CNM 030: Relationship & Marriage Obsession – with Sherry Gaba, LCSW

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In this episode, I interview psychotherapist, life coach, author, magazine editor, and media correspondent, Sherry Gaba, LCSW.

Sherry has appeared on Vh1’s Celebrity Rehab, Sober House, Celebrity Rehab’s Sex Addiction, CNN Headline News, Inside Edition, and a slew of other TV shows. She’s also appeared in magazines like Cosmopolitan, Women’s World and New York Post to name a few. She’s also Editor of Recovery Today Magazine. She’s recently released a book called The Marriage And Relationship Junkie: Kicking Your Obsession, and this is our main topic for today’s interview.

So let’s get right to the good stuff.

Here’s my interview with Sherry…

Interview With Sherry Gaba

Brian: Sherry welcome to the show. It’s so nice to have you with us today.

Sherry: Oh Brian thank you. I love the work that you’re doing in the world. This this is such a hot topic, co-dependency, and you’re really letting a lot of people know what’s going on out there about it. And I really appreciate that.

Brian: Thank you very much. Same to you. I’m glad there are folks at the forefront of the topic, and helping people with the struggle. So thank you for that as well. I’ve had a chance to read a new book that you’ve recently released, it’s called The Marriage and Relationship Junkie: Kicking Your Obsession. I’ve had a chance to look through the book, and I wanted to invite you on the show and talk more about this topic. So my first question for you is…

Question: Can you tell us the difference between being in love and having an unhealthy obsession with your partner?

Sherry: In healthy relationships, when couples first meet they idealize each other and they are forming an attachment, that’s really natural. But then as love matures it becomes so much less intense but much more secure, sort of a holding environment for each other. And there’s this trust that develops alongside love, kind of like the same trust that you would have early on with the bonding of a parent. There’s a trust; a secure attachment.

But people with marriage and relationship addiction never get past that initial stage of euphoria, of falling in love. They idealized the person they are in love with, and they never feel secure enough to really trust them. So they become dependent on the person they love in a very unrealistic way, hoping somehow this person will create a kind of happily ever after for them, kind of like a fantasy. Prince Charming is going to make everything wonderful and beautiful like the movies.

It’s really unrealistic to expect anyone else to create a satisfying life for you. So they are disappointed and the relationships are ultimately never truly satisfying if they can’t seem to live without them. So they’re not really based on healthy bonds but on a psychological bondage. There’s sort of a fix; this feeling just like a heroin addict needs their fix, the love, relationship, and marriage addict needs their fix and that’s really what that relationship is based on, this dependency fix.

Question: If somebody wanted to test herself (or himself) and say, “Am I fooling myself? Am I really in love here, or am I in an unhealthy situation? Are there some telltale signs that they can pay attention to so they can determine that?

Sherry: Definitely. So you’re talking about signs where someone might really be obsessed and it’s no longer healthy; t’s more obsessive love.

When you first meet someone you fall in love instantly. You think about them constantly and immediately fantasize about a future together. You’re already doing what we call future tripping. You’re already imagining the wedding and the cake and the children in the house with the picket fence. And you also tend to overwhelm partners with attention. You’re just giving them a lot of attention, probably a little too much attention. You feel it’s your responsibility to fix your partner and make them perfect.

So here you have this person, and instead of accepting them for who they are, you’re trying to make them something that you want them to be. You’re sort of in love with an illusion or a delusion of who somebody is rather than who they really are, and you’re not your authentic self with your partner.

You are always changing yourself to suit them. You’re always trying to please them and make them happy, and you probably don’t have a lot of boundaries. You’re probably saying “Yes” when you really mean “No”. You lose yourself in them, you’re sort of fused with them. You’re really hypervigilant and you overreact to the slightest sign that your partner is no longer interested.

So let’s say they don’t call you or they don’t text you. We think about today’s dating climate where we have lots of internet connection and dating apps. So they’re not texting you, and so you start to freak out. You think you may be ghosted again. ‘Oh my God, they’re ghosting me They’re not interested in me.’ So there’s this constant insatiable hunger for needing the attention of that other person. Everything about you is based on that. You feel very empty and lost, or unworthy if you’re not in a relationship.

That’s pretty much my story. I felt like if I wasn’t with somebody, if I wasn’t in relationship in love then I was basically nothing. I was an empty vessel. And as this interview goes on I can tell you a little bit about my story. You know it really started at a very early age being premature, having that early abandonment, being in an incubator for three months, not having that mother’s touch. Nothing that was healthy was occurring for this little incubator baby. I was being fed through my feet. No sucking response; just literally insatiable for love and insatiable for wanting more. So that really translated into needing more, wanting more, never being enough, and just really getting into a lot of love and relationship-addicted relationships that had this obsessive quality at times.

