In this cultural moment, it can seem like each week brings a new type of addiction to the forefront of media attention, usually in the form of a celebrity “endorsement.” It wasn’t so long ago that David Duchovny and Tiger Woods claimed to be sex addicts and sought treatment, sparking a national debate on the validity of the diagnosis. We now discuss sex addiction, pornography addiction, Internet addiction, gambling addiction, etc. Recently, Alanis Morissette confessed to Piers Morgan that she is has experienced love addiction.
Pernille Gronkjaer, director of award-winning documentary The Monastery, premiered her newest documentary, Love Addict, in the United States this past Sunday at the Reel Recovery Film Festival in New York City, a film festival bringing together documentary and fictional films representing a wide variety of perspectives on addiction. Her film offers up the stories of several love addicts, profiling their struggles and their own thoughts on their situations. Love addiction is characterized by obsession and compulsion around relationships, romantic partners, and the pursuit of individuals. It disproportionately affects women.
Ms. Gronkjaer offers a unique and probing glimpse into the lives of these addicts, nearly all women, as they reflect on past relationships and contend with the often problematic current relationships. Love Addict is by no means the kind of sensationalized reality addiction drama we’ve grown used to through shows like A&E’s Intervention. Other than the two fictionalized characters – actresses representing true stories from women who declined to appear on camera – most of the film is devoted to the daily lives of self-identified love addicts. These are not people in crisis but instead individuals slowly and sometimes painfully coming to terms with their respective recoveries.
Christian, the only male addict profiled in the film, is in recovery from both love addiction and substance addiction. His mother lives with him in his home, along with his young son, and we are offered a glimpse into the progression of his new, long-distance relationship. Christian claims that he is in recovery from his love addiction, and that his new relationship is by far the healthiest he’s ever experienced, though his mother seems doubtful. What’s most interesting to watch here is the disparity between how Christian frames his relationship internally and how we see the relationship unfold on screen. Specifically, Christian claims that he and his partner can talk for hours on end, that they have so much in common that the conversation never runs dry. Yet when we watch a phone conversation unfold between the two, it is terse and filled with awkward pauses. Their only subject of conversation seems to be how tired they both are.
Tracy, another addict, who is dating a man over 15 years her junior, especially shows a capacity for self-deception and ambivalence. She identifies as a love addict when she is ending her unhealthy relationship, but then later claims she is not an addict after she’s reinitiated contact with her ex-partner.
One of the most striking moments of self-manipulation in the film is when Tracy reveals that she’s pregnant. She claims the pregnancy was accidental and that she thought she could no longer get pregnant. She had even scheduled a doctor’s appointment regarding her infertility. When asked why she thought she was unable to get pregnant, she admits that she was going to see the doctor because she wasn’t getting pregnant. In the same breath, Tracy claims her pregnancy was entirely accidental and then claims that she was actually trying to conceive. She also admits that with her ex-husband she used pregnancy as a ploy to keep him in the relationship.
What becomes apparent across the stories presented in the film is a common history of family addiction or neglect and emotional abuse. This is common in all forms of addiction. Love addiction and sex addiction are sometimes intertwined and are obviously related, but those affected by each fall along the expected gender lines: more men are sex addicts and more women love addicts. It is possible this is partially a result of semantics and our discomfort with one gender identifying with an addiction that is commonly associated with the opposite gender. Biological factors also likely play some part in the differences.
But I would argue that the primary reason for this gender disparity is more simply a result of gender construction in our culture. My exploration into love addiction convinced me that self-esteem and self-worth issues play prominently in the experience. And we teach young women that their self-worth often comes from whom they date and whom they marry. There are countless cultural examples that reinforce the idea that to be an unloved woman is the worst of fates.
Take the examples of representations of George Clooney versus Jennifer Aniston in the cultural imagination. Both are attractive, millionaire, A-list actors. Yet Clooney’s aging bachelorhood is looked upon favorably. His singlehood is framed as an unwillingness to commit, as an enjoyment of his lifestyle. Ms. Aniston’s singlehood, however, is framed as spinsterhood. She is single, and likely miserable, because she cannot find a man to love her.
h5. Old Maid Jennifer Aniston
It’s not difficult to see how these expectations translate throughout society, warping normal, healthy impulses for love and affection into desperate attempts at self-validation.
