This post was originally published on April 9, 2015.
Of all the non-chemical addictions like gambling, debting and codependence, sex addiction has been making the most news in recent years. Whether through Russell Brand’s anti-porn soliloquies or Tiger Woods’s many trysts, sex addiction is a hot topic on the Internet and elsewhere in the mainstream consciousness. But what doesn’t garner as much media attention is sex addiction’s evil twin: love addiction.
Caroline Kent, a popular British columnist for The Telegraph who covers the sex, love and romance beat, interviewed a Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA) member and wrote a column on love addiction for those unversed in the achingly painful cycle of fantasy, obsession and withdrawal. And noting that love addiction is not formally recognized, she asks, “Is this simply a case of psychologists attempting to pathologize modern relationships?”
It’s an especially important question, given that the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—the DSM-V—includes neither sex nor love addiction in its exhaustive list of pathologies. But as someone who’s battled the obsessions and compulsions of both sex and love addiction, I am here to say that it is very real, very insidious and, at times, even more difficult to kick than substance abuse.
Sex and love are messy to begin with, so it can be hard to distinguish between psychological torment and actual pathology. It also depends on your age. If you’re 12 and the boy you like doesn’t like you back, you may think your life is over and scribble madly in your journal for an hour straight, and maybe subsequently stuff your face with Mother’s Circus Animal Cookies while bingeing on Nick at Nite. But if you’re a normal 12-year-old, you’ll have forgotten about it a few days later, having moved on to more important matters like persuading your parents to let you get your ears pierced or making the cheer squad.
True sex and love addiction as an adult is an emotionally excruciating business, and the addiction is often deeply psychological, stemming from early childhood neglect, abandonment or full-on emotional smothering, which is what leads to love avoidance. You end up with grown men and women acting out their toddler traumas, breaking all sorts of hearts, potentially spreading all sorts of STDs, and maybe even bringing all sorts of babies into this resource-deprived world.
But what exactly is sex and love addiction?
Sex addiction and love addiction are, like the yin and the yang, intimately intertwined. According to the philosophy of SLAA, sex addicts don’t like emotional intimacy or, more specifically, they desperately crave it but are terrified of actually experiencing it. Or, even more specifically, they are terrified that once they do experience it, the other person will either smother them or instantly bounce them (yeah, the way sex addicts bounce after fucking you, which always feels so wonderful). So they jump from sex partner to sex partner, doing the nasty without any conscious emotional investment so they can experience some sort of connection, be it ever so tenuous, while never putting their hearts on the line. These men and women are clinically known as “love avoidant sex addicts,” at least within the SLAA narrative.
In ostensibly sharp contrast to the detached sex addict is the love addict—all they want to do is surrender their heart to the object of their desire, and this is often someone they barely know who they’ve assigned magical qualities to, who they obsess over for hours, who they don’t really “love” at all but simply use to fill their own need for fantasy, to escape from real world problems, boredom, fears or ambitions. Though love addicts think they want to give their heart away and experience deep intimacy, time and time again they choose unavailable love avoidants to fixate on, just like alcoholics gravitate to codependents. On some level, they, too, fear intimacy.
But it gets even more complicated.
As Kent points out, most sex and love addicts oscillate between points on an emotional spectrum that bears a resemblance to eating disorders. “Anorexia” is defined within the SLAA community as a “compulsive avoidance of giving or receiving social, sexual or emotional nourishment,” and this is where it gets confusing. In a single SLAA meeting, you’ll find sex addicts, love avoidants, love addicts, fantasy addicts, emotional anorexics, love anorexics and sexual anorexics (and many of them will also have an alcohol or drug problem). Like a pothead switching from weed to smack, sometimes love addicts switch to love avoidance and vice versa, while sexual anorexics might switch to sex addiction and sex addicts might turn to love addiction.
It’s all a bit, well, maddening.
And it’s so easy to get hooked. The rush of love intoxication stimulates dopamine receptors in your brain like a line of coke. Even the most normal, balanced people get a little loopy under Cupid’s spell, but addicts naturally have super sensitive (or screwed up) pleasure centers in their mammalian brains. When you’re fucking or in love, your limbic system lights up with pleasurable chemicals. But if you cut off the object of your unhealthy obsession or abstain from sex, you plummet into a deeply uncomfortable withdrawal.
Depression, irritability and restlessness ensue. Something must be done. So you take another hit.
I understand all this. I’ve had my fair share of debilitating romantic obsessions that propelled me into alcoholism and other substances, along with a fair share of healthy romantic relationships. I’ve screwed guys casually without considering their desire to have “more” with me, and I’ve casually screwed guys who I actually cared for but who didn’t give two shits about me. I’ve oscillated back and forth between sex addiction, love addiction, fantasy and withdrawal. Wherever there’s dysfunction, uncertainty, intermittent reinforcement or lack of object constancy, there’s an emotional roller coaster that supercharges your brain like coke. Or crack. Or Mother’s Circus Cookies. It can make for great sex but equally great torment.
In lieu of this torment, it’s best to seek help for sex and love addiction, whether through therapy, SLAA, medication, meditation, taking up oil painting, gardening, yachting—whatever works. It can take a lot of time and energy to end the cycle of this stubborn addiction, but denial is not an option.
And, look, if you don’t want to work on your addiction, just use protection, k?