are you a relationship addict?

on finding love in a hopeless place

“I just want to be happy, and that doesn’t mean being with her… that means being with you, ” he said; and then I face-planted into my Kabob and Curry with despair for the human race.

Okay, I’m just kidding about the face planting; we were in a restaurant, and I’m a tiny bit more civilized than that (just a tiny bit though).

But maybe I should have done something dramatic, to shake him up a little bit. Here I was, having dinner with a friend, and he thinks it’s perfectly normal and unproblematic to tell me that he’s not happy with his girlfriend and would rather be with me, as if I’m going to suggest a switch-out. “That’s no problem!” says his imaginary version of me. “Just get rid of the girlfriend, and I’m yours!”

In general, it’s not a good idea to be the “replacement woman” in these scenarios; men who feel morally exempt from the injunction not to cheat on their partners are not going to suddenly learn this from being with you (you can’t “cure” them). They see being in a relationship as a kind of holding pattern while they start looking for something else, someone else: someone better. Research has shown that among unmarried 18-35 year olds, people who have cheated on a partner once are 3.5 times more likely to do it again than first-time offenders. If being in a long-term relationship wasn’t enough to stop my friend from declaring his love to me over Indian food on Friday night, I have no reason to believe he wouldn’t be sitting here spouting the same dishonest sentiments to some other helpless sex-columnist a year from now.

But the real problem goes deeper than that. I found my friend’s phrasing pretty revealing. He just wants to be happy—and that’s why he’s propositioning someone who is not his girlfriend over aloo gobi? If all happiness is for him is being in the right relationship, that doesn’t seem like much foundation for lasting happiness to me. It’s also evidence of a fully blown relationship addict.

What is a relationship addict, you ask? The most recognizable symptom is obsession with finding a partner (if single) or staying in a relationship (if coupled)—because any relationship is better than being single. The relationship addict experiences an overwhelming fear and loathing of singledom—they can’t imagine ever being happy as a single, and they can’t understand how anyone else could be either. This is the relationship addict’s first mistake: He or she equates “being single” with “being alone.” The second: to assume that being single means that you are unloved and essentially unlovable, and will therefore be alone forever, or at least until death.

The relationship addict is therefore one of the main perpetrators of the stigma he or she claims to fear above all others: the stigma of being single.

Ironically, although loneliness is the relationship addict’s worst fear, nothing is more isolating than an obsession with intimacy. Friends of a single relationship addict will be subjected to the running monologue of the addict’s pursuit of love and their fears about “ending up” alone. Because of their addiction, the addict does not see their friends as potential sources of love and fulfillment. By obsessing over the one “true” form of love, the addict essentially tells his friends that their love is not enough for him, that he feels alone with them. The relationship addict fails to notice, and misses out, on the many incarnations of love.

A similar effect occurs when a relationship addict is dating someone; they derive so much of their self-worth from a single other person that all of their friends will feel comparatively ignored, unloved, and unimportant. The relationship addict is always thinking about his significant other, and his relationship with them, to the extreme neglect of everyone else in his life.

Unfortunately, the addict’s obsession with loneliness is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Repeatedly telling your friends that you feel lonely and unloved—in spite of their affection—is a pretty good way to make people feel unappreciated. Friends will likely pull away to seek more reciprocal relationships, which the addict may not even notice in his all-consuming self-obsession.

Most people will perceive this obsession with a relationship as narcissistic, because (like many addictions) it’s not really an obsession with that other person, so much as an obsession with one’s own relationship with that person. The relationship addict can’t empathize with his or friends, because in the face of their overwhelming fear and loneliness all other humans seem infinitely less afraid and less lonely. But the addict is missing out on one of the great pleasures and intimacies of life, the confidence of friendships. If they could acknowledge that their friends experience the world with the same intensity that they do, they could potentially have some loving, fulfilling friendships, and maybe feel a little solace, and their fear of singledom might even diminish.

Why is this fear of being single so intense? How can twenty-somethings be legitimately afraid of dying alone? For them, being alone now means dying alone; it means being alone in a universe that is expanding and out of one’s control. By clinging to a single relationship, the addict hopes to never think about his inevitable demise. But we have a lot to live for, and the relationship addict must welcome his fear into his heart. He’ll find a lot more joy when he’s not trying to drown his fears in love.