Karen Brownd, director of Center for Relationship and Sexual Recovery at the Recovery Ranch, spoke recently about sex, love and relationship addiction on the Mooney Show with Shay Byrne on RTE Radio. The program kicked off with a recap of pop star Rihanna’s destructive relationship with Chris Brown.
Love addiction is primarily seen with females, Brownd said. One example of relationship addiction, she said, would look like, ‘I stay in a relationship over and over again whether it’s abusive, whether there are alcohol and drugs involved, and I need to be in a relationship all the time to validate who I am … to make me, because of trauma, usually, to make me feel important and worthwhile. On the love side, love tends to have more of a fantasy aspect to it. I may be in love with somebody, like I might be in junior high, that I don’t even know. I think about the person, I find out everything I can about them, and I create that fantasy.”
Love addiction has become more prevalent because of the social media sites, Brownd said.
“With the dating sites, I may not know the other person at all,” she said. “I just have to read what they tell me about themselves. At that point, I think that I’m in love with them without having met them or knowing who they are or whether they’re telling me the truth. So much so that it can disrupt my life, my work, my school, and add to any other addictions that might come up.”
Smartphones and connection apps have made the problem worse, she said, and kids are particularly at risk.
“You can have different applications where you can search and find someone within a mile of the area that you’re in [and hook up],” Brownd said. “Technology is growing quickly and we’re just trying to keep up with it to be able to inform clients and therapists of what to look out for, especially with kids. What they’re exposing themselves to is quite scary.”
Brownd explained that he roots of sex and love addiction often lie in trauma.
“It may be that there were abandonment issues in childhood or adolescence,” she said. “It may be that there was sexual, mental, physical or emotional abuse and [people feel that] ‘I became a survivor of that. Therefore, I have to protect myself, I cannot really connect with other people, but I’m constantly searching to connect.’
“At birth, we look for love and nurturing,” Brownd said. “As human beings, we look for that, but sometimes we look in the wrong places and will stay with an abuser just waiting for the hour when he or she will say, ‘I love you, I love you, I love you.’ ”
Brownd went on to offer insight into why some women look for “bad boy.”
“One of the things that I try to teach the younger women or women who are not in a relationship is that a lot of times what they’re looking for is the competition,” she said. “If I can win, if I can look better than the next woman, if I can get the bad boy, the one who stands out, the one people notice, I win. That means I’m better. I’m more important. I have value, I have worth. A lot of time, women are coming from places where they’re told growing up and throughout high school and college that they’re not worth anything. They’re not good enough. They’ll never be able to compete. So I think that if they can work on their self-esteem, work with someone so that they can be happier with themselves, they don’t have to go and look for somebody like that to give them inner value.”
Brownd said that that the Recovery Ranch is one of only two gender-specific facilities in the world for sex, love and relationship addiction. She stressed that it’s better to have males and females separated, “due to the trauma work that is going on and to keep women together so that they learn to trust one another.
“The issue for the female side is that women don’t typically trust other women,” she said. “They’ve been hurt by them. The guys have been taken away as they grew up. They were ‘not as good as.’ So we work heavily on bonding with one another and trusting one another. We also are a12-step based program, so in recovery, it’s required that you have the same-sex sponsor. Women need to trust women so that when they leave our facility and are doing 12-step work, they can be with a female and have learned to trust them — so that they can share secrets and the trauma that’s occurred.
Sex addiction doesn’t have to be the result of trauma, Brownd said.
Someone who has been sexually abused or raped as a teenager or young adult will act out in “eroticized rage,” where ‘I’ll go out and look for people to get even,’ ”she said. “It doesn’t matter who they are or what they look like. It’s that, ‘the more I try to get even with what has happened to me, it sort of drives me on.’ ”
Many behaviors fall under the term sex addiction, Brownd said. “Typically, for men, there’s either sexual acting-out outside of a committed relationship, multiple affairs, one night stands, having continual sex with prostitutes, compulsive masturbation and pornography. If someone is literally locking themselves up for hours and hours each day looking at porn and masturbating, that’s impacting their world and it fits the criteria of addiction. It’s loss of control, impacting family and work.”
How the Recovery Ranch Works
The treatment center has houses, community-type living, for each type of program to develop a bonded, family atmosphere, Brownd said. Therapy starts right away with an assessment day or two in the medical and psychiatric stabilization facility “so that we make sure we have everything covered, that the medications are OK and that medically, you’re safe,” she said.
“Then we start right into program, which might be individual sessions with a therapist, maybe with trauma therapists, and also group sessions where there’s a lot of healing and secrets that are laid out. So you’ll have a lecture-and-task component and primary process groups. Then there’s equine therapy, which is huge at our facility. The therapist that’s the lead on that team is certified for equine therapy. We use that heavily in relationship-building. How do you relate to a horse, which would mean, how would I relate to a person? How do I tell them what I need to say, how do I express feelings? Horses are amazing in how they respond to human beings. We also use equine therapy with couples. I may have a male or female in treatment and the spouse or partner comes in and we do couples therapy either for reconciliation or for parenting skills if they’re not going to stay together. We teach them how they can best co-parent and direct the child, in essence, direct the horse, to do what they need to do. We’re one of the few places that do that.”
Brownd recounted the story of a couple choosing horses and how it opened their eyes about what was really going on is their relationship.
“The gentleman was more of the dominant person in the relationship,” Brownd said. “When they were asked to pick their horses for a couples’ session, the male picked both horses and took off walking down the path with them, leaving the spouse behind. She looked up and said that that was so much like what she experiences every day. He was not aware of it at all. But it became very real to him to see, in that moment, what he actually does. It was quite a therapeutic situation in which he was able to realize, utilizing the horses, what he does in the relationship and how she responds.”
Brownd was asked what it is about society that makes a place like the Recovery Ranch necessary.
“Being female — I’m going to come from that angle and not be therapist for a moment — growing up there’s a huge stigma that is typically attached to when you start dating or having sex with anyone,” she said. “We keep secrets from one another. You don’t even tell your best friend what you did because usually there’s a stigma to having sex, still. We’re also sexualized very early. We have been, in the past, pretty, as little girls, but they usually don’t talk about that we are intelligent. Females are taught not to say anything, to keep secrets, to keep quiet about what’s happened. If there’s been abuse, don’t say that either. We’re supposed to look like the models, the TV stars. If you’re like me, when I wake up in the morning, I don’t look like I’ve had a makeup artist do may face and my hair. I am just the way I look. We learn very early to compete with what we look like and that takes on a whole different role as to who we are inside.”