Tracy S., another addict profiled in the film (not the same Tracy as previously discussed) appears onscreen with her ex-partner, a man who appears to withhold affection and love as much as Tracy S. seeks it. She has turned her recovery experience into a helpful personal blog filled with a wealth of information on love addiction.
It’s an interesting question for our time, the addiction question. The label of addiction necessarily reduces the theoretical agency of the addict, and that can be both a good and a bad thing. It’s helpful for many in the recovery community to see themselves as lacking any agency surrounding their addiction, at least once they initially engage in it. And I’ve seen this to be true. I’ve seen people pick up one drink and essentially self-destruct. But as we apply the framework of addiction – a framework that is more clear-cut when applied to chemical substances – to a set of behaviors that make us feel good, the lines blur. The entire addiction framework begs the question: in what ways and at what point are we responsible for our own actions?
Anything that elicits a pleasurable response triggers, among other neurotransmitters, a release of dopamine, a reward neurotransmitter, and this positive feedback can reinforce the behavior. This biological feedback underpins how we understand compulsive and addictive behaviors like gambling addiction. But of course, this can’t be the entire story. While there’s likely a physiological component that predisposes people to seeking out pleasure at a cost to their overall health and quality of life, all the addicts in the film had social factors that contributed to their behaviors. Christian’s father was an active sex addict throughout his youth. Tracy’s father and grandfather were alcoholics, and her mother was co-dependent. Other addicts told stories of messy divorces and emotional abuse in their past.
Much like recovery from alcohol and drugs, most love addiction recovery involves therapy and involvement in a 12-step program. Currently, many addicts seeking help take part in LAA or SLAA (Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous). But, again here, there are important differences to consider. There can be no total abstinence from love akin to the total abstinence from alcohol that AA recommends. LA encourages the same admission of powerlessness over addiction that AA encourages. Recovering addicts then practice the 12-step philosophy, attempting to disengage from unhealthy relationship habits. Though obsession and compulsion around love is certainly present in these people, one would imagine that a nuanced condition would require a more nuanced path to recovery.
Tracy S. details her path to recovery on her site, and it is an intriguingly unique one. She claims to have not used therapy or a 12-step program to recovery, but has instead focused on self-discovery and self-education. She believes that underlying all addictions is a basic avoidance of maturing and an avoidance of honest self-contemplation. This is not dissimilar to 12-step programs and their concept of a basic spiritual lack underlying addictive behaviors. But while 12-step programs generally encourage an addict turning their will over to a higher power, Tracy S. believes she’s healed herself.
Once you get the basic tenets of what it means — not only to recover from addiction, but that you are avoiding yourself — once you face yourself and grow up then things change. A lot of people see recovery as getting over a relationship or learning to manage that obsession about a certain person, and they’re always missing the mark. [Addiction] is not about bottle or the drug. It’s about you. That’s when you learn that then full recovery is possible.
She goes on to explain how, in her view, a culture of self gratification encourages all addictive behaviors: “We’re fat, not physically, but fat on life. We can go to the Wawa; We can go to the ATM to get money; We can get anything we want at any time. This turns into a culture of immediate gratification. We forget to defer our gratification.” This need for instant-gratification, coupled with a glamorized conception of romantic relationships in pop culture, can result in impulsive decision making around romance, another aspect of love addiction.
We continue to apply language to experience that makes it easier not only to understand, but also to manage. The lens of addiction, though complicated, simplifies the myriad experiences and root-causes of something like obsession and compulsion around love and relationships. As women continue to cast off constricting social roles from the past and redefine their self-worth as distinct from the quality or quantity of their romantic relationships, it’s my belief that love addiction will affect fewer women.
When we re-imagine society so that the first messages young girls receive are not that their self-worth is primarily determined by their physical attractiveness (and its relationship to attracting men), then we will be creating a culture that encourages the development of more whole humans. It’s a more basic lack that causes us to endlessly seek validation and distraction outside of ourselves, and love addiction seems to be another symptom of a more fundamental problem. One that I wouldn’t necessarily term a “spiritual” problem, but rather a more cultural issue with how we frame women’s worth and value.
Update: Kelly spoke with HuffPost Live to discuss love addiction. Watch:
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Follow Kelly Bourdet on Twitter: @kellybourdet