“People think a soul mate is your perfect fit, and that’s what everyone wants. But a true soul mate is a mirror, the person who shows you everything that is holding you back, the person who brings you to your own attention so you can change your life. A true soul mate is probably the most important person you will ever meet, because they tear down your walls and smack you awake. But to live with a soul mate forever? Nah. Too painful. Soul mates, they come into your life just to reveal another layer of yourself to you, and the leave. A soul mates purpose is to shake you up, tear apart your ego a little bit, show you your obstacles and addictions, break your heart open so new light can get in, make you so desperate and out of control that you have to transform your life, then introduce you to your spiritual master….” Eat, Love, Pray.
This is not an easy article for me to write as it describes my addiction. That in itself is not the problem, I have addictive behaviours and have no shame in admitting that. The challenge is I became addicted to a person – one specific person that I objectified for the best part of four years. What follows is my account – I have tried to be mindful of the other person as they are a real person with their own feelings and I want to remain conscious of that.
I also use the term “fallen in love” which refers to romantic love. This being the grasping, selfish, conditional, unilateral love that in the West we confuse with other forms of respectful giving unconditional love.
The Perfect Storm
Five years ago I hit a perfect storm. I had been consumed by romantic jealousy for the past 10 years of my 25 year marriage, a year of marriage counselling was going nowhere fast, my father-in-law had recently died, my business was in decline and no longer enthused me and a few years of psychotherapy had been chipping away at my psychological defences.
I hadn’t appreciated how vulnerable I was feeling when I started my psychotherapy training. On the first evening of the four year course I chatted briefly to a woman. She was one of many i had conversations with. The following week we chatted for no more than 10 minutes. And that was all it took to become captivated. I had experienced crushes before, just a passing fancy to someone I found attractive. This experience rapidly morphed into something in a totally different league. Within a day of our second meeting my mind became hijacked by thoughts that I found impossible to control. She occupied my mind from the moment I awoke until I found a brief respite in my disturbed sleep. I stopped eating, lost interest in running my business and pretty much stopped functioning. I constantly replayed our brief conversations to seek meaning in her comments. In short, I had become addicted to another person. I was on a rollercoaster of emotion, overwhelmed by a tsunami of confusing thoughts. How could my mind be so overrun by someone I knew next to nothing about?
My behaviour became increasingly bizarre. A week later I stormed out of a restaurant leaving my wife and another couple utterly confused. When my wife returned home, I accused her of having an affair. I was projecting my own desire to have an affair onto my wife, as a way of deflecting my own guilt. That evening I confessed my infatuation to my wife. She was devastated. My timing was abysmal. I was utterly selfish in putting my own childlike needs of feeling neglected by my wife ahead of being there to support her with her own grief. I started having panic attacks. I wasn’t sleeping, I lost weight, I was deconstructing.
Over the next few weeks, I switched from being the love addict in my marriage to the avoidant whilst my wife, who had spent her life as the avoidant flipped into being the anxious love addict. I felt smothered and hated her neediness. My therapist said I was now feeling how it had been for my wife for so many years, with my inability to trust and my controlling behaviour. The love addict is a common pairing with the love avoidant.
And yet, amongst all this turmoil, I sensed deep in my unconscious that what I was experiencing was a false love. The biochemical changes in my brain were rewriting my history. I had convinced myself my marriage was broken beyond any chance of repair and I had to leave my family. My therapist constantly and gently reminded me I knew nothing of this person. There was no hard evidence of any reciprocated feelings apart from someone being friendly. And yet the very ambiguity of not knowing how this other person felt about me fuelled my addiction.
To my wife’s credit and courage, not once did she demand I break off contact with this woman. She told me I was an adult, she couldn’t control me and I had to decide for myself. The next six months were turbulent. Apart from telling this woman I had a crush on her when we first met (which I now regret doing), I remained boundaried around her.
