Aricle: The Candy Man Can

I can recall how it smelt. Even before entering the door, the scent engulfed my senses. I swear, it was a nasal orgasm. Not to mention the color, the selection and the opportunity for pleasure. The place was no bigger than a large closet. But when I was there, I didn’t notice the tight quarters. I was too busy thinking about the delights that awaited me. How much loot I could stuff in my little white bag.

The candy shop in the small Midwestern town where I went to college is one of my fondest memories of those four years. Think pre-Dylan’s in Manhattan. Or pre-I-have-to-give-a-shit-about-nutrition from the days of our youth. This place was divine. A real treat. The type of shop I had no idea even existed. And then, there it was. Blocks away. Right under my nose. Mine for the taking. All I wanted. Just for me.

When I am working with couples, I often think about this little candy shop. After we have diagnosed the ineffective relational dynamics and worked to stop the repetitive injury, then the fun begins. I get to teach the couple how to be connected at a deep emotionally intimate level.  And you would be surprised how many look at me with an expression that says – what the hell are you talking about? I will then point to the partner sitting next to him or her on the couch and tell them how lucky they are that someone loved them enough to drag them into therapy. I then get more stares as if I am totally nuts. But I go on. I tell them about this little candy shop outside Chicago that they have never been to. That emotional intimacy with another human being – in all its mess and all its glory – is the candy of life. And unfortunately, they have never tasted it, much less relished in it. They have never had the opportunity to fill up their little white bag to their heart’s content with the best stuff around. This realization brings its own sadness … what a waste of years. Yet, it also brings opportunity. The candy shop awaits.

I will never forget the first time I gave my daughter sugar. She must have been about 18 months old. Sitting up in her highchair. Fully satisfied with her meal of strained peas and mashed turkey. But, I could not resist the beautifully decorated holiday cupcake from the grocery store that morning. And there it now sat, right on her tray. She gazed at it with wonderment. What is this monstrosity? One bite and she was sold. Hook, line and sinker. Within a minute, she was covered in blue icing. Sugar! She was a gonner. No going back. No way, no how. I had given her the goods and now she would tolerate nothing less. Such is the way of intimacy. Once you have known its gold, there is no substitute. Anything else holds only emptiness and dissatisfaction.

Have you been to the candy shop? It awaits. Blocks away. Right under your nose. Yours for the taking. All you want. Just for you.

Reflection: Come Autumn

Come, autumn. Relieve me of the swelter. Awaken my senses to your brilliant offerings. Soothe me with the predictability of the school schedule. Wrap me in bulky sweaters, keeping me warm and safe as if the arms of a timeworn lover. Hide my toes and my fingers in preparation for needed slumber.
And of course, as you always do so well, remind me that summer ends. That cycles of living and dying are inevitable, unstoppable. That light turns to  darkness.  Damn you, autumn.  Keeping me in the now, away from my preferred illusions. Never letting me forget that life is passing and I best wake up and pay attention.

Sounds like we have a normal relationship, you and I.  I love you and I hate you.  And every year, I cannot wait for your return.

Facing Love Addiction, Braving True Intimacy – Part II

Last month, we defined exactly what a love addict is. In this segment, we get curious. How and why does one become a love addict?

The causes of love addiction are fairly easy to identify. Throughout one’s development, there is usually some semblance of abandonment – either in the form of a deficit in nurturing, direct neglect or out and out abuse.

As young children, love addicts did not attach in a healthy way to his/her original caretakers. However, such inadequate bonding was not the fault of the child. He or she was born to be loved and they are powerless to make this happen. But the experience of the child is one of abandonment and the often unspoken implication is “because you are worthless and unlovable, I will not care for you.” As this message of neglect and early loss is internalized, low self-esteem ensues and a hunger from the emotional and relational shortfall is generated. This inadequacy and/or inconsistency in nurturing leaves the child hungry for connection. The child is left in a state of exaggerated longing with immense emotional needs.

Then, the child grows up. At least physically. But there, deep inside, often unknown to the conscious mind, exists a small famished little boy or little girl who craves connection. And this connection is defined and sought after as something he or she should obtain outside him/herself. And unfortunately, this idea of going from the outside in (as opposed from the inside out) to satisfy our need for contact is very much reinforced and indoctrinated by our culture. Images of perfect romantic love and happily ever after endings infiltrate our books, movies, small talk and fantasies. I want to feel better and I want you to make that happen. Thus, the love addict begins the endless search for a romantic Object to ease the pain. Help me feel loved and wanted. Keep me from the buried loss and all the corresponding feelings of not getting what I wanted the first time around.

