What is Sex and Love Addiction?
While the term ‘addiction’ is most commonly associated with alcohol or drugs, it includes a number of activities or behaviours, called process addictions. These include addictions to new technologies (the internet, mobile phones, social media, videogames), gambling, work, shopping and exercise, amongst others.
Sex and love addiction are both classed as process addictions (or behavioural disorders).
Both disorders are primarily driven by a desire to control or escape from emotional discomfort – such as stress, loneliness, depression, anxiety or shame – by using the intense rush / ‘high’ of sex, falling in love or romantic fantasy.
Both conditions are dominated by common factors, such as fear of abandonment, emotional pain or trauma, a history of childhood abandonment or abuse, and an inability to cope with aspects of adult life in a healthy and functional way.
In addition, individuals with unresolved childhood trauma also tend to have low self-esteem, which causes them to look beyond themselves for validation. Their sense of self-worth comes through constant sexual affirmation (as in sex addiction) or from feeling needed (as in love addiction).
Whether to numb the pain of difficult emotions and / or bolster self-esteem, the patterns of behaviour in sex and love addiction:
- are compulsive and out of control
- are continually repeated despite the negative consequences
- become progressively worse over time, eventually leading to major disruptions in daily life, which can include the loss of relationships, employment and financial security.
Although sex and love addiction have several overlapping characteristics, they are two separate behavioural disorders. Some individuals may suffer from both concurrently.
Sex addiction – also known as hypersexuality, hypersexual disorder, sexual compulsivity, and compulsive sexual behaviour disorder – is typically characterised by the compulsive need for sexual activity. This can involve sex with multiple partners, excessive use of pornography, visiting sex workers or using sex chat lines.
There are two main differences between sex and love addiction:
- sex addicts are obsessively focused on sexual activity rather than on individuals or relationships – they thrive on the thrill of arousal rather than any emotional connection. They want sex without love.
- sex addicts typically use the lure of romance to attract sexual partners, while love addicts do the opposite and use the lure of sex to attract and / or keep a romantic partner.
One of the biggest difficulties with sex addiction is that there is still a certain stigma surrounding it, so individuals tend not to seek help because they are embarrassed and / or ashamed. However, left untreated the addiction will only get worse, putting enormous strain on relationships and eventually resulting in devastating consequences for both the addict and their loved ones.
Love addiction is typically characterised by an endless, obsessive, dysfunctional search for romantic fulfilment. Many addicts crave the feelings experienced in the early stages of a new relationship – using this natural ‘high’ for escape from uncomfortable or painful emotions – and will often have lots of brief, intense relationships to satisfy this need.
Love addicts tend to measure their self-worth based on how much another person needs or wants them, confusing this with love. They typically crave attention, affection, reassurance and intimacy in order to shield them from loneliness, insecurity, fear and self-doubt. They rely on a partner for their self-esteem and emotional wellbeing. Typically, they create an unhealthy dependency as they become preoccupied with fulfilling the needs of the other person while neglecting their own needs.
Love addicts will often stay in toxic or abusive relationships because this is preferable to being alone. They can become obsessive about their partners, displaying excessive neediness or control, and being overly jealous or unreasonable in their demands for time and affection.
Both types of addiction are intimacy-related disorders, and co-occurring mental health disorders often accompany both.
If left untreated, they will have far-reaching consequences that not only cause damage to the addicted person but also impact negatively on the lives of their family, friends, work colleagues and extended community.
Healing and recovery are possible with the right treatment and professional support.
What are the Signs and Symptoms of Sex and Love Addictions?
Sex and love addictions manifest in similar and sometimes interrelated ways, and both can be hugely detrimental to our mental, physical and emotional health and our relationships with others. However, they are not the same disorder, and there are different signs and symptoms used to distinguish between them.
Signs and symptoms of sex addiction
The symptoms of sex addiction are primarily focused around unhealthy sexual behaviours that can be described as secretive, shameful, high risk or abusive. Some common signs and symptoms include:
- becoming easily / quickly involved with people on a sexual level
- having multiple sexual partners and / or one-night stands
- needing sex to feel wanted, powerful or important
- excessive masturbation and / or use of pornography
- compulsive use of one or more digital technologies, such as webcams, sexting, dating/hook-up websites and apps
- regular involvement with strip clubs, adult bookstores, sex clubs, and other sex-focused environments, including visiting sex workers
- engaging in risky sexual behaviour, including minor sexual offences such as voyeurism or exhibitionism
- feeling compelled to increase the intensity, frequency and risk level of sexual behaviours, to achieve the desired effects
- being unable to stop engaging in sexual behaviours, even though we might want to
- feeling distress, anxiety or irritability if unable to engage in the behaviour
- existing mental health conditions are made worse.
Sex addicts will also spend considerable amounts of time thinking about, pursuing, and engaging in sexual activity. Sex becomes an obsession to the point that important relationships, interests, and responsibilities are neglected.
Left untreated, behaviours often escalate to the degree that we violate our own inner values and moral code, which creates and intensifies the feelings of shame. This often drives us into leading a double life in order to keep sexual activities secret and hidden from our loved ones.
