Most of us interested in breakup advice understand that if a relationship has meant anything deep to us at all, then its breakup is almost certainly going to hurt in some way and to some degree. This experience of painful separation is an eternal one and is described by people in many ways. We talk about being heartbroken or crushed or devastated. All such terms, while somewhat vague, are useful and help us give a general name to our difficult feelings triggered by a breakup.
But labeling our breakup pain can become a problem when we begin to delve into the more specific and more serious conditions that can be associated with it. For example, one of the most common specific labels that people use during a breakup is that of depression. Many people, in the midst of their breakup pain, use this term and may even seek treatment for the psychological condition of depression. Some even find a doctor who agrees and are put on anti-depressant medication.
While it is true that some of those suffering after a breakup really do have depression, and should be treated for it, some of them are actually mislabeling themselves – or even being mislabeled by mental health professionals. What many of those mislabeled are actually going through is an experience of withdrawal from an addiction.
When a drug addict uses his or her drug, especially over time, it creates chemical changes in the brain and the rest of the body. They then become physically and/or psychologically dependent on the drug to the point where they may be unable to function without it. Once addicted, when they are unable to attain their depended-upon substance, they go into a state called withdrawal. This withdrawal can be a devastatingly painful, and, at its worst, even life-threatening, experience.
Well, believe it or not, a relationship can trigger addiction and withdrawal, as well. Of course, on some level, this has long been recognized by pop musicians, as evidenced by both recent songs such as “Your Love is My Drug” by Ke$ha, as well as older songs, such as “Hard Habit to Break” by Chicago, which features the lyric “I’m addicted to you baby. You’re a hard habit to break.” But, recent years have brought more support for this notion from those who offer breakup advice in the actual medical and mental health communities.
So how exactly does a relationship trigger addiction and withdrawal? Research is showing – and your experience may seem to corroborate – that intense attraction and attachment release certain chemicals in the brain. And just as with many other chemicals, certain people can become addicted to or dependent on these internally-released or “endogenous” chemicals. Then, if the relationship is taken away, the addict may experience a withdrawal from those chemicals that are no longer being triggered, just like any other drug addict may experience when they lose the substance on which they are dependent.
To more fully understand withdrawal from an addictive relationship, we should also look at what is happening psychologically. Many of us, whether we realize it or not, use intense relationships as a way to bury or block out awareness of painful memories and feelings about past experiences. This is especially true for those who suffered, and are trying to outrun the pain of, challenging family issues or various types of abuse or abandonment in their development. In fact, for some, this barrier function becomes the main purpose of relationships.
When such a person has a relationship end, and their partner is no longer there to help stimulate their internal chemicals and distract them, all of these years’ worth of painful past memories and feelings may surface at once. This can be an overwhelming experience. And it can bring on many symptoms that do mimic depression, such as loss of appetite, loss of pleasure in usually enjoyable activities and changes in sleep habits. In fact, it can be truly difficult for the average person to tell the difference between this withdrawal experience and that of depression.
However, despite these symptomatic similarities, it is very important to distinguish between normal heartbreak, depression or other disorders and withdrawal because they require different – sometimes even completely opposite – approaches to recovery and support mechanisms.
One of the central aspects of withdrawal from an addiction is that the feelings, by their very nature, push the person with tremendous force in exactly the “wrong” direction. So a person experiencing withdrawal after a breakup feels with every fiber of his or her being that the best thing to do, the only answer to their pain, is to desperately try to get back the person from whom they are separated. In fact, the drive to do so can be so strong that it is likely behind many of the tragic “crimes of passion” or “fatal attraction” scenarios that periodically take place. But the additional tragedy is that even if such a person did get their ex back, it would only ease the pain temporarily, while further sinking them into the cycle of addiction.
While it is natural in the midst of pain on the order of serious withdrawal to want it to go away as fast as possible, quick fixes aren’t the answer. In fact, the search for quick fixes is exactly what creates an addict in the first place. Instead, a person experiencing relationship addiction withdrawal should take some different, and sometimes counterintuitive, steps.
- Do NOT run back to the person you are in withdrawal from, no matter how strongly you may feel driven to do so. Think of the feelings that urge you to return to them as powerful, but misguided, illusions.
- Resolve to use this opportunity – perhaps for the first time in your life – to prove to yourself that you can face your past and its pain and, with the right support, develop the courage and strength to survive it.
- Begin to educate yourself by reading books and resources about addictive relationships and related topics such as love addiction, sex addiction and codependence. They will help you make sense of what you’re going through and help you feel less alone.
- Seek support groups and/or therapists that know about or specialize in relationship addiction or related fields like codependence. This can be crucial, as it is very difficult to go through withdrawal and not run back to the source of your addiction without support from other healthier sources. Don’t hesitate to ask openly if potential support people are aware of important distinctions such as those between normal heartbreak, depression and addictive relationship withdrawal. Ask if they are equipped to help you figure out which one you are experiencing and treat it accordingly.
Remember, most breakups hurt and the pain you are feeling may be simple, healthy heartache that will pass with time. Or it may be something more serious, but widely recognized like depression. By no means should you rule these out. Take the time and find the resources and qualified professionals necessary to help you if these are what you are experiencing.
But make sure that you and those who offer you breakup advice and support at least consider the possibility that you may be in withdrawal from a relationship addiction.