Freedom From Toxic Relationships
Luke Jesionkowski is a counsellor and psychotherapist at Sydney's South Pacific Private who specialises in eating disorders, trauma, substance addiction and relational disorders, including sex addiction, love addiction and love avoidance.
Like many of the experts and community leaders at South Pacific Luke has personal experience with the pain, shame and confusion of addiction and recovery.
“Sex and love addiction can be especially personal and challenging to talk about,” he says. “But when someone knows that their therapist and others at their rehab have been in the same situation, when they know they’re speaking from experience and know recovery is possible, it creates an instant bond of trust and understanding.”
This Valentine's Day, we asked Luke to share his expertise and experience in recognizing, treating and recovering from love addiction.
What Is Love Addiction?
As defined by sex and love addicts anonymous (SLAA), love addiction is an obsession broadly defined as “an unhealthy fixation on another person with whom we may or may not have a relationship or even have met.”
A person experiencing love addiction might identify with:
- Low self-esteem and self-worth
- A fear of abandonment or being alone
- Difficulty with internal and external boundaries
- Confusing love and neediness
- Patterns of staying in, and returning to, painful or unhealthy relationships
- Emotional or sexual manipulation and dependency
- Romantic or sexual intrigue, obsession and fantasies
- Assigning somewhat magical qualities to others in hopes of them fulfilling our fantasies
Like any other addiction, love addiction tends to follow a pretty harrowing cycle of chaos including:
- Preoccupation: Obsessions (thoughts) and fantasies of the perfect lover, ideal relationship or sexual experience.
- Ritualisation: Including things such as messaging and contacting people we have identified as being triggers or targets of our ‘addiction’, repeatedly visiting their social media pages, objectifying strangers in public, overuse of dating apps, excessive reading and watching of fantasy-based romance novels/movies etc.
- Acting Out: Compulsions (actions) and behaviours such as going to meet with the person despite consequences, infidelity, pursuing multiple partners, emotional intrigue, excessive pornography, prostitution etc.
- Shame and Despair: A self-realisation of the actions taken and being faced with the consequences of the unhealthy decision i.e. Partner finding out, being broken up with again, divorce and so on.
Love addiction also often occurs alongside attachment trauma and relational disturbances in childhood. As kids, our parents may have had anxious or avoidant parenting styles that shaped our sense of self worth and relational patterns.
Can You Walk Us Through Your Personal Experience Of Love Addiction?
While everyone experiences addiction differently, there are many recognisable features of sex and love addiction and love avoidance that we all tend to share.
In my addiction, I would pursue relationship after relationship. It saw friends and family members perpetually roll their eyes in the disbelief: “Seriously, another girlfriend?”
Caught in romantic and sexual obsessions and compulsions, I would constantly outsource my sense of self to another, either demanding they “save me” or attempt to become the “saviour” myself – swooping in with the pursuit of being the “knight in shining armour” trying to save the damsel in the distress.
The harsh reality though, was that I was being held prisoner or taking hostages myself whilst externally trying to find some sense of self-esteem, which I now know can only be derived from within. Coming not only to know this theoretically, but to actually feel and understand it, is essential to recovery.
This cycle continued for years as I tried to find myself and to find pleasure and joy through other people. I was using them as a way to treat underlying depression until it all came crashing down in a failed engagement that left drowning in debt, almost totally friendless and isolated, and contemplating suicide.
That was my rock bottom, but thankfully it’s also what led me to start my recovery.
Walk Us Through Your Recovery Journey, What Steps Did You Take?
Recovery for me has been progressive, but hasn’t been without its ups and downs. I started in the way that any desperate addict does when they needed serious help, I went to rehab. Remaining sober free of drugs and alcohol – and proactively working a 12-step relational recovery program – has been essential in maintaining my recovery.
Post rehab, I continued to attend 12-step meetings in various fellowships. I got home-groups, sponsors, service positions, completed step work, read literature, made outreach calls, prayed, meditated and journaled. Eventually I went on to become a sponsor and to start groups myself, and to carry the message to hundreds of newcomers at hospitals and meetings.
Alongside this I continued therapy in various forms, studied, built “top line” behaviours which involved finding the things that gave me joy in life, explored my passions and creativity such as music, photography, yoga and connecting with nature.
Why Is Love Addiction Something That You Address At South Pacific Private?
Unfortunately, love addiction is an area that gets limited focus in the lens of mental health as it’s a relatively new field. Very few clinicians and treatment centres have the skills and training to identify and treat the condition effectively.