And to make matter worse, the love addict often repeats the original crime. Because I can’t bear the idea that I am unable and unworthy of connection, I return to the bloody scene, the chalk marks on the sidewalk, in hopes of having a different outcome. So, off I go, attracting an unavailable person that will put me back at the starting point. A clean start. Let’s try this thing again. “Love me, love me,” the love addict screams with words and action. “Tell me I am lovable. That I can connect. That I am valuable. That I won’t be alone forever.” And once again, the love addict will be dejected by another limited human being who just can’t. Or won’t. And the idea of my worthlessness is reinforced. Over and over. Around and around. With despair that the original message is a correct one and yet relief … could I even tolerate being loved and cherished? Nah. Better to stick with what I know. At least it is familiar. And keeps me out of the risk of being known, loved, engaged and involved. And, perhaps more importantly, out of the depths of the grief that those that should have loved me in the first place were just not capable. Ouch.

So, like all other addictions, we now see the hamster wheel. The endless spinning. The downward spiral.

In Part III, we will find some hope. It does exist. Promise. Always.

Facing Love Addiction, Braving True Intimacy – Part I

Imagine being lost at sea … without a raft or even a piece of driftwood to hold onto. No land is in sight. Neither is the luxury liner that left you behind. It is just you, treading in the dark ocean waters that threaten to drown you.   You are going nowhere fast. Rocking in the vastness of nothingness. Adrift. Vulnerable. Terrified.

Such a daunting scene depicts the internal world of the love addict. Even if unconscious, there is nothing fun about being so panicked. Feeling tenuous as one goes through life. Searching for one sure thing that will provide stability.

In this three-part article, we delve into all things love addiction. What exactly is it? How did this happen? And lastly, what we can do to heal our hearts toward healthy intimacy?

The What

We begin with the “what.” What exactly does it mean to be a love addict?

A love addict seeks to enmesh, to blend into a person, a relationship or an experience. Love addicts search for something outside of themselves to provide them with the emotional and life stability they lack internally.   In other words, love addicts use intensely stimulating romantic experiences to (temporarily) fix themselves and feel emotionally stable.

As we will discuss soon enough, the reason for this behavior is born out of anxiety. Underneath love addiction lies both a fear of abandonment and a fear of healthy intimacy. I need enough of you to survive but not so much that I am in over my head. This narrow window makes life and relationships enormously troublesome.

Common Characteristics of Love Addicts:

1. Love Addicts are Desperate for Connection.   Without you, there is no me. Therefore, I need you for survival. Because I cannot tolerate being alone or rejected, I find it unbearable to not be in relationship. I am constantly craving a romantic attachment and spend a disproportionate amount of time and attention searching for one.

As a love addict, once I am in a relationship, it becomes more important than the relationship I have with myself. I obsessively think about, want to be with, touch, talk to, and listen to my partner. I rate this person as superior to me, or having more power.

Connection is a priority over protection of myself because being in a relationship with you is the only way I know to safeguard me. Such emotional need and desperation means that I will do anything to keep the relationship. I will go against what I want and who I am to “keep” the relationship. I will participate in activities that don’t interest me or go against my personal values to please my partner. I will give up important interests, beliefs and friendships to maximize time in the relationship.

In sum, rarely knowing this is happening, love addicts neglect themselves to overvalue their partner.

2.  Love Addicts are Cold-Blooded. By this, I don’t mean that they are cold people. Quite the contrary … they can be too nice! Love addicts are not able to hold kindness towards themselves. They are cold-blooded as a reptile. In order to maintain an internal state of warmth, they have to sit on a rock in the sun. They depend on external forces to keep them sustained. They look outside themselves for emotional food and supplies.

Similarly, another suiting metaphor for a love addict is a bathtub with an open drain. One has to keep filling the tub because the water flows out the bottom. Nothing sticks. The love addict is in constant search for emotional goodies outside themselves to make them feel whole. For example, if you tell me that I am wonderful, it goes in and then goes out. I get momentary pleasure but then it vanishes and I need you tell me again. And again. And again. Exhausting. For both parties.

3. Love Addicts Lose/Lose because they can’t tolerate being alone and they can’t tolerate being close. This conundrum sets him or her up for serial, dysfunctional relationships. Love addicts desire and thus, search for a perfect relationship. One that will give them that continual feeling of new love, that endorphin “high” of idealized connection. They use sex, seduction, and manipulation (guilt/shame) to “hook” a partner they imagine will live up to his/her fantasy.

But here is the problem with that – love addicts mistake intense sexual experiences and new romantic excitement for genuine love. Once the newness fades and the opportunity for real engagement actually begins, the love addict is quickly out of his/her comfort zone. True connection requires we go beyond the superficial to depth and mess. And because love addicts don’t do mess, they have the inability to create and maintain an intimate relationship.

Furthermore, once in a relationship, love addicts present themselves with unrealistic expectations for unconditional positive regard from the other person. Love addicts want to be cared for and treasured to such a degree that they are always disappointed. No one can satisfy their insatiable desires. They will go to great lengths to get partners to fulfill the big fantasy they have been holding in their minds for so long and they get very angry when this fantasy isn’t satisfied. They feel detached, unhappy, restless, irritable and discontent.

