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Relationship Addiction
A Call to heal the wounds

Relationship addiction.

Hollywood and Bollywood call it love. Trillions are spent romanticising a compulsive fantasy that is nothing less than an unrecognised addiction.

“Your life is like an Asian art film,” my friend declared. I was crying my eyes out for the umpteenth time. This was after he’d cheated on me, again; sworn at me, again and left me at a night club. “I love him!” I wailed. 

I was 24, drinking too much and caught up in a bad situation. This is not about my drinking though. It is about addiction. 

“The question is not: why the addiction?
The question is: why the pain?” – Gabor Mate, MD

Addiction conjures up images of a ‘bad’ junkie injecting drugs into her veins selling herself for a buck. Some addictions have a more obvious and faster path of destruction. It’s easy to over look all the bad stuff that happens in relationships. We don't call it addiction.

We call it neediness, control, jealousy, the need to please, abuse and violence. Sometimes we even call it love. It happens amongst friends, between parents and children and in the workplace too.

According to NIDA, “Addiction is defined as a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.”

At two am, walking the streets of Yeoville, I had an epiphany. I was twenty-four.

He’d not answered my seventeen phone calls I’d compulsively made in the space of two hours. (I wonder why). I had to see him, NOW.

It occurred to me I was acting crazy.

My behaviour was no different to that of a child molester, I thought. My craving was compulsive. Except that thankfully, my craving was a man and not a powerless child.

This epiphany didn’t stop my compulsion. I had no control.

Despite the fear I’d be attacked, I sought relief from my emotional pain. 

In that moment,  experienced the most enormous compassion for anyone who has an addiction of any kind. Even those whose are sadistic in nature.

The key to healing, I discovered is the third criteria of addiction: Seeking RELIEF from pain.

BOOM. I wasn’t insane.

I was needy. 

I could cross out borderline personality disorder off my list. This man was my crack. It was not love.

I had to leave the city to let him go. I sank into a deep depression. I cried every day for a year. I wanted to die. I ate chocolate eclairs instead. I was in withdrawal.

Dr Gabor Mate, author of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction says:

"Addiction is a complex psychophysiological process. It’s manifested in any behavior that a person finds temporary pleasure or relief in, and therefore craves, but that they can’t give up despite the negative consequences to themselves or those around them."

This was me in my romantic relationships. 

Later, I participated in a stress management program run by psychiatrist Dr Moch at the Milpark Hospital, Johannesburg.

I discovered there was a possible link between cravings and the role of cortisol and other stress chemicals in the body.  As well as a link to the level of happiness chemicals in the body.

Mine were out of whack.

Trauma in childhood can cause our stress hormones to be too high and an imbalance of our happiness chemicals.

Dr Mate, suggests:

“Not all addictions are rooted in abuse or trauma, but I do believe they can all be traced to painful experiences. A hurt is at the centre of all addictive behaviours. It is present in the gambler, the internet addict, the compulsive shopper and the workaholic.

The wound may not be as deep and the ache not as excruciating, and it may even be entirely hidden—but it’s there. As we’ll see, the effects of early stress or adverse experiences directly shape both the psychology and the neurobiology of addiction in the brain.” 

Although I'd quit alcohol, cigarettes and I was no longer depressed, to this day I can not handle too much stress.

When I met my husband in 2009, all my past pain came to the fore. Dating was more stressful than fun.

My husband introduced me to a book called Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff.  A fascinating study of an indigenous community relatively uninfluenced by the west. No symptoms of addiction or relationship abuse existed.


From birth, a baby is held skin to skin by their parents/other adults. They are never apart from an adult until they indicated a desire to start exploring the world on their own. Breastfeeding only stops when a baby chooses to stop. 

However, the baby is not the centre of the adult world but a participant in the world. Parents continue their lives, unlike in our modern world where a parent or nanny often has to stay at home alone with no other connection but the baby.

Babies are carried in the front, not as the focus of attention but rather, facing outwards as a participant in the world. 

The movement a child experiences as a parent walks the hills, dances, fetches water and hoes the land; together with the connection to the caregiver, gives the child what they needs to gain a quiet confidence and a sense of safety in the world.

Children growing up without the restlessness, anxiety, and addiction problems seen in the west.

When a baby can not feel the presence of another human the pain is akin to terror. Their very life feels feels at stake. 

In the west, from the birth in hospitals to his first years in cots and prams, our systems sets up separation.

Children in western society also do not experience the much needed movement and participation in life’s activities when stuck in a box.

There is something about the combination of deep connection, movement and adventure that stabilises our happiness/stress chemicals.

But what if we our wounds sabotage our ability to experience both.

According to Dr Gabor, our children learn the world is not safe and this later turns into a compulsive craving. Any physical and sexual traumas growing up adds fuel to the fire.

Imagine what wars, oppression and colonisation have done to people. 

In relationships this manifests as emotional or sexual neediness and control. And in the world out there it manifests into either extreme ambition and busyness or a fear of going for one's dreams.

As I began to heal from my own traumas, I learned to meet my cravings with myself rather than reaching for someone to 'fix' it. I experienced a fulfilment inside me that remains even on my most anxious days.

Emptiness is now a rare guest. Loneliness a curious bystander.

Love lives inside me in ways I couldn't have imagined. 

Healing from my relationship addiction has given birth to a tremendous inner adventure.  It has allowed me to create. It has shown me I have an infinite light even when it feels dark.

Relationships are easier. Steadier. And an interesting pathway to polish my diamond. 

That is the gift of any healing journey. It may look different on the outside for each of us. The essence of the journey is ultimately one of LOVE. 

 relationship addiction & Childhood wounds

People call me for couples coaching convinced that if their partner only did what they wanted they’d be relieved of their pain.

Founder of Imago therapy and author of Keeping the Love You Find, Dr Harville Hendrix, says that the stage a wound occurs in, influences the degree and type of acting out behaviours.

A separation at the attachment phase (0-18 months) becomes compulsive clinging if not stalking as an adult OR someone who is unable to create an attachment. At this stage, tge wounding makes it challenging to form a relationship at all. 

A wound during the exploratory phase (18 months - 3 years), while people can now create a connection amd establish a relationship, one person becomes a chaser and the other person distances. 

A child grows to believe “I have no right to exist”; "I can not be myself"; "I am bad"; "being too close hurts" and “I am not loved”.

For the adult caught in an addictive cycle, the answer lies in deep self acceptance, compassion and love.  

Wounds at a later age cause a mix of controlling, people pleasing and competitive behaviours, self-sacrificing patterns.

 Healing from these patterns, requires a holistic approach. This was how my programme The FreshStart Love Journey was birthed. Because I needed it. 

 For as spiritual teacher and author, Deepak Chopra puts it,

"Self-destructive behaviour is unrecognised spiritual craving.”

Whatever we think someone or something can give us, it’s about learning to give it to ourselves from within.

Copyright Jo Ntsebeza 2015

Jo Ntsebeza is a qualified professional coach, facilitator, trainer and lay counsellor.

All works are copyrighted. You may quote me or use no more than a paragraph with a link to the article on my website. 

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Hi, I'm Jo, a qualified coach and facilitator. Host of the Dare To Love Club. Creator of The FreshStart Love Journey. I'm lover of love, a relationship explorer. You can find out more about my story and my professional qualifications and experience here.  xo, Jo

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