Sexual compulsivity is a growing problem, particularly as technology increases our ability to escape and 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 referred to as out of control sexual behaviors “OCSB” and often times “sex addiction”), but those of us working in this field are perfectly clear:
- More people than you can imagine suffer profoundly from out of control sexual behaviors and destructive 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 can be traumatized and disoriented—often ashamed of the compulsive behavior that they don’t confide in friends or loved ones for support.
Why Seek A Specialist in Sexual Compulsivity / OCSB?
Many therapists (even general addictions therapists) are well-meaning, but few really “get it” when it comes to treating OCSB. Additionally, it is critically important for treatment to balance shame reduction without minimizing the impact of the compulsive behavior on one’s life.
Crises and intricacies present themselves in these cases that simply don’t exist with other mental health issues. A highly specialized body of knowledge and experience is required to address questions like:
- 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?
- What do I do if I can’t perform sexually without using pornography?
- What do I do about having acted-out sexually with someone at my workplace?
- Is this behavior OCSB or do I just have a high libido?
- Are my sexual interests considered OCSB or just a part of my sexual make-up and, therefore, normal?
Even if you choose not to work with us, please consider therapists with a sexual compulsivity specialty or clinicians personally referred by someone with a sex-focused specialty. In our experience, this decision will favor both your outcome and your pocketbook.
Sex & Love Compulsivity Basics
Compulsive sexuality is like most other compulsive behaviors: a destructive twist on a normal life-enhancing activity. Defining OCSB 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 drawn to the excitement and altered state that is generated from a sexual experience. People with OCSB tend to 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.
Relationship and attachment compulsivity (colloquially referred to as “love addiction”), on the other hand, are compulsively drawn to the feeling of euphoria and excitement generated by relationships. People who struggle with this issue 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.
Both of these problems are, at their root, a problem with managing emotions, intimacy with others, as well as family of origin and traumatic relational experiences, combined with difficulty self-soothing.
A cycle occurs with both sexual compulsivity and relationship & attachment compulsivity, however there are significant differences between the two. The person with OCSB follows a routine or ritual leading to their out of control sexual behavior, but the act is about the sex and not the relationship. The person with relationship & attachment compulsivity follows a cycle focused on another person and the relationship to that person.
For relationship & attachment compulsivity, often one’s own growth and development were obstructed earlier in life. Abandonment, rejection, enmeshment and betrayal are common threads in the relationship and family history for many. Similarly, many people with OCSB often report some type of abuse or neglect as children and tend to see themselves as damaged. Many people with OCSB were raised in rigidly disengaged households, their parents often emotionally available, and experiencing neglect as the most common form of “emotional abuse.”
Stress and feelings of low self worth encourages compulsive sexual behavior by feeding one’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. Individuals struggling with these issues 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, people working through these problems are essentially changing their brain chemistry through sexual behaviors and relationships.
Overcoming OCSB, sexual compulsion, and relationship & attachment compulsivity 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:
- Identifying out of control and problematic behaviors
- A commitment to refrain from these behaviors
- Identifying your triggers
- Developing greater empathy for others
- Rebuilding relationships
- Working through potential trauma and root causes
- Managing stress
- Developing self-care