Romantic relationships are capable of producing some of life’s most exhilarating moments. Falling in love is a powerful and exciting experience. It can feel so intense that people often compare it to being under the influence drugs.They’re not wrong—on a neurological level, our brains do manufacture neurotransmitters to help us bond with significant others (hello, oxytocin!), making us feel all warm and fuzzy, (not to mention safe, connected, and loved), or ones that create that ever-beloved euphoria (dopamine, anyone?).
Love and sex addiction — Some basic definitions
It is no surprise then, that the term “addiction” has been applied to compulsive sexual and relational behavior, as it has been for drugs, alcohol, and gambling. Out of that application, support groups such as SLAA (Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous) and CODA (Co-Dependency Anonymous) have emerged. Their aim is to provide group meetings, education, and a spiritually-based 12-Step program to help members overcome an “addiction” to love and/or sex. SLAA’s website defines sex and love addiction in this way:
- Having few healthy boundaries, we become sexually involved with and/or emotionally attached to people without knowing them.
- Fearing abandonment and loneliness, we stay in and return to painful, destructive relationships….
- We confuse love with neediness, physical and sexual attraction, pity and/or the need to rescue or be rescued.
- We sexualize stress, guilt, loneliness, anger, shame, fear and envy.….
- To avoid feeling vulnerable, we may retreat from all intimate involvement
When is identifying as a “sex and love addict” no longer useful for healing?
Though an increasing number of people are identifying as sex and love addicts, some psychotherapists have questioned the wisdom, and more importantly—the usefulness, of viewing sex/love through the lens of addiction. The term Addiction is derived from a medical model that has little to say about the inner workings of the mind. Therefore, using this term can sometimes flatten the dialogue around complex issues by taking sexual behavior at face value. For example, we can avoid being vulnerable about our challenges with sex and love by simply saying, “Well, I guess I’m just addicted to the rush.”
In my own work with people who identify as sex and/or love addicts, the emotional reality is so much deeper. For one thing, attachment and trauma issues are usually at the heart of the matter. Secondly, for those people who are prone to co-dependency, care-taking is often confused with love, and therefore presents a much richer ground for exploration around childhood experiences that contributed to this thinking, rather than focusing on the “addiction” part. That is to say, early experiences in childhood can instill deep core beliefs that manifest in our romantic pursuits and relationships. These include: “I need to suffer to be worthy of love”, “Others will only love me if I have no needs of my own”, or “Closeness is the feeling that I can’t live without someone.” “Others only appreciate me for my body.”
To complicate things further, some of the individuals with whom I’ve worked, who struggle with sex addiction, the feelings of intimacy and closeness are often confused with sexual stimulation. Such thoughts and subsequent behavior are rooted in deep and often unconscious dynamics, and can perpetuate loneliness and disconnection. A patient recently arrived at the insight that they sometimes use sex to avoidemotional intimacy. This insight fell on the patient like a bombshell, as previously they assumed their sexual activity was helping them get their intimacy needs met. These people’s task, when they wish to take healthier actions in their romantic relationships, is to sit with this confusion and to notice what comes up around it. In the work of psychotherapy, individuals work to understand themselves better, through the exploration of the above issues and patterns of thought and feeling, so that they are able to eventually change their way of being in relationships.
Therapy can help ask (and answer) questions around matters of love, romantic relationships and sex
Some phenomenal questions and general lines of thinking come up when these important issues are thoroughly delved into. For example: what does it even mean to be “addicted” to love? Isn’t love a good thing? What kind of love are we talking about when we talk about “addicted to love?” At what cost?
People who identify as co-dependent struggle to understand their own needs and find themselves overly concerned with the needs of others. This can set someone up to find dominating or emotionally unavailable partners time and time again. People often seek psychotherapy when they identify this pattern in their lives. When a sense of familiarity in relationships comes at the cost of personal growth and healthy separateness (not to be confused with isolation), it’s a potential sign that one is in a co-dependent relationship.
Therapy is an excellent way to face such deeply rooted issues. These issues that tend to plague people in relationships over and over, no matter who they find themselves dating.
Attending SLA or CODA may be an essential first step for some people, in their journey to understand their challenges with safe boundaries, rejection and abandonment, vulnerability and more. Personally and professionally, I am encouraged when patients tell me that they are struggling with co-dependency or sex addiction, or share that they have- or are considering attending an SLA or CODA meeting. We know that admitting that something is wrong is truly the first step toward growth and healing. Once that step is taken, they can certainly use the phenomenal framework of the 12-step programs, and they are thoroughly invited to explore these matters in their individual therapy as well. As mentioned above, we aim to allow potential deeper issues around love and sex to come up as we delve into their current relationship or dating pattern. We strive to use the characterization of a “love and sex addict” to enhance one’s knowledge and understanding of oneself, and to expandone’s ways of being, instead of using it to merely label and thereby constrict who they are and how they can be in relationship with others.
In other words, it is worthwhile to consider where this label can facilitate understanding and expansion of life, and where it may create a “closed door” and constriction of life.