The individual is consumed by thoughts of romantic intrigue. The mind seems to whir away of its own accord, devises plots and plans to obtain the romantic high. Concentration is shattered, judgment impaired. Obsession begins the cycle that drives the individual to the next phase and beginnings the cycle that drives the individual to the next phase and intensifies as the process plays itself out.
An episode of obsessive thinking can be triggered by almost anything: meeting an attractive person; passing someone on the street; seeing a picture on a billboard; experiencing an emotional low point of self-pity or depression; even passing through a location where the obsession was triggered on a prior occasion. The very promises that the addict makes to avoid triggering the obsession can themselves serve as a trigger. It is truly a no-win situation.
2. The Hunt
The individual is driven to follow through on the obsession. Inevitably he begins to seek out something or someone that will satisfy that drive. If his object of choice is another person, he may cruise the singles’ bars. If he is hooked primarily on novels or movies, he will often go through rather elaborate rituals of selecting “just the right book” or video, setting the scene with music and dim lighting, and so on.
The stronger the obsession, the more diligent the hunt. This is another point at which interference with normal life becomes noticeable if it results in time away from work or home responsibilities. Only one of two things will stop the hunt: finding the object being sought; or being caught looking.
When the object of the hunt is something inanimate, like a book or movie, recruitment is as simple as a business transaction: buy the book or rent the video. When the object is another person, however, the recruitment phase is far more complex. Romance addicts become remarkably skillful at enlisting other people to play the necessary role to complete their romantic fantasy. Sometimes this takes the form of a non-sexual seduction.
Recruitment is always risky. The addict might be embarrassed to run into someone she knows while buying a book with a lurid cover or renting an unsavory video. Worse yet, she might be seen cruising bars or other public places looking for a partner. Worst of all, she might find a prospective partner but have her overtures rebuked.
Yet that risk only heightens the romantic intoxication. The rush of adrenaline that accompanies the danger of being caught or found out further propels the addictive cycle.
Gratification occurs when the addict succeeds, by whatever means, at realizing her romantic fantasy. The book, the soap opera, the movie “does the trick.” Or the combination of soft music and candlelight enables her to play out a technicolor romantic dream in her mind. Or another person is found who responds positively to her advances. The “itch” has been scratched, at least for the moment.
5. Return to Normal
The immediate effect of gratification is a break in the obsessive thinking ? and from the pain that fueled it ? and a return to what feels like “normal” for a little while. The adrenalin rush recedes, the mind seems to clear. The addict feels peaceful. If it were possible to remain in this state, all might be well. But no one can remain in a state of perpetual bliss and freedom from stress. Inevitable, the pressures of real life build up again, and something triggers a new round of obsession, hunt, recruitment, and gratification.
The very fact of having “resolved” these problems by resorting to romantic fantasy or acting out frequently brings its own feelings of guilt and remorse. The addict then begins to justify his behavior. He convinces himself that what he did “wasn’t so bad,” that “everyone does it,” that it was “normal,” or at least “understandable” for someone with his unique circumstances and special needs. His self-talk sounds like this: “But I needed it. I deserved it. Besides, I really had no choice. It’s just the way I am. I was only doing what comes naturally to me.”
In this phase particularly, the addict rationalizes what he has done to the victim. Even if the gratification involved another living, breathing, feeling human being, he depersonalizes the entire episode. Inn his mind the other person was not a “real” person at all, just a component in the staging of a complex romantic drama.
Most addicts cannot successfully rationalize their behavior without blaming someone for it. The addict will blame his parents, his spouse, someone from his past who has let him down, and lay his underlying pain at their feet. Fundamentally, he refuses to take responsibility for his own situation, but blames others for “driving” him to make the choices he makes.
But justifying and blame-shifting only go so far. Invariably the addict carries a residual awareness of what she has done ? and of what her actions say about what kind of person she must be. Inevitably that awareness comes to the surface in the form of guilt over what she has done and shame over who she really is.
The very nature of shame is that it be repressed, “stuffed” deep inside her mind and heart, rather than brought into the light and dealt with. Thus are sown deep seeds of self-loathing ? seeds that will eventually give birth to the pain that launches the whole cycle all over again.
The experience of careening from high excitement at the outset of the cycle to shame and guilt at its conclusion, and the awareness that the cycle is unstoppable, produces hopelessness. When the fix is off, the addict’s whole world comes crashing down. The sense of pain or emptiness that originally fueled the addictive behavior is nothing compared to the agonies of depression and despair. And those agonies get worse with every trip through the cycle.
Because the pain is so great, the addict swears “never to do it again.” He will be different. He will thing differently. He will live a new life. He will never go to “those places” or read “those books” or watch “those programs” again. But the prospect of keeping all these promises ? the same ones he has made, and promptly broken, so many times before ? only heightens the sense of frustration and adds to the addict’s despair. He knows it is only a matter of time until the obsessive thoughts start t crowd in again and he will be caught in the addictive cycle once more.
Excerpted from Addicted to Love by Steve Arterburn.
Used by permission of New Life Ministries. New Life Ministries has a variety of resources on men, women and relationships. Call 1-800-NEW-LIFE or visit www.newlife.com.