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Addicted to "Love"
Understanding Dependencies of the Heart: Romance, Relationships, and Sex
By Stephen Arterburn
Copyright © 2003
All right reserved.
Ugly, dumb, and fat,
Marisa's brother hung those labels on
her when she was just six years old. By the time she was twelve,
she was living up to (or down to) each of them. She was almost
thirty pounds overweight and struggling to maintain a C average
in school. Marisa felt out of place everywhere she went. It was
impossible to make friends. No one, it seemed, made any effort
to relate to her. She drew back from others in the gloomy certainty
that no one would be interested in her anyway.
Marisa suffered in silence , longing for someone to provide
her with the love and affection she craved. But no such person
appeared. More and more, she turned to food in search of comfort.
As Marisa's brother continued to torment her with his
cruel indictments, she fell farther behind in school and grew
more obese year by year.
Marisa's brother had not developed his critical nature on his
own but had simply learned from the example of their father-a
merchant marine who was often away for three to six months at
astretch. Whenever he was at home, he ranted, condemned,
judged, and put others down constantly, until his next journey
rook him away. The moment he left, Marisa's brother took over
the role of emotional tormenter. She had no respite.
While she was in the sixth grade, Marisa later recalled, she
began taking refuge in a fantasy world all her own. It seemed
harmless enough at first. But before long it became her "drug of
choice." The more her brother and father made reality miserable,
the more solace she found in her world of make-believe.
Her fantasies became a kind of salve, a way to soothe the pain of
living in a family that could not, or would not, give her the
acceptance and affirmation she needed.
It began one day when Marisa was rummaging around in the
attic and came across a book she had seen her mother reading.
She picked it up and thumbed through the pages, then sat down
and began to read the first chapter. She was immediately fascinated
by the story, about two people who met on an island in
the Caribbean and fell head over heels in love. The instant they
set eyes on each other, it seemed, they completely forgot about
the families and responsibilities they had left behind in the real
world, and tumbled headlong into each other's lives. Each had
been grievously hurt before. But in one another's arms, all the
pain was magically erased.
Marisa's head was swimming. The book seemed to confirm
something she had instinctively known all along, but had never
known how to put into words: love and affection from the right
kind of man would instantly and permanently wipe away all her
pain and confusion.
From then on Marisa made frequent trips to the attic. Her
mother had stored a huge pile of novels there, and she wanted
to read them all. The plot was invariably the same-only the
names of the characters and some details of the setting seemed
to change. But this only made Marisa's excursions into her
dream world that much more safe and reliable.
In her mind, Marisa became each of the heroines she read
about, placing herself in their circumstances, sharing their hurts,
participating in their euphoria as one handsome, exotic man
after another swept them off their feet and lifted them above
She spent hours poring over her mother's book collection. In
the process Marisa learned a great deal about seduction-how to
seduce and how to be seduced. The language of illicit love
became almost second nature to her private thoughts.
Marisa also came to realize that all the heroines in the books
were unlike her in one crucial respect: they were all slim and
trim. If she stayed at her current weight, no man would ever
come for her as the men in the books did-to turn her fantasies
into reality and deliver her from her nightmare existence. The
more Marisa thought about it, the more convinced she became
that only her obesity stood in the way of her deliverance. She
had to lose weight.
At first Marisa tried dieting. She cut back on her eating, or at
least tried to, and made a few feeble attempts at exercise. It
didn't work. In fact, it seemed that the more she tried not to eat,
the more desperate for food she became. Eating and reading
romance novels had become her only forms of escape.
But Marisa soon learned a new skill that was to prove
remarkably effective: she learned how to make herself throw up
after eating. It was the best of both worlds. Now she could eat as
much as she wanted, whenever she wanted, and still have the
kind of figure she knew she had to have.
By the time summer came around, Marisa had shed most of
her excess pounds. For the first time in her life, she looked good
and felt comfortable in a swimsuit. Everyone commented on
how cute she looked-everyone except her brother, that is, who
continued to harp on her clumsiness and stupidity. But Marisa
was increasingly able to tune out his negative comments.