The frightening truth is that, in reality, love addiction is extremely common and needs on-going and expansive attention in light of cultural developments which have made hook-up sex more common. The more depersonalised and emotionally distant we become due to trauma but also technocracy, the more we desperately seek out and yearn for love and intimacy, hence the growing emergence of the love addict.
That’s why South Pacific Private prides itself on being one of the few treatment centres in Australia with the training and resources equipped to treat love addiction. We’ve spent decades caring for thousands of clients that have walked through the door.
Can You Share A Little About Your Experience With Love Addiction Professionally?
Sure. Time and time again we see client after client stuck in the cycle of love addiction which finally does enough damage to land them in our therapy room, where they begin to divulge the torturous ramifications – separations, divorce, loneliness, depression and suicidality.
It often presents alongside another co-occurring disorder such as drug and alcohol dependence or depression and anxiety.
It’s quite common for clients to come to us with drug or alcohol addiction, or depression and anxiety, only to realise that their relationship with substances is being driven by this underlying issue.
I spend a lot of my time in the first phase of the recovery process cultivating awareness of just exactly what's playing out in the client’s lives to identify the patterns and cycles – and then uncovering what's driving that.
In these conversations there are lightbulb moments as you see jaws drop and false realities shatter, as clients become aware of what has been wreaking havoc in their lives for years.
Common childhood themes also regularly emerge like, “my mum gave me everything, but my dad was never really there”, or “my mother was an emotional wreck and my father was aggressive/dismissive.” This often occurs alongside early romantic or sexual experiences that gave an endorphin / dopamine hit that took away the underlying pain, and gave validation to a person’s fragile sense of self-esteem.
From here, we continue to help by filling up client’s recovery toolkits with techniques and strategies to fortify them for the journey ahead, and instil hope that a new and better life outside of addiction is possible.
What Power And Benefit Is There From Group Therapy And 12-Step Fellowships (SLAA) For This Particular Addiction? Why Is It Important To Speak With People Who Have Been Through The Same Thing?
Group therapy and 12-step fellowships are invaluable resources for treating love addiction for a variety of reasons – many of which are the same as for other addictions.
Due to the nature of love addiction – an addiction wrapped in shame, fear and loneliness – the connection, support and community provided by group work is especially important. They show we are alone and we continue to hear a message of hope and empathy as we become better at dealing with it.
I often say, “in order to heal it, you need to feel it” and these safe containers of group therapy allow for just that. It’s an opportunity to look inwards at what’s been happening underneath the surface and express the pain and discomfort we’ve been feeling the whole time.
Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous is often described as a “black and white program that deals with the grey areas of living,” meaning that what was once murky and unclear is doused with awareness to create clarity and order with the guidance of mentors and community members.
It is crucial that people who suffer from sex and love addiction, share their experience with others who are going through it in order to cultivate acceptance and identification, along with being held accountable to those that have done what the person has likely have done themselves. As addiction is “cunning, baffling and powerful”, deception and denial are usually allusive barriers that stop people from their recovery, hence being held accountable by therapists, sponsors and others addicts that know the pitfalls are a must for recovery.
As the saying goes, “the opposite of addiction, is connection,” and SLAA and group therapy provide the perfect antidote to this dilemma.
What Has Changed For You Now? What Are The Gifts Of Recovery?
These days the general underlying hum of depression and existential angst has vastly cleared with only ripples remaining as I continue to give back to people and being of service to the community. My mental health and wellbeing have drastically improved not that I’m not caught in the endless cycle of torture that perpetuated the pain.
I’m now able to form healthier relationships, set boundaries and have become more disciplined. I’m more independent and derive my own sense of self-esteem internally. I’ve regained self-respect, healed extensive amounts of the pain of previous lovers, forgiven those who have hurt me and have learned to love myself.
As a byproduct of these internal shifts, my recovery has given me the stability and confidence to make much desired life alterations including career changes, new social groups, more travel. I’ve been able to move to the beach and built a new, healthier, happier lifestyle and have been able to pursue lifelong hobbies and dreams, such as comedy and videography.
Freedom is possible. Healthy relationships are possible. My life is unimaginably better.
Luke’s Recommended Reading:
Facing Love Addiction: Giving Yourself the Power to Change the Way You Love, Pia Mellody, Andrea Wells Miller & J. Keith Miller.
Sex & Love Addicts Anonymous Basic Text, The Augustine Fellowship
Luke is a registered counsellor and psychotherapist at South Pacific private. Luke has run hundreds of trauma-focused recovery groups and lectures across vast areas of the program. Due to his personal and professional experience, he has spent significant time specialising in the treating of men and women with sex and love addiction.
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