Today I want to talk about a common problem which is, unfortunately, unnecessarily experienced by many folks: being “in love” with an abusive or unloving partner. A common misunderstanding present in these kind of destructive situations is a fundamental confusion about the meaning of love, i.e. where sexual thrills or emotional dependency is mistaken for a mature caring and devotion.

In working with individuals and couples for over 40 years, I have heard the word love used in many ways.  Indeed, the Greeks had difference words to capture  the many shades of meaning this English word can express:

Philia, or deep friendship
Ludus, or playful love/flirtatious,
Pragma, or longstanding love
Philautia, or love of the self                                                                                                                                     — Storge, or familial and long standing                                                                                                                      — Eros, or sexual passion                                                                                                                                          — Mania, obsessive , dependent, addicted                                                                                                                 — Agape, or love for everyone

When it comes to relationships, however, I have frequently observed a confusion between eros and agape or  between mania and agape.  You really can’t blame folks for being confused. To be honest, American notions of love and romance are a mess.  They mush together a mixture of selfish and selfless personal experiences.  For example, to be in love may mean feeling a powerfully exciting sexual sensation which is aroused by the person with whom one is in love or it may mean a deep and selfless concern for the wellbeing of the person that one loves.  Confusing the two can be problematic.  When a  person thinks that s/he is in love in a mature way but in fact is primarily attracted to a thrilling sensation, or emotionally/literally is dependent on another person, good judgment is corrupted.  Here is how to understand the differences.

Modern science has revealed the neurochemical components of Eros .  Eros, which is sometimes falsely understood as love, is, in fact, a chemical addiction.  Often, when a person feels that they have fallen in love, a complex set of  neuro-chemical factors have come into play (phenylethylamine which releases dopamine and norepinephrine)  which produce the sexual  sensation. Just like when a heroin addict  is not able to score his fix, much of the longing for or what is felt as love or “love sick” is really the result of  a chemical withdrawal. The painful experiences romantically expressed in music and literature are, in fact, withdrawal symptoms created when the loved person is not available and the addictive sensations are absent.

Another major love confusion is mania (emotional obsession and dependency).  Sometimes individuals feel like they are in love when in fact they feel that they are essentially inadequate or unable to take care of themselves without being connected to their loved one.  Again, popular music and literature promote romantic myths with such notions are “you complete me”  or “I need you” that convey the notion that, without the other person, a happy life is not possible . This severe low self-esteem results in persons feeling that they have no choice to tolerate abuse and unfair treatment because they believe that they cannot emotionally survive without the other person.

While thrilling sensations and complementary functioning are important parts of a satisfying, workable and lasting relationship, by far the most important aspect needed is mature and caring agape. No one has captured the essence of mature love better than St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians , chapter 13.4-7 :4 “Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; 5 it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

For relationships to be joyous and long lasting, each partner must be able to overcome selfishness and experience true caring and devotion to the other.  Unfortunately, too many times obsession or neediness are confused with mature love resulting in situations wherein the one who is addicted or obsessed is abused or not treated fairly. Likewise , relationships can only work successfully when both partners are possess a mature love for one anther.

The remedies for each of these issues are conceptually easy to understand but, in practice, very difficult to accomplish.  In order for folks to overcome their emotional/neurochemical addiction, they first must recognize and acknowledge its existence.  Rationally, the disparity between truly loving and abusive or selfish behavior is easy to see.  However, just like with other addictive substances, phenylethylamine addiction is not rational. It stems from the amygdale and blocks rational assessment or motivation.  Thus, reasonable attempts to detach and end relations with abusive partners are often very difficult. Success often requires intensive psychotherapy and even medication to overcome powerful withdrawal symptoms .  The same is true for folks who have significant self-esteem issues and who believe that they need their destructive relationships to survive  The good news is that, although difficult, with proper treatment and personal effort, addictions can be broken and self-esteem can be raised.

It should also be noted that a large part of the problem which perpetuates our societal confusion about love is our cultural reluctance to educate children honestly about it.  Science and psychology rather than romantic myths must inform what our children learn about love ,sex and relationships. Boys and girls must learn from an early age accurate facts  Life education classes must teach not only the physiology but the emotional differences between love and romantic chemistry. Young people must grow up knowing  that loving relationships are never abusive.

Most importantly, children must learn that the experience of genuine love does not come naturally and that to achieve it requires, maturity, work and self-sacrifice . The rewards of such efforts, however, are blessings beyond words. Perhaps St. Paul, comes close in I Cor. 13.13 ” So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” .

Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC, Fellow AAPC    7 26 2020

Image acknowledgement attribution: Rev. Michael Heath.