Relationship Attachment Issues Linked to Sex Addiction


Sex addiction is a form of non-substance-based addiction (behavioral addiction) characterized by life-impairing involvement in sexual activities and/or a damaging preoccupation with sex-related fantasies or thinking. Researchers across the world are exploring the underlying factors that may help explain the development of this condition. In a study published in October 2014 in the journal Sex & Marital Therapy, researchers from Brigham Young University assessed the potential impact of problems with relationship attachment (the ability to develop strong, positive bonds with others) on the odds that any given man will develop a sex addiction.

Sex Addiction

For some time, researchers have recognized that some people develop patterns of involvement in certain everyday activities that strongly resemble the patterns of substance use typical of people affected by drug, alcohol or medication addiction. Sex is one of the noted activities (along with eating certain types of food, going shopping, gambling and using the Internet for gaming or other purposes). The resemblance between these non-substance-related behaviors and substance addiction is more than superficial; in fact, current evidence strongly indicates that a person dealing with dysfunctional involvement in a non-substance-related activity experiences some of the critical brain changes found in a person dealing with substance addiction. In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) created a category of non-substance-based behavioral addictions (known officially as addictive disorders) in recognition of the similarities.

Sex addiction does not yet have a set of working criteria approved by the APA. However, the existence of such an addiction is supported by a range of modern, reputable research findings. Affected individuals may have problems related to sexual activities considered legitimate and healthy under normal circumstances or to activities typically viewed as abnormal or deviant. In addition, any given person may have minor, moderate or severe indications of dysfunctional, sex-related behavior, thought or fantasy.

Relationship Attachment

Relationship attachment is a normal part of child growth and development. It centers on the formation of a strong, supportive bond between parents and their children, but also extends to the formation of such a bond between a child and other important caregivers and adult figures. A person who doesn’t develop secure bonds during childhood can experience a range of attachment-related difficulties during adulthood. Examples of these difficulties include problems experiencing closeness in intimate relationships, recurring involvement in interpersonal interactions that damage relationships, recurring involvement in acts of deceit within relationships and persistent feelings of isolation within relationships. People with attachment difficulties may also have higher risks for involvement in problematic substance use, as well as higher risks for dysfunctional involvement in gambling or other activities known for their connection to non-substance-based behavioral addiction in some individuals.

Influence on Sex Addiction

In the study published in Sex & Marital Therapy, the Brigham Young University researchers used the help of 136 men to assess the potential connection between any given person’s relationship attachment history and the chances of developing sex addiction (referred to by the alternate term hypersexual behavior). All of the men enrolled in the project were seeking treatment for their dysfunctional, sex-related activities, thoughts and/or fantasies. In addition to any problems with relationship attachment, the researchers asked each study participant to provide detailed demographic information (age, racial/ethnic background, socioeconomic background, etc.), as well as a self-report of the amount of shame experienced in association with sexual behavior.

The researchers concluded that relationship attachment problems affected some of the study participants; however, such problems were far from universal. For any particular participant, the influence of relationship attachment difficulties interacted with other factors that included the details of that individual’s demographic background as well as the amount of shame that individual associated with his dysfunctional involvement in sexual activity, sexual thinking and/or sexual fantasy. All told, the researchers identified four fairly unique combinations of relationship attachment problems, demographic background and sexual shame among the study participants. Some of these combinations placed an emphasis on the influence of poor relationship attachment, while others did not.

The study’s authors believe their findings underscore the prominent but non-universal role that attachment problems in relationships can play in men affected by sex addiction. In some cases, the presence of such problems may contribute significantly to the accurate identification of sex-addiction-affected individuals, as well as the subsequent effective treatment of those identified.

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