Brian: That makes a lot of sense when you say it like that. I remember reading in the book how you were premature, so you spent a good solid three months without a lot of human contact which I suppose can be devastating.

Question: For folks who didn’t necessarily have that situation, but yet they still feel clinginess and a need to be close to people that’s almost an obsession, what are some other ways that can happen for people?

Sherry: Like I was mentioning, I think needing that love is an attempt to recover some of the losses of early childhood.

Let’s say you were a child that never received love or nurturing. You start to feel really insecure because you didn’t get that secure attachment from that parent. That her person is likely to grow up with a good sense of themselves if they get that secure attachment. They feel like a complete person and they’re able to have healthy boundaries. They have that mirroring of what a healthy relationships would look like.

But without that mirroring, without that nurturing or bonding, the child may develop really poor self-esteem and insecurity, and some relationship addicts may even have caregivers who are unavailable physically or emotionally. Perhaps their parents were addicts or alcoholics. They might have been neglected or abused as young children. Maybe there was a divorce. Maybe it was a single mother that just didn’t have the time to take care of that baby and give that baby what it needed. I’m not putting down single parents because I was a single mother. Sometimes when you’re distracted with work and other things and you’re trying to do it on your own, you just may not be physically and emotionally available.

So, you really want to be able to look at the fact that if you come from an intact functional family, usually those issues don’t really exist. But let’s say you did come from an intact family, a functional family, but what if you never fit in with your peers? What if you were bullied? So as you enter that adolescence, that acceptance of our peers actually becomes more important than acceptance of our parents. That too can lead to attachment issues.

We just know that the greater the intensity of a person’s unmet needs, the stronger the addiction to a relationship or love or being married. They’re really trying to leave their childhood. They’re trying to re-enact what they never got. Being in a relationship relieves the negative feelings they had as a child. So someone with marriage and relationship addiction may use obsessive behavior to keep the negative feelings under control. But relationship and marriage addicts are often dysfunctional, and their relationships are based more on discomfort and obsession than they are on love. Any relationship feels better than being single for them.

Brian: I grew up in a in a wonderful family with very loving parents. And yet I’ve had some issues like we’re discussing here at different times in my life. I had a very bad anxiety problem in junior high, and there was a little bit of bullying that I went through for a short time, but it had a major impact on me and I didn’t discover that until my late 20s. So, I was able to connect the dots there and then start to change some patterns. I had always wondered to myself, ‘I’m from a healthy family. Why is this happening to me?’ You know, we always talk about what happens in your attachment relationships when you’re young. But that’s good to understand for people.

Sherry: So, what we’re talking about is early trauma, and a lot of what helped me get through that early trauma (mine being in an incubator yours being bullied as an adolescent) is that you have this energy in your body that’s really toxic; it’s almost like you in the fight flight and you’re kind of surviving when you go through some kind of trauma. In trauma, we can either leave or we can fight or we freeze. And so when we freeze that trauma just lays in our body. A lot of the acting out when we think of addiction, whether it’s sex, love, co-dependency, food, gambling, internet, workaholism, all of that is just inappropriate energy being discharged out into the world that hasn’t been resolved.

If I were to ask you right now, “Brian, where do you notice that energy in your body when you think about being bullied?”, there’s probably a specific place in your body that you feel it. And the next question you might ask is, “How will I get rid of that trauma?” And the best way to get rid of that trauma is to be the witness of the trauma, to just notice it. Notice where the energy goes, feel it and acknowledge it. Once you do that you’re letting it go, and then you don’t have to act out anymore, that trauma that’s still in your body. Does that make sense?

Brian: Yeah. It makes perfect sense, and that’s good anticipation because that was going to be my next question. How do you get rid of it? You’ve already answered it. That’s great.

Question: Obviously, being obsessive has some obvious downsides. But what would be some more subtle downsides to obsessiveness that you could elaborate on?

Sherry: Some people stay in abusive, hateful, incompatible and unfulfilling marriages because they either fear abandoning their spouse or they lack the autonomy to lead. They’re really afraid to leave, and if they do leave they’re going to end up repeating the cycle again and again because they believe they should be angry. Or, they can’t imagine the emptiness or the pain or the pit that they’ll feel if they’re not married or in a relationship. They can also become easy prey for manipulative, selfish, narcissistic people who recognize their extreme need and take advantage of it.

I talk a lot about my mother. She’s an 80-year-old woman, and I feel okay talking about it because she’s probably never going to hear this podcast, and I think it’s a really important story. I believe that we have a generational issue here of love addiction and relationship addiction. My mother became a widow three years ago, and in my mother’s most vulnerable state she met a man. My mother was just desperate and empty, and longing for my dad and grieving.

