Can someone really be addicted to sex and love? We hear almost every day about the infidelities of famous people, internet affairs, sexting, sexual assault, and the preponderance of porn. Most recently Bill Cosby, the beloved comedian and father figure, was in the news every day. And in the recent past, entertainers like Kanye West and Michael Douglas, sports figures like Tiger Woods, and politicians like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Anthony Weiner. Are they addicted, obsessed, or just misbehaving?
The general concept of addiction is still widely debated, even among health care professionals. Is addiction a disease, a social problem, or an issue of morality? Love and sex addiction is even more controversial than drug or alcohol addiction. For example, everyone literally needs love and sex – these normal, human needs are hard wired in the human brain. Can you really differentiate between addiction and the normal need for love and sex? There is also debate concerning the traditional medical model – or disease model – of love and sex addiction. Is sex and love addiction a disease, or could it result from the lack of social connectedness in our tech-driven modern society? This debate will likely continue for many years to come. The way we define addiction may be helpful to those who need supportive guidance in dealing with these problems.
The dictionary (Merriam-Webster) defines addiction as “… a strong and harmful need to regularly have something or do something.” That would seem to apply to many men and women who are obsessed with love relationships or with multiple sexual partners, pornography, and online hookups. The “strong need” is obvious, and the harm results from broken marriages and relationships, emotional turmoil, wasted time and money, and sexually transmitted disease.
The disease model of addiction is described by the American Society of Addictive Medicine. The ASAM defines addiction as “… a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry.” They go on to say that “Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response.” While the notion of “chronic disease” may be debated, there seems to be no doubt that many people cannot abstain from compulsive sexual behavior and obsessive love relationships. And the resulting emotional and relational problems are well known – along with minimizing or denial of the problems.
The 12 Step program SLAA (Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous) defines sex and love addiction as the “…addictive compulsion to engage in or avoid sex, love, or emotional attachment.” There are SLAA meetings every day all over the country and internationally. Tens of thousands of SLAA members would agree with this definition. SLAA members also report the following behaviors, typical of sex and love addicts (for more information, see http://www.slaafws.org/slaaforme):
- 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.
Based on my 40 years of experience as an addictions professional and licensed psychotherapist, it’s quite clear that many people experience a loss of control over romantic and sexual urges. The specific definition doesn’t matter when people can’t stop or manage these urges. And there’s ample evidence that these obsessions and compulsions result in a pattern of negative consequences – emotionally, physically, legally, and in relationships.
If you believe you or someone you care about may have a sex and love addiction, now is the time to make an informed decision and take action. These steps are recommended:
- Assessment – This is the time for open and honest self-reflection. If you believe you may have a sex and/or love addiction, you may want to start with a self-test (such as http://www.rcosf.com/six-symptoms-of-sex-addiction/). Or contact us today for a private, confidential consultation. Shame is a core issue for people who struggle with this type of addiction. It’s important to let go of judgment and recrimination.
- Discussion – If you’re concerned about a spouse, lover, or friend, approach the subject in a gentle, non-threatening, and non-judgmental manner. Invite an open discussion with the goal of getting help in the spirit of partnership.
- Intervention – If discussion results in denial or avoidance, and the problem continues, it’s time to intervene. This could be an informal process of confrontation (non-judgmental, but firm), or a more formal process that may involve a counselor or intervention specialist. With love and respect, it’s time express your concerns openly – and possibly to indicate consequences if the person refuses to get help.
- Treatment – Outpatient counseling or therapy is the treatment of choice for sex and love addictions. Our Center specializes in treatment for sex and love addiction. Group therapy is usually recommended, along with individual and couple therapy. It’s also important for significant others to get their own help and support. A full commitment to abstinence is required (a “bottom line” regarding compulsive behaviors that must be discontinued in order for treatment to be effective). Effective treatments will address intimacy and attachment issues, the longing for connection and love, and childhood trauma (abandonment and abuse). Regular attendance at SLAA meetings is highly recommended.