Ethlie Anne Vare was in love: When she was with him, her entire body was buzzing with excitement. When they parted ways, she was desolate. All of which might sound like your typical healthy, head-over-heels romance, only there was one problem: Vare says she’s been in love over a hundred times.
“I had a new ‘soul mate’ every month,” says Vare, a writer living in Los Angeles. (One time, the giddy rush inspired her to move in with a man the same day they met.) But inevitably, each relationship would fizzle out: either her boyfriend would leave her, or she’d grow bored and kick him to the curb herself. Over time, the emotional highs and lows of falling in and out of love began to drain Vare. “The pain just got too awful,” she admits. “I was suffering for three months over a relationship that lasted three weeks. I was like an alcoholic, where the hangover was worse than the drunk [feeling] was good.”
When Vare was 46, she attended a meeting run by a 12-step program for love addiction at the urging of a friend. There, “I listened to other peoples’ stories and realized, ‘Oh, this sounds like me,’” she recalls. That’s when it dawned on her that the rush she felt during the early stages of romance wasn’t love, per se, but addiction — and it’s one that many people share. “I’ve learned I’m not alone,” Vare says. “I also realized that I can’t do this anymore. If you’re 22, that’s one thing. But if you’re just doing the same thing over and over and over again, it’s time to change.”
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Chasing the rush of falling in love can become a vicious cycle
Everyone’s heard of Alcoholics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, even Overeaters Anonymous, thanks to famous devotees like Paula Abdul and Charlie Sheen. But according to studies, approximately six percent of people are sex and/or love addicts, and for good reason: Research shows that falling in love produces the same heady cocktail of chemicals in the body as cocaine does.
“The anticipation of reward — whether it’s a kiss, a piece of cake or a hot roll of the dice — produces the neurochemical dopamine in the brain’s limbic region, or ‘reward center,’” explains Vare, who chronicled her addiction to love and the science behind it in her book, Love Addict: Sex, Romance, and Other Dangerous Drugs. “Dopamine is what I call ‘woo-hoo juice’ — it’s the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll of brain chemistry. Me? I love the stuff!” Over time, though, the bloom of dopamine production starts to fade — at about six months on average. This leaves love addicts craving a new high, prompting them to hop from one relationship to another.
Is America’s “instant gratification” culture to blame?
Love addiction has been gaining public awareness in the past few years, especially since a handful of celebrities have come out of the closet as sufferers. Margaret Cho admitted that her obsession with men was “just another addiction.” Supermodel Amber Smith, who admitted she was a love addict on the reality show, Sex Rehab with Dr. Drew, in 2009, now lectures on the topic. And while love addiction might seem like more of a female affliction to most, Vare argues that men are equally susceptible. “I believe that some of the men who have made headlines as sex addicts are really romance junkies,” she says. “Congressman Anthony Wiener was having fantasy flirtations with the women he sexted; he didn’t actually sleep with them. He just wanted to feel desired. Tiger Woods wasn’t seeing prostitutes or having one-night stands; he was having affairs. These men wanted to fall in love... if only for a minute.”
Nick Sparks, a 29-year-old life and relationship coach in New York, also admits that in the past, he felt hooked on what he calls “the super-rush — the heart-pounding, mind-racing, never-met-anyone-like-this-before type of feeling.” But inevitably, “after 6-9 months, those feelings changed. The problem is that because my feelings were so strong, I was convinced that [each person] was The One, and so when our feelings did change, we both couldn’t help but be in denial about it,” he explains, adding: “this led to some unhealthy relationships… and devastating breakups.” What convinced him to eventually kick this habit? “I was finally sick of the hollow pleasure I got from superficial relationships.”
Sparks started seeing a therapist who helped him realize that loneliness is often the root cause of love addiction — for himself and others. “Without a doubt, the first major culprit is the isolation we feel in today’s society,” he asserts. “Studies show that people most active in social networking sites report the greatest feelings of loneliness. It’s not hard to imagine why: a hundred years ago, the main thing we looked at was other people. Today, it’s a glowing screen.”
Vare worries that the rise of texting as the preferred communication method might also fuel love addiction. “Every time a text message comes through, you get a squirt of dopamine,” she says. “We have become an instant-gratification society that’s prone to look for immediate payoffs rather than more subtle (and potentially longer-lasting) rewards. Our culture promotes a desire for intensity over intimacy — which is good shorthand for romantic addiction.”
How to kick the habit
Curing love addiction is no easy task: For one, few sufferers want to quit cold turkey and abstain from love for the rest of their lives. “It’s not like quitting smoking or drinking where you just don’t smoke or drink,” explains Vare. Instead, it’s more like Overeaters Anonymous. Much like compulsive eaters find ways to practice moderation in a society that surrounds them with food, love addicts learn to set appropriate limits and boundaries with others in order to help build up romantic relationships slowly rather than crashing and burning. Vale, for instance, vowed to stop dating married men or anyone who was 20 years younger than herself — two recipes that all but doomed any budding relationship from the start. She also vowed to stop having sex on the first date and pursuing men. Instead, she waited for them to chase her.
“It was really hard at first,” Vare says. “It’s funny how just changing a simple behavior can really affect your life.” Soon, she began seeing a man named Dan — an “old-school gentleman” she’d end up marrying two years later. Dating Dan “was definitely less of a rush, but no less enjoyable,” she recalls. “It was really neat to learn how to get to know someone first, to see them as they are.” Sparks also committed himself to “a renewed focus on really trying to get to know people — and letting them really see me instead of the version of me that I think they’d find most attractive,” he says.
Vare says she’s learned a lot since her days of falling in love left and right finally ended. “I’ve learned that if I’m waiting for another person to fix or complete me, I’m on a hopeless quest,” she says. “I’ve also learned that if I’m looking for love affairs to intoxicate me, I have to be prepared [to accept] that anything that gets me high will cause me to eventually crash.” She still misses the heady rush she once felt when she first fell in love, “but then again … [it] just wasn’t very good for me. Sometimes you just have to say, ‘no thank you.’”