Signs and symptoms of love addiction
The symptoms of love addiction are largely focused around obsessive and compulsive behaviours where love, relationships and romance are concerned. Common signs and symptoms include:
- falling in love quickly and easily – without really knowing the person
- clinging to an idealised relationship, despite a different reality
- being terrified of never finding someone to love, and ending up alone
- allowing relationships with friends and family to suffer because we only want to spend time with our partner
- staying in (or returning to) an abusive or damaging relationship for fear of being alone
- craving attention from many different, short-lived relationships and always seeking new sources of attention – never feeling satisfied
- becoming jealous, possessive and / or controlling in relationships
- being obsessed with and overly reliant on a partner
- feeling desperation or uneasiness when away from our partner
- existing mental health conditions are intensified.
Love addicts will also spend considerable amounts of time thinking about, planning for, pursuing and fantasising about the perfect love interest, to the point that it interferes with everyday life. Love becomes an obsession to the degree that we neglect other relationships, interests, and responsibilities.
If we have a partner, we will devote all our time to pleasing them, sacrificing our own needs – including giving up activities, hobbies and friends that were important to us. Our only desire is to meet a ‘perfect’ partner, who can make us feel complete and whole and continually excited about the relationship.
What are the Causes of Love and Sex Addictions?
All addictions are progressive diseases that don’t just happen overnight. It is rare to become addicted after engaging in certain behaviours just a few times – not everyone who engages in these behaviours frequently will end up becoming addicted to them. However, some people are more predisposed to developing an addiction than others.
As with most addictions, there is no one single factor that leads to sex or love addiction, but a combination of genetic and environmental influences. These influences can come together in ways that bring up difficult feelings that, if left unprocessed, will create a strong desire to escape from the emotional discomfort or pain they cause.
Some of the factors known to contribute to an individual being at higher risk of developing a sex or love addiction include:
- personal or family history of addiction (of any type)
It is possible to have a genetic predisposition to emotional dysregulation, impulsivity, risk-taking or sensation-seeking behaviours – making us more vulnerable to addiction.
- personal or family history of a mental health disorder
Genetic factors can also contribute to mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder, the presence of which can influence some of the underlying characteristics that drive hypersexual behaviour.
- unresolved trauma
Trauma, such as neglect, abuse, abandonment, inconsistent parenting or domestic violence puts us at higher risk – in addition to low self-esteem that often results from these experiences.
- childhood environmental factors
Studies reveal that up to 50% of the risk for addiction is environmental. Adverse events like abuse, neglect or exposure to adult sexuality, such as pornography, increase the likelihood of unhealthy reactions in later life.
- social isolation Being emotionally isolated and lonely can increase the likelihood of seeking inappropriate ways of being sexually gratified, but also can lead to other contributory factors such as depression and physical illnesses.
- social learning/peer pressure
Having friends who engage in sex and love addiction behaviours – like viewing pornography or regularly visiting sex workers – has been shown to influence some individuals in a subtle but powerful way.
There is some evidence to suggest that sex and love addictions may be neuro-chemical addictions and that natural pleasures (such as sex and love) can cause imbalances in brain processes in a similar way to alcohol and drugs. It may be that the brain adapts to only be satisfied when the addiction is being met – so we cannot feel ‘normal’ without it.
It is important to seek professional treatment so we can discover the underlying causes of our addiction and work through our issues – addressing any co-occurring mental health issues at the same time.
Can Sex and Love Addiction be Treated?
Sex and love addictions can be treated – along with any co-occurring mental health disorders – but the recovery journey can take time and requires persistence.
Every addict is different and will need a unique treatment approach tailored to their specific needs – designed in collaboration with an experienced therapist.
Sex and love addiction treatments largely use the same strategies and techniques that are used with drug and alcohol addiction. Techniques typically include individual and group therapy – most often a behaviour-focused form of psychotherapy (like Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) – coupled with education, social learning, 12-step and other addiction-focused social support. In addition to addressing the underlying cause of the addiction, and treating any co-occurring mental health disorders, a good treatment programme will also explore the ‘intimacy issues’. This element of the treatment is hugely important in helping us to understand and learn the skills needed to develop healthy, meaningful relationships.
Often, alternative therapies, like art or music therapy, exercise and meditation are also employed.
Treatment may include medication to reduce the symptoms of underlying mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety.
With the right treatment programme recovery is possible, so we can get back to living a happy, productive life with healthy, intimate relationships.
Sex and Love Addiction Treatment at White River Manor
At White River Manor, we have our own unique approach to treating addictions, alongside any co-occurring conditions. We provide a holistic treatment programme, which is shaped around your personal preferences and therapeutic needs. This can include various elements from the traditional 12-Step Programme, known to provide a solid foundation for recovery.
Our team of therapists and support staff has a wealth of experience when it comes to treating sex and love addictions. We employ a range of traditional methods, ancient philosophy and cutting-edge science – in a safe and nurturing community – to ensure that you get all the help and support you need to face difficult issues, heal from emotional trauma and learn new skills to better manage your feelings, behaviours and recovery.
Our personalised, holistic approach ensures deep transformational healing and we will be there to guide and support you, and your loved ones, throughout the whole recovery process.
To find out more about our treatments for sex and love addiction, please contact us and take the first step on your healing journey.