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.
Maureen Canning, Clinical Consultant of The Meadows and Dakota, was recently featured in an interview on iVillage. In Tiger Woods in Sex Rehab: What Really Goes on in There, Anyway?, Canning described some indicators of a sexual addiction, and what goes on during a typical day of sex addiction treatment. Canning was also quoted in a Time.com article, What Happens in Sex Rehab?
On a related note, the work of The Meadows Senior Clinical Advisor Pia Mellody was described in an article on love addiction on Albany.com. The article outlines Mellody's book Facing Love Addiction: Giving Yourself the Power to Change the Way You Love , and describes the symptoms, causes, and steps to overcome love addiction.
For more information on the treatment of sexual addiction, visit The Meadows, The Meadows Dakota or Maureen Canning’s Sexual Addiction Blog.
Note: This article was originally published in the Summer 2005 issue of The Meadows‘ alumni magazine, MeadowLark.
Dissolving Fear and Nurturing Joy: the Personal Story of a Recovering Agoraphobic with Panic Disorder
By Charles Atkinson, MA, MSW, LCSW
Hello, my name is Charles Atkinson. I am a 55- year-old recovering agoraphobic with panic disorder. The term "agoraphobia" derives from the Greek language. The interpretation of "agora" is marketplace, and a "phobos" is defined as flight. Hence, agoraphobia literally means "flight from the marketplace." Further examination of the word agora reveals it was not only a place of intense commerce where goods were sold and bartered, but also the social hub of town for the exchange of exciting new ideas and concepts. Consequently, an agoraphobic could not venture into the marketplace for fear of overstimulation in unpredictable and chaotic surroundings. Therefore, at an unconscious level, the marketplace represented to the agoraphobic a mirror image of his childhood environment.
Today, the definition of agoraphobia has been refined to include an avoidance of a specific place or situation in which one feels trapped and may experience embarrassment. The terms "panic attack" and "anxiety attack" can be applied interchangeably. Panic attacks occur when the sympathetic nervous system goes into overdrive and generates a cognitive distortion of second-order fear, or "fear of fear." This emotion of fear is felt on both the conscious (physical) and unconscious (emotional) levels. The results are panic attacks that feel as if the sufferer is going to lose control, go crazy or die.
It is not fully understood if agoraphobia with panic disorder has its fundamental inception in biology or is a learned behavior. I believe this disorder has its roots in both theoretical paradigms. However, additional schools of thought can be applied.
Dr. Shelley Uram, a Harvard-trained psychiatrist at The Meadows, helps articulate a layperson's perspective of how the neuropsychiatry model of the mind and body adapts to stress and trauma. She explains that our amygdala is located in the limbic system of the brain. The limbic system is located in the midbrain, where our emotions originate. Constant stresses, such as childhood traumas, rattle and sensitize our amygdala, which is also referred to as the "smoke detector," a moniker indicative of its function. It does not gradually activate the sympathetic nervous system for the fight or flight response. It spontaneously stimulates the adrenal glands to flood the body with adrenaline. This results in a state of arousal for the body and mind. If the brain continually perceives the message of an external threat, whether real or imagined, it will create an internal state of perpetual hypervigilance and angst. It is analogous to revving your car's engine to the highest RPMs while in park.
Pia Mellody's longtime work in the area of trauma and addictions has resulted in a behavioral model called "Developmental Immaturity." This model addresses the problems of being relational and achieving intimacy. To gain a better understanding of Pia's model, imagine a tree.
The roots of the tree are the childhood traumas, including physical, sexual and emotional abuse. The trunk of the tree allows the core issues of immaturity to fester and impede personal growth. These core issues include problems with self-esteem, boundaries, reality, dependency and containment. The branch of the tree denotes the secondary symptoms of unmanageability. This is the stage when addictions, depression, fear and panic disorders appear. The leaves of the tree represent the final outcome of all of the dysfunctional stages and an inability to establish and maintain healthy intimate relationships.
My first panic attack occurred at age 27, six weeks after I was married. It as if I were losing control, going crazy and having an emotional breakdown. A visit to the emergency room ensued. The hospital medical staff said I was having an anxiety attack, gave me a tranquilizer and sent me home. Not only did I feel emotionally trapped and ill-equipped to engage in an intimate relationship, but the sense of overwhelming fear and impending doom was ever-present. I tentatively speculated that marriage was the problem. It was too incomprehensible to think that the problem was endogenous to me. So began my journey through life, filled with hidden shame, fear and depression spanning the next three decades.