And this man came into her life, 12 years younger than her, a complete predator, and really was able to see, ‘Oh gosh, she’s lonely, she’s desperate and she has money. I think I’m just going to move in on her,’ and now she’s been with him two and a half years. She’s declined, she’s got dementia and he just continues to prey on her and take advantage of her.

This is a whole other subject which is narcissistic abuse, and you can see it at any age. But the point is, the more vulnerable you are, the less secure you are, and the more empty you are. You, the relationship addict, are going to be prey to the predator who knows how to take advantage of you and manipulate you. It’s a really important subject. That’s why having self-esteem, having your own life, feeling good about yourself, feeling abundant in your own right is going to repel the narcissist because then the narcissist can’t take advantage of you.

Obsession just leads you to lie to your yourself and others. For my mother, she just lives in this illusion that he’s rescued her. She’s believes this illusion that my dad, from spirit, actually brought him to her. That’s what he’s convinced her. And so not only do you deny your true self, but you are denying the truth. Period.

It’s really so sad. You deny your true self and say, ‘I’ll see the movies, I’ll do the activities, I’ll go to the restaurants, I’ll hang out with the friends, whatever my partner prefers.’ You make excuses for the shortcomings of your partner. Even if they’re hurtful or dishonest or manipulative, you think it’s because you deserve it. You make all kinds of excuses.

Question: Is there a tipping point where obsession becomes addiction? How do you know when being obsessed with your partner is a sign of addiction?

Sherry: The key to distinguishing marriage and relationship addiction from the normal ups and downs of a relationship is to examine the frequency or severity of those ups and downs. So let’s say you have five happy relationships and one unhappy one. You are not likely a relationship or marriage addict. But if you’re unhappy in every relationship, and it gets even worse on your own, you may be addicted to relationships and marriages. You just repeat the same patterns over and over again.

It was Einstein who said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” You’re just reenacting this pattern hoping that, ‘If I just keep doing this over and over again I’ll eventually get it right, and I’ll finally get that love that I never got.’ It’s looking towards somebody else to get the love you never got. I would say that’s when you’ve moved into addiction.

Question: So how can you make sure that your passion for your partner stays within a healthy territory?

Sherry: The best way to have a healthy relationship is to feel comfortable in your own skin, and I can’t say that enough. Whether you’re in a relationship or not, you need to have the confidence and a sense of self-worth to be on your own.

Just like my mother being able to be OK. My father passed. Yes, it’s sad. Yes, I’m grieving. Yes, I am missing. But you need to be able to be whole and enough without having to have a partner, otherwise the partner is just going to come in there and take advantage of you. When you have the confidence and sense of self worth to be on your own, you will also have the courage to speak honestly with your partner so you’ll be able to say “No”. You won’t be just about people pleasing or doing what they want and losing yourself in the process. So, you’re able to speak honestly about anything that’s troubling you, and walk away from a relationship that’s not working for you.

But, what happens is you get when you get into these compulsive or obsessive relationships you start to believe this fantasy of something that isn’t even real. You actually come up with all of these excuses for that person. Because if you actually had to look at the truth of it, you’d have to let that person go. It’s kind of like an alcoholic that goes into denial, like, ‘If I have to admit that I’m an alcoholic, then I’ll have to give up the goodies, I’ll have to give up the alcohol.’

Well, the relationship addict does the same thing. It’s like if my mother had to admit that this guy’s a predator and he’s using her, taking advantage of her financially and emotionally, then she would have to let him go. It would terrorize her to think of that.

So, one way to achieve healthiness in your life and with partners is to have your own friends and your own interests; things that remain important in your life as relationships come and go. These things anchor you in a positive way so that you don’t need to rely on your relationship to make you feel centered or complete. I did some of these things during my divorce. I took up canoeing. I joined Al-Anon. I made new friends. I just started to create a life on my own. I was always a worker, so I loved my work, but I had to find balance in my life. I had to find different things that made me feel complete and whole so I didn’t go and make that same mistake again.

Question: Along the topic, what if somebody listens to that advice and says, “You know, I really am isolated. I should make some more friends,” and so they decide to get involved in some things. And maybe the partner that they’re with shows resistance to that or doesn’t want them to. Should that be taken as a sign? What should you do in that case?

Sherry: I think that could be a red flag if that person is controlling. And if that person is keeping you from living your best self, the highest version of yourself, I think that’s definitely a red flag. They’re trying to control your life. Is that the kind of relationship you want, where somebody is always telling you what to do and who to be? How does that create the best version of yourself, with somebody who’s telling you what to do and how to do it? That’s definitely a sign where you could be with someone who’s controlling, or someone that’s obsessive or could be a narcissist. The more they isolate you, the less you’re going to have the support systems. And you need those support systems when that person turns on you. Does that make sense?

