Lesbian Women, Love Addiction, and “The Urge to Merge” – An Interview with Dr. Lauren Costine
Ten years ago the first edition of Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men was published in response to what I viewed as a meaningful missing puzzle piece for gay men to learn and grow. At that time there were few if any self-help books specific to gay men. Thus, gay men had to interpret their challenges and experiences through the written lens of heterosexual life and culture. Although there were other well-written books on the subject of sex addiction, Cruise Control was necessary primarily because gay culture as a whole views things like life-long pair bonding, monogamy, and casual sex differently than most heterosexuals. So, needless to say, gay men often found it difficult fully identify with the sexual addiction self-help literature then available. As it turns out, the book sold extremely well, so much so that in 2013 I published an updated version, taking into account the many tech-driven advances that currently affect gay male sex and love addicts.
Meanwhile, I have waited (somewhat impatiently) for the right person to come along and write a similar book focused on lesbian women. My hope was that a colleague would set herself to the task, seeing the need and stepping up to meet it. Happily, Dr. Lauren Costine eventually took on this task, providing us with the recently published book, Lesbian Love Addiction: Understanding the Urge to Merge and How to Heal When Things Go Wrong. Since publication, I’ve been able to interview Dr. Costine about the book and her process, and I am pleased to share her responses with you here.
What prompted you to write Lesbian Love Addiction?
A couple of things, actually. First, I am in recovery from lesbian love addiction myself. It was hard to get sober from this addiction but I was finally able to do it, and writing this book was in part a catharsis for me. Second, I was starting to write a book on the lesbian psyche (this will be my next book), but during that process I was approached by you, after you’d written Cruise Control, and you said to me that a book on lesbian sex and love addiction needed to be written. I knew in an instant that I was the one to write it. I jumped on the idea, and Lesbian Love Addiction was begun.
Can you talk a bit about lesbian love addiction in general – what it looks like, what the symptoms are, etc.?
There are many symptoms and three different styles of love addiction. First up are the true love addicts.
These women fall in love easily and quickly without really knowing the other woman.
They are addicted to the way falling in love makes them feel, more specifically to the feel-good chemicals, such as dopamine and oxytocin, emitted in the beginning stages of romance between women.
They have a sudden need to spend all their time with their new love, often moving in together within a couple of dates or months.
They have difficulty setting boundaries, losing their sense of self once in a relationship. Sometimes they stop taking care of themselves to better fit into their new partner’s life. They lose touch with their own friends, family, self-care, and personal interests.
They have a pattern of falling for women who are perpetually unavailable, physically and/or emotionally, and they have their heart broken over and over again.
They jump into one relationship after another to avoid being alone.
Next we have love avoidant women.
These women are addicted to the seducing and chasing. They get high from pursuing other women. They are the Romeos and Casanovas of the lesbian world.
They are addicted to the high of falling in love.
They are afraid of authentic intimacy, and consequently they distance themselves emotionally once the honeymoon period ends.
They feel emotionally smothered by their partners once the honeymoon is over.
They find fault, criticizing and blaming in order to create the distance that makes them feel safe.
Lastly we have love ambivalent women.
These women have love addict characteristics in one relationship and love avoidant characteristics in the next.
They vacillate between love addict and love avoidant behaviors within a relationship.
They are either lightly or deeply ambivalent about staying with their partner, and they doubt or fear their ability to commit. This is a pattern found in most love addicted relationships
In what ways do lesbian love addicts differ from other love addicted women (or even love addicted men)?
There are four major differences, three of which are related to our hormones, our female brains, and attachment issues with our mothers. The fourth is related to lesbian-phobia.
First of all, women emit oxytocin and dopamine when falling in love (both of which are amazingly feel-good natural chemicals that get us to connect and bond). Men do not emit oxytocin in the same way. Therefore, when two women get together the “oxyfest” is beyond intoxicating.
Women are also wired to connect to others, because this improves our chances of surviving in hostile environments. In other words, we seek relationships because our brains are wired to need them. This explains, in part, why two women might be more inclined to connect more quickly than men traditionally do. This insight helps us understand how, following directions from the brain, lesbians suffering from love addiction slip into merging behaviors that are destructive later on. They commit to each other too quickly, move in too fast, and find themselves in relationships they didn’t expect once the honeymoon is over.
Next, attachment theory tells us that most people fall into one of three main categories: secure, anxious, or avoidant. Our earliest experiences of bonding with our mother or caregiver end up imprinting patterns of relating on each of us. The extent to which those relationships developed – or were interrupted or perhaps absent – affect the ways we attach to and connect with others, and influence how we behave in romantic relationships in adulthood. Lesbians, being naturally female-centric, are deeply impacted by our relationships with our mothers and their style of loving and relating to us. This deeply affects our romantic relationships later on.
