By Sandra L. Brown, MA
Let’s face it. If we were really good at choosing healthy relationships, we wouldn’t be here reading information about dangerous men. We would be happily somewhere else with a healthy guy! So let’s at least begin with the universal assumption that we haven’t done our best job at selecting potential relationships with men who actually HAVE potential!
There are a lot of ways to define relationships that don’t work well. Often they are called ‘dysfunctional’ or ‘abusive’ or ‘bankrupt.’ But, what I’d like to focus on are those relationships that, despite all the horrible things going on in them, the women are encased in a web they cannot climb out of because their relationships are ‘addictive’.
Some people do not realize that relationships/love/sex can qualify as an addiction or an out-of-control behavior. Addictive relationships are characterized by attachments to someone who, for the most part, is not available emotionally. In addictive relationships there is a single overwhelming involvement with another person that cuts the women off from other parts of their lives. The results of trying to be in an addictive relationship with someone who is emotionally unavailable are:
- Feeling stuck
Addictive relationships have similar qualities to other patterns of addiction, which ‘rob’ people of the quality of their lives. They impact the ability to:
- Have healthy communication
- Have authentic enjoyment of one another
- Love each other outside of dependency
- Be their healthiest self
- Be able to leave the relationship if it becomes unhealthy or destructive
Addictive relationships are described by women as “a feeling that I just cannot leave him no matter how bad he has been or how awful I feel”. There is a battle going on inside of them and, despite a normally rational approach to life, they still cannot unhinge themselves from this pattern of destruction that they know is bad for them. They often feel helpless to make the choice to leave. They are ‘hooked in’ in ways they do not even understand.
As is true in other addictions, you lose the ability to constructively manage your own life. Like drug or alcohol addiction, addictive relationships show the same signs of:
- Magical thinking
- Helplessness to stop the addiction/relationship
- Feeling bad about one’s inability to stop
- Low initiative to stop the behavior and/or relationship
The inability to manage one’s life is often connected to belief systems that you hold about yourself, your future and relationships. Often these beliefs are what they call “stinking thinking” — that is, at the core of these, are erroneous beliefs often developed from childhood on.
Unmet childhood needs warp into adult ‘neediness’, which places a person at higher risk for developing dependent and addictive relationships as an adult.
If your childhood was affected by your parents’ relationship or someone your parent dated, please be aware that the same thing can happen to YOUR children. A good reason to work on yourself and to stop dating dangerous men is your children and to stop the damaging effects on them. Addictive relationships are always the destructive exploitation of one’s self and the other person which masquerades as love.
The following checklist is a guide to help you identify any tendency towards relationship addiction or unhealthy relationships in general. If you answer ‘Yes’ to most of the following statements, you probably have a problem with relationship addictions.
- To be happy, you need a relationship. When you are not in a relationship, you feel depressed, and the cure for healing that depression usually involves meeting a new person.
- You often feel magnetically drawn to another person. You act on this feeling even when you suspect the person may not be good for you.
- You often try to change another person to meet your ideal.
- Even when you know a relationship isn’t good for you, you find it difficult to break it off.
- When you consider breaking a relationship, you worry about what will happen to the other person without you.
- After a break-up, you immediately start looking for a new relationship in order to avoid being alone.
- You are often involved with someone unavailable who lives far away, is married, is involved with someone else, or is emotionally distant.
- A kind, available person probably seems boring to you, and even if he/she likes you, you will probably reject him/her.
- Even though you may demonstrate independence in other areas, you are fearful of independence within a love relationship.
- You find it hard to say no to the person with whom you are involved.
- You do not really believe you deserve a good relationship.
- Your self-doubt causes you to be jealous and possessive in an effort to maintain control.
- Sexually, you are more concerned with pleasing your partner than pleasing yourself.
- You feel as if you are unable to stop seeing a certain person even though you know that continuing the relationship is destructive to you.
- Memories of a relationship continue to control your thoughts for months or even years after it has ended.
- Even though you know the relationship is bad for you (and perhaps others have told you this), you take no effective steps to end it.
- You give yourself reasons for staying in the relationship that are not really accurate or that are not strong enough to counteract the harmful aspects of the relationship.
- When you think about ending the relationship, you feel terrible anxiety and fear, which make you cling to it even more.
- When you take steps to end the relationship, you suffer painful withdrawal symptoms, including physical discomfort that is only relieved by reestablishing contact.
SO—Are you addicted? Finding the true answer, while it may be concerning, is at least a step towards taking more control of your pattern of selection to stop the cycle with dangerous men. The first step is awareness. Here are some tips for overcoming your relationship addiction:
Robin Norwood, in her excellent book, Women Who Love Too Much, outlines a 10-step plan for overcoming your relationship addiction. While this book is directed toward women, its principles are equally valid for men. Stated here (reordered and sometimes paraphrased), Norwood suggests the following:
- Make your recovery the first priority in your life.
- Become “self-ish,” by focusing on getting your own needs met more effectively.
- Courageously face your own problems and shortcomings.
- Cultivate whatever needs to be developed in yourself. Fill in gaps that have made you feel undeserving or bad about yourself.
- Learn to stop managing and controlling others. By being more focused on your own needs, you will no longer need to seek security by trying to make others change.
- Develop your spiritual side. Find out what brings YOU peace and serenity and commit some time—at least half an hour daily—to that endeavor.
- Learn not to get hooked into games in relationships. Avoid dangerous roles you tend to fall into, such as rescuer/helper, persecutor/blamer, victim/helpless one.
- Find a support group of friends who understand.
- Share with others what you have experienced and learned.
- Consider getting professional help/counseling.
Some women get stuck trying to get out. Others get stuck trying to choose differently the next time by trying to not end up with a dangerous man AGAIN. Here are some signs you might need professional assistance for a short time to help you get unstuck:
- When you are very unhappy in a relationship, but are unsure whether you should accept it as it is, make further efforts to improve it, or get out of it.
- When you have concluded that you should end a relationship and have tried to make yourself end it, but remain stuck.
- When you suspect that you are staying in a relationship for the wrong reasons, such as feelings of guilt or fear of being alone, and you have been unable to overcome the paralyzing effects of such feelings.
- When you recognize that you have a pattern of staying in bad relationships and that you have not been able to change that pattern by yourself.
Know that, as your relationship addiction increases, it becomes more difficult to cope with anyone or anything else. This becomes all-encompassing. There is the rush of the addictive relationship that is absent from healthy relationships. Often women misread that sign to think it means there is a strong connection—it just might not be a healthy connection! Addiction is where two people use each other to fill their own loneliness. They are distractions from the inner pain of what someone is feeling.
The only way through pain is going through the middle of it. The only way to find healthier relationships is to work on yourself so that YOU are healthy and you are choosing relationships out of the healthiest part of yourself. (Thanks to the Counseling Center at the University of Illinois for information on addictive relationships.)
In closing, the only defense is self-defense. And the only self-defense is knowledge. We can help you realize your potential need for future insight into the area of dangerousness. Perhaps this article illuminates areas in which you need more knowledge, more insight or more information. If, after reading this, you recognize your own patterns, please avail yourself to more information through our products and services or through your local women’s organizations and counseling programs.
(**If we can support you in your recovery process, please let us know. The Institute is the largest provider of recovery-based services for survivors of pathological love relationships. Information about pathological love relationships is in our award-winning book, Women Who Love Psychopaths, and is also available in our retreats, 1:1s, or phone sessions. See the website for more information.)