Comfort and affirmation, she believed, would soon come her
way from other sources.
She was not disappointed. As Marisa's body become more
attractive, boys began to notice her. She got as much attention
as the heroines in her mother's books. She loved it. When she
was with a boy, Marisa would simply play a role drawn from her
built-in encyclopedia of romantic fantasy.
The more boys flirted with her, the more she became convinced
that they were the answer to her problems. She felt good
about herself when-and, increasingly, only when-she was with
a guy. The obvious next step was to secure a full-time boyfriend
as soon as possible.
That was where Brad came in.
Brad lived three streets over from Marisa. He was not especially
good-looking or popular, and he was a bully. He spent
most of his time with his older brother, who was going into
tenth grade, and looked down his nose at the activities of kids
his own age. Brad acted as though the rest of the world existed
to measure up to his standards. Nothing and no one was ever
good enough for him.
What this elicited from Marisa was an overwhelming drive to
meet Brad's demanding standards and find acceptance in his
eyes. She felt almost compelled to be with him, to attach herself
to him. She stalked him as a hunter stalks his prey. Though
only twelve years old, Marisa's reading had taught her the techniques
of a mature woman who was out to find a man.
When Marisa's thirteenth birthday came, Brad was allowed
to take her to a movie alone. But they never made the long walk
to the theater. Instead they spent the time in the back of his
brother's car, parked in the driveway of Brad's house. It was
fumbling and awkward, but by duplicating all she had read during
those long hours in the attic, Marisa was able to complete
her first sexual experience.
Later she would reflect on how appropriate it was that her
first sexual encounter should be with an angry, abusive male-just
like her father and brother. Marisa would come to realize
she was trying to make up for the emotional intimacy she had
never known with them by sharing physical intimacy with Brad.
Every significant male in her life had been cruel and abusive.
Not surprisingly, her image of God was also negative and critical.
Marisa assumed he did not love her and would surely punish
her for the things she was doing. But the prospect of
punishment didn't matter. Those moments of being close to
someone, of being wanted, were her antidote to a lifetime of
pain. She felt no guilt or remorse, only relief-and the desire to
experience that relief as often as possible.
Marisa's whole destructive cycle was tied up with destructive
men. It seemed a cruel irony that while hypercritical men were
the root of her problem, she sought out precisely such men as
the solution to her problem.
Because of her bulimic behavior patterns, Marisa managed to
keep her weight at a fairly constant one hundred and ten
pounds through her sixteenth year. Her dependency on men
grew throughout this period. She looked to them for security,
for release from the pain that gnawed at her. Virtually every new
boy she met became the object of her desire. Her mood would
change as the quest for male gratification took control of her
thoughts and feelings. In those moments of sexual intimacy she
felt free from her hurts, and good about herself.
But it was also during her sixteenth year that Marisa's fragile
life was further traumatized. Her reputation at school and
around town could not have been worse. Everyone knew she
was "easy." She saw the knowing looks and overheard the whispered
She decided to prove to herself and to everyone else that they
were wrong about her-that she couldn't be taken for granted,
couldn't be simply used and then discarded by any boy that
came along. On one particular night Marisa made up her mind:
she would keep herself, and the situation, under control. She
would neither encourage nor respond to any sexual overtures.
It was no use. The boy she was with knew her reputation and
knew exactly what he wanted from her. When she refused to
give it willingly, he took it forcefully. He raped her, then left her
in the middle of a field as he drove away.
Marisa had to walk back to town alone. She was hurt, and
crying, but she was determined to act as if the event had not
fazed her. She stuffed the rage she felt deep inside. No one else
would ever know what had happened, or how it had hurt. She
felt proud of her ability to swallow the grief and pain, to let
But she was unable to bury her feelings for very long. Finally
the anger and depression she tried so hard to suppress rose up
and overwhelmed her, and she tried to commit suicide by swallowing
a bottle of her mother's sleeping pills. Her brother found
her lying unconscious and took her to the emergency room to
have her stomach pumped. Later he ridiculed her for not being
smart enough to even kill herself without being found out.
