Monday, July 3, 2017

Managing Monomania: Addiction, Monotheism, and Monogamy

Monomania is a fixation on a single thing. Addiction is a fixation on a single substance or behavior (or in the case of polysubstance abuse, a fixation on a single state-- intoxication). Monotheism is a fixation on a single god. Monogamy is a romantic fixation (ideally, a mutual one) on a single person.

I appreciate the appeal of monomania-- there’s a simplicity and elegance to orienting one’s life around a single point. I’ve always been drawn to the romance of monogamy, of having a person I can call “my one.” And people say that finding one’s drug of choice is like falling in love-- just ask Paul McCartney. When I was still religious, my monotheism inspired theocentrism, with all things coming from God and directing thought back to God. Monomania helps to organize the self, relationships, and time by providing a single foundation for understanding and motivation.

There’s also danger in monomania, and here is where my observations need to be more nuanced.

The problem of a behavioral addiction is that it drains resources (time, money, energy, care) from the many, many behaviors that are needed to create a healthy balanced life. The problems of a substance addiction are the same as behavioral, plus the direct/collateral physical/emotional damages of substance use. If a person can use a substance or do an activity in a safe and balanced way, they do not have an addiction.

How does this imbalance arise? One way of telling the story of addiction is that the addicted individual finds that the drug meets certain essential needs better than any other resource could. Nothing brings them as much joy, relief, confidence, hope-- as powerfully or as quickly-- as the drug does. No wonder, then, that any stressor-- sadness, tension, insecurity, despair-- leads them right back to the drug. If a drug appears to be the answer to every problem, the drug will become a problem.

Within this particular narrative of addiction, what then is needed for growth and healing? More tools for meeting needs. New loves. Belief that intoxication is an ineffective response to the conditions of life or, at least, belief that intoxication as the only response is not enough.

Among the potential problems of monotheism are theodicy and chauvinism. With theodicy, a single god is overburdened by the task of establishing and maintaining a good and ordered world. The monotheistic believer faces a lot of anguish, trying to hold the world together with one god in the face of chaos and evil. With chauvinism, that one god must be defended/promoted as best among all other possible one-god, multi-god, no-god scenarios. The monotheistic believer must hold a triumphalist/imperialistic stance towards all people and situations in which the one true god has not yet been recognized and respected, a stance which can engender arrogance and violence.

How does monotheism get so firmly established? One possible narrative is that the one-god belief itself is rooted in a fixed desire for order and authority in the world, or a desire for absolute/ultimate meaning in life. Any other theological scenario (including no-god) offers an intolerable amount of uncertainty, powerlessness, or meaninglessness to the individual and community.

Within this particular narrative of monotheism, what is needed for growth and healing? The problems of chauvinism might be addressed through humility and pluralism. With humility and pluralism, uncertainty can become a theological virtue rather than a failing. The problems of theodicy might be addressed through inclusive monotheism such as Kabbalah offers, so that an underlying unity is expressed and not threatened by real/apparent divisions in reality. (Of course, polytheism and atheism are also live options, but likely not to the committed monotheist --- however, death-of-God theology as expressed in anatheism or the ‘God above God’ might work). With inclusive monotheism or these other options, the experiences of powerlessness and confusion about meaning become part of the holy work of authentic living.

The possible problems of monogamy include loneliness/boredom, conflict/abuse, and cheating. Loneliness/boredom stem from the attempt to have a single partner satisfy one’s every social need. Conflict/abuse stem from the attempt to force that partner to satisfy those needs. And cheating is the illicit attempt to violate the exclusivity of monogamy.

Unlike the sections above, I want to jump directly into the discussion of how people temper monogamy to keep it from becoming toxic. They do this by minimizing the categories in which exclusivity is required, usually down to just sexual exclusivity. A couple which can abide an opening of intellectual intimacy, social intimacy, etc., outside of the relationship, face far fewer of the challenges of expecting one person to be all things for one person. The monogamous romantic relationship can then exist in a constellation of social relationships, with the stability of primacy rather than the isolation of the solitary.

How do these different topics shed light on one another?
The active themes across all of these topics are: Needs, Relationships, Exclusivity, and Organizing Principles. In monomania, the partner, the god, or the drug are used as sole organizing principles, the exclusive means or relationship through which needs are met. In each scenario, the monomania can be loosened and its toxicity defused through diversification.

I put these three together because, no doubt, you (the reader) have different feelings about each one, and yet I think that they shed light on one another. Personally, I endorse monogamy for myself, while rejecting the commitments of monotheism, and being sporadically tempted by the allure of addictive behaviors. What makes exclusivity attractive or useful to you in some situations, but odious or damaging in others? Of these monomania which appeal to you, how do you manage their problematic tendencies?

*Thanks to Mimi Arbeit and Natalie Russ for some of the major insights that led to me writing this piece.

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