So, they go back and try someone new. Someone else to give them that sustained rush. But this feat is impossible.  A tragic lose/lose.

4. Love Addicts Don’t Do Feelings. Like all other addicts, love addicts use compulsive behavior to avoid their inner world of emotion. If I am acting out, I can dodge whatever is going on inside me that I choose not to face. If the love addict is not in a current relationship, he or she might use sex and fantasy to fill the loneliness. Or they might use anonymous sex, porn, or compulsive masturbation to avoid “needing” someone, thereby avoiding relationships all together. If the love addict is in a relationship, he or she might use sex or romantic intensity to either tolerate or evade difficult emotions.

5. Love Addicts Give to Get. If the tune for the love addict is without you there is no me, then I will do anything to keep you and hold onto the relationship. Thus, I become a caretaker. Or, in a more blunt way, I become manipulative in that I am not giving from a place of generosity with no strings attached. Shit, I got a braided thick rope tied to this baby … I am giving to get. I am giving to make sure you are pleased with me. For if I can make you happy, then I can preempt my worst nightmare – your leaving me. And that is intolerable for the love addict.

6. Love Addicts Progress toward Destruction. Because love addicts simultaneously need connection while not being able to tolerate it, they tend to choose partners who are emotionally unavailable and/or verbally or physically abusive. Such partners demand a great deal of attention and caretaking but in turn, they don’t even try to meet the love addict’s emotional needs.

This toxic mix sets the love addict on a downhill progressive path. The love addict finds it difficult to leave an unhealthy relationship despite repeated promises to oneself or others to do so. The love addict develops increasing tolerance of inappropriate behaviors from his/her partner. The love addict becomes more dependent on the partner and surrenders more and more responsibility to him/her. The love addicts decreases his/her self-care. He/she becomes numb to feelings and to reality. “I’m okay, I’m fine” become repeated mantras. The love addict feels trapped and helpless to either fix or end the relationship. As the love addicts sinks more and more into despair, self-value plummets. Disillusionment and depression take root. And often the abused now becomes the abuser as the love addict cannot see his or her own immature irrational offensive behavior.

Like a frog put into cold water with the flame turned high, the gradual decline often goes unrecognized. The love addict stomachs more and more, all the while becoming less and less. A body soon to exist without a soul.

As sad as this all sounds, the love addict becomes so as a means to cope. Stay tuned for Part II – we will address how and why this happens.

Article: Surrogate Sex (*This Article is Not-Yet-Rated)

Sometimes, we need to practice. A dry run, so to speak. For, if we throw ourselves in before we are ready or even worse, with the wrong partner, we might leave the experience more harmed than nurtured. And then, we are less likely to want to dive in again or when we do, we carry with us the damage done.

This is why I am a newly converted advocate of surrogacy. Yes, you heard me. I may need to use someone else in a safe and controlled environment  to give me an experience I cannot get on my own. I may need to ask for a kind volunteer stand-in to best prepare myself for the real deal.  Some place where I am willing to afford risk.

In psychotherapy language, at its finest, we call this group therapy. Throw a bunch of strangers together in the same room. Tell them to put their thoughts and feelings into words towards one another as they are having them in the moment. And, boom. They become mirrors and objects by which all members learn and grow, feel and change. Without being explicit, the group members sign-up to use and be used.

Yet, here’s the problem … which later, becomes the solution … they are doing so in the context of a real human interactive experience. Remember the movie, The Sessions, with Helen Hunt in full frontal? A handicapped male virgin hires a sex surrogate to grant him a human experience that he has yet to partake. The Helen Hunt character is clear – no feelings, just sex. This is going to be strictly transactional. Thankfully, Hollywood got this one right. Not only does the “client” develop real feelings for his surrogate but she also engenders genuine feelings for him. Damn, if the heart just can’t stay out of it.

Group therapy is exactly so. We come together to treat each other as practice. And despite our smarter selves, we fall in love. We tumble into attached relationship. And in a truly intimate relationship, objectivity cannot be sustained. Yes, for a moment, I am using you and you are using me for pleasure and self-gain. But when the height of orgasm has passed, within the totality of the emotional and relational bubble, we return to relationship. We come home to the created emotional space of reciprocal generosity and empathy.

And there is nothing wrong with this scenario. In other words, no guilt allowed. I am not a thief who is robbing you blind. I am a human being with wants and needs. And I have the right to ask for those wants and needs to be attended to, just as do you. Not in a tit-for-tat way but from a place of abundance.

And by taking such a risk in a safe environment, we open the possibility for more. We become ready to go back out into the real world prepared, resilient, free and hungry for every bit of good stuff that life offers.

Have I titillated your interest? However you can, come out and play.  Even a surrogate will stir your feelings.  Just start.  Wherever you are, just start.