Sanctuary for the Abused
Tuesday, March 07, 2006
Sex and Love Addiction
by Dale Kay Lillak, LMFT
The idea of sex and love addiction conjures up all sorts of images, however, this addiction is as painful as any other. You may be asking, "What is sex addiction or what is love addiction? Can we be addicted to love? How would we know if we are addicted to sex or addicted to love?" To begin to answer these questions and to start to understand sex and love addiction, it is important to understand why the idea of addiction becomes associated with sex and with love.
Addiction is a process which occurs over time in a persons life. Addiction is usually associated with repetitive behaviors, obsessive thinking about a person or behavior or, in the case of substance addiction, a particular drug. Initially the behavior and the thoughts feel good and are even euphoric causing the person to want to repeat the behavior and thinking pattern. The key ingredient for addiction to occur is the feeling of euphoria the person gets from the behavior. Feeling good is very reinforcing, and humans will seek out what feels good, even if the good feeling is brief and short lived. With addiction comes obsessive thoughts, compulsive behaviors, lost time and productivity, lost relationships and marriages, lost physical and mental health. The addiction becomes the underlying drive for the person’s life.
Sex addiction can range from solitary compulsive masturbation to predatory sex crimes. This article will focus on what Patrick Carnes in his book Out of the Shadows refers to as the Level One sex addict. The behaviors associated with this level of sexual behavior are usually within the range of what society views as victimless. Sexual behaviors which occur between what appears to be consenting adults, even if the behavior is illegal, is tolerated and even encouraged, and is often considered victimless. An example would be prostitution. Prostitution is a crime, and participating in sex with a prostitute is a crime in most parts of our society. However, it is tolerated by our society and often viewed as behavior between adults to which both consent--it becomes viewed as a necessary evil. In this view no one is victimized by the other.
Besides prostitution, other behaviors which are in level one include: pornography, strip shows, peep shows, compulsive masturbation, massage parlors, repetitive one-night stands, multiple sex partners, cruising in bars and restrooms, and so forth. More recently we have cybersex, phone sex, or e-sex. The sex addict may participate in one or many of these behaviors, but the behavior is repetitive, compulsive, and driven. What may have begun as a curiosity regarding pornography, soon evolves into obsession. What was meant to be one trip to a prostitute becomes repetitive, expensive, and time consuming--not to mention demoralizing, shame producing, physically dangerous, and emotionally draining. Often the thrill of risky, clandestine behavior is enough to continue the pursuit. The obsessive thinking takes up ever growing amounts of time, even as the compulsive addictive behavior may be becoming less and less rewarding.
Most often these behaviors are done in secret. The addict may reveal the tip of the iceberg to a friend, but rarely the extent of the obsession. If the addict is married or in a relationship, the secret must be covered up with lies and deception. Money spent must be allowed for in the budget. Time lost must be accounted for. Even while the behavior continues to reinforce the obsession, the act becomes hollow and shameful for the sex addict. The problems associated with the addiction begin to outweigh the pleasure derived from the behavior.
It may seem incongruous to place love and addiction within the same context, but if you understand how the addictive process occurs in people’s lives, then it becomes easy to associate the two ideas. Addiction occurs when a person gets hooked on the feeling associated with a behavior. In this case love. Our culture tends to place a high premium on the love between intimates. We view love or romantic love as the basis of a relationship. If there isn’t romantic love, if we don’t feel "in love" with the person we are less likely to think about a long term commitment or marriage. The "in love" feeling is euphoric, and it is quite reinforcing. The longing associated with that early bloom of romantic love is well known and is the subject of love songs, romantic movies, and love stories. Romantic comedies act out the interplay between two people as they move from strangers to being in love. The film expresses the longing, the delight, the humor, and sometimes the pain of romantic love.
Love becomes addictive when that feeling of euphoria which occurs during romantic love becomes the goal. The early stage of a relationship when the other is still unknown, when we can look endlessly into their eyes, when the sound of their voice causes our heart to race, is the bonding stage. This early stage (the beginning, the first meeting, the first kiss) is followed quickly by the first weeks and months of the relationship, and the physical arousal level is high. Researches who have studied human behavior are quite aware of the hormones and endorphins which are secreted in greater amounts during this stage, and which further act to reinforce the bonding. This chemical process can be addictive. That euphoric feeling becomes what is sought after and what triggers the addictive cycle.
Love addicts can be recognized by their movement from relationship to relationship, multiple marriages, affairs while in a committed relationship, and their general focus on the next man or woman who might come into their lives. The flight in and out of relationships soon looses its thrill, and the love addict is left with pain and loss. Some love addicts may be hooked on fantasy lovers. Fantasy lovers are people the addict loves and longs for from a distance. These people may not actually go in and out of relationships, but instead spend large amounts of time in chat rooms, reading romance novels, or going to movie after movie. This frantic behavior is an attempt to feel good. To replicate the feeling of being in love. Unfortunately, what usually occurs is deadening depression. Chat rooms, romance novels, and movies are not negative in themselves, they are meant to be entertaining, stimulating, and fun. For the love addict, these pursuits become the tools of their addictive process. While some love addicts go from person to person, others addict to one person. This love addict creates a fantasy relationship and tries repeatedly to fit the person into the fantasy. Even in the face of evidence to the contrary, the love addict will continue the fantasy of being in love with the perfect mate.
Sex and Love Addiction
Sex and love go hand in hand. When we are in love it often follows that we have sex with that person. We even call it making love. However, for the sex and love addict, love and sex within the same relationship becomes stale and boring after awhile. The first blush is off, the bloom has paled. In short, the hormones aren’t pumping quite so fast. That euphoric feeling has died down, and the real work of the relationship begins. At this point the sex addict will increase their addictive behavior and the love addict may begin to look elsewhere. The addictive cycle begins (if it ever ended) anew. The cherished hope within the sex and love addict that the new relationship will be enough to break the cycle is met with failure, loss, and shame.
Recovery from sex and love addiction can occur. The process of recovery is much like recovery from substance addictions. First, the addict begins the process of healing by identifying the painful damaging behavior. By acknowledging their behavior is addictive and destructive, their lives become open to growth and change. The addict learns to recognize how their thinking, their feelings, and their behaviors lead them into the addictive cycle. Frequently, sex and love addicts are depressed and anxious, and begin to feel worse before they feel better making the recovery process painful.
There is help. The sex and love addict is not alone. Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, a 12-Step program modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous, offers the addict a place to learn about themselves and the addictive process. The tools of recovery are available if the person is willing to take the step into a new life. Another important tool for recovery is counseling. Counseling can help the person understand how their unfinished business from the past is affecting them today. They can begin to unravel how the addictive cycle works in their lives.
Dale Kay Lillak is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She can be reached at (408)260-9995, email at Lillak@pacbell.net
Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous can be reached at (408)450-2681.