Learn / Healing From Sex and Love Addiction
Sex and love are important aspects of a full life. However, both can be addictive. And it can be hard to distinguish between sustainable and toxic relationships. But, like any other type of mental health condition, healing is always possible. And there are many ways to treat sex and love addiction.
This condition can “take several forms — including (but not limited to) a compulsive need for sex, extreme dependency on one person (or many) and/or chronic preoccupation with romance, intrigue, or fantasy.” You may benefit from treatment for sex and love addiction1 if you exhibit some or all of the following characteristics, as defined by Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (also called The Augustine Fellowship):
1. You lack healthy boundaries, and you quickly become sexually involved with or emotionally attached to people you don’t know.
2. You fear abandonment. As a result, you repeatedly return to painful and destructive relationships, growing more isolated from friends and loved ones over time.
3. Because you fear emotional and/or sexual deprivation, you compulsively pursue romantic relationships, sometimes engaging in more than one at a time.
4. You confuse love with neediness, sexual attraction, pity, and the need to rescue or be rescued.
5. You feel empty and incomplete when you are alone.
6. You sexualize emotions such as stress, guilt, shame, anger, and fear.
7. You use sex as a substitute for nurturing, care, and support.
8. You use sex to manipulate others.
9. You are often distracted by romantic or sexual obsessions.
10. You avoid taking responsibility for your own life by attaching yourself to people who are emotionally unavailable.
11. Your life is ruled by emotional dependency, romantic intrigue, or compulsive sex.
12. You avoid feeling vulnerable and mistake sexual intimacy for emotional intimacy.
13. You idealize and pursue other people, and then blame them for not meeting your unrealistic expectations.
The current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) is unclear on its definition of sex and love addiction, which may be a barrier to treatment for some patients. However, some experts believe that it’s possible to diagnose hypersexual or compulsive sexual behavior2 by using criteria from other sources, such as the International Classification of Diseases, 11th Revision (ICD-11). The ICD-11 includes a code for “other sexual dysfunction not due to substance or known physiological condition,” which may be used for patients with a sex and/or love addiction.
In part, this condition may be hard to diagnose because it’s difficult to distinguish between “real love” and unhealthy attachments. Many substance use disorders are equally hard to define. For example, it’s common for people to develop opiate use disorders after taking prescribed medications for very real physical pain. If you’re not sure whether you have this condition, you can start by learning how to recognize healthy vs. unhealthy interpersonal dynamics.
If you have a sex or love addiction, you may feel like you don’t have control over your own life. It can seem as if your value or emotional stability are tied to the highs and lows of your relationships. And if your relationships are especially volatile, it can be difficult to focus on your other goals.
Every relationship has its ups and downs. But those patterns aren’t always extreme, and they shouldn’t derail every aspect of your life. And this condition, like any other, describes the experience of one individual person—not a relationship dynamic.
You have control over your own behavior. That doesn’t mean you’re to blame for toxic relationships. It does mean that you can make changes that will improve your life. If you’re addicted to sex and love, you can get help. That may mean ending a relationship that doesn’t serve you, especially if you’re partnered with someone who has a similar condition.
If you’re concerned you may have a sex or love addiction, you can take stock of your interpersonal dynamics. If you have some unhealthy relationships and some healthy ones, you may need to reconsider who you want to be close with. However, if most or all of your relationships include unhealthy patterns, it’s likely that your behavior is contributing to that fact.
In a healthy relationship,3 partners share mutual trust and respect. Each person sets boundaries that are appropriate for them, as an individual. When someone gets hurt, healthy partners face the problem together. Nobody’s perfect, which means that no partnership is perfect. But in healthy and sustainable relationships, partners are committed to working through difficulties as a team. You might not get your needs met 100% of the time, but you shouldn’t feel as though your partner is actively preventing you from achieving your goals.
As the concept of “toxic relationships” continues to gain attention, this phrase is sometimes used unfairly or inaccurately. Not every unhappy relationship is toxic, and not every toxic relationship is abusive. However, toxicity is a sign that something needs to change.
Dr. Lillian Glass, who says she coined the term in 1995, explains that a toxic relationship4 is “any relationship [between people who] don’t support each other, where there’s conflict and one seeks to undermine the other, where there’s competition, where there’s disrespect and a lack of cohesiveness.”
Whether you are causing harm, being harmed, or simply paired with a person who can’t meet your needs, you are capable of making changes. And while it’s important to understand the root cause of the issue, blame is often unhelpful.
Speaking to TIME Magazine, mental health expert Dr. Kristen Fuller says, “people who consistently undermine or cause harm to a partner — whether intentionally or not — often have a reason for their behavior, even if it’s subconscious.” This does not diminish the impact of harmful actions. She adds that “toxic relationships are mentally, emotionally and possibly even physically damaging to one or both participants.
There’s a fine line between toxic and abusive relationships, and there are many different types of abuse.5 According to Love is Respect, a project of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, “People often assume physical violence when they hear about abuse, but that’s not always the case. Dating abuse is a pattern of behaviors used to gain or maintain power and control over a partner — physical violence is just one example of such behavior.” Their website goes on to categorize some of the most common forms of abuse as follows:
If you are experiencing any type of abuse, you can get help immediately. Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1.800.799.7233 to speak with an expert.
