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Understanding the Link Between Compulsive Behaviors and Human Attachment


By Bonnie Harken, Founder and CEO Crossroads Programs for Women

Addictions and other compulsive behaviors are commonly referred to as “pleasure seeking activities.” Some other self-sabotaging, compulsive behaviors beyond the obvious drugs or alcohol include eating disorders, compulsive spending, gambling, promiscuity, and unhealthy relationships to name a few. Yet during treatment, many people suffering the consequences of destructive compulsive behaviors often relate that it has been a long time since they derived pleasure from it. So if they no longer get a “high” from the behavior, why does the drive to use it grow stronger?

Looking more closely at human attachment, we are able to understand that compulsive behaviors may provide security rather than pleasure. For example, when two people meet and form a romantic relationship, the initial romance is typically very exciting and pleasurable. Many people who are falling in love seem intoxicated by their new love relationship. But as familiarity grows, reality sneaks into the picture and imperfections and mismatches become apparent which have been ignored during the “blind love” phase. These perceptions can lead to a breakup. Usually, the shorter the relationship, the shorter the process of grieving the loss.

Couples who survive the doubting phase gradually transform their relationship from romantic intensity to more comforting pleasures; i.e., familiarity, security, and shared identity. Most people prefer the less intense pleasures of a committed relationship to the excitement and pleasure of falling in love over and over again (relationship addiction and sexual addiction). Although couples often miss the romantic intensity, the change is a natural biological and psychological process. Attraction may bring people together, but lasting attachment is the result of familiarity, identity, and security, which makes the idea of separation more devastating in a long-term committed relationship. Romance provides excitement but attachments provide security, which is far more valuable to us than any romance. The loss of an attachment can cause a debilitating sense of loss and grief.

Relationships are only one example of the attachment process. From a psychological standpoint, great importance has been given to the parent/child attachment as an indicator of the child’s emotional welfare in adulthood. It can also apply to one’s chosen profession and can explain the feeling of grief from a job loss, transition to a new career, or even retirement. Attachments take many forms but most have the same characteristic process. When they end in commitment, a new normal is established which is a fixed part of a person’s life.

Addiction comes from the Latin word for “attachment” and, psychologically, it follows the pattern of normal human attachment. During the early stages, addictive behaviors are intensely pleasurable. However, there are negative side effects from the very beginning — hangovers and other side effects of drug and alcohol abuse, physical complications of an eating disorder, financial setbacks from gambling, and the emotional distresses of unhealthy relationships. Many people end potentially addictive attachments due to these early warning signs and negative consequences. But in persons who develop addictions, their physical and cognitive resistance is not strong enough to overcome the relief or pleasure associated with the attachment or the complicated grief associated with its loss. As unhappy and miserable as they feel with their addictive behaviors, the unknown of life without them as a coping mechanism is more terrifying.

For an outsider, it is obvious that addictive attachments are destructive. Rather than providing security and survival, they cause pain, insecurity, and destruction. However, in the brain, they are coded through the same pathways that form our healthy attachments. Recovery is a lengthy and complicated grief process. How long does it take?  It can take years. Treatment offers a safe place to begin the journey to recovery. Continuing treatment and support groups offer encouragement and support along the way. Recovery can be messy and looks like any complicated grief process, which forces the acceptance of a new reality. It is often a bumpy path with many obstacles. But for those that persevere, it results in freedom.

Bonnie Harken, Founder and CEO of Crossroads Programs for Women has spent the last 30 years assisting individuals begin their journey of healing. Look for upcoming programs at Crossroads Programs for Women in Pekin. Begin your journey of finding renewal, hope, joy, direction, and passion. Each program is a blend of lectures, group discussion, and therapeutic exercises offering a healing curriculum. We explore the spiritual components of healing from a non-denominational Christian perspective. Why continue to struggle? Tomorrow does not have to be like today. We can help you. Call 1-800-348-0937 or visit

Sources available upon request.