Question: Yes it does. Shifting gears a little bit I want to ask you about the media. You live in Los Angeles, so you’re in the hot spot of a lot of the media that gets created for everybody here. And I know that you’ve been on television before. Do you think that the media models an overly obsessive relationship culture for us? And if you do, what do you think are some good examples of that?

Sherry: Already, I’m just thinking to myself the movie that’s out now – I think it’s the third one of Shades Of Gray. I can’t think of the newest, but that’s definitely a relationship of obsessive proportions. I think that’s definitely addictive love. I think it’s co-dependency. And I think it’s a very dangerous relationship really.

Often, media models overly obsessive relationships in music and film. Other movies that reflect obsessive relationships would be that movie with Glenn Close and Michael Douglas, Fatal Attraction where she portrays a character has a weekend affair and then it turns into a nightmare. That’s definitely obsessive. And Douglas plays a married man, Dan Gallagher, who’s onetime fling with Alex Forrest turns into a dirty game as florist performs violent acts, including attempting suicide. So there’s that manipulation in order to stay in Gallagher’s life. So that’s a great example of obsessive love.

Another example is the movie Obsessed where Ali Larter pushes the envelope to show her co-worker played by Idris Elba that she’s never letting go. No matter what, even if Elba is married to Beyonce in the film. So it just doesn’t matter. It’s just going to continue on that obsessive path no matter what the consequences are. They don’t care if they’re married. It doesn’t matter. That is the extreme about obsessive love I think.

And then you know you think about all of the music. I can’t think of one of the top of my head, but so many love songs are all about codependency and love addiction and obsessive love. And now you have to wonder, listening to these songs over and over again, what kind of messages are you  giving to the audience, to our children, to our teenagers? You know it’s almost as if it’s normal; that obsessive love is normal love, which is it’s not.

Brian: You know I’ve toyed around with the idea of doing a formal analysis of popular song lyrics maybe from the last decade, top 40 songs and so forth, just to look for patterns and make it into a little bit of a study. I think that would be really interesting, and by the way if any of the audience that’s listening to this would be interested in me doing that, please let me know in the comments for the show notes page which I’ll give you at the end of the episode.

But yes, to your point, I’ve noticed that myself over and over in music, television, movies, the same sort of thing. I can’t help but think that it takes a toll on our mentality and our relationships.

Sherry: Definitely. I mean, how many of us sat there singing listening to a song over and over again, just kind of marinating in our misery. Somehow that’s considered love. I don’t think that’s love. I think love is healthy, and love is deliberate, and love is thoughtful, and love is nurturing, and yes, sometimes love is boring. And I don’t mean truly boring, but sometimes love is just stable and regulated.

People are looking for the highs and the lows, looking for the drama again, going back to reenacting what they know when a healthy love is just quieter, simpler and slower.

Question: As we start to wrap up, I wanted to ask you if you’d like to mention your book for a quick second, The Marriage And Relationship Junkie: Kicking Your Obsession. I know it’s recently released. Would you like to say anything about that book?

Sherry: Oh thanks Brian. Yeah. The book is The Marriage and Relationship Junkie. Kicking Your Obsession. It’s on Amazon. It became a best seller in co-dependency and substance abuse. I think every young woman should have it. For anyone who is addicted to love and relationships and does not feel whole within themselves, I think this book will have all kinds of solutions and activities. It’s almost like a work book and book in one. It will really help anybody who’s tackling this issue of needing someone else to feel whole.

Then, if they want to go to my web site at www.sherrygaba.com I have an addiction quiz that they can take, I have a co-dependency quiz they can take, and all kinds of free blog content out there that I think will interest people. I also have something called Wake Up Recovery. If they go to www.wakeuprecovery.com, it’s a membership portal for people that do have addictions, whatever those addictions may be. We use the law of attraction to work through some of those addictions.

Question: Okay, great. We’re going to put a link to each of those resources in the show notes page, which I will mention right at the end of the episode. So thank you for mentioning those. And my final question for you (I always ask every guest this) would be, ‘What would be your biggest piece of advice for someone struggling with codependency right now?’

Sherry: Deep love and compassion for yourself. Really understand what’s at the root of it and have great acknowledgement and compassion for yourself. And then take the next step to find the help that you need, whether through a book, whether it’s a 12-step meeting, whether it’s a therapist, whether there’s some sort of spiritual program. There is so much hope out there. They never, ever have to suffer.

Brian: Excellent thank you. Great piece of advice. And Sherry, I just want to say once again, thank you for coming on the show. This has been wonderful and I think the audience will get a lot out of our discussion.

Sherry: Thank you, Brian.

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1 Comment
  1. Absolutely awesome information. Great to expose the culture that glamorises abusive, codependent relationships. Songs, movies, social media. I love your last answer. To be whole in ourselves is truly the key. Two broken people do not make a whole. It is two people who love each others uniqueness and support each other to be the best version of themselves.