This week we spent some time with a couple of people who, in different ways, have become “addicted” to romantic relationships.
One is a man in his early 40’s. The other is a woman in her early 30’s.
They are quite different in terms of personalities, but there are some very strong similarities in terms of their childhood and relationship history.
Both had quite emotionally deprived childhoods.
The woman’s mother was depressed and was essentially unable to care for her children because she was so caught up in her own suffering.
The man was probably depressed himself, and his parents got a very unpleasant divorce that dragged on from middle childhood through his adolescence.
When I asked each of them what it was like growing up, the startling thing was that they told the story with almost clinical detachment. It was as though the story of their childhood and their relationship with their parents was being told from the standpoint of a distant third person observer. “Of course” they loved their parents, but when I asked for any recollection of having been shown love, they both drew a blank.
Both of them discovered romance when they were in high school. And for both of them it was a transforming experience.
For the first time they felt special and loved and lovable. It may have been for both of them the first time that they were not depressed.
For all of us, first love can be a heady experience, but for them the desire to recreate it became the defining focus of their lives.
Now, years later, they only feel good when they’re involved in a romantic relationship, and they feel depressed, alone and helpless when they are not.
Another common theme is that neither one seems to be able to take care of themselves physically or emotionally when they aren’t in a relationship.
The woman was a very successful gymnast and dancer who enjoys the experience of being physically active, but absolutely will not do any kind of exercise or physical activity when she is alone and not in a relationship.
The somewhat older man has chronic health problems which he will not get any help with when he is not in a relationship.
The tenacity of these refusals is quite remarkable to an outside observer.
The closest parallel to the experiences of these two people is someone who we have seen for several years for the treatment of a very persistent depression.
He probably also had a pretty emotionally-deprived childhood. What he discovered as an adolescent wasn’t romance, but rather the drug “ecstasy” or MDMA. For him the experience of being high on ecstasy was equally transforming and compelling.
For the two years after his first experience he used more and more of the drug, and probably, burned out some of his brain’s serotonin system.
Whether it is true that he damaged his brain, or not, what is clear is that ever since those two years (when he finally came to his senses and quit the drug) it has been practically impossible to get him out of some kind of state of depression.
There doesn’t seem to be a quick way out of the kind of self-doubt that these three people felt as they entered adolescence. The “quick” solutions they each found carried with them serious adverse effects.
And now each of them has discovered that they need to do the hard work of coming to appreciate and value their own selves. To do the work of loving themselves that their parents were not able to help them with.