I looked at my shoes for most of my first sex and love addicts anonymous (SLAA) meeting. The place where the scuffed toe of my ankle boot met the sole seemed like a safe spot to direct my gaze, as a room of strangers gathered in a circle around me to share the stories that had brought them here. I imagined compulsive cheating and unsavoury public sex but, as the meeting wore on, I realised that no one was really talking about sex at all.
Towards the end, one young woman told us that she had texted the man she had recently started dating over 300 times the previous day. All I could think was: Is that a lot?
At the time, I was having an affair with an ex-boyfriend – who I’ll call K – and had come to the meeting at the urging of my therapist. But as those around me shared their tales of obsessive thinking, incessant texting and jealousy, I didn’t see their behaviour as problematic at all. Instead I recognised them as my own – each one a variant of passion that was the most natural thing in the world when you loved someone.
‘Sex addiction’ sounds creepy and dangerous. ‘Love addiction’, on the other hand, sounds deeply romantic.
K and I first met when I was 18 and on a gap year in San Francisco. I fell hard for his cinematic good looks and even more for his sense of humour. The home I’d left in New Jersey was chaotic: my sister was struggling with a heroin addiction and my parents were going through a divorce.
I’d escaped to California with my two best friends for a taste of freedom before starting college in New York. And K was the embodiment of that freedom – heavily tattooed, spontaneous, hilarious, a little irresponsible and very sexy. We had four idyllic months together until, one day, shortly after I returned to the East Coast to deal with a family issue, he ended the relationship just like that. It was my first taste of devastating heartbreak.
I was married with a toddler when K reappeared via Facebook more than a decade later. It turned out he was living just a few minutes away. We met for coffee and reignited a friendship that quickly became much more. K was just as I remembered: funny, handsome and charismatic. And very possessive.
I had no intention of starting an affair – I was only a few years into a deep, encompassing relationship with my husband. That too had begun with sudden intensity, the sense that we simply couldn’t be apart, and he’d moved in within a few weeks. But our love had since lost that crazy, buzzed-up quality. Now, we had shared responsibilities and the steady rhythm of an everyday life that wore deep holes in the passion we once shared. I no longer saw the same lust in his eyes when he watched me. But when K looked at me, it was like staring into the eyes of a famished wolf.
Of course, there was the slight issue of K’s persistent drug issues, but we started up our relationship during one of his sober stints, and I felt he should be rewarded for his restraint. He was working on himself. Besides, I thought (and I really thought this), our love was so hot and consuming that it would surely take the place of drugs.
Friends advised me against betting on him. Wracked with guilt, I confessed to my husband about the affair, and he and I went to a couples counsellor, who also tried to warn me. I wanted to be told not to leave my marriage, but the advice didn’t take. Once the thrilling vision of a new life with K shimmered on the horizon, I could think of little else.
You need to understand how I see love to grasp how I ended up in this situation. I’ve always been consumed by it. Like most girls, I drew hearts on notebooks and gorged on movies and pop songs about breathless devotion. But where others packed it in past puberty, I continued to insist that real love must be full of ecstasy and agony. With one boyfriend, I stayed on the phone all night, receiver by my ear, so we wouldn’t have to part. I carved a heart into my arm with a razor for another.
Added to this were the love stories in my family – tales of urgent, passionate, determinedly unpragmatic romance. My grandparents were married within 13 days of meeting one another. My grandfather paid a deposit on a house on their third date; a gesture my grandmother found utterly charming rather than deeply alarming. For my parents, who met at a rock concert in New York City, it was two months. They fell in love in May and eloped before the summer was over. (Both relationships lasted decades, although my parents ultimately divorced.)
As a teenager, I was flirtatious, inviting attention from boys (and men), even when I wasn’t sure I wanted it. I secretly hoped friends’ boyfriends, brothers and dads desired me, and tried to ensure they would by making suggestive comments or subtly signalling my availability through make-up and body language.
It worked. Teachers flirted back. Boys left notes in my locker and flowers on my doorstep. When I broke up with one high-school boyfriend, he made a mixtape that was just one song repeating for 60 minutes. The intensity of emotion that I was able to elicit gave me chills.
