22 Feb Sex and Love Addiction: An Intimacy Disorder that’s not so Black and White
Wouldn’t it be nice if everything in life was black and white? You know, no grey areas, no question marks, only “yes” or “no” answers to every single burning question…ever? But, alas, we don’t live in a black and white world. While this keeps life interesting, spontaneous, and packed with mystery, it can also cause some serious distress, particularly when it comes to matters of sobriety. In any form.
For those of us who are drug addicts or alcoholics (or both), the solution to maintaining our sobriety is, of course, pretty black and white: don’t drink alcohol and don’t use drugs. Simple. At least it’s simple in theory, and while it may be physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging to tackle, the means by which we achieve and maintain our sobriety is straightforward. But what about other addictions? Specifically, what about Sex and Love Addiction which is generally understood to be an intimacy disorder?
While Sex and Love Addiction is not a formally recognized addiction, it still has its place on the list. Support groups like SLAA (Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous) are growing steadily, and we’re beginning to see more and more people seeking treatment for it.
Unfortunately, the term “sex addict” or “love addict” sometimes gets a bad rap due to celebrity sex scandals in the media, or cheating spouses whose husbands or wives are quick to blame sex addiction for their partner’s infidelity. Those who don’t have a basic understanding of how the addicted mind operates might turn their nose up at the idea of Sex and Love Addiction. For the sex and love addict, however, it’s a lot more serious than it might seem on the surface. It can stem from deep-rooted insecurities that range from fear of abandonment, to fear of commitment, to fear of intimacy, and these insecurities generally result from childhood trauma.
To help illustrate how the addicted mind operates, let’s take a look at how the majority of us begin our lives on planet earth. When babies are born, held, and breastfed, a bond is formed between infant and mother. That bond is reinforced by a chemical reaction caused by oxytocin, endorphins, and dopamine flooding the brain which then trigger the brain’s reward center. When a heroin addict takes a hit of heroin, that same reward center gets triggered. Similarly, when we have sex, feel close to a lover, or get excited about seeing them, our mood elevates and also causes the same chemical reaction.
Unlike the heroin addict, however, most of us, while we enjoy it, don’t get physically addicted to the chemical reaction that comes from sex or closeness to another human being. Those who’ve experienced childhood trauma, on the other hand, such as early separation from a parent, physical (including sexual) or emotional abuse, among other things, may develop an unhealthy attachment to this type of physical connection. These folks, as a result, may become disproportionately restless, irritable, or discontent when they don’t receive or experience sex or what they perceive as love. This can lead to a craving that looks very similar to any other substance addiction, leading to a form of addiction, specifically Sex and Love Addiction. Sex and love addicts tend to seek out relationships or engage in sexual activities that are beyond the scope of what might be considered healthy for a non-addicted individual, resulting in a very painful cycle of behaviors and relationship patterns. Once again, Sex and Love Addiction is not a formally recognized disease and there’s a lot of controversy surrounding the subject. It doesn’t change the fact, however, that there are many people out there who struggle severely in their relationships because they can’t control their behavior or their emotional responses in matters of sex and matters of the heart.
The trickiest part about Sex and Love Addiction is that, unlike drug and alcohol addiction, it means something different to each individual who deals with it. Keep in mind, too, that we’re only just scratching the surface in terms of how the addiction operates. The desire for sex and love is part of the human condition, and asking anyone to give these things up is pretty unrealistic. We need and crave human connection, so finding our way through in order to have healthy relationships and achieve a level of intimacy with others is the primary challenge for the sex and love addict. That’s why in programs like SLAA, people have what are called bottom lines that need to be determined by their own individual acting out behaviors. For some sex addicts, this may mean repeatedly cheating on their spouses, while others may compulsively turn to pornography, masturbation, and prostitutes. A love addict might have a hard time leaving unhealthy relationships for fear of being alone. Or they might continuously seek out emotionally unavailable partners because of their own fears of commitment. The common denominator is the inability of the sex or love addicted person to stop these behaviors on their own, and the consequences can wreak havoc on relationships and overall well-being. Failure to address these types of relationship issues can result in a lifetime of depression, solitude, and even suicidal thoughts, among other things.
Millions of people struggle with Sex and Love Addiction, and the good news is that the awareness of it is starting to spread which means that there’s more help out there than ever before. If you think you might fall on the sex and love addicted spectrum, it can be helpful to examine some of these traits to see if you identify. These are pulled from SLAA’s list of sex and love addict characteristics (view the complete list here):
- We stay enslaved to emotional dependency, romantic intrigue, or compulsive sexual activities
- We remain in toxic, destructive, painful relationships out of our fear of abandonment and loneliness
- We sexualize stress, fear, envy, loneliness, shame, guilt, and anger. We use sex or emotional dependence as substitutes for nurturing care and support.
- We become immobilized or seriously distracted by romantic or sexual obsessions or fantasies
- Having few healthy boundaries, we become sexually involved with and/or emotionally attached to people without knowing them
- To avoid feeling vulnerable, we may retreat from all intimate involvement, mistaking sexual and emotional anorexia for recovery
- We assign magical qualities to others. We idealize and pursue them, then blame them for not fulfilling our fantasies and expectations.
While the two–sex addiction and love addiction–coexist in programs like SLAA, not everyone struggles with both. Nevertheless, each can have severe consequences on one’s ability to have and maintain healthy relationships.
On a final note and something to be aware of is that many people in recovery from Sex and Love Addiction find that they revert to a form of emotional and/or sexual anorexia, avoiding intimate relationships altogether. In other words, sex and love addicts are generally unable to navigate healthy relationships–once they give up their old bottom line behaviors, they may adopt an avoidant mentality because they have difficulty coping with intimacy. If you’re in recovery from Sex and Love addiction and you find yourself in a cycle of isolation, talk to your sponsor if you have one. If you’re not in a program or have had difficulty finding a sponsor, it might be a good idea to seek outside help from a therapist who specializes in intimacy disorders.
Note: Kembali’s primary focus is on drug and alcohol recovery, but many of our clients struggle with additional process disorders like Sex and Love Addiction. If you have questions about other addictions, please don’t hesitate to reach out. We may be able to help, or we can provide you with resources in order to guide you to the appropriate specialist or fellowship in your area.
Kembali Recovery Center is Asia’s premier drug and alcohol treatment center. Contact us today to learn more about our four-week treatment program.