Withdrawal makes love addiction different from codependency. Like any other addict, a love addict wants a fix — in this case, the object of his or her obsession. That could be a particular person, or a relationship in general. So what happens when that “substance” goes away?
There are two ways a love addict enters withdrawal: They’ve ended the relationship or tried to. Or his or her partner has left the relationship — explicitly, or by becoming obsessed with his or her own addictive behavior. As soon as the love addict feels the other person’s absence, it will trigger feelings of loss.
For most people, loss evokes emotions such as sadness. Healthy adults know how to manage these emotions. But for love addicts, in addition to normal feelings of loneliness, grief, anger, and fear, all their childhood trauma issues are triggered, too. Any unresolved childhood issues around abandonment, fear, anger, jealousy, insecurity, guilt, shame, and loss are going to combine with the current adult experience to create one perfect storm. It’s intense, devastating, and overwhelming, and often the love addict feels out of control in the face of it.
If withdrawal occurs because the addict’s partner left, you can add to this unexpected and unplanned shocks. The addict might face economic changes, having to move, the impact on any children, and dealing with a possible affair or other addiction fallout. It is difficult to describe the totality of the impact.
Love addicts, to get into recovery, need to be able to endure these intense emotions. Doing so long enough will help them face the fact of their addiction; begin to heal their childhood issues; take responsibility for themselves; and begin a new path that includes healthy relating. They will need a lot of support to get through this phase.
Here are some of the things love addicts may be tempted to do while they are experiencing withdrawal:
- Go back to the relationship. It is possible to heal a love addiction without ending a relationship, but it requires putting the relationship on hold for a significant amount of time. You can’t be in an actively dysfunctional relationship and try to heal your addiction.
- Contact the old partner. If the relationship is over, a love addict is going to be tempted to reestablish contact. This will lead to an attempt to go back to the relationship.
- Stalk the old partner. Rage and jealousy can become intense. If there is a third party involved (or if one is suspected), the addict may be tempted to stalk their old partner. Once withdrawal takes over, the brain isn’t in any place to be logical or rational. It’s being run by intense emotions that go back to childhood. There’s a raging and scared child at the wheel and all kinds of things make sense to a child that don’t make sense to adults.
- Get even. If you’ve got a raging and scared child in charge, then that child might also devise all kinds of ways to get even. Have an affair of your own. Spend all the money. Show up at the partner’s office and make a scene. Ruin something important or valuable. Say anything and everything in order to cause pain.
Remember, the addict’s brain has been hijacked by addiction withdrawal. There is no logical reasoning going on here. The primary goal of the brain in withdrawal is to get the addictive substance back and stop all the pain. So love addicts in withdrawal hear messages in their heads that sound something like:
- I can’t live without him or her. I need him or her.
- I can still make this work. It has to work. I need to give it one more chance.
- He or she is supposed to be with me. We were supposed to be together. We were meant for each other.
- It wasn’t supposed to be like this. It was supposed to work out. I didn’t want it to be like this. Why is it like this?
It’s important to understand how addiction works. Get help and support to get through this phase. Because it does pass. Remember, as my therapist reminds me: these terrifying and overwhelming emotions are just neurons firing in grooves that were formed in and informed by pain long before this relationship started.
Our job in recovery is to form new grooves formed in and informed by love, acceptance, compassion, and patience. If we can tolerate the pain without acting on it, we are already forming new grooves. That’s the beginning of progress.
But it’s not enough to simply stand there in pain and do nothing. Get yourself to a 12-step meeting. Call a friend who gets it — someone who will completely support you, not just take your side, tell you what you want to hear, or start telling you what you need to do.
Write in your journal. Get those feelings out of you and somewhere else. Process them somehow. Yell at a tree. Throw eggs at the ground. Cry. If you’re like me, sob. Get it out. Be comfortable with your intensity and recognize that you’re not dying, nothing bad is happening, you’re not going back to your old behaviors. That’s when you’ll know you’re making progress.
Every now and then, something seemingly innocuous, like an empty pizza box, can trigger intense feelings of withdrawal for me. I’m always caught off guard when that happens. But I’m learning that every time it does, I can just allow those feelings to pass through me and out.
I can cry, shake, yell, rant, pace, whatever, and as long as I don’t pick up the phone to call, text, email, or do anything that points in the direction of an old partner, or run into the arms of a new lover to just cover it up and make me feel better, I’m doing great. If I remember to touch base with my inner child and let go of some additional childhood hurt while I’m at it, I know I’m doing fantastic!