves of carried shame. This emotional "detoxification" is at the center of recovery. The traumatic inheritance of abandonment has poisoned both Love Addict and Love Avoidant with shame of being who they are- better than or less when, disempowered or falsely empowered- it hardly makes a difference. Shame will run and ruin their relation ships unless they heal.