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Therapy to tackle "love addiction"

19 March 10 17:50 GMT

Tiger Woods' admission that he's been receiving therapy to enable him to remain faithful to his wife has raised the question of whether infidelity is really the symptom of a treatable condition.

BBC Radio 5 live's Andrew Fletcher visits a treatment centre in Hertfordshire to see how counsellors tackle love and sex addiction in the same way as alcoholism - through group therapy.

In a small, plainly-decorated room at the end of a shopping arcade in Stevenage, nine women and two men sit in a circle.

They will spend the day talking, listening and sometimes crying.

All consider themselves to be love addicts.

Two of the three counsellors have recovered from what they describe as an inability to have a normal, healthy relationship.

They have allowed me to join their group for the day, to hear their stories of obsession, manipulation and attachment to sometimes violent partners.


A common theme emerges from the stories - the compulsion to experience the pain caused by obsessive relationships.

When one describes it as the need to fill a hole within herself, others nod in agreement.

They say the romantic songs and movies which dominate popular culture are literally played out in their own lives, but without the happy endings.

"I used to tell people we were like Romeo and Juliet", one woman says of a relationship which friends envied, "... but actually Romeo and Juliet killed themselves."

Another client breaks down as she talks about the time when her unhappy marriage caused her to consider committing suicide and killing her four children:

"It wasn't a cry for help; they were detailed plans.

"No-one would have found us.

"But my indecision saved my life, and I didn't go through with it."

She was obsessed with her husband and couldn't bring herself to leave him.

She began eating compulsively, reflecting the experience of other clients whose obsessive behaviour in relationships has been accompanied by alcoholism or drug addiction.


"My experience was getting involved in unhealthy, damaging relationships, and kind of knowing that they were unhealthy but not being able to stop myself," says Laura, who's been receiving treatment at the Living Room for the past 14 months.

She understands the scepticism of people who find the idea of being addicted to love hard to believe:

"I would've said the same thing a couple of years ago....what a load of rubbish", she says.

"But unless you've actually been in it, you don't know.

"You really need to experience the pain of it, and the pain of coming out of it."

For Laura, that has involved weekly therapy sessions and an agreement to try to abstain from any relationship for at least a year.

The Living Room uses the 12-step programme, familiar from the treatment of alcoholics, alongside other forms of therapy such as cognitive behaviour therapy.

Some clients refer themselves for treatment; others are referred by their doctor or by social services.


Dr James Brooke, a GP in Stevenage, says he refers clients for love addiction treatment about once a fortnight.

He believes it is a genuine condition which needs to be taken seriously:

"Certainly I feel that love addiction is more commonplace than people think, and quite likely to be on a par with alcoholism, but the symptoms are much more subtle, so people tend to miss them."

Every year he sees three or four patients whose lives are turned around by treatment at the Living Room.

The centre was founded ten years ago by Janis Feely, who had struggled with addiction herself and wanted to help others.

"It's a very isolating illness and it's not talked about", she says.

"People just don't know it exists and there's many people in pain with love addiction."

Janis has won numerous awards for her work and was presented with an MBE earlier in the year.

She says the treatment for love addiction is similar to that for other addictions:

"It's really about being abstinent from your drug of choice, which in this case is an unhealthy relationship.

"But unlike alcoholics who can't ever drink again, recovered love addicts can go on to have healthy relationships after a year or two."


After breaking for lunch, the clients of the love addiction group show each other examples of art and craftwork they have done to express their feelings and improve their self-esteem.

One has decorated a plate with a detailed painting depicting her route to recovery from addiction.

On other occasions, the afternoon activity takes the form of a workshop or video presentation exploring healthy relationships.

They then discuss their experiences over the past week, and how they are putting what they have learned into practice.

Laura has begun dating again, but says it has "not been terribly successful".

She says she is having to learn the habits of healthy relationships for the first time:

"Somebody described it to me once as when you're so full up with love for yourself there's more to spare, that's the point at which you can get into a relationship."

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