As a result of her suicide attempt, Marisa was assigned to a
counselor. But the counselor was inadequate to deal with the
awful tangle of problems in Marisa's tortured soul. She soon
returned to her pattern of seeking out a man to provide a quick
fix for her problems. One man after another used and abused
her, each taking a little of her self-worth when he left. But
Marisa never stopped looking for her Prince Charming, the
man who she believed could fix her and make her better once
and for all.
By the time she was twenty-four, Marisa had been through
dozens of destructive relationships and hundreds of sexual
encounters. She had become pregnant three times, and had all
three pregnancies aborted. She had also contracted herpes.
That diagnosis finally got her attention. When the doctor told
Marisa she had herpes, she realized that if she continued on the
same path, contracting AIDS was just as likely a consequence.
Utterly broken, struggling just to get through each day, she
decided there had to be a better way. Determined to find a way
out of her nightmare, she made the difficult decision to change.
When she finally reached the point when she wanted freedom
so badly that she was willing to pay any price for it, recovery
became a possibility for the first time.
Marisa's story illustrates all three of the addictions we will be
discussing in this book. She started with romance, the fantasy
life she constructed from her mother's lurid novels. Before long,
she tried to find in real life the kind of intimacy and security she
had read about. In a futile search for someone who would make
up for the unmet needs of her childhood, she attached herself to
one man after another and soon became hooked on sex and the
escape it seemed to provide.
When Marisa came to a treatment center, she was in a state
of severe depression and wanted no part of group involvement
or interaction with the staff. She did, however, want to recover.
Her desire for a better life ultimately lifted her out of her isolation
and into a process of change and growth.
After a long struggle with her compulsive behavior patterns
and her bulimia, Marisa is at last beginning to enjoy the life she
wants. She attends one of more than two thousand meetings
held each week for those recovering from romance, relationship,
and sex addictions.
The number of people like Marisa grows each year, as does
the number of groups catering to their needs. There is a growing
hope for those who have become enslaved to romantic fantasy,
destructive relationships, and sexual involvement.
VICTIMS OF PASSION
Those who suffer from people addictions are victims of their
own passion. Now, passion of the soul is no more evil than is
appetite. Passion is like energy. It can be used for good purposes
Passion motivates us to achieve greatness, to go beyond normal
limits, to excel, to spend ourselves for others.
Passion motivates an order of nuns to feed the poor and comfort
Passion motivates the mother of a learning-disabled child to
spend hours working on a single verbal skill.
Passion motivates a devoted husband to care for a wife suffering
from Alzheimer's disease.
But passion has another side. Turned to wrong purposes, it
can land someone in bed with hundreds of strangers, and leave
that person with incurable diseases and a trail of broken relationships.
THE ROOT ADDICTION?
Romance, relationships, and sex are only three of many all-consuming
addictive preoccupations of our culture. Addictions
to food, money, power, alcohol, and drugs grip millions of people
in our "you can have it all" society. And although the consequences
of any compulsion or addiction can destroy a person, it
seems that romance, relationship, and sex addiction strike at the
heart of human development and strip the individual of any
sense of self-worth.
Indeed, some experts believe that these people addictions-romance,
relationships, sex-are the root addictions, that all
other addictions stem from them. In this view, people craving
romantic attachment or sex turn to alcohol or drugs as a more
acceptable way to cope with pain and emptiness.
As people addictions progress, the victimization of others also
increases. The fuel for the compulsion is always another person.
It may be a molested child, a betrayed spouse, an abandoned
lover, or a one-night stand who sought a relationship but found
only deception and manipulation. Even in the case of pornography
and the compulsive masturbation that follows it-a seemingly
"solitary" and "victimless" activity-the user pays for the
book or magazine or video in order to compensate the "performers"
who are being exploited.
Excerpted from Addicted to "Love"
by Stephen Arterburn
Copyright © 2003 by Stephen Arterburn.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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