Distinguishing Real Love from Love Addiction

Posted on January 24th, 2012

Whether you’re in a committed relationship or not, there’s a good chance you’re feeling uneasy as February 14 approaches. On Valentine’s Day, both singles and couples tend to set themselves up for serious disappointment, either with hopes for finding Mr. or Mrs. Right just in time or getting the perfect gift that screams "I love you!"

"Valentine’s Day is the only American holiday especially for couples," says Sharon O’Hara, MFT, the clinical director at The Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles. "If you’re not in a romantic relationship, you get all these media messages from the rose, chocolate, diamond and card sellers that you’re missing out on something important (which turns out to be roses, chocolates, diamonds and cards)."

The media sets up our expectations for this magical day. "If he loves you, he’ll buy you diamonds." So if he gets you a card, does that mean he doesn’t love you? What if he doesn’t particularly like being forced to declare his love on what is, essentially, a made-up holiday?

A Brief Valentine’s History

"Valentine’s Day as we know it grew out of the artistry and marketing talent of a woman card-maker named Esther Howland who designed lacy cards full of cupids in the 19th century for lovers to give to one another," explains O’Hara.

There were also rumors of a St. Valentine. Historians have come up with three possible Christian martyrs named Valentine, but the Catholic Church could never decide which was the real deal. So in 1969 the Church dropped St. Valentine’s Day from the official list of Saints Days. There is a legend, O’Hara recounts, that one of these Valentines was a priest who secretly married young men to their sweethearts in defiance of Roman Emperor Claudius II, who thought that unmarried men were better warriors. So Claudius had him beheaded.

In ancient times, there was a Roman festival held on February 15 called Lupercalia, at which time a young man would draw the name of a young woman in a lottery and then keep her as a sexual companion for a year. The festival lottery is said to have lasted for 800 years until Pope Gelasius I was less than enchanted with this rite celebrating the god Lupercus (Latin for "wolf"). So in 492 the Pope substituted St. Valentine’s Day on February 14 by suggesting a lottery where the young men would draw out the name of a saint, whose life they were then supposed to imitate for a year instead of getting to be romantic with a pretty girl.

Over time, the romantic element crept back into Valentine’s Day, says O’Hara. Eventually February 14 evolved into a day when lovers would court one another with handwritten messages of admiration.

Falling in Love with Love

Throughout history, there have been variations on the theme of frustrated romantic expectations. Often, people fall in love with the "high" of new love – what O’Hara calls the chemistry of limerence, after a book called Love and Limerence written by Dorothy Tennov. Whenever a relationship reaches the inevitable point when troubles arise, some people experience a type of withdrawal from this druggy state.

"Newness is one of strongest drugs there is," O’Hara explains. "People want the 24/7 high of new love and when that wears off, they are often quick to move on to the next relationship. And so begins the cycle of love addiction."

What Is Real Love?

Dr. Harville Hendrix, in Getting the Love You Want, describes the "pink cloud" phase of a relationship. For anywhere from about three weeks to three months, the couple is "in love," a magically altered state of reality, believing they have found their perfect match. After this period, the couple discovers not so wonderful things about one another. This is where real love distinguishes itself from love addiction.

"Real love starts with how the couple handles their first serious disagreement or disappointment," says O’Hara. "A relationship is really one giant series of negotiations in which each individual must figure out how they can hold their connection to their partner while leaving room for differences."

At a recent training O’Hara attended, sex addiction expert Dr. Patrick Carnes shared his thought process surrounding whether or not he should consider a new relationship after the death of his wife. Rather than asking who would enhance his life or make his retirement the most blissful, as one might suspect, O’Hara and other attendees were pleasantly surprised to hear him ask, "Who might I like to struggle with?"

To O’Hara, this sentiment encapsulated what it truly means to be in love. Contrary to what romantic movies have told us, "love is not about finding that one person who can make us feel better about ourselves, who we can brag about to our friends, or who will fulfill our Playboy sex kitten or rock star celebrity fantasies," she says. "It is about finding a person who can struggle alongside us, hopefully with a little grace and humor."

No One Right Way to Love

Real love can come in many forms. O’Hara notes that some happily married couples who have maintained committed long-term relationships sleep in different bedrooms or live in separate homes. Regardless of these differences, healthy relationships do share a few common themes. For example, real love maximizes connection and minimizes differences. It also allows each person to be fully themselves.

O’Hara recommends asking yourself, "When it comes to communicating with your partner each day, both verbally and nonverbally, are you more critical or more positive? Do you look for and comment about what’s wrong or what’s right with your partner?"

"An important measure of real love is acceptance of your own flaws as well as your partner’s foibles," O’Hara says. "This is in contrast to addictive love, in which one or both partners cling to a fantasy about who their partner is and keep trying to make their partner fit that mold. They are in love with the fantasy rather than seeing their partner for who they really are."

Of course, some issues cannot be accepted and must be "taken to the mat," according to O’Hara. At these times, both partners must hold a certain amount of respect in the negotiation process, recognizing that all of us come into relationships with emotional wounds and traumas from our family of origin.

Create the Relationship You Really Want

Most people fall somewhere in between the two extremes: They are not love addicts, but there are aspects of their relationship that need improvement. We can transform our intimate relationships, says O’Hara, by recognizing that we’ve all been conditioned by society to objectify ourselves and others, sexually, financially or otherwise.

"Instead of seeing the whole person, we see only what they represent," says O’Hara. "For men, this is often a woman’s appearance or the size and shape of her body parts. For women, this is often the size of a man’s bank account."

When you come up against tough times, view it as an opportunity to develop intimacy skills rather than running as fast as possible into the arms of a new romantic partner. The earlier problems are addressed, the better the chances of preserving the relationship and coming out the other side closer to your partner.

How do you build intimacy skills? Therapy is often helpful, but O’Hara says it boils down to "learning whose business you are in." This concept is based on the work of Byron Katie, who describes three kinds of business: mine, yours and the world’s. O’Hara explains: "Whose business is it if your partner looks at porn? Your partner’s. Whose business is it whether or not you want to live with someone who looks at porn? Yours. Whose business is it that porn exists in the first place? Let’s call it the world’s."

Similar to the Serenity Prayer, the key is focusing on the things you have control over and accepting the things that you cannot change. Being mentally "out of your business" only leads to emotional suffering for you and your partner.

Perfection Not Required

No one engages in a relationship with another human being perfectly. And fortunately, perfection is not required, on Valentine’s Day or any other day of the year.

"Being human means being both imperfect and worthwhile," says O’Hara. "When we embrace both of those qualities in our partners and relationships, we take a giant step closer to welcoming real love into our lives."

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