Sometimes it’s hard to tell if you truly love someone, or if you’re just in love with the idea of being in love. Emily Bahr-de Stefano reflects on being a love addict, wtf love addiction is, and the specific tragicness of being dumped via Skype. Image by Petra Collins.
Reading Gilles Deleuze resonated with me for an embarrassing reason—I realized my relationships are constituted by a brief night of dinner and sex, or love at first sight that ends up in actual love hell. Somehow, my friends can clearly see the impending disaster even when I’m lost in the haze of my new relationship. Instead of warning me that my infatuation will end in tragedy, they opt to advise me “be careful, take it slow.” I‘m told polarization comes from the need to be in love, to be with someone— the need to not be alone. The same way some people are addicted to heroin or shopping or adrenaline, I am addicted to love. Not in the cutesy Robert Palmer way either— in the crash and burn, Faustian bargain kind of way. In other words, I would (and probably) have sold my soul to the devil for the torrid love affairs I’ve been in.
Love addiction has been around as long as whatever lives on Donald Trump’s head, and it is just as ugly. Even back in 1990, psychologist Thomas Timmreck wrote about how counseling can correct behavioral and emotional problems resulting from the loss of a relationship, which often manifest for the “love addict” as obsession and dysfunction. Overcoming the Loss of Love: Preventing Love Addiction and Promoting Positive Emotional Health, Timmreck posits, “the dynamics controlling substance abuse addiction are viewed as similar to those governing love addiction. The similarities between the two states are drawn, as people can feel helpless without their lost loves, much as drug addicts might be without their fix of a drug.”
The high I get from hearing the words “I love you” or receiving an orgasm from the person who has just uttered said words to me, is a high I cannot do without. But when the thrill is gone, so is the dude: abandoning me to jones for his touch like a pregnant lady craves nachos and mint chocolate chip ice cream. Not only am I now alone, but I am without my fix. My subsequent behavior often makes me come off as a psycho bitch. But, a lot of my reaction to the loss of my high is a manifestation of the anxiety, depression, and total feelings of worthlessness that stem from being dumped. After having made myself vulnerable to this person who now wants nothing to do with me, I equate their rejection with my own worth. Since I got dumped, I’m a zero. And being nothing gives me permission to do anything.
Today’s digital landscape has provided fertile ground for love addicts to get high on love and then OD. We break up, withdrawing from the relationship. Reality and digital simulation become increasingly confused, as people begin to assume their digital personas, conflating their real existence with their internet presence (anyone who has ever been called by their Instagram handle rather than their actual name gets this). For the dumpee, more often than not, seeing your former lover on the internet is not uncommon, which makes breaking up that much harder to do. Having had more than a handful of experiences with men that reflect, I find that most of them conclude in clumsily, overwrought breakups via some technological device. Because telling someone “we’re breaking up” IRL apparently is just too horrifying a thought, right?
The more I see my exes online, the more I want to know why and how they could have once loved me, but no longer do. Of course, I rarely actually say this when I use text, email, and direct message to contact my exes, who cease to be human and become signs of my own low self esteem. Why is it that the people who hurt me the most, become these symbolic specters in my life, representing my failure to love well, or well enough?
A boy I dated when I was studying in Italy told me he loved me after a month. He then broke up with me a month after that via text on my shitty pay-by-the-minute cellphone. He sealed our fate as soon as I had returned from a trip to Copenhagen, London and Paris, just after I was able to buy new minutes on my phone. Excitedly, I wrote him “I’m back! I missed you”. I was met with “I just can’t do this right now,” and wanted to eat five kilos of stracciatella gelato. Later on, as I sobbed into a bowl of carbonara, my friend consoled me by forcing me to leave my number for our waiter. This breakup didn’t actually signify a true end; I continued to sleep with this ex-lover in the hopes that he would change his mind about being with me (using my bomb sex game, I guess?). Obviously, the imaginary part where he would fall in love with me again never happened, and that scenario completely ended.
Another one of my most important relationships began with the most wonderful date I have ever had. A week later, he told me he loved me, and we lived in a state of uncompromised bliss until things ended bitterly, five months later. It was a particularly nasty breakup that occurred over Skype, and concluded with my former significant other, a fitness freak, declaring “I just don’t love you anymore,” while I, choking on hysterical tears, refused to believe him. After blocking him on every social networking platform I could think of, I took to Spotify messenger (yes, really) to express my anger to him. “I hope you choke on lettuce and die doing pushups alone in your apartment,” I wrote. What is wrong with me, I would wonder afterwards, and still to this day, as I try to make amends with this person who hurt me so badly. Their rejections of my “earnest attempts” at peace just make me angrier, which manifests in a futile digital revenge spree: friending, unfriending, following, and unfollowing, sending emails, texts, and direct messages, to this person-turned-daemon.
In his apt, but admittedly dated article, Timmreck refers to the brokenhearted person’s behavior as verging on Play Misty For Me type stalking: “the jilted person will sometimes follow the other person around; sit and watch them from afar or will sit by the home and watch the lost love come and go.” But in the age of the digital world, where we see photos of people and believe their lives to be much better than our own, we don’t need to physically “stalk” our ex-lovers. We can just go online and creep them. In fact, they’re often difficult to avoid online, especially if you’ve dated and become friends with their friends. It’s’ time to change the “people who you might know” section on Instagram to “people who you might have fucked in an alley, wildly kissed in the grass as if you were Monica Vitti and Gabriele Ferzetti in an Antonioni film, and shared your deepest secrets—only to be dumped by in a text.” I have spent hours looking for, finding, and pouring over photos of various exes with other girls, thinking is that his new girlfriend? Why does he like her, and why didn’t he like me? After talking to friends, apparently we are all guilty of this. We know it’s no good to pass the time by checking up on the recent Snapchat activity of an ancient lover friend’s girlfriend. Still, it seems that breaking up can become an even more emotionally removed process, but the aftermath is one of ubiquity. To rephrase a musical staple of the stalker: every breath you take, every public Facebook post you make, I’ll be watching you. Instead of getting high on love, I just OD cyberlurk my exes to the point I even scare myself.
The truth is, my concept of “love” is not the same as a regular person—because I love “love” itself, sometimes I love the feeling more than the person. Timmreck says, “the cliché that the person ‘falls in love with love’ may have some merit to it. The person may fall in love with the feelings and related sexual excitement more than the person. When love seems sure and/or attractions are intense, emotional guards are dropped and love and trust are allowed to run unchecked.” That is why it is so simple for the man who broke my heart to become larger than life— I gave them access to all of me, but never knew them well enough for them to become anything BUT signs. They are mere projections of my negative feelings in the digital imaginary state I so often inhabit.
Maybe all we need is time to grow into ourselves, to begin to love ourselves before others and then the forgiveness comes. Because when you really, truly love yourself, you value self-care above an ephemeral love buzz. Loving oneself means the love of another is secondary, rather than reflective of your own worth or measure. Understanding this, the hurt we’ve felt no longer seems so personal..Our exes are no longer the ones with power, they are just people. Their behavior during the breakup is not representative of the whole relationship. We don’t define stories by their last sentence.. And the way a relationship ended, whether over text, email or phone, ought to never define the way the love is remembered. What can we expect in the age in which we live? Everything leaves a mark on us: I’m trying to not let all of these traces be wasted by remembering the love instead of the hate.
Emily Bahr-de Stefano studied film at Columbia and now is a writer in NYC.