"Don't be pushed around by the fears in your mind; be led by the dreams in your heart."
-Roy T. Bennett
We live in a world of easy connection — everything from how fast and reliable our internet is to how easily we can find “love”, to what is deemed double-tap worthy on social media. I’m not saying that all of our connections are shallow but much of how our world is set up seems more invested inconvenience, not connection.
Because hookups are only a swipe or click away, it can be tough figuring out if we’re actually experiencing an emotional connection with someone or if what we’re experiencing is a shallower but more intense emotional addiction. Sometimes red flags don’t come as hard and fast as they should. Sometimes we deny seeing them because we’re having a good time distracting ourselves from what we don’t want to deal with. And, sometimes we throw caution to the wind even when our better judgment is telling us to jump ship. The upside is that if we’re lucky we’ll get to experience an amazingly intimate and authentic bond for ourselves. On the downside, many of us have experienced heartbreak and the emotional, psychological, and physical symptoms that identify it as having been an emotional addiction, not love. If you’re like me, you probably have a mental checklist on what is considered a good relationship. And, if you’re like me you probably have a checklist on what makes a horrible one. Yet, emotionally addictive relationships aren’t always so black and white as an “all good” relationship or an “all bad” one.
Identifying Emotional Connection As an educator/mental health clinician and certified life coach, I help others build a solid and healthy sense of Self and in understanding how the nuances of emotional connection versus emotional addiction come into play in matters of the heart. The early stages of emotional connection and intimacy trigger the feel-good reward system of the brain in a similar way as unhealthy addictive behaviors do — which leaves us feeling energized, motivated, ecstatic, and craving more time with our partner. Part of this “addiction” can have us eating less, running on less sleep, and with racing thoughts of our partner that excite us and pump us up for — the next “fix”.
Emotional connection is defined as an intimate bond and in being aligned with our partner where surface-level chitchat and “fun” are exchanged for a deeper, almost soul-like union with them. An emotional connection is about sharing each other’s hopes and joys along with understanding each other’s fears and letdowns.
This depth of connection goes deeper than good conversation or making each other laugh. When it’s an emotional connection, we feel completely at ease with our partner, are comfortable being ourselves and emotional walls, and socially approved masks are checked at the door. When it’s about an emotional connection, we see the pain, anger, disappointment, sadness, and fear hiding under our partner’s smile and we still love them unconditionally, even more, because of their vulnerability. An emotional connection is about making a cognizant choice to support and love our partner knowing they are perfectly imperfect; and so are we. However, most intimate relationships have a surface-level bond; fun and good times are often the focal points. Authentic emotional connections are rare because these relationships are identified as sharing and understanding each other’s deepest pains and empathetically listening to each other without judgment.
Over time, the relationship builds on its intimacy which leads to unconditional regard and where complete trust and vulnerability are foundational in the relationship. The intense “highs” give way to more intimacy and a consistent sense of belonging and support.
Identifying Emotional Addiction Emotional addiction often starts out the same way as emotional connection— we’re pumped and excited to be with our partner, we can’t get enough of talking to them, spending time with them, or having that physical connection with them. We may feel euphoric or energized around them, like a “soulmate” feeling. What separates the feel-good moments of a healthy relationship from the emotional addiction of an unhealthy one, is that when it’s addictive, one or both partners can’t function unless they’re in a relationship. Relationships become their identity which changes based on who they’re with. Because there isn’t a solid sense of self-identity when they aren’t in a relationship they can feel anxious, scared, lonely, and incomplete — as if they believe a relationship is the only way they can feel whole or have value.
Experiences are what highlight the rush of emotions that either evolves into an emotional connection or an emotional addiction depending on the motivations and needs of each partner. There are many red flags that tip off an emotional addiction from an emotional connection, yet, they’re often tough to recognize while you’re in the relationship. Many times it’s only after you step away from the relationship that you start piecing together the signs.
Relationship Problems. When it’s addictive, one of two things happens: either relationship problems and drama identify the relationship or problems are avoided at all costs. When problems identify the relationship, the relationship is marked by bickering, arguments, indifference, and drama — in other words, communication is non-existent. “Talking” can include negativity, gaslighting, not hearing, or listening to each other, and circular arguments where the same damn argument is on repeat without either partner finding a solution. When problems are avoided, it’s often because messier emotions and feelings (shame, guilt, anger/rage, sadness, fear) are bubbling underneath and are trying to be avoided. When the relationship is addictive, more often than not, “good times and fun” take center stage, and problems are seen as shameful where idealized beliefs of their partner or the relationship come crashing down.
Sex and Love Get Confused. Because of the physical connection surrounding sex, if a partner is emotionally needy, they may mistake sex for intimacy or for being loved. Sex is not the same as intimacy and not the same as having an emotional connection with someone.
Physical, Emotional or Psychological Problems Escalate. Because of the emotional intensity seen in addictive relationships, it’s common for ailments (stomach problems, headaches, blood pressure spikes, ulcers, depression, anxiety, sleeplessness, the list goes on…) to escalate. Emotionally addictive relationships include the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. They are amazing when it’s “good” and they are destructive when things go bad. Because of the highs and lows, they take a toll on a partner’s emotional, mental, and physical health, leaving them vulnerable to things like depression, anxiety, anger problems, or physical ailments.
Self-Sabotaging Behavior. When relationships are based on unmet needs instead of authentic love they include self-sabotaging behavior. This can be seen in a loss of self-identity (doing what the partner wants, forgoing their own needs, etc), co-dependency, throwing away intimacy and authenticity because they trigger fear or vulnerability, chasing self-destructive habits, or being in relationships with emotionally or psychologically unhealthy partners to spare being alone.
Support, But Don’t Save. “Revenge” relationships, cheating, and bad habits are what commonly identify this dynamic where one partner wants the other to chase them while they run (engaging in addictive behaviors, other relationships, self-sabotage, etc) in hopes to be “saved” or “rescued” by their partner. While this works in fairytales and romcoms, the reality is it doesn’t work in real life and is unhealthy and emotionally toxic to everyone involved.
There’s a fine line between supporting and enabling. No one can save their partner, as hurtful as this may sound. A partner can emotionally support and encourage — even seek help for their partner, for themselves or for the relationship— but at the end of the day, it’s up to each partner to want to stop the bullshit and heal for themselves.
OK, So Now What?
Understanding the difference between emotional connection and emotional addiction in our relationships is an important step to take in order to empower ourselves and (hopefully) to prevent or stop addictive behaviors that lead to more pain.
Our relationship dynamics are unique and so are we. There’s no cut and dry way to “fix” a bad habit or to instantly start a healthy one. However, being real with yourself, your starting point and your partner is a positive and empowering first step, even if your starting point is literally, ground zero. As we learn where our starting point is, we can then begin tackling other goals like how to work on emotional regulation, recognizing the differences between being alone and feeling lonely, and addressing ways to be aligned with our emotions such as yoga, meditation, jogging, journaling, and building behavioral awareness.
Let's keep the dialogue going, join me at the Go Pro Revolutionary Party every Friday 8-10 pm to discuss this and other topics from my blog. YOU WILL NOT BE DISAPPOINTED! Come with an open mind and heart!
Meeting ID: 87580285536