Addicted to Love in The Age of Loneliness
Loneliness has been described as “epidemic” among young adults.
Social isolation, we’re told, is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day; loneliness, research suggests, is twice as deadly as obesity.
Dementia, high blood pressure, alcoholism and accidents – all these, like depression, paranoia, anxiety and suicide, become more prevalent when connections are cut. We cannot cope alone.
Many media narratives would have us believe that, given our “isolating society”, sex and love addiction are growing disorders. But are supposed addictions to sex and love simply an attempt to “diagnose” what were previously natural human nuances?
The fastest growing 12-step programmes in the world involve sexual addiction, including: Sex Addicts Anonymous, Sexaholics Anonymous, and – something that caught my eye – Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous. According to America’s National Council on Sexual Addiction Compulsivity, around eight per cent of all Americans can be classified as addicted to sex: that’s 18-24 million people.
And whilst that seems like the overestimation of a vested-interest organisation, a friend recently mentioned his weekly SLAA meeting in central London and it got me thinking.
Sex and love addiction (SLA) is different to what we saw destroying Michael Fassbender in the movie Shame, or in tabloid coverage of Tiger Woods’ misdemeanours. SLAA deals instead with sex alongside love, under the umbrella of “intimacy anorexia”.
No doubt many people will find the concept of being addicted to love difficult to grasp, not least because love as an entity is intangible and ultimately indefinable. We know it should relate to and represent closeness, warmth, security, sensuality and intimacy. So how and why can one become addicted to these wonderful things, rather than simply enjoying them as natural human emotions?
Let’s start by looking at the feeling of falling in love: the intense rush, the loosening of boundaries, the sensual stimulation, the wilful submission. It almost sounds like nothing a decent bottle of whisky wouldn’t do. SLA is the same as any other addiction, according to those who offer therapy for it. It is – much like alcoholism – characterised by compulsive behaviour, repeated in spite of negative consequences.
But without a bottle to hit or a vein to split, how does a love addict get their fix? Through their need to constantly be enveloped in those intense feelings. SLA 12-steppers are often desperate to be “completed” by someone else, seeking this connection compulsively and inappropriately despite negative social, psychological or physical consequences.
As with other addictions, withdrawal, dependence and tolerance build. They may speed through sequential relationships, struggling to experience feelings of self-esteem when alone (damaged self perceptions can lead a person to think that they are only worth something if someone loves /wants them).
They often struggle to determine what they want or who they are, and instead of searching for this they abandon themselves, electing instead to only have an identity in relation to being wanted by another person. The addict is “dependent” on a partner for validation, a pattern which may hold sufferers in abusive relationships, or lead them to coerce or bully their partner into satisfying their needs.
In place of intimacy you’ll often find obsessive behaviours and risk taking, fear, confusion, paranoia of abandonment, and abandonment of self-interest. When this dynamic leaves them inevitably dissatisfied, they may become frustrated that the relationship isn’t perfect, anxious and paranoid that the partner will leave, displaying defensive or possessive behaviours.
But love addiction is not a formally recognised addiction, and with many of the characteristics above arguably applicable (if in smaller doses) to the broad spectrum of people, is this simply a case of psychologists attempting to pathologise modern relationships?
In search of the answer, I contacted SLAA. The secretive organisation closely guards the anonymity of those who seek help through it; everyone I talk to echoes the sentiment that it operates under the radar, reachable but only to those actively looking, and suspicious of media. I don’t know the name of the contact I ultimately interviewed, I reached him through nameless channels, and he does not claim in any way to represent the organisation (in fact he doesn’t even approve of me calling it a organisation, “It is simply,” he explains, “a place for working the 12 steps”).
“In our meetings, addiction is comprehensively covered. We believe there is no cure for addiction, and that dealing with it is so difficult because in order to function better, you simply have to change your personality.”
That’s a big ask for any organisation, especially one that denies being such a thing. No official stats exist on SLAA but, from what I’ve been told, the meetings seem to be representative of society as a whole, serving all socio-economic backgrounds, genders and sexual preferences. “Most attendees are single because the addiction renders them so,” my contact says. “As with all addictions, people develop withdrawal symptoms from sex and love, they get moody and angry if they don’t get a fix.”
It seems that until the cognitive personality-overhaul is complete, in order to be sober they must be single. “A lot of people in SLAA are cross addicted and attend AA/NA too. People who operate within these patterns will find a new drug. It’s partly genetically predisposed, partly environmental. Nobody really knows why some people can stop and some people just can’t.”
Interestingly, SLAA finds some of the answers in anorexia diagnostics. A disorder usually presumed to be limited to Nervosa, the anorexia spectrum, SLAA says, runs the gamut of deprivation, from nutritional to emotional. It is not limited to disallowing oneself nurture via food, but can also present as an inability to receive nurture through authentic love and intimacy.
If we look at children, genuine human connections are imperative to normal development, just as food is. SLAA argue that intimacy and sexual disorders are a starvation of true human connections.
Creatures of pattern and habit as humans are, this deprivation becomes destructively addictive, but the addiction is just a symptom. “For an alcoholic,” my SLAA contact explains, “alcohol is not the problem, daily life is; the person feels uncomfortable already, there is an underlying inadequacy, depression, anxiety.”
As with any addiction, the addiction to love and sex serves as an escape from those intolerable aspects of reality. Sexual promiscuity serves to hide an avoidance of intimacy. Co-dependency reproduces the “appearance” of relationship, but hides a resistance to a functional connection.
The SLAA website explains: “Beneath the surface, anorexia is a busy addiction: it consists of not doing something. Not trusting, not committing, not surrendering. Here, unlike picking up a drink or shooting up a drug, anorexia’s symptoms are obscure, uneventful. Here anorectics don’t act-out, they act-in, by refusing to act. And so the anorectic pattern may remain invisible.”
At quite what point one finds themselves immobilised by an invisible force, driving them simultaneously away from themselves and towards loneliness, I’m unsure. But it seems to be true that, as with all addictions, those I met with SLA are silently treading water just stay afloat. Perhaps a culture where new relationships are formed via hook-up apps and where the next fix is just a swipe away makes it all the more difficult.
The digital landscape of love is helping to feed these addictions, tempting us with another hit, and arguably leaving us damaged in the process – both hooked on starving ourselves of the relationships that we should take for granted.