When the Sex is Too Important
Robert Weiss LCSW
Founder of The Sexual Recovery Institute - Los Angeles
~Recommended by "JustCurious" (anonymous).
Romance, with or without sex, encourages personal growth as each new relationship forces new insights and self knowledge. The beginning stages of a potential love relationship can be intense and exciting. Most people easily relate to that "rush" of first love and romance; the stuff of songs, endless greeting cards and warm memories. Healthy intimacy, however, is characterized by more than romance, intensity and sex. Intimacy evolves over time. Loving relationships develop partially through utilizing those first exhilarating times to begin to build a bridge toward deeper, longer term closeness.
It can be difficult for anyone who is not a love or sex addict to understand how love or sexuality can be exploited or evolve into destructive patterns of addiction and compulsion. Yet for the Love and Sex Addict, romantic love, sexuality and the closeness they offer, are experiences most often filled with pitfalls, anxiety and pain. Living in a sometimes chaotic emotional world of desperation and despair, fearful of being alone or rejected, the Love Addict endlessly longs for that "special" relationship.
Caught up in the constant search for a partner, the addict's endless intrigue, flirtations, sexual liaisons and affairs, leave a path of destruction and negative consequences in their wake of his or her behavior. Ironically, the Love or Relationship usually has few options to resolve these painful circumstances except by engaging in even more searching, creating an escalating cycle of desperation and loss. Just when seemingly "safe" in the rush of a new romantic affair or liaison the troubled Love or Sex Addict grows steadily more unhappy, fearful and bored and ends up pushing their partner away or looking outside the relationship for yet another new intensity or "love" experience.
Thus the cycle begins anew.
Unlike the healthy person seeking partnership and sex as a complement to their life, the Love and Sex Addict searches for something outside of themselves (a person, relationship or experience) which will provide them with the emotional and life stability that they themselves lack. Similar to a drug addict or alcoholic, love and sex addicts use their arousing romantic/sexual experiences in an attempt to "fix" themselves and remain emotionally stable.
When love and sexuality are used as a way to cope, rather than a way to grow and share, partner choice becomes skewed. Compatibility becomes based on "whether or not you will leave me", "how intense our sex life is" or "how I can hook you into staying", rather than on whether you might truly become a peer, friend and companion.
Addictive relationships are characterized over time by unhealthy dependency, guilt and abuse. Convinced of their lack of worth and not feeling truly lovable, Love and Sex Addicts will use seduction, control, guilt and manipulation to attract and hold onto romantic partners. At times, despairing of this cycle of unhappy affairs, broken relationships and sexual liaisons, some Love or Sex Addicts may have "swearing off" periods (like the bulimic/anorexic cycles of overeaters). The addict believes that just "not being in the game" will solve the problem; only to later find the same issues reappearing when they re-engage in any type of potential intimacy.
For a Love or Sex addict, the above signs or symptoms consist of pervasive patterns of emotional instability inevitably leading to isolation, heartache and loss. Not everyone who has engaged in one or two of the above has an addiction problem, many people may have their judgment skewed by a difficult person or situation from time to time in their lives. However, when these situations become the norm, lived over and over again in some form or another, the diagnosis can be made. Love and sex addicts who are not in recovery, like any addict, do not learn from their consequences and mistakes. It is only when the pain of these behaviors and situations becomes greater than the pain and challenges of creating change, that recovery begins.
Recognition. Much of the love addiction literature speaks to the love addicts' inability to live their lives without a relentless search for a partner in most any situation or experience. Upon reflection many recovering love addicts can relate to having used some strategy or another all of their lives in an attempt to find and keep sexual and romantic partners. One woman put it this way, " I never once went to a party without wondering who I could get a date with or get into bed, I always dressed for it and I always looked for it". Whether through revealing dress, flirtatious manner or seductive talk; the addict is always hunting and searching in one form or another to try to bring that special attention, intensity and arousal that the latest tryst or liaison can bring forth.
"One important part of the love and sex addicts' recovery process is recognition of those methods used to attract and manipulate others."
Change. As the addict begins to consciously cast these methods aside, using the support of friends and often therapy; they come to learn their real human worth, lessening the need for superficial, sexualized attention.
Commitment "In order for recovery from any addiction to take place, there must be a bottom-line definition of sobriety."
For the alcoholic, this is a simple definition -- alcoholics and drug addicts define sobriety as the amount of time they have abstained from the use of alcohol and other mind-altering chemicals. Abstaining from the use of these substances is the recovering person's sobriety time. (e.g., "I stopped using drugs and alcohol in on June 15, 1987; therefore, I am over 10 years sober").
For the recovering Love or Sexual addict, however, sobriety can be a more challenging to define. Unlike sobriety from the use of substances, love or sexual sobriety is not usually considered to be complete abstinence from romantic relationships and sex, although recovering persons may use complete abstinence for short periods of time to gain personal perspective or address a particular issue. Love addiction and sexual sobriety is most often defined as a contract between the sexual addict and their recovery support therapist or clergy. These sobriety contracts are best when written, and involve clearly defined, concrete behaviors from which the addict has committed to abstain in order to define sobriety.
Corrective Action. Some relationship or sexual recovery plans have very strictly defined boundaries -- "No sexual activity of any kind outside of a committed marital relationship" could be one such defined boundary, "no sex without at least 30 days of dating", another. Sobriety can be delineated as abstinence from any romantic or sexual activity that causes the person to feel shameful, hold secrets or which is illegal or abusive to others. Personal definitions may change over time as the recovering person evolves in their understanding of the disease. An example of such a plan might be, "I am sober as long as I do not date anyone who is married or in another relationship, whom I would not introduce to friends, who is abusive, unresponsive or uncommunicative to me," or " I am sober as long as I do not engage in flirtation, intrigue or sexual seduction with strangers, have sexual or romantic liaisons with strangers or with anyone I have not known for at least 90 days." These types of definitions are always discussed with at least one other recovering person, therapist or clergy, and are not changed without thorough discussion and understanding.
The underlying motive for a concisely written plan of recovery, beyond a clear definition of unwanted specific sexual or romantic behavior, is to offer the addict an ongoing recovery reminder, even in the face of challenging circumstances. One characteristic of addiction, particularly for love addicts, is a difficulty in maintaining clear focus on personal beliefs, values and goals, when faced with situations which potentially involve intensity, arousal and stimulation. This is where the best of intentions, the pleas to be trusted "just one more time," and promises "to be good" go out the window. Without clearly defined boundaries, the love or sex addict is vulnerable to deciding "in the moment" what action is best for them. Unfortunately most addicts' "in the moment" decisions are not the ones which help them maintain their long term goals and values. A written plan helps to maintain a clear focus on recovery choices, regardless of situation or momentary motive.
As the love and sex addict recovers, they begin to discover themselves in new and unexpected ways.
Time formerly put into flirtation and 'the hunt', now may go into family involvement and work.
Creativity formerly used to seduce or attract now goes into hobbies, self-care and healthy relationship exploration.
Recovery for the coupled person brings a deeper understanding of their emotional needs and wants in their partnership, encouraging them to take more intimacy risks in their relationships. As hope and honesty slowly replace despair and superficiality, recovery brings about a deepening maturity and sense of choice that the addict may have never previously known.