Lastly we have lesbian-phobia to deal with. The struggle for equality is still young, and whether a lesbian is aware of it or not there is residual trauma resulting from living in a world that values heterosexuality above all else. For lesbians, this trauma is compounded by sexism and misogyny. To describe the unique set of issues lesbians must deal with, namely homophobia and misogyny, I have developed the term lesbian-phobia. This trauma simply adds to the already unique issues facing two women, as discussed above.
Does the book also address sexual addiction issues? Are sex and love addiction often intertwined with this population?
The book does address sex addiction when it intertwines with love addiction, but because most lesbians are drawn to an emotional connection when being sexual, sex addiction is not as big an issue as love addiction. Women’s brains are wired to connect. We definitely love sex, but we are more turned on when an emotional connection and sex are happening at the same time.
How can lesbian love addicts best go about the process of healing? Do they face difficulties that other love addicts do not?
The healing process from love addiction can prove to be one of the most difficult things a lesbian will ever have to endure. It starts with the withdrawal process. Symptoms of withdrawal usually manifest in the following ways:
Cravings to act out irrationally with love addicted behaviors
Inexplicable aches and pains
Physical illness or exhaustion
Switching to new addictions
Changes in eating or sleeping patterns
Desperation and fear
Feeling like you are going crazy
Suicidal thoughts or impulses
Desire to isolate
Obsessive thinking or fantasizing about the woman you gave up
Sadness, despair, or depression
Emotional highs and lows
Irritability, anger, or rage
However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, as one day withdrawing will be over and you’ll feel like a new person. In order to recover from love addiction, it is imperative to commit to the process of healing. This means experiencing the withdrawals and avoiding the urge to return to your partner. Once the psychological separation from toxic behaviors and ways of thinking is made, a new person with a strong internal sense of liberation will step in. Allowing yourself to go through, not around, the pain is the essential part of healing. Avoidance leads to repetitive behaviors; true insight comes from the ability to stop, notice, and experience what is taking place, no matter how painful.
The biggest obstacle that many lesbian love addicts face is not finding lesbian-affirmative support. There are not enough therapists and 12-step programs out there that understand the unique issues of the lesbian psyche.
So you’re saying that some therapists, treatment programs, and 12-step sex/love addiction recovery groups more lesbian friendly than others. Why do you think that is?
Most therapists are not trained in lesbian-affirmative psychotherapy. The advent of the LGBT Specialization at Antioch University Los Angeles (AULA) is helping to ameliorate this problem by training budding therapists on how to work in a healing and consciously competent way, but AULA’s program is unusual. New York City and other parts of the East Coast are also relatively LGBTQ-affirmative, but other parts of the country are not. As a matter of fact, most Masters in Psychology programs’ human sexuality courses – a basic core requirement – are heterosexually oriented, barely touching on all the other sexual orientations and gender identities that humans possess.
How can lesbian women find the best possible recovery setting?
Usually, they can go to their local LGBT Center; they typically have resources and support groups that are lesbian friendly. Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA) tends to be very open-minded and nonjudgmental, so I feel confident recommending that group to help. Plus, read my book. It is the only book out there that addresses lesbian love addiction in an affirmative way.
What are the things you most want people to know about yourself and/or your book?
I really want people to know how much I love my lesbian community. I am honored to do my small part in helping heal the areas of our psyches that need healing. I also want people to know that I have walked this path before – I know what it is like to suffer from love addiction – to struggle with a lack of self-confidence, low self-esteem, and zero self-love. I want people to understand that this book is born from my own walk down the path of lesbian love addiction, and that I never stop working on myself – that I believe, as does one of my favorite Buddhist teachers, Pema Chodron, that we are all a work in progress, but with enough courage, resilience, and a desire to live a better life anyone can heal from this addiction and start experiencing authentic feelings of liberation, presence, and happiness.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of National Clinical Development for Elements Behavioral Health. In this capacity, he has established and overseen addiction and mental health treatment programs for more than a dozen high-end treatment facilities, including Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu and Los Angeles, The Ranch in rural Tennessee, and The Right Step in Texas. An internationally acknowledged clinician and author, he has served as a subject expert on the intersection of human intimacy and digital technology for multiple media outlets including The Oprah Winfrey Network, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Daily Beast, and CNN, among many others. He is the author of several highly regarded books, including Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men. For more information please visit website, robertweissmsw.com.