It can be hard to escape an abusive cycle for any number of reasons. This is especially true for people with sex and love addictions, who may have trouble leaving at the first signs of danger. You may feel trapped due to practical concerns, such as financial dependence or being isolated from other friends. And abuse can also cause neurochemical symptoms of addiction.
Even healthy romantic love can affect neurochemistry.6 And if you’re in an unhealthy relationship, or if you exhibit addictive behavior in your relationships, this can become more extreme. Researchers have found that the neurochemical patterns of sex and love addiction are very similar to those of other substance use disorders.
In one framework, experts describe romantic love as being “literally addictive.”7 In fact, there are so many “similarities between addictive substance use and love- and sex-based interpersonal attachments, from exhilaration, ecstasy, and craving, to irregular physiological responses and obsessive patterns of thought, that a number of scientific theorists have begun to argue that both sorts of phenomena may rely upon similar or even identical psychological, chemical, and neuroanatomical substrates.”
This data suggests that people with sex and love addictions may become caught up in the same cycle as other substance users. In this process, the patient’s reward system is activated by the use of a substance, making it hard to change unhealthy behavior. This can continue to happen despite negative consequences, including physical ailments and damaged relationship dynamics. One study, comparing sexual addiction to cocaine addiction,8 found that the former, “although more complex than drug addiction, is not fundamentally different.” And like any other substance use disorder, sex and love addiction also has a behavioral component.
Many people with sex and/or love addictions, among other diagnoses, exhibit codependent behavior. In a direct quote from Mental Health America, the characteristics of codependency9 are described as follows:
If you engage in some or all of these behaviors, you may be showing signs of codependency. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, and it doesn’t mean that your feelings are invalid. It does, however, mean that you might need help in order to heal.
You can begin recovery even if your partner or loved ones aren’t ready to do their own work. And fortunately, there are a number of established methods for treating codependency as a symptom of sex and love addiction.
Sex and/or love addictions can have a hugely negative impact on your relationships. Because of this, some patients may benefit from attending inpatient rehab when they first enter recovery. By removing yourself from potentially harmful situations, you may gain valuable insight.
As helpful as it can be, residential treatment isn’t a realistic option for everyone. But many of the approaches used by rehabs are also available in outpatient settings. For example, you may be able to start recovery by scheduling an appointment with a local therapist.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a style of talk therapy in which patients learn practical skills to reconsider unhealthy thought patterns. Many people with sex and love addictions see great improvement from CBT.10 Specifically, you might engage in behavioral exercises and exposure therapy designed to help you navigate triggering situations and practice responding in a healthier way.
Motivational enhancement therapy11 is a “client-centered intervention which helps in modification of behavior by helping subjects in identifying and resolving the ambivalence toward a change in self.” With this approach, you’ll collaborate with a therapist to create “treatment plans and set attainable goals.” This approach empowers patients to take control of their own recovery process.10
When most people think of talk therapy, they picture psychodynamic therapy.12 You’ll meet with a provider 1-on-1, discussing your life and strategizing ways to improve your behavior and relationships. This modality helps patients to “reduce current anxiety, depression, guilt and to improve social adjustment.” However, it’s important to note that “there is no evidence for this as a solitary treatment” for sex and love addiction;10 patients should use it as one part of a combination approach to healing.
Although some psychiatrists may prescribe certain non-addictive medications for people with sex and love addictions,13 “there are no US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved medications for compulsive sexual behaviors.” Any pharmaceutical treatment for this condition should take place in addition to other forms of therapy.
However, in combination with other modalities, medication may help you begin to heal. For example, antidepressants are known to decrease libido, which may help with some of your symptoms. And mood stabilizers, such as lithium, can curb impulsive behaviors, including compulsive sexual behavior.
Self-help groups, including 12-Step support groups, are “associated with successful outcome[s]” for patients with sex and love addictions.10 Because of this, most patients who seek help for these conditions are referred to such groups. The best-known support groups for this condition are Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (S.L.A.A.)14 and CoDA (Codependents Anonymous).15
Both S.L.A.A. and CoDA are 12-Step groups. All 12-Step groups are faith-based fellowships, modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous, in which members are encouraged to follow 12 specific steps toward continued recovery. They also provide a safe space for members to process their emotions and connect with people in similar situations.
The skills you learn in a 12-Step group won’t “fix” you, or make your condition disappear. Instead, members focus on developing the tools they need to navigate triggers that may arise in the future.
Living with a sex and/or love addiction is a challenge. It may have an impact on all your relationships—not just romantic or sexual partnerships. And you may struggle to set appropriate boundaries in all areas of your life.
However, unlike many substance use disorders, it’s not realistic to simply swear off all relationships. A person in recovery from alcohol addiction can decide they’ll never go back to a bar. But most people with a love addiction will need to continue navigating interpersonal relationships.
As you heal from sex and/or love addiction, you’ll learn how to handle complex emotions and situations in a healthy way. This process can be daunting, but it can also be joyful. By learning how to respect your own boundaries and meet your own needs, you can begin to create an even more meaningful life.
If you recognize these symptoms in your own life, you can learn more about rehab programs that treat sex and love addictions here.
Reviewed by Rajnandini Rathod
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