Sex and love compulsivity is a growing problem between both men and women, particularly as technology increases our ability to connect to others. Hallmarks are the repeated, compulsive seeking of a sexual experience or relationship despite negative consequences.
The psychology discipline debates how to best categorize and qualify sexual compulsivity (also commonly known as “sex addiction”), but those of us working in this field are perfectly clear:
- More people than you can imagine suffer profoundly from compulsive sexual and relationship patterns.
- More couples than you know are struggling to make sense of this problem in their relationship.
For those suffering with sexually compulsive behaviors, there’s a tipping point: what first seemed harmless morphs into something difficult to stop, despite increasing risks and negative consequences.
For the partners of those who are sexual compulsive, immense shock follows the discovery of a mate’s secrets, lies, and “double life.” Partners are traumatized and disoriented—often so ashamed of the compulsive behavior that they don’t confide in friends or loved ones for support.
Why Seek A Specialist in Sexual Compulsivity / Sex Addiction?
Many therapists (even general addictions therapists) are well-meaning, but few really “get it” when it comes to treating sex addiction. Additionally, it is critically important for treatment to balance shame reduction without minimizing the impact of the addiction on the addict’s life.
Crises and intricacies present themselves in these cases that simply don’t exist in other addictions. A highly specialized body of knowledge and experience is required to address:
- What does sexually “sober” mean? (the goal is not to eliminate all sex)
- My partner wants to know “everything I’ve done.” How do I handle that?
- How do I end the relationship with an affair partner? What if s/he is vengeful about it?
- I can’t perform sexually without using pornography. What do I do?
- What do I do about having acted-out sexually with someone at my workplace?
- Is this behavior “sex addiction” or do I just have a high libido?
- Who should hold the password to my internet filter?
Even if you choose not to work with us, please consider therapists with a sex-addiction specialty or clinicians personally referred by someone with a sex-addiction specialty. In our experience, this decision will favor both your outcome and your pocketbook.
Sex & Love Compulsivity Basics
Addictive sexuality is like most other compulsive behaviors: a destructive twist on a normal life-enhancing activity. Defining sex addiction depends less on the behavior itself than on the person’s motivation. In other words, it’s not necessarily what a person does, as much as why it is being done and the impact on one’s life.
Sexually compulsive people are addicted to the excitement and altered state that is generated from a sexual experience. Sex addicts lack the ability to control or postpone sexual feelings and actions, with the need for arousal often replacing the need for intimacy. Eventually, thrill seeking becomes more important than family, career, even personal health and safety.
Love addicts, on the other hand, are addicted to the feeling of euphoria and excitement generated by relationships. Love addicts go through life with desperation, hope and constant fears. Fearing rejection, abandonment, pain, and having little faith in their ability or right to inspire love, perhaps their least familiar real experience.
Both of these problems are, at their root, a problem with intimacy with others, as well as family of origin and traumatic relational experiences, combined with difficulty self-soothing.
A cycle of addiction/compulsion occurs with both sex addiction and love addiction, however there are significant differences between the two. The sex addict follows a routine or ritual leading to acting out sexual behavior (either alone or with another person), but the act is about the sex and not the relationship. The love addict follows a cycle focused on a person and the relationship to that person.
For love addicts, often their own growth and development were obstructed earlier in life. Abandonment, rejection, enmeshment and betrayal are common threads in the relationship and family history of most love addicts. Similarly, many sex addicts report some type of abuse or neglect as children and see themselves as damaged. Their parents are often addicts themselves and/or were, in some way, not emotionally available. Many sex addicts were raised in rigidly disengaged households, experiencing neglect as the most common form of “emotional abuse.”
Stress and feelings of low self worth encourages compulsive sexual behavior by feeding the addict’s need for withdrawal, detachment and fantasy. Levels of phenylethylamine (PEA)—a chemical in the brain involved in the euphoria that comes with falling in love—rise with feelings of infatuation, boosting euphoria and excitement. Love and sex addicts may simply be dependent upon the physical and psychological arousal triggered by PEA and other stress-related chemicals, such as adrenaline, dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin.
Simply stated, sex and love addicts are essentially changing their brain chemistry through sexual behaviors and relationships.
Overcoming love addiction and sexual compulsion starts with recognizing that you are out of control in this area. You will need to take an honest look at yourself and the problems—emotional, physical, relational, and/or financial—caused by your behavior.
Recovery typically involves:
- A commitment to abstinence from problematic behaviors
- Identifying your triggers
- Developing greater empathy for others
- Rebuilding relationships
- Working through trauma and root causes
- Managing stress
- Developing self-care