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In: Peele, S., with Brodsky, A. (1975), Love and Addiction. New York: Taplinger.
© 1975 Stanton Peele and Archie Brodsky.
Reprinted with permission from Taplinger Publishing Co., Inc.

Love and Addiction



"Love" and "addiction": the juxtaposition seems strange. Yet it shouldn't, for addiction has as much to do with love as it does with drugs. Many of us are addicts, only we don't know it. We turn to each other out of the same needs that drive some people to drink and others to heroin. And this kind of addiction is just as self-destructive as—and a lot more common than—those other kinds.

Ideally, love and addiction do not have anything at all to do with one another. They are polar opposites. Nothing could be further removed from genuine love—conceived as a commitment to mutual growth and fulfillment—than the desperate self-seeking dependency which, with drugs, we call addiction. Yet in practice, we tend to get them confused. We often say "love" when we really mean, and are acting out, an addiction—a sterile, ingrown dependency relationship, with another person serving as the object of our need for security. This interpersonal dependency is not like an addiction, not something analogous to addiction; it is an addiction. It is every bit as much an addiction as drug dependency.

This is in some ways a personal book. I began to write it when I observed the destructive consequences, psychological and moral, of many love relationships. I concluded that these relationships did not measure up either to the lovers' self-proclaimed ideal of love, or to what I understood love to be. As the book has broadened in scope, I have developed the theme wherever possible in the form of psychological vignettes. These are fictional accounts, inspired not so much by clinical observation as by normal experience. Although fictional, the characters in these accounts are in a sense familiar to us all. As composite portraits of commonly observed patterns of behavior, they do not represent actual living individuals, but instead are images of people who are trapped in addictive relationships, and people who are growing mature enough to love out of strength rather than need.

These stories depict the experience of being young in post-World War II America. They are about how the insularity of our family lives in childhood—along with the mania of our era for finding boyfriends and girlfriends, husbands and wives—conditions us to be dependent on other people. Such is the fate of mainstream Americans. True, poverty may be a cause of addiction, but in the middle-class young we see that material comfort, too, may contribute to addiction. Addiction can be inescapable, when a person is denied the means to resolve his problems. It can also stem from the protection from reality that an overly supportive environment provides. In this regard, it is not accidental that many of the stories in these pages are about relatively privileged people whose maturation was delayed by long years of schooling. As much as anything else, this is a book about growing up.

In today's uncertain world, there are many people who can identify with the experience of unwise or desperate love. And there are many people who can identify with the experiences of aimlessness and self-doubt, fear and escapism. Some of these readers may find that this broadened concept of addiction gives them a concrete way to interpret their experiences. In this sense, too, Love and Addiction is a personal book, one whose relevance can only be accurately interpreted by each individual.


This is a book about addiction which focuses on interpersonal relationships. Its main purpose is to explore what addiction really is, psychologically, socially, and culturally. It does this in two ways—first, by showing what really happens when a person becomes dependent (or resists becoming dependent) on a drug; second, by showing how the same process may occur in other areas of our everyday lives, especially our relationships with those with whom we are most intimately involved.

The first part of this exploration is relatively straightforward, since much of it has already been done. Drug researchers like Isidor Chein, Charles Winick, and Norman Zinberg have shown convincingly that it is not drugs that addict people, but people who addict themselves. Heroin and morphine do not always produce the "physical" symptoms that we associate with addiction, while these symptoms can and do occur with other drugs such as cigarettes and coffee, depending on the user's cultural background, expectations, mood, and emotional needs. Once we have reviewed this research, all that remains is to interpret the addiction process to bring out its relevance to love and other human involvements.

For if addiction is now known not to be primarily a matter of drug chemistry or body chemistry, and if we therefore have to broaden our conception of dependency-creating objects to include a wider range of drugs, then why stop with drugs? Why not look at the whole range of things, activities, and even people to which we can and do become addicted? We must, in fact, do this if addiction is to be made a viable concept once again. At present, addiction as a scientific notion is falling into disuse because of the mass of contradictory data about drugs and their effects. Since people who take narcotics often do not get addicted, scientists are beginning to think that addiction does not exist. Yet, more casually, we find the word being used in an increasing number of contexts—"addicted to work," "addicted to gambling"—because it describes something real that happens to people.

Addiction does exist, and it is a large issue in human psychology. An understanding of addiction will help answer the question of why we repeatedly return to things we have done before—the question of habit. Addiction can be considered a pathological habit. It occurs with human necessities, such as food and love, as well as with things which people can do without, such as heroin and nicotine.

In other words, addiction is not something mysterious, something about which our ordinary experience has nothing to say. It is a malignant outgrowth, an extreme, unhealthy manifestation, of normal human inclinations. We can recognize examples of addiction in ourselves even when we would not characterize ourselves entirely, or even basically, as addicts. This is why the idea of addiction can be an important tool in our self-understanding. But for its value to be realized, it must be redefined. There has to be a fundamental change in the way we think about addiction.


