Addictive Relationships

Dr. Tim AllchinFor Those Seeking HopeLeave a Comment

This article is part of our new series on addiction. In this series, our counselors are sharing how everyone can understand, overcome, and find freedom from addiction.

Is relationship addiction a real thing?

The experience of “addiction” is when we want something too much and we feel like we need something so badly that we can’t live or experience happiness without it.

With that understanding, many people are addicted to relationships.

They seemingly can’t distance themselves even when they know they are clearly being harmed by continuing in certain relationships.

Consider the following people and how they might view their relationships:

  • A 16-year-old girl is glued to her phone, awaiting the next message from the boy she seems entranced with. Her regular eating patterns, homework, and even her long-time friends have all been pushed away due to her new fixation on the seeming love she has found. Even though he doesn’t treat her well, she seems committed.
  • A friend just got married for the 5th time and can’t ever seem to be alone when each relationship ends abruptly. Even in his marriage, this has created an unhealthy scenario when loneliness and dissatisfaction set in and attachments with others crowd out his relational priorities.
  • An older couple never marries, but they live together in a cantankerous mood for nearly 40 years. She makes good spaghetti and he can change the oil on her car. He drinks too much, too often, but usually has enough money to pay the bills. They don’t seem to love each other, but they can’t seem to leave each other for very long.

Should these experiences really be considered a “relationship addiction?”

When doctors examine the brain scans of addictive behavior, they do find similar activity that mimics what we see when other traditional addictions are measured. However, there are some significant differences that should be considered. Relationship addictions shouldn’t be viewed like most other addictions.

Rather than viewing unhealthy relational patterns as a “relationship addiction,” it is more helpful to carefully describe the unhealthy relationship patterns and untrue personal thought patterns.

From a Christian perspective, relationship addictions mainly fall into categories like “control,” “idolatry,” and “fear of man.”

Just like being in bondage to a substance, relationship addicts feel controlled by another person. What started out as a good or pleasurable experience now has them feeling trapped in a cycle they cannot break. They often don’t have God-honoring boundaries, and their identity is more wrapped up in pleasing their partner than pleasing God.

These relational patterns become addictive when:

  • You feel controlled by another person through manipulation or intimidation.
  • You feel controlled by your desire for another person’s attention or approval.
  • You feel overly dependent on another person for something you crave. 
  • You shape your identity around helping another person or meeting their expectations.

If we are going to move away from what feels like an addictive relationship, we must know what healthy attitudes and actions in relationships look like. We do this by looking at the pattern of Christ and by looking at the biblical teaching on relationships.

The Bible is full of both positive and negative examples about relationships that we can learn from. However, there is one descriptive verse that best helps us understand the bondage of addictive relationships.

Proverbs 29:25 – “The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is safe.”

When we feel controlled and trapped in an unhealthy relationship, we are ensnared by what the Bible calls the “fear of man.” Ultimately, God wants our trust and security to be found in Him, who is all-powerful and worthy of our trust.

An addictive relationship focuses on how to get what we think we need from another person; it is more about our identity and our desires.  

So what should we do if we feel trapped in an unhealthy relationship and recognize that the fear of man is what is holding us in a relationship we should move away from?

Reexamine Your Understanding of Control

We aren’t really controlled by another person, except in the rare and typically illegal cases. Most often, those who feel addicted in relationships care too deeply about what others think. They fear how someone will respond if they address the conflict, so they choose to give in to unwise demands and pressures.

Rather than living controlled by the spoken or unspoken expectations of another person, we can surrender control to God.

Recognize the Source of Your Fears

In relationships that feel addictive, we typically fear what will happen to us if we lose them.

It can be terrifying to lose your closest companion, even if that companion has inflicted great pain in the way they have conducted the relationship. However, when we depend on another person for what we think we need, it distracts us from going to God to get what we really need.

All the security, comfort, and resources we need can be found in a deeper relationship and obedience to God.

Replace Unhealthy Friendships With Wise Friendships

You often won’t truly understand the bondage you experience in an addictive relationship until you have friends that love you rather than use you.

It takes work to find healthy friendships and cultivate them, moving out of your comfort zone and choosing first to serve rather than demand. Jesus was a good friend, and He modeled good friendship for us. We just need to follow His lead.

Next Steps

If you are wondering about addictive relationships and how to assess your own relationship, I want you to consider a couple of next steps.

  1. Talk with a counselor. Someone in this situation often can’t see the extent of the bondage when they are in it. A trusted counselor can help you sort through the conflicted feelings you have.
  • Read the book “When People Are Big and God is Small”.  This resource has helped so many people navigate their own thoughts and attitudes in response to difficult relationships.
  • Go to God with your struggle. He already knows what you’re facing, and He is the friend that we most need. Read the book of John and look for the ways Jesus showed His heart for people.

It can be maddening to feel trapped in a relationship so tightly that it feels like bondage. God hasn’t forgotten about you, and He cares about you even when the world seems not to.

Go to Him and trust Him to guide your future.

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