Over the years, I have worked with a lot of folks who ask me: “Am I addicted to bad relationships?”
Early on in my career, I would smile and assure the person “absolutely not.” It was simply impossible in my mind because I saw addiction as being associated with a particular substance or drug. Human beings could not be addicted to each other.
Or could they?
As I got years of experience under my belt, I recognized that humans can have an attraction to compulsively go back to unhealthy relationships despite knowing how harmful they are. These people want to change but often feel powerless to fight the urge to engage in self-defeating relationships. I don’t diagnose this as addiction, but I get the parallels.
Whether it is a substance, an activity we enjoy, or someone we love, our brains experience a high. Certain genetics and life experiences make it so that some people can walk away from the high while others struggle to do so. (Note: I did not say can’t.) The high in the brain feels so good that it can override the terrible crash, consequences, and inevitable hangover.
Even in atrocious relationships, there can be good times. Our brains encode these good times with intense feel good neurochemicals. We want more of that so we keep going back looking for it. There are glimmers of the good feels so we hang on and endure the bad. We may persist even if the negative consequences completely outweigh the positives. It is like the random reinforcement schedule of gambling. We keep hanging on for the payout because we know one will come eventually. The problem is that the payout never quite gets us out of the hole we dig trying to get there. Random reinforcement schedules are the toughest to overcome.
So, yes, in a way, I believe repeatedly going back to an unhealthy relationship can be like an addiction. Fortunately, we know how to treat addictions, and most of the treatment is behavioral, which means focused on your actions.
What do I really mean by behavioral? It is choosing to act differently despite the urges and cravings. In other words, stop following your heart. What I am saying inherently sucks because what it means is that you have to act differently before you will feel differently and not the other way around.
And, this plan must be detailed and comprehensive. I get that it isn’t easy as I make it sound. It involves using every single resource at your disposal — friends, support groups, family, rewards, hobbies, technology. You have to block the triggers and create multiple road blocks along the path of going back.
And therapy helps — a lot — especially in unpacking all of the messed up messages and life experiences we have had along the way and identifying what we actually want in a relationship. You may be surprised how many people struggle to actually define what healthy love looks like in daily life. It is a question well worth asking and answering.
I tell people all the time that once you start to get sober from any kind of toxicity, life looks a hell of a lot different. You just cannot really understand this until you do it. It’s like smog. When you are in it, you cannot see clearly. You go on instinct and experience, but it isn’t necessarily reliable if the smog is thick. If the smog clears, things may be entirely opposite of your expectation. You may likely find that you breathe better, you think better, and you feel better. Then you have to go about the business of making a plan to stay out of the smog — one day at a time or maybe even one half day at a time. Sometimes you are so far in that you just cannot anticipate how transformative this change can be.
What is my point? People who ask me about addiction to unhealthy relationships are pondering if they can change or should even try to change. Hear me resoundingly say “YES!” It won’t be fun or easy, but it is possible with a commitment to feeling better and exploring the possibilities of being better. The catch is that there is a lot of uncertainty baked into that change. The path through the smog will not become clear until we get a compass and map a direction. (And therapists are really good at helping with the mapping.)
If you want to know more about healthy love, unhealthy love, addictive tendencies and more, check out my new book good Getting to Good Riddance: A No Bullsh*t Breakup Survival Guide available now wherever you buy books.