When Addictions Overlap: The Fuzzy Boundaries between Love, Sex and Relationship Addiction
Addictions and people rarely follow textbook examples. In reality, people are a mix of instincts and urges born of unique hurts, experiences, backgrounds and genetic predispositions. It should not be surprising that there would be frequent overlap among addictions, especially in the categories of love, sex and relationships, which are so tightly and often inextricably related. But to better understand how these diseases overlap, it helps to look at the general definitions and classifications of each.
Sex addiction, put simply, is the overwhelming craving for sex. It may be with one’s partner, but if the partner cannot comply with the sex addict’s high level of demand, sexual activity may be sought elsewhere, such as with other partners, with prostitutes or in strip clubs. Sex addiction is more about the high that comes from the pursuit, fantasy, and escape from reality than the actual act of sex and the emotional intimacy that generally accompanies it. Many sex addicts desire the sex act, but are emotionally unavailable and will even seek sex with short term or anonymous partners in order to avoid intimacy. This is not to be confused with porn addiction.
It is as it sounds: love addicts are addicted to falling in love and being loved and feeling wanted. Upon the conclusion of one relationship, they will quickly seek a new one, desiring the rush of attraction, pursuit, and the novelty of a new relationship. In the absence of a relationship they are depressed, lonely and unable to cope. Their lives feel untethered and insecure. Naturally this translates into a penchant for hastily entering into unwise relationships with people who may be less than ideal because, again, the need is to simply have somebody and to not be alone.
Relationship addiction may also be labeled “person addiction.” In this case the addict has an undeniable need for a connection, even a dysfunctional one, with another person, usually a partner or previous partner, though the addict may no longer feel any love for this person and may intuitively know that he or she is a bad match. Unlike love addiction, there is no draw to the warm fuzzies of falling in love. Instead, the addict feels he or she simply cannot survive without the object of desire, even if significant risk is involved, as in the case of an abusive relationship. The relationship addict continues to go back to the other person or take him or her back even when reason and good judgment clearly suggest otherwise. The need for the person-fix is centered in the brain’s reward center and thus transcends normal reasoning power.
It is also not uncommon for the love or sex addict to have a non-relational addiction as well, say to food, alcohol or drugs. When the relationship needs are not being fulfilled, alcohol or drugs may provide a stand-in—a more obtainable and accessible high with less risk of vulnerability and rejection. But the problem is the same. The individual is unable to cope with his or her life as it is and is thus seeking a crutch in order to get through life. The nature of the crutch isn’t the issue, it is the life problem that needs repairing.
When These Addictions Overlap
Relationship and love addiction are commonly classed together, though there are some distinct elements to them as in the case of love addicts being very drawn to the novelty of romance and new relationships. Sex addicts are less person-focused, but sex addiction truly is not about the actual sex. It’s about the pursuit of sex, the fantasy of sex, the objectified, escapist experience of thinking about, planning for, and pursuing sex, but it’s most definitely not about the actual sex act, because orgasm ends the dissociative experience (the high) and throws the addict back into the real world, which is what he/she is trying to escape. But because a romantic relationship between two people typically involves love, sex and relationship, it is not uncommon for a person who is prone to dysfunctional relationship patterns to experience multiple addictions or to display addiction patterns that do not place him or her cleanly into one category.
This does not necessarily make treatment more difficult, though addicts may want to feel that they identify with one particular category of addiction. Underlying love, relationship or sex addiction is the common thread of pure addiction—the cravings and needs, the obsessions and compulsions over which the addict is powerless. When this foundation is understood and addressed, the particular drug of choice or brand of addiction becomes less significant.
Many treatment programs combine these addictions. For example, if you are a sex addict you may find love addicts in your fellowship and vice versa. With addiction, it is not so much the particular behavior or substance that is the issue as much as the central tendency toward addiction—this is shared among addicts regardless of the dug of choice and thus the approach to treatment will be very similar. The fact that one is a sex addict and the other a love addict is inconsequential. Both have demonstrated personal powerlessness in their respective realms and their need for treatment and a program of recovery is the same.