Both sex addiction and love addiction are understood to be disorders of emotional intimacy characterized by obsessive thoughts and compulsive acting out behaviors. The difference between these addictions lies specifically in the types of acting out behaviors which may be present. A sex addict may have a problem with pornography or repeated anonymous sexual experiences, while the love addict acts out in relationship-by clinging to a partner (sometimes one who is destructive to him or her), by avoiding love and/or intimacy with a partner, by moving from one relationship to the next, and/or by not being able to cope when a relationship ends.
In 1983, with the help of an addiction treatment center called the Hazeldon Foundation, Patrick Carnes published his seminal work, Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction. Since that time, many therapies have been devised and many more treatment centers have opened their doors to those suffering sexual addiction. “Hypersexual disorder” is how the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and its publication, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders (DSM), propose to term the disorder. Still, to date, there is no APA supported diagnosis for sexual addiction, although many APA affiliated therapists and recovery centers treat individuals who experience both sex and love addiction symptoms. A sex addict is someone who experiences life disruption or dysfunction due to habitual sexual obsessions and compulsions. Both men and women experience sexual addiction. A sex addict may compulsively look at pornography; may engage in compulsive masturbation; may engage in sex for pay activities (via phone, internet, or in person); may engage in compulsive voyeurism or exhibitionism; may seek repeated anonymous sexual encounters; or may feel unable to stop behaviors which lead to repeated infidelity. Sexual addiction is often progressive, meaning the compulsive acting out behaviors become progressively worse over time. A person engages in sex to “numb out” or feel a high in order to escape problems or avoid intimacy, but the consequences of shame, guilt, or broken relationships incite more and greater acting out behaviors.
A love addict is someone who experiences an intoxicating rush when engaged in seduction; “romantic intrigue” (the initial phase of a relationship characterized by intense infatuation and increased sexual interaction); lust; or is someone who has a pattern of intense, painful, or obsessive relationships; or who is clinging, desperate, and insecure in a current relationship. A love addict may also be someone who is love-averse or “love avoidant” (incapable of lasting feelings of attachment) but who is either addicted to a pattern of usually unsuccessful relationships, or who has what is termed “emotional anorexia” and may avoid relationship or commitment altogether.
Chemicals behind Both Addictions
When a love addict ends a relationship, and when a sex addict goes without sex or sexual acting out behaviors, both may experience withdrawal symptoms. The withdrawal symptoms may include: depression, uneasiness, anxiety, restlessness, or irritability. When a baby is held and petted, as well as when a mother breastfeeds and coos to her baby, the bond is reinforced by a chemical reaction in the brain. Oxytocin, dopamine, and endorphins flood the brain and bloodstream. These chemicals send a pleasant sensation through the mother and child and trigger the reward center of the brain, reinforcing this ancient act of caregiving. Likewise, when a drug addict injects a hit of heroin, this same reward center is tripped. It is this same reward center that is activated when we have sex, feel close to our lovers, or simply feel excited about the possibility of seeing them-oxytocin floods our system and elevates our mood. It is this chemical reaction people are addicted to; the method is different for everyone. The 12-Step program established to support these addictions often refers to an overall addiction-sex, love, and relationship addiction-and has a program called Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous to support people who may feel they are suffering from one or all addictions under the umbrella. Since the basic problem of sex and love addiction is one of emotional intimacy, and because this problem may be rooted in how attachments were formed in childhood with primary caregivers, it is important to recognize that they are closely related. The same root issues may reveal themselves in different acting out behaviors, but the dysfunction is the same: it is a dysfunction of relationship. All addictive patterns create negative consequences-to an individual’s sanity, health, relationships, and work-and all require supportive efforts to be healed. Getting therapy, finding a support group, and attending local SLAA meetings are just some of the ways healing from sex and love addiction can be found.