After two years of visiting a myriad of psychotherapists and experimenting with numerous psychotropic drugs, I was still battling depression, fear and anxiety. Fortunately, at 29, I found a psychologist who diagnosed my condition as agoraphobia with panic disorder. He explained that my disorder stemmed not from my perception of marriage, but from the cognitive distortions and childhood trauma embedded in my psyche due to physical abuse. Recalling the physical abuse experience was so powerful that it felt as if my heart and soul were being suffocated. I could not address my childhood abuse issues.
However, as I developed more psychological ego strength and better coping skills, I gradually reflected back to my childhood. I was physically battered multiple times between the ages of 5 and 13. I tried unsuccessfully to stave off my father’s abuse with my feeble attempts to express anger. My retaliation was met with scorn, disdain and an escalation of violence. This violence would trigger my body to mobilize and prepare my internal milieu for the most primitive response: survival.
Today, my father would be labeled a "rage-aholic." His impulsivity and inability to contain his rage were equivalent to a ticking time bomb, ready to explode at any time, for no reason. Since I was the oldest male child in the family, I was the focal point of his outbursts. This dysfunctional
behavior perpetuated the male rite of passage in our family. The sins of the father were being passed to the next generation as an acceptable form of discipline.
After decades of therapy, I found that the model that helped me grasp and understand my problems most clearly was Pia Mellody's. Her approach illustrated that my father had an extreme failure in maintaining his boundaries, contributing to my feelings of being exceedingly vulnerable and without boundaries. His constant verbal and physical abuse was an edict to our family; he was the boss. If he was in the perennial position of one-up, we were always one-down. Being one-down all the time obviously had a negative impact on my self-esteem. Also, he emphatically and without question demanded obedience, putting himself in a position of omnipotence. This eventually distorted my reality, dislodging me from the spiritual path to my higher power. My father was continually on the verge of being out of control. His lack of control influenced my behavior, as I always tried to be in control and perfect.
As a survival technique, especially during the physical battering, I dissociated my emotions from my body. If I felt any feelings, I cognitively appraised them as anxious feelings. This psychological tactic of turning my anger at my father into anxiety within myself allowed me to function in a chaotic and unpredictable home.
Consequently, after decades of dissociating from my feelings, convoluting and twisting my emotions, I was unable to identify and appropriately express emotions. Therefore, every time I had a feeling, I assessed it as anxiety - and only anxiety. This increasing accumulation of stress and inappropriate processing of emotions provided a fertile environment for the onset of panic attacks. Pia Mellody would call this psychological process "carried feelings" or "carried shame." More pointedly, during my father's rage attacks, I felt shame, and he was shameless. As a vulnerable child, I symbolically swallowed all of his emotional frailties and inadequacies. The psychological process of feeling my shame, fear and anger, plus my father's feelings, was too overwhelming. A panic attack was the result of the carried fear and shame.
Healing the sins of the father is a Herculean effort. Many therapists employ traditional talk psychotherapies, which are extremely helpful. However, traditional talk therapies primarily engage the higher cortical portions of the brain. Some research indicates that childhood trauma seems to be locked in the more primitive limbic system. One of the most effective ways to access the limbic system of the brain is through modalities that stimulate the midbrain, or our seat of emotions. An example of this modality is guided imagery used to re-experience the childhood trauma as an adult. Pia Mellody uses this technique and others that bridge both portions of the brain, the frontal cortex (thinking) and the limbic system (feeling).
In closing, the abatement of the carried feelings is not the end; it is the beginning of one's spiritual path. Ironically, recovery is not only achieved with the dissolution of fear, but with the nurturing of joy.
The newest edition of The Cutting Edge, published by The Meadows, is now available. Feature articles include Emotional Incest and What's Wrong about Being Special by Debra L. Kaplan, The Next Step... Life Pleasure in Advance Recovery by Steven Hoskinson, and an excerpt from The Intimacy Factor by Pia Mellody and Lawrence Freundlich.
Also included are two staff spotlights and information on a featured workshop (Sexual Recovery), additional 2010 workshops, free lectures, and other upcoming events.
