A young wife and the mother of three preschoolers, Erin Chambers (not her real name) was struggling with a puzzling problem: the unexplainable urge to have an extra-marital affair. She had gone so far as to focus her fantasy on a specific man. The most confounding thing about Erin's temptation was that she loved her husband, adored her children, and was committed to her marriage. She believed in monogamy, and her value system precluded divorce. The compulsion to cheat on her husband was totally contrary to her nature. How could a conscientious Christian like herself be overwhelmed with such an unacceptable obsession? She was a rudderless ship being tossed about on the waters of moral wrongdoing, at the mercy of her fantasies.
Erin didn't know she was a relationship addict in the making. Languishing in the doldrums of postpartum depression, lonely for adult company and in need of
attention and affection, she was looking for something or someone to stimulate and affirm her. Because she didn’t recognize that she was in the early stages of addictive behavior, Erin judged herself harshly.
She thought she was a bad person who needed to get good when she was really a sick person who needed to get well.
Todd Benton, a professional man in his early thirties, had been a loyal husband for almost ten years. When he met his wife Marty, they were both wounded, needy adolescents. Each had been abandoned in childhood—one emotionally, the other physically. Rescuing one another from the pain of the past gave them a sense of mattering. Their bonding was intense and immediate. After a brief courtship, they married. At first, Marty pampered Todd relentlessly. But in due course, she turned her attention to the needs of others: children, friends, neighbors, good causes, etc.
Feeling unimportant, insignificant, Todd unconsciously began to seek solace—someone to need him and make him feel worthwhile. Circumstances provided him with just such a person. He met her, a widow, in the parking lot at work when her car wouldn't start. Todd became her knight in shining armor, going to her aid frequently because "she had nobody else." He spent more time rescuing this woman and her children than he spent with his own family. But he didn't get
romantically involved or engage in illicit sex. When he sensed that she was becoming too dependent, he backed off and went in search of another damsel in distress. This pattern repeated itself again and again in the years that followed.
There are endless variations on these common themes. Experts use several terms to describe them:
I will not, in this column, try to differentiate among these terms—most of which point to one probable condition. I will simply give a generic description of relationship addiction.
Relationship and/or romance addicts are people who do not feel whole without the affirming presence of another person in their life or the stimulation of a romantic or rescuing relationship to give them self-worth and identity.
Relationship addicts derive their reason to live from the attention, affection, and admiration of another. They are insatiably needy individuals (often as a result of emotional undernourishment in childhood) who equate being needed and wanted with love. They "lust" after the ego-satisfaction of being desired emotionally or physically by another person.
Ultimately, they assign too much value and power to the person to whom they are attached, relying solely on that person for meaning and identity and expecting that person to neglect his or her own needs to meet theirs. When the
addictive relationship ends, relationship [addicts] tend to replace the former "love" with a new person or fantasy almost immediately, even though they may have believed that they were totally and eternally devoted to the original partner.
Clearly, addictive relationships can be harmful if not fatal. But recovery is possible if the sufferer recognizes and treats the problem for what it is: an addiction.
By: Carol Cannon. Originally Published in Signs of the Times, June 2000
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