Sanctuary for the Abused
Saturday, November 25, 2006
A CLOSER LOOK at SEX and LOVE ADDICTIONS
by Coralie Scherer, Ph.D. and Al Cooper, Ph.D.M
Josh will tell you: He just likes sex! Through high school and college he kept track of the "notches on his belt" but a few decades later the women are just a hazy stream of one night stands. He loves the chase and sometimes even feels pleasure. But when the sex is over he is gone. He tells himself he's quite a stud but a voice inside asks how long he can keep this up. He swears he's going to stay home and relax tonight but the loneliness gets to him and finally, he decides he will "check out the action" at his favorite bar one more time.
Trina just met the "man of her dreams" a few weeks ago. She invited him to stay with her when his wife threw him out. She's so happy giving him what he needs domestically, financially, and sexually, especially when it's something his wife wouldn't do. She loves knowing that she understands him better than anyone else. That is why she is going to surprise him by taking him out to dinner for his birthday and wear the kind of very revealing dress he really likes. Normally she wears more conservative clothes because she is uncomfortable being the center of attention. But making him happy is what counts. She leaves work early to swing by his office and give him a ride so he won't have to take the bus. She's thinking about placing an ad to give away her precious Siamese because he has hinted that he doesn't like cats.
What do Josh and Trina have in common? On the surface, very little, but inside they are two lonely people desperate for connectedness in unhealthy and compulsive relationships. Josh and Trina may be sex and love addicts.
What is Addiction to Sex and/or Love?
Although people such as Josh and Trina seem at first glance to be very different--Josh relates superficially to many and Trina wraps herself up intensely in one--they can be thought of as extremes on a continuum. Josh's behavior may be acceptable or even admired for younger men but in someone well into middle age they contradict our cultural expectation of finding a mate and settling down for life. Therefore, his addiction is more readily seen as out of control than is Trina's.
Sexual addiction has been called many other things: compulsive sexual behavior, hypersexuality, or sexual impulsivity. Sex addicts are characterized by a preoccupation with sex, the strong desire for sex, and particularly, a sense of shame due to an inability to control their sexual impulses. Sex addicts cannot identify a time when their compulsion began but there seems to be an agreement that it occurs as a coping response to anxiety.
According to Barth and Kinder (1987), "the sexually impulsive individual uses sexual activity as a means of avoiding or escaping from personal problems, social stress, and unpleasant emotions, such as loneliness, boredom, tension, sadness, or anger (p.16)." Their sexual activities can range from intense sexual fantasizing, conventional intercourse, soliciting prostitutes and sexual deviation (of a number of types) to violent criminal behavior. Sex addicts often try to distance themselves from their impulses.
They use repression and denial resulting in guilt and shame, social isolation, and other inwardly directed negative emotions. In other words, they try to keep their addiction secret and suffer low self esteem and alienation as a result. Frequently, their sexual addiction is accompanied by drug and alcohol abuse or other addiction (spending, smoking). Often, as the substance abuse abates, the sexual addiction increases and one set of compulsive behaviors substitutes for another. However, both addictions can be seen as attempts to provide a means of avoiding inner emptiness.
What about Trina? What could be wrong with falling in love, becoming one with your partner, placing your loved one above yourself: Isn't that the stuff of romance? Isn't that what love is all about? Trina and those like her have never experienced genuine nurturing and confuse their partner's neediness with desire. Their relationships are one way to try to experience caring but their caretaking can turn to control. Typically love addicts are Super Co-dependents.
They may have grown up in extremely dysfunctional households where one or both parents were either addicted to something (e.g.,alcohol, drugs, work, gambling, food, etc.), mentally unstable, violent, physically and/or emotionally abusive, or even sexually inappropriate with their children. The result was that the parents were emotionally unavailable to their children and thereby discounted their child's perceptions and needs. Future love addicts often became caretakers of one or both of their dysfunctional parents. In this way they got some of their emotional needs met to feel important or valued.
These kids brought into adulthood a paralyzing fear of abandonment so strong that they would do anything to keep a relationship from breaking up. Used to a lack of love in relationships, they are attracted to partners who are as emotionally unavailable as their parents. They hold hopes of transforming the object of their affection with the power of their love. They stay focused on the loved one and discount their own needs and desires. They take on the blame, guilt, and responsibility for the relationship and keep trying harder and harder to please.
They are willing to suffer and endure pain in hopes of getting their partner to acknowledge and appreciate them in ways their parents never did. People who are kind, respectful, and solicitous of them are found wanting, dull, and lacking in excitement. The love addict becomes restless around persons who might really provide them with genuine caring and nurturing. The love addict's caring turns to control as they try harder and harder to achieve the security they never had in childhood. However, rather than create that idealized fairy tale ending they wish for, they more often recreate the home they were raised in.