Tuesday, July 19, 2011

When Love and Sex Become an Addiction

In recent times, sex addiction and the closely related addiction to love has attracted much public curiosity.  Many commentators have gone on to connect deviant and violent sexual behavior with sex addiction. There is reason for concern since unaddressed sex addiction can ultimately lead to unnecessary tragedy. But the worry is more than just the incidents that are making news now. Sex addiction can manifest in the most unlikely places, and go undetected and untreated for years, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake.

In certain cases, sex addiction is almost welcome. Alcoholics or addicts who have resigned themselves to absent libido for years may be celebrant about its return. Families might overlook the abnormal obsession with sex as long as it keeps some other destructive behavior under control. Research among recovering addicts and their families has established that after food and exercise, love and sex addiction are among the most common forms of addictive behaviors that recovering drug and alcohol addicts fall prey to, in the mistaken belief that it is helping them stay away from the habit that proved so devastating to them.

While sex is a natural and normal urge, when one experiences loss of control and seeks persistent and escalating indulgence in sexual gratification in any form in the face of negative consequence, it is termed sex addiction.  Typically, the addictive cycle of gratification and remorse is present, as are myriad physical and social consequences.  Unlike alcoholism and drug addiction, at the time of writing this, sex addiction is yet to be recognized officially as a disease, with many in the medical fraternity preferring to relegate it to obsessive hypersexuality, a recognized disorder.

The “drug of choice” in sex addiction is the gratification offered by the sexual act itself, be it through orgasm or through acting out on one’s compulsive fantasies.  Since much of sexual addiction revolves around treating the person as an object of gratification, it immediately sets off a conflict with one’s basic morality, and one falls into the trap of self loathing and blame, and it is a matter of time, hours to days, before one addresses this growing feeling of unworthiness by seeking out sexual gratification again.

Common forms that sex addiction takes range from compulsive masturbation, multiple partner sex and extramarital affairs, participating cybersex and phone sex, obsessive use of pornography, sex with prostitutes, sex with minors, exhibitionism and voyeurism, inappropriate touching and child molestation, stalking and harassment, and rape.

As a primary condition, sex addiction leads to complicating negative consequences at all levels, from broken relationships, extreme health hazards, law and order problems, mental health problems such as depression and suicidal thoughts, and exposure to other addictions.

Closely related to sex addiction but often not as tangible is love addiction, a compulsive seeking out of the feeling of being loved and in love through relationships with people that often turn out to be abusive in nature or "avoidants."  Typically, this ongoing and repetitive search for love leads to heartbreak, negative consequences, and despair, reinforcing the need to start the cycle over again.  Often, the love addict no longer finds the thrill of being in love as relationships move toward stability and they themselves indulge in behaviors that “push away” the other person.  This leads to guilt, remorse and depression, and intensifies the pain that causes them to seek love again.  The interconnectedness of love and sex also complicates the issue and the lines between love, sex and abuse usually tend to get blurred in this addiction.

There are many diagnostic tools available to help one answer the question of whether one’s behavior falls into the category of sex addiction. This article by Jennifer Schneider offers several of these tools in one place, and the reader is encouraged to visit her page in order to self administer these diagnostic tools.

Like all addictive behaviors, there is a fine line that differentiates a normal and healthy love and sex impulse and that which is obsessive-compulsive and destructive.  Hypersexuality is a condition that is frequently associated with extreme creative energy, and properly channelized can lead to the loftiest of creative expression.  Yet, the same creative drive, when denied or repressed, can manifest itself in the destructive form of love and sex addiction.

For the sex addict, the first step towards recovery comes from making a complete break from the behavior.  This may require professional help, which can come from certified professional counselors and therapists or from support groups that can easily be found by searching online.  Like with other drugs, it is not easy to abstain from addiction in the early days of recovery.  Support from family and friends is crucial, as is the enforcement of strict limits.  

It is essential for the addict to introspect and identify the belief system that falsely enhances the value of sexual gratification.  Developing coping mechanisms to deal with the pain that abstinence brings can be aided by reflecting on the negative consequences that acting out entails.  Learning to develop a healthy and realistic self image and finding meaningful pursuits can help fill the emptiness that typically sets in with abstinence.

As one gathers “clean time,” strengthening the newly acquired habits becomes important.  Bringing back discipline and meaningful structure in one’s daily life will lead to developing new values, interests, pursuits, and friends.  Having a support group of other recovering addicts can be helpful, but studies and experience shows that relapses often happen in the company of other recovering people.  The prevalence of presuppositions and preconditions of many support groups might also make them nonviable or unapproachable to many addicts.  Having family and friends who understand the condition in a non-judgmental way is a much needed support that all recovering people should have but often don't.  Trust is often difficult to build up in the family, and that can be both frustrating and damaging to the addict.  Accepting this as a consequence of one’s behavior and staying focused on one’s goal, along with reflecting on the spiritual lessons of patience and contentment can go a long way in living with this trust deficit.  

The crux of recovering from love and sex addiction is to develop a realistic understanding of the dynamics of love, the fact that sex is primarily an expression of love and bonding, and that love and bonding entail honesty, acceptance, faith, and vulnerability.  These typically do not happen overnight, and the journey forward can be hampered by depression, emotional pain, loss of faith, and even relapse.  None of these, however, is the end of the road, and one can always make a fresh start at reviewing and reworking one’s belief system with regard to relationships.

It is possible that certain damaged relationships might never return to a state of normalcy.  This can dishearten a person trying to “live sober.”  Recovering from sex addiction is not contingent on either unconditional acceptance by one’s society or full restoration of all that has been lost.  Given the nature of the sex addict’s behavior, it is very likely that many areas of his or her life might never be fully repaired, and it is wise to accept this as fair and just.  However, with baby steps, one can rebuild one’s internal and external environment to a point where one can experience the richness of life in the areas of honest and loving relationships, the reality of the myth that all sex addicts seek.

If you have any questions or thoughts to share, please feel free to leave a comment or to contact me directly.

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