And yet, from an emotional standpoint I felt like I was going through many of the grief emotions – anger, guilt and depression of having ending a real relationship. My wife felt it was an emotional affair in all but my actions, a position I did not defend. Each time I saw this person I would regress and dissociate from my feelings. The mirroring this person was giving me was activating something from my very early life. I struggled with the tsunami of conflicting emotions. My wife and therapist told me love is not mutually exclusive – its expansive and it was OK to develop strong feelings for another person. Its what we choose to do with these feelings that’s important. Do we act them out or do we work at understanding their origins and work them through?
I now realise my experience was catalysing a far deeper grief, grieving for my inner child that never got the unconditional love growing up. Suffering at the hands of a physically abusive mother and emotionally absent father that did nothing to protect me. What followed was three years of depression – the “dark night of the soul” and many other difficult emotions I had blocked off as a young child as it was not safe to feel in my dysfunctional family of origin.
Limerence and romantic love – what’s it all about?
I’ve always been curious about how things work. From a young age I would take things apart to see what was on the inside. Invariably the items never went back the same way. It was a good job I didn’t choose surgery as a career. My infatuation was no different. I delved into hundreds of books on relationships, affair recovery, marriage, addictions, love, narcissism, co dependency, early life attachments, complex trauma and PTSD just to name a few.
I spoke of my struggles in groups at my college. This was not easy given it was a fellow trainee that I was addicted to. I confided in a few trusted friends. I took it regularly to my own therapy. It got talked about in our marriage counselling. Going total No Contact is the recommend course of action for all affair recovery, but I chose to stay on my course. I cut as much contact as I could. None of this was easy, but I was not going to let my shame inhibit my growth. The more I talked, the more the shame weakened. With time the grip of the infatuation loosened.
After a few months I came across the term limerence “an involuntary state of mind which results from a romantic attraction to another person combined with an overwhelming, obsessive need to have one’s feelings reciprocated. It has shades of addiction and obsessive compulsive disorder and can in many cases last years”. I found an online support forum and finally felt I was not alone in my madness. Others were struggling with a similar problem. We referred to the people we were infatuated with as LO’s – Limerent Objects. In reality that’s exactly what we were doing, objectifying these people. They are acting as a mirror for us to project our own unresolved and unconscious feelings onto. My holy mantra became “limerence is all about me- there is no magical other to make me feel complete”.
So why do we fall in romantic love? It depends on who you read and what resonates with you. Apart from the biological drive already mentioned, the theory I’m leaning to more is it’s all about us re-enacting our Parental Rescue Fantasy. Our perfect partner is actually our perfect idealised parent in disguise. At an unconscious level we are drawn to people where we can re-enact our failed relationships with parents, hoping for a more successful outcome. Our parents, usually unintentionally, inflict emotional wounds on us and it’s these we are seeking to heal. As our attempts to repair these injuries is so unconscious, we move from one failed relationship to another, hoping for a better outcome and yet we rarely achieve this. That’s because we take ourselves with us. Its not until we become conscious about what we are doing that we can start to heal. This is one of the things I love about the ManKind Project – to help us see our own shadows, which is where these wounds are held.
By staying put, I was forced to look into my own shadow and how this was impacting my marriage. With time, I could see how this woman was not only mirroring my more conscious qualities but also the darker elements, including my manipulation, my entitlement and my deep unresolved grief. Ironically (or maybe not) these are identical qualities that my emotionally absent father hides in his own shadow.
The path to healing
Space precludes a detailed account of how I healed my own wounds. Plus you can find plenty here and on the forum on my thoughts how to heal. What I will say is the past few years have been the most turbulent, intense and painful for me. I’ve had to grow up and transition from a boy to a man. I should have done this in my youth and was now doing it in my fifties. Despite the intense pain caused by my infatuation and the pain I caused others, some good had come from the experience. My marriage is in a much better place, we now communicate as adults and from a far more conscious place. There is less acting out and we are learning to each better meet our own needs. That said, I am finding living more consciously is increasingly challenging.