There are two fascinating qualities that can enter into our lives or the lives of those we care for at any moment: love and addiction. At first these two may appear to be strange bedfellows: love evokes pleasurable images of couples passionately embracing or tenderly gazing into each others’ eyes, while addiction brings up a darker, grim, even desperate image of a person struggling against a part of themselves that is out of control. Yet at their core, they both have in common a profound spiritual yearning: the desire to transcend the self, to experience powerful states of bliss and ecstasy and to merge with and feel a part of something greater than oneself.
In a rational, left-brain dominated culture such as ours, where opportunities for transformative, visionary experiences are limited (and are even consciously suppressed by some individuals and institutions), love and addiction have become two of the most common vehicles of modern life for experiencing powerful, ecstatic, altered states of consciousness, temporarily removing us from the mundane routines of everyday life and seemingly opening up powerful new dimensions of reality and possibility. With addictions, of course, these new dimensions turn out to be wisps of smoke, mirrors and illusion, as the reality of the addiction eventually crashes down upon the user’s life. And even with love, which has its own set of illusions and tricks, we can start out by honoring a strong, compelling inner pull yet end up in pain and isolation.
Together, however, love and addiction are an even more dangerous combination, feeding multiple illusions and fantasies about who we are and what we are capable of. The dynamic duo of denial and discounting of negative consequences can help us rationalize any unhealthy situation. We may reframe a desire to constantly be with our partner as finally having met our true soul mate. We may rationalize our isolation and avoidance of others as a need to deepen our connection. While our egos may tell us that we are genuinely in love, in reality we may be in need, in lust or in addiction.
In such relationships people will often say, ”When it’s good, it’s soooo good! And when it’s bad, it’s horrible.” This is because addictive love relationships tend to be melodramatic, roller-coaster characterized by excessive intensity and a lack of personal boundaries. Individual needs, personal friendships or work responsibilities may suffer due to a strong need to merge with the beloved. There is often a need to maintain a constant, close connection with the other person, borne out of an insecurity that if the person is away for too long, they will find someone else more interesting or attractive. Addictive relationships are typically compulsive in nature, using sex and/or togetherness as a way to avoid dealing with each other’s genuine feelings. Each person may feel incomplete in and of themselves and constantly look to the other for affirmation and feelings of self-worth. Underlying this addictive process is generally a fear of true closeness or intimacy and an emptiness of self that we seek to fill up with the other person.
But an interesting process occurs in addictive relationships: they inevitably elicit uncomfortable feelings. Someone begins to feel smothered or sexually objectified. Intense arguments grow out of trivial acts. The lover’s touch is suddenly cold, without passion. Or the bad times begin to far outnumber the good ones. While one could conclude at this point that you were merely incompatible, there is a more profound opportunity present. Sometimes it is the pain or confusion that breaks open our hearts, that asks us to look inside, honestly and openly, that opens up the genuine possibility of growth and change. When viewed with non-judgmental awareness and open-hearted receptivity and an understanding of the deeper yearnings that addictive love expresses, love and addiction together can create a powerful opening and path of awakening.
The first step in creating a healthy, loving intimate connection with another human being is to admit that we may not know much about how to do it. As Buddhist psychologist John Welwood says in his book Journey of the Heart, ”… opening more deeply to our questions is the essential ground of relationship as a path. Honoring the ‘I don’t know’ instead of fighting it can help us discover new possibilities and resources, right in the midst of whatever problem we are facing. This gives us a way of starting fresh again and again… we may feel much safer when we think we have all the answers. But intimate relationships unmask and expose us and bring us face to face with life in all its power and mystery. Unless we are willing to explore the unknown in ourselves and in our relations, we will never advance very far along the path of love.”
It is only when we surrender to the mystery and power of the unknown in loving connections that we may begin to understand its true nature. When our ego can finally admit that blindly following its attractions leads not to eternal bliss and fulfillment but to isolation, chaos and pain, one can take the first steps toward genuine connection. When we realize that we may be unfairly placing our own individual emotional and spiritual needs onto our partner, we can choose to re-prioritize our activities. Perhaps we need to put attention on becoming a whole person so we don’t completely lose ourselves in another. Perhaps we need to meditate, pray or commit to another spiritual practice or spiritual community, to fully honor our need to transcend and connect to something much larger than ourselves, before we can truly love another.
It was William Shakespeare who said, ”Lovers and madmen have such seething brains, such shaping fantasies, that apprehend more than cool reason ever comprehends.” Let us be thankful for our seething brains and shaping fantasies, which get us out of our cool rational minds, but let us also constructively use the powerful openings they grace us with, to gain a deeper understanding of the true nature of love and spirituality in our lives.