"Of all the mysteries that enchant us, love may be the one most sought after."

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Episode 88 -- February 15, 2021

Shared Hearts: Healthy Love in an Unhealthy Time

Most of our habits and practices can show characteristics similar to addictive behaviors, yet they are not necessarily unhealthy. Many things we believe we need, we really do need for biological survival or emotional security. We need food, shelter, physical touch and other forms of physical stimulation, recognition, and a sense of belonging. The same is true for love—one of the most basic yet profound human experiences. Many of us have, at one time or another, confused romance, longing, and obsession with true love.

Now in its third edition, Brenda Shaeffer's Is It Love or Is It Addiction? has helped countless people find their way from the trials and confusion of addictive love to the fulfillment of whole and healthy relationships. This excerpt celebrates the enduring power of love, and describes some ways that power can get twisted by trauma or misused through misunderstanding and inattention.

As we sort out our lives in recovery, we can begin to work through relationship difficulties by increasing our awareness of what healthy love looks like in real life and paying attention to the ways that we express our love for others.

This excerpt has been edited for brevity.

In spite of the proliferation of self-help books on the subject, love relationships remain a profound mystery: Why do we have certain attractions? Why do we continue to want relationships even after a devastating loss? What is it about a relationship that is so powerful that we fear commitment? Am I staying in a relationship for the right or wrong reason? Why is transforming our love life so important? Am I in love or in addiction? These questions are universal and deserve answers.

The problems in love relationships stem not from the nature of love. True love is life-giving. It is an expansive, nourishing energy that knows no limits. It does not injure, it heals. Problems arise from the fear that originates in a violation of trust. Such violations make it difficult to be vulnerable to love again. In the wake of such violations, we become guarded. The result is relationships that have more drama than intimacy. Being in a relationship that is floundering can be like having a pain in the neck or an aggravating headache. And, when we are sick, we lose ourselves. Our capacity for creative living gets sapped as we instead focus on our pain. We become driven to find relief from that pain, seeking quick fixes in the form of substances, people, and processes outside of ourselves. Obsessive illnesses and addictions often result. When the attachment is to a person, romantic highs, or sex, it can become addictive love.

Almost everyone has addictive tendencies. We know that we can become addicted to alcohol and other drugs and that we have excellent programs to treat those addictions. There are other things and behaviors that we can become dependent on or obsessed with to the point that they can hamper our lives as well, but they are not always recognized or addressed. This list includes food, exercise, spending, sugar, sex, gambling, video games, work, the Internet, television, love objects, romance, drama, pain, chronic illness, and even religion. Perhaps you recognize an obsession of your own among them. If you do, be kind to yourself. We live in a world that provides hundreds more experiences than our parents had. We are constantly bombarded with more information than we can possibly take in and process. We have more demands on our time. We hear threatening news each day that perpetuates fear. And, in the midst of this, we are expected to live our love relationships well, if not perfectly. I used to say that a love relationship is like a hundred-piece puzzle, and we are lucky if we have 20 or 30 percent of the pieces. Now, with the barrage of information, images, and ideas we encounter daily, that percentage is going down. Many of the pieces we do have are out of date or lead to dead ends.

Healthy Love
Of all the mysteries that enchant us, love may be the one most sought after. Concepts we often associate with healthy human loving include affection, caring, valuing, trust, acceptance, giving, joy, and vulnerability.

Love is a state of being that emanates from within us and extends outward. It is energy, it is unconditional, it is expansive, and it needs no specific object. Love is free and available to all. It does not care what you look like, what you believe, what you do for a living, what your gender orientation is, and whether you are married, single, or in a relationship at all. It couldn't care less if you are a prince or pauper, sinner or saint. Though religion speaks to it, it is not cloaked in any dogma. We are all intended to be in the service of love. If you consider it, much human suffering results from denial of or resistance to this responsibility.

We must not confuse the power of love with sentimentality or physical love. It is far greater. Like food, it nourishes us and others. In fact, love is the most cost-effective medical insurance policy and the cheapest medicine there is. And there is no end to its supply. Love has been proven to strengthen the immune system, increase life expectancy, reduce depression, produce zestful children, and induce feelings of calm, safety, and trust. And, as you will learn, there is growing scientific evidence that some things we pass off as love are bad for our health.

Some have described love as the ultimate religious experience. It revels in the perpetual goodness that being in a relationship offers. Love is doing everything with a joyful heart and without trying to escape our pain. In deep love there is awe, mystery, gratitude, sorrow, rapture, ecstasy, grace, luminosity, and sacredness. The flood of emotions can run deep beyond measure. The love-inspired person often displays a nobility of character, and her virtues flourish. Witness a mother's love for her newborn, lovers in love, a person grieving the death of a beloved friend, a child reveling in the birth of kittens. When people bond in a loving way, everything seems to fall in place, even in times of chaos and doubt. When intimacy is profound, something inside of us says, "This is it." When love is present, no words are necessary.

But as we will see, most hearts have been injured, and it is an unhealed heart that is vulnerable to the unhealthy attachments to people, euphoria, romance, or sex that we will refer to as "addictive love." Think of the heart as having two sets of emotions. The lower emotions are connected to the hurts and injuries that lead to placing conditions on the love we offer to others. But our conditions are rarely fulfilled, and the result is that we end up feeling lonely, isolated, anxious, jealous, heartbroken, abandoned, betrayed, rageful, insecure, hateful, distant, or numb—once again. As we get to the source of these feelings and heal them, we begin to feel the higher emotions of the heart, those that lead to the deep unconditional love of self of which we are capable. When that happens, we are no longer dependent on our relationships to feel good. We want to reach out, share, embrace, give, nurture—all in the name of love.

Do not assume, however, that because you are in a relationship you are automatically in love. Love and relationship are not one and the same. Relationships are neutral places where we get to experience profound love as well as withhold it. Some relationships are toxic and mean. Almost every relationship problem is a love disorder problem. Love itself is not the problem, but it can be misunderstood, denied, distorted, mishandled, perverted, or betrayed—all of which can lead to addictive love.

About the Author:
Brenda Schaeffer, D.Min., M.A.L.P., C.A.S., believes that daily challenges can be just the thing we need to wake up to a better life. In a convincing and compassionate style, she has guided hundreds of people to become their own best friend.

In her published works—including best-seller Is It Love or Is It Addiction? (now in five languages); Love or Addiction? The Power and Peril of Teen Sex and Romance; Love's Way: The Union of Body, Ego, Soul, and Spirit; Loving Me, Loving You: Balancing Love and Power in a Codependent World; and the Healthy Relationships Series—she shows her gift of putting problems in street-smart language and then giving practical advice on how to solve them. She has appeared on numerous national television and radio shows and has been quoted in other news media. Her experience, knowledge, and realness make her an exceptional speaker and trainer.

Dr. Schaeffer is a licensed psychologist, is a certified addiction specialist, and holds a doctorate in spiritual psychology. She has extensive training and experience in a number of psychologies including, but not limited to, child development, sexual addiction, and trauma. Brenda has served six years on the board of directors of SASH (the Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health), is a member of the International Transactional Analysis Association and the International Association of Enneagram Teachers, and is in private practice in Minneapolis, Minnesota

© 1987, 1997, 2009 by Brenda Schaeffer
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