The Cutting Edge is available in HTML and PDF formats.
Note: This article originally appeared in the Fall 2005 of MeadowLark, the magazine for alumni of The Meadows.
The Electricity of Carried Shame
By Lawrence S. Freundlich
Children need and expect love and nurturing from their parents. This expectation is built into the genes of the human infant, who needs affirmation and protection as much as milk and warmth. Pia Mellody believes that, when parents fail in their role as caregivers to their very young, such behavior is "shameful," - essentially the betrayal of trust between infant and parent.
The reason most parents who act "shamefully" do so is not because they are overtly evil, but that they are "immature" and have become baffled and/or overwhelmed by the complex and emotionally taxing task of parenting a young child. This is not an unusual human phenomenon. Most of us have had to deal with the inheritance of immature parenting. Some of us have been immature parents ourselves.
The irritation that parents feel with their children may be expressed through anger and/or neglect. Such demeaning behavior gives the parent relief from the stresses of caring for the child. However, it makes the child feel frightened or worthless. The child thinks that something is wrong with him and becomes, in Pia Mellody's phrasing, "allergic to his own humanity." The mechanism by which this "allergy" is transferred from parent to child is what Pia identifies as "carried shame."
It is important to differentiate one's own shame from Pia's concept of "carried shame." Pia views shame to be both a gift from God and a legacy of abuse. When it's a gift from God, the experience of our own natural shame makes us aware that we are fallible. But shame as a legacy of abuse ("carried shame") has to do with the devastating and crippling experience of induced shame, as it diminishes our sense of inherent worth, making us feel less valued than others. According to Pia, "When we experience our own shame, we believe that someone has seen us as we really are - human and imperfect. When we feel our own shame, we know we are not a god or a goddess. Our own shame makes it possible to be relational, a gift our body gives to us, as we have to consider the impact that our behavior has on other people."
When Pia and Pat Mellody first began to discuss the concept of "carried shame," Pat provided a useful metaphor from the physics of electricity. He likened the transfer of a parent's shaming of a child to what happens when one coil of electric wire is placed next to another coil, and one coil is charged with an alternating current. The adjoining coil picks up the energy from the charged coil, even though the coils are not touching. Since human emotions, like electrical currents, are energy fields, they can be transferred from the person who is feeling the emotion to another person in close proximity. Of course, the emotional energy must be powerful enough for effective transfer (in physics, this is called "induction").
It was Pia's startling insight that the emotion of shame reaches the crucial "voltage" for "induction" when the person acting shamefully does not acknowledge that his/her behavior was shameful. The shame energy unabsorbed by an act of conscience or contrition has no where to go but out into the atmosphere to be picked up by the "adjoining receptor" that "adjoining receptor" is the child. The child then feels the parent's shame as if it were his own. What he feels is not the result of something that is wrong with himself, but something that is wrong with his parents. If the child were a mature, rational adult, he would recognize that his feeling of shame could not be alleviated by trying to figure out how he himself is inadequate, worthless, or"bad." The mature, rational adult would have to learn how, in Pia's terms, "to release the carried shame."
I believe that "carried shame" is one of the more difficult concepts in recovery. Many of us acknowledge that we are "shame-based," and we try to modify our behaviors so that we can have a sense of value. While the effects of carried shame live within us, the origins of shame do not belong to us, and attempting to fix our shame identifies the wrong transmitter. The shame belongs to the original shamers. And it is only by releasing it that we can rid ourselves of carried shame.
Many of us feel uneasy at the prospect of laying the blame of disastrous careers on our parents. We have been taught to take personal responsibility for our failures. Didn't our parents try as hard as they could to raise us? As culturally admirable as such reflections may seem, they are psychologically delusional. A child is in no position to take responsibility for his parents' shamelessness.
It has been the experience of many patients at The Meadows that the release of carried shame contributes to a sense of balance and moderation. And yet, we have come to understand that some pathways back to the pain of our carried shame traumas can, from time to time, be triggered. It is at these painful moments that we can shield ourselves from the effects of the voices of the past. We have learned to take time out, we have learned to breathe into the pain, and we have learned the skill and art of boundaries. We have learned that our pain is not evidence of our worthlessness. And, if we can do these things most of the time, we are reminded that we are okay, even if it has been a long journey back to believing it.