Which Is the Worst Addiction?

Last updated on November 4th, 2019

Have you ever tried quitting an addiction to smoking, drinking, or heroin? Love addiction is harder to quit than any of them.

News item: After nearly two years together, Charlize Theron decided not to marry, then called off her relationship with, Sean Penn, citing her beau’s “controlling” nature.

“Even though Sean allegedly resented her independence,” an insider says. “He tried his best to change — but to no avail.”

Here are the questions this event sets off in my mind:

  • What is addiction?
  • How can we tell something is addictive or someone is addicted?
  • What is the worst addiction?

Measuring an Addiction

An addiction is a seemingly irresistible behavior that is bad for you but that you persist in. How bad the addiction is can be measured by how compulsive your behavior is, by how many negative results it creates in your life, by how desperate the prospect of losing the activity makes you.

An addiction is a seemingly irresistible behavior that is bad for you but that you persist in.-Stanton PeeleThere are really no other measures of addiction available to us. If a person’s brain is lit up by taking cocaine, or smoking, or a baby’s face, we don’t call that addiction unless the activity that lights the brain up causes extremely dysfunctional behavior, as I describe in my book with Ilse Thompson, Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict.

If a person functions well despite using an “addictive substance,” they aren’t addicted. (Remember that Hunter Biden was detected to have been using cocaine by a blood test taken many months before he was cashiered from the U.S. Navy Reserves, not due to any dysfunctional behavior by the VP’s younger son.)

Describing Love as Addictive

To summarize: people are diagnosed as being addicted according to how they act and the consequences of their behavior. And, remember, the bible of psychiatric diagnoses, DSM-5, now lists behaviors as addictive, as I have been doing since I wrote Love and Addiction with Archie Brodsky in 1975. Archie and I found little reason to revise that book when we recently released a new edition, with commentary.

In describing love as addictive, we relied on the data that, well, sometimes people do insane, destructive things in the name of love. And because, however badly the relationship is going for the person and/or their lover, they nonetheless are incapable of doing without the addictive relationship. If they lose the relationship, they are further traumatized, as in withdrawal.

In describing love as addictive, we relied on the data that, well, sometimes people do insane, destructive things in the name of love. And because, however badly the relationship is going for the person and/or their lover, they nonetheless are incapable of doing without the addictive relationship.-Stanton Peele

Let’s return to our case study of addiction.

Sean Penn is 54 years old, and his history of love relationships has been famously troubled. Of course, he had a fabled tempestuous marriage to Madonna, which didn’t end well. According to a police report, Penn tied Madonna up and beat and tormented her for hours, until she finally escaped.

What was that?

Penn is one of our greatest male actors (Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Mystic River, Milk, et al.), perhaps the best since Marlon Brando, as well as having directed successfully (Into the Wild). He is a committed political activist. But his life has involved one badly broken romance after another.

Penn’s longest relationship was with another gifted actor, Robin Wright. They were married for 14 years, a time when Wright gave up acting for her family, including having two children with Penn. But the relationship was up and down and punctuated by separations.

In a tragic interview, Penn said after his divorce from Wright: 
       
There is no shame in my saying that we all want to be loved by someone. As I look back over my life in romance, I don’t feel I’ve ever had that. I have been the only one that was unaware of the fraud in a few of these circumstances blindly. When you get divorced, all the truths that come out, you sit there and you go, What the fuck was I doing? What was I doing believing that this person was invested in this way?

The Pursuit of a Perfect Relationship?

What does Penn want that he seemingly can never have, but never gives up seeking? A perfect relationship where he is loved ideally, even while his demands for love can never be met, to which he reacts angrily, even violently.

Penn doesn’t seem destined to have this experience. But, well into middle age, he pursues it endlessly with his considerable resources. He was devastated after his break-up with Theron: “Sean’s heart is broken — it’s going to take a while for him to recover.”

Isn’t that addiction?

And by the way, according to Radar Online, Penn gave up his lifelong smoking habit after Theron asked him not to smoke around her adopted son. So love is stronger than that monkey was for Penn. And he’s not the only one for whom that’s true.


Stanton Peele, Ph.D., is the author (with Ilse Thompson) of Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict. His Life Process Program for treating addiction is available online.



Image Courtesy of Pixabay.com

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