Recovery Pioneer: An Interview With John Bradshaw

John Bradshaw has changed the way we talk about recovery — right down to the words we use to discuss it. He’s behind phrases in the therapeutic vernacular such as “dysfunctional family” and “inner child,” as well as several esteemed PBS series, including “Healing the Shame That Binds You” and “Bradshaw on: The Family.”

Bradshaw unveils hidden facets of the life of someone facing addiction by acknowledging his own struggles. He’s written more than half a dozen books, the most recent being Post-Romantic Stress Disorder: What to Do When the Honeymoon Is Over. Bradshaw coined the phrase “post-romantic stress disorder” to refer to the belief couples may have that they’re no longer “in love” once the neurochemical cocktail that feeds the early feelings of attraction and lust has dissipated. I recently spoke with the author, whose views have helped shape my work as a therapist.

Edie Weinstein: What is your personal history with addiction and recovery?

John Bradshaw: I just got so sick and tired of being sick and tired. I had a friend take me to the state hospital and I woke up in a ward for the criminally insane because they didn’t have a place for alcoholics. I understood my behavior was serious. I came out of there on December 11, 1965, and I haven’t had a drink in 49 years and three months. I’m also a 34-year recovering sex and love addict. Everything’s going great for me now.


EW: Who’s at greatest risk for what you call “post-romantic stress disorder?”

JB: Primarily recovering addicts and co-dependents. They don’t handle it well when this “in-love” program ends. It’s an addiction in itself. People in love are out of their minds.


EW: What happens to us when we fall in love? What does it mean to be “in love”?

JB: The problem with love is that there are so many words for it. You have agape, Eros, caritas. Eros is “in love.” It’s dominated by the physical, when testosterone is off the charts for both people. That’s what happens when you fall in love. The dopamine and norepinephrine kick in and suddenly you’re higher than you’ve ever been. You may think you died and went to heaven — or hell. That’s when the sexual breach comes and it inevitably will.

Research shows the “in love” state lasts between 12 and 19 months. When people talk about being in love, they mean this state. They don’t mean agape, which is long-term respect and friendship. In a healthy marriage, the loving friendship takes over all other kinds of love. Of course, married people might still have serious quarrels. As John Gottman’s research shows, some major relationship problems might never be resolved. Couples have to learn to live with them.


EW: Do you find that relationships built on a foundation of friendship are healthier and more enduring?

JB: Yes. Generally, the progression should be from “in love” to what I call “the work of love.” When you’re in love, it doesn’t require work. You’re just out of your gourd. It’s an altered state of consciousness. The brain is revved up. That wanes. It could take more than 19 months for some people to reach that point. People who have a solid sense of self can manage that, survive it and build on it. When you’re in love, you don’t see the critical problems that are going to come up after you’re married. You minimize the faults that the person has.


EW: So the things that attract us to a person eventually push our buttons?

JB: I see this frequently. A man might think it’s so cute while he’s courting that a woman takes 45 minutes to get ready. Three years later, he’s screaming at her about how long it takes her to get dressed.


EW: In your new book you advise readers to learn to “dance with your partner without stepping on each other’s toes.” What are some ways people can do that?

JB: Knowledge is important, especially of agape love. Agape is the deep, respectful, profound love that embodies friendship. That love requires work. Couples must wait until phenylethylamine subsides to be able to begin seeing each other as independent people and deal with each other’s ethnic, religious and family backgrounds. You don’t deal with any of that while you’re in that initial in love stage. You might touch upon it, but you reframe it.


EW: What happens when the sexual breach you mentioned earlier occurs?

JB: I worked with a couple who were together for 18 months. One night, he touches her breast, which for them was a signal for foreplay. She said, “Let’s just cuddle tonight.” He was jolted by that, because for 18 months they’d been having this automatic, predictable pattern of making love together. Moments like that are the first level of post-romantic stress disorder. It can be highly stressful to an alpha-male type. And anyone who’s highly co-dependent takes that kind of gesture as rejection. The woman could have a higher testosterone level than the man.

It’s the same for heterosexual, gay and lesbian couples. Once that dopamine cocktail wears off, the attachment program kicks in. It’s a completely different brain program. New chemicals show up in the woman and the man: Vasopressin and oxytocin kick in as their body’s innate way of preparing to have a family. Someone who has high testosterone levels needs to understand the change isn’t about one person in the partnership or the other; it’s about nature. The body can’t sustain the revved-up “in love” state, so it prepares the couple to nurture each other and be friends.

At age 82, I’m no spring chicken; my wife has to take care of me. I had a quadruple bypass 18 years ago and I just had another procedure. That kind of situation requires spouses to love and honor each other in sickness and in health. Often, in the later stages of a marriage, a person could end up taking care of his or her spouse or they might end up mutually caring for each other. That’s very beautiful.


EW: How can readers get best use the messages in your new book?

JB: This knowledge is especially important for young people and newlyweds to understand. Sustaining a marriage requires a lot of work. Fifty percent of marriages end in divorce, and 17% of those who stay married say they’re unhappy. The odds are stacked in bit in favor of dysfunction and conflict.


EW: Role models have a powerful effect on relationship dynamics. How do you account for children raised by parents who had a loving marriage who end up in a dysfunctional, abusive marriage?

JB: It’s hard to know. It’s possible the parental marriage worked so well because they were repressing certain issues. There are marriages in which the couple agrees to disagree, and they somehow work it out. There have to be issues that are being repressed in order for partners to agree all of the time. I don’t want to make it sound as if a good marriage is a bad one, but it might be that those kids are carrying some of those dynamics into their relationships as adults. I’m just speculating.

My brother and sister and I all came out of the same family, but they both spent almost a third of their lives living alone. They were suffering from the same shame and dysfunction my mother struggled with. They were withdrawn and isolated. Somehow I overcame that. That’s the mystery of the human person. I don’t believe it can all be explained.

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