Over the years, the erotic obsession I was able to make men feel towards me made me feel both uneasy and special; persecuted and enlivened. But, most of all, it made me feel powerful.
K craved the same power, and he had the same effect. As soon as he was back in my life – willing to do anything to see me, despite us both having partners – I knew I’d met my match. He was as hooked on the highs and lows of love as I was. And women were drawn to him and pursued him obsessively in the same way men did with me. The fear that one might replace me lent our relationship a frenetic energy.
In our affair, K and I were both temporarily insane. Like teenagers, we would text one another hundreds of times a day. He was dating someone else at the time, but their relationship was no match for our love, which felt desperate, breathless, often beyond our control.
In an attempt to bring it to heel, we tried to describe it, define it and envisage its future… When that didn’t work, we tested one another, sometimes cruelly. (When K doubted that I’d actually leave my marriage, he began demanding that I meet at particularly inconvenient times – a bizarre way to test the depths of our infatuation, I suppose.) I was almost robotic in my obedience to him, hooked on the dizzy, weak-knees feeling I got when we were together. Compared to that sensation, everything else in life felt flat.
Eventually, I left my marriage, but not before trying to keep it together by having another baby. When it ended, I moved into a flat with my children – then two months old and almost three – and moved K in with me, in spite of ample evidence that he was not up to the job of partnership, step-parenthood or even stable sobriety and employment. Our relationship remained fervid and erratic; euphoric, then crushing.
K’s addictions grew worse, as did my addiction to him. His entire life was organised around getting high, in the same way mine was organised around him. When he described the panicked fear of dope sickness that kept him using drugs, I thought it didn’t sound that different from the fear I felt when I thought I might lose him. As long as he needed me and I felt his love, I was calm. But when we fought or he was absent I fell apart.
There were periods of domestic bliss, erotic ecstasy, then bitter fighting, shouting and door slamming. When his drinking and drug use started again, I’d kick him out, only to start seeing him again when my kids were with their father. We broke up and got back together five or six times, and each time I felt more like a pariah to my friends, most of whom were in good, solid relationships with equally good, solid men. Just like an addict, I began to hide the truth even from them.
‘Any word from K?’ they’d ask during one of our numerous break-ups. ‘No, I’m steering clear of him,’ I’d text back from his bed.
I knew I should see my friends’ relationships as models of adulthood, but imagining the lives they’d chosen left me cold, sometimes even angry. Their marriages were a litany of home improvements and steakhouse date nights, walks with the dog and days out with the kids. When they looked at me and my chaotic relationship with pity, I wanted to scream that perhaps it was this way because we simply had more love to manage.
The paradox of love addiction is that we, the addicts, believe we are romantics – giving our whole selves to the pursuit of love. We think we value love above all else and yet we are willing to lie and treat our partners without care or thought. When the thrill wears off, we abandon one love only to move to the next, leaving those left behind confused, and almost always heartbroken. We act in ways that are unethical, sometimes unforgivable, telling ourselves that this is all part of the noble pursuit.
When he relapsed again after a long period of sobriety, I finally broke up with K. I was exhausted and depressed. I was disturbed that in his absence, in the quiet of my home when the kids were with their dad, I wanted to climb out of my own skin. I didn’t know how to live without the hit of his attention. Until I was sitting in that silence, I didn’t realise that I had been relying on men to make me feel alive, whole and treasured for so much of my life.
The real undercurrent of my addiction to love was in fact fear and insecurity. I didn’t know who I was outside the love of a man. That’s when I began to attend SLAA. Living with the daily rhythms of K’s addiction, I came to see my own patterns as part of the same paradigm. Hearing stories like mine brought great relief. But they also brought immense grief, for in order to move on with life, I had to leave behind a love that had given my life so much of its texture and meaning.
There are many lessons from those meetings, but perhaps the most powerful gift that recovery has given me is the capacity to be in the stillness of my own company. To find serenity: a word I never thought would describe me or my life.
Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls by Nina Renata Aron is out now
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