If we want to reformulate the concept of addiction, we have to start where the concept is commonly and traditionally applied—that is, with drugs. This is a very different kind of book from, say, Wayne Oates's Confessions of a Workaholic, which accepts a conventional theory of drug addiction and goes on to draw an informal, semihumorous analogy to compulsive work patterns. Such a book is useful, if for no other reason than that it shows that people are beginning to use the notion of addiction to explain diverse areas of their experience. But Oates does not examine the implications of the analogy he draws. What we want to do here is not to apply an existing concept of addiction to love relationships, but to change the concept. This means starting by showing how drugs really work. If we seek to establish that addiction is just as real, just as concrete when a person is the object as when a drug is the object, then we must first confront the old stereotypes of "physical addiction" and "drug addiction" that are so deeply ingrained in our thinking.

As a social psychologist dealing mainly with human relations, I first became interested in drugs when I began to see how people were misconstruing human problems as physical or biochemical problems. It soon became clear to me that our attitudes about drugs are very revealing about ourselves. This is an area where our society's uneasiness about individual autonomy is most plainly exposed. A fear of external control over people's minds and souls is at the center of our anxieties. This fear is present in all Western countries where drug use is viewed as a social problem. But America has exhibited a more extreme response to drugs, especially the opiates, than any other country in the world, precisely because it feels the severest conflict over the impossibility of living out a traditional ideal of personal initiative.

What we think drugs do influences what they can do, and so by studying drugs we learn about our attitudes toward ourselves. Questions of self-mastery and mastery over the environment provide the key to the susceptibility to addiction; when we think of drugs as overpowering, it is because we doubt our own psychological strength. The social history of America's evolving reactions to mind-altering drugs, even drugs such as marijuana and LSD which are not regarded as "addictive," tells us a lot about how we view our own strength as individuals and as a society. It tells us, in other words, about our predisposition to give ourselves over to addiction—to drugs, to people, to anything.


Interpersonal addiction—love addiction—is just about the most common, yet least recognized, form of addiction. Highlighting it helps us break down the stereotype of the "drug addict" and arrive at a better understanding of the way addiction affects us all. On the other side, the antithesis of addiction is a true relatedness to the world, and there is no more powerful expression of that relatedness than love, or true responsiveness to another person. The issue of love versus addiction is one that is very close to our lives, and thus one that we can do something about as individuals.

The environment that is most important to us is the human one. This is why, when we get addicted, we tend to get addicted to people. Similarly, our best hope of breaking out of addiction is by learning better ways of dealing with people. This is true not only for romantic involvements but also for family ties and friendships.

Our families have a tremendous impact on our addictive, or nonaddictive, potential, since they teach us either self-confidence or helplessness, self-sufficiency or dependency. Outside the family, much of our modern social environment takes the form of organizations, such as schools. Our experiences with such institutions can instill in us serious doubts about our capacity to manage our own lives, let alone to interact creatively with the rest of the world. And in reality, they may keep us from developing that capacity to the fullest. Here is where the impulse toward escape and dependency arises. One of the best things we can do to safeguard ourselves against addiction, therefore, is to understand how our social environment affects us and to develop the internal strength to become something more than creatures of society.

Addiction is not a chemical reaction. Addiction is an experience—one which grows out of an individual's routinized subjective response to something that has special meaning for him—something, anything, that he finds so safe and reassuring that he cannot be without it. If we want to come to terms with addiction, we have to stop blaming drugs and start looking at people, at ourselves, and at what makes us dependent. We will find that we learn habits of dependence by growing up in a culture which teaches a sense of personal inadequacy, a reliance on external bulwarks, and a preoccupation with the negative or painful rather than the positive or joyous.

Addiction is not an abnormality in our society. It is not an aberration from the norm; it is itself the norm. The dependency which is addiction is a mirror-image of more basic dependencies that we learn at home and in school. The addict's search for a superficial, external resolution of life (whether through drugs or so-called "love") follows directly from the superficial, external relationships we are led to have with each other, with our own minds and bodies, with the physical world, with learning and work and play. Those young people who suddenly repudiate convention and seek solace in drugs, or a religious commune, are only expressing tendencies that were always present in acceptable guises in their home and school lives.

Excessive parental supervision, artificial criteria for learning, and a reverential attitude toward established institutions, such as organized medicine—along with other cultural influences—combine to leave us without moorings in our direct daily experience. What can be done to combat this widespread addictive drift? We can start by gathering tools of self-analysis, developing criteria for assessing our personal involvements, and raising questions that may not ordinarily occur to us. Asking whether a certain kind of "love" may in fact be an addiction can be the first step toward reexamining and restructuring a life.


The progression of this book moves outward from the small to the large: from the effects of drugs to a portrait of the addict as a person, then to relationships between two people, then to the social causes of addiction, and finally to the possibilities for personal growth and social change. Our aim is greater self-awareness and self-realization. By its very nature, addiction is easier to diagnose than to cure. Since a reliance on simple, universal solutions to life is the problem we are dealing with, any resort to a similar program for curing it would just amount to replacing one addiction with another, something addicts do all the time. Since the problem stems from a lack of secure underpinnings in life—from a paucity of life experience, contentment, and self-fulfillment—any real solution will of necessity be a complex one. Such a solution will certainly entail the development of internal capacities—interests, joys, competencies—to counteract the desire for escape and self-obliteration. It means wanting, and having, something to offer another person. For love is made possible by an integrity of being in two individuals who come together to share, not out of passive dependence but out of surety and strength.


Chapter 1