Saturday, February 28, 2009

Sex and Love Addiction, Part 1

We are a society riddled with addictions. We battle drug and alcohol addictions, gambling, and honor those who work themselves into the ground. An addiction is any substance or set of behaviors that, if continued, create bodily and emotional damage to the user. Despite the possibility of losing friends, loved ones, our hold on sanity, and perhaps our very lives or dignity, we are powerless to stop the behavior on our own. I believe the most overlooked and prevalent addiction of them all is sex and love addiction. We as a culture are consumed so deeply with our own sex and love addiction that we are oblivious to the manifestations of this disease that permeate our lives. Evidence of this can be heard in nearly every song on the radio, television and movie characters, and yes, even sometimes in the ways in which our nation runs to the rescue of others while our own children do without.

With every addiction, there is a complex dance of seratonin and dopamine that weave their magical potent effects on the brain. Some drugs or behaviors enhance seratonin (which creates a sense of peace and well-being), while others may have a greater effect on dopamine (which creates the craving/longing, the "rush"). It is when a drug or set of behaviors can create both the craving/longing---> the high ---> then the ahhhhh, contentment afterward-- this is the perfect storm for addiction. The neural and chemical atmosphere of the brain literally begins to shift and mold in an effort to maintain this cycle of craving, high, contentment. With each cycle, the addiction grows stronger. This means the craving reaches intense peaks but the high and contentment afterward get shorter... thus, more drug needed!

In sex and love addiction, the craving is the strong desire to be loved, needed, adored, or desired. This craving is satisfied through "acting out behaviors" that often involve fantasy. For example, an individual has an ideal other that is sexy, desirable, nurturing, perfect and this fantasy other is projected onto the unsuspecting person who just walked into the room. Ahhh, love is born. The high involves some sense of attaining the other person. This may be through having them come to your house every night, hours of phone conversation, sex without knowing the person, or any combination of behaviors.

Yes, we all engage in these kinds of behaviors when we first meet someone and feel that goo goo ga ga in the early stages of love. The difference with an addict is that he/she is unable to maintain a relationship without this constant high and feeling of attainment of the other. Once the high wears off, which could be days or years, the addict will continue the dance with someone else. Generally, as sex and love addiction grows, addicts lose the high with a partner very quickly and will move from one relationship to another recreating the longing, the attainment-rush, and brief contentment afterward. Later in the disease, many sex and love addicts pursue multiple partners at a time, may have sex with people they hardly know, and idealize the partner then grow angry and bored when the partner can no longer keep up the fantasy.

Sex and love addiction is not to be minimized. It is a deadly disease that can lead to the loss of dignity, self, and life. This addiction drives people to engage in behaviors that are dangerous or place the addict at risk of harm or trouble with the law. In order to maintain the self-debasing behaviors of the dance, the addict may increase use of other substances to be able to continue, such as drugs or alcohol. An example of this is the woman whose sex and love addiction, over the course of years, leads her into a lifestyle of prostitution. She may wake up one day, realize this is not what she signed up for and that it no longer feels good. The problem is she can't stop and must self-medicate with other drugs to continue the cycle. Another example is the man who has a wife and children at home but cannot stop his frequent visits to the prostitute. His behavior may have begun with a handful of extra-marital affairs and in an effort to intensify the high, his behavior escalated to prostitutes. He now needs a boost of Johnnie Walker himself to maintain the behavior for which he is ashamed but unable to stop.

One of the hallmarks of sex and love addiction is having an unrealistic view of what true intimacy really looks like. Typically love addicts have an intense often subconscious fear of true intimacy. True intimacy is sharing the reality of yourself with your partner, flaws and all, and open to receiving the reality of who your partner is, flaws and all. Most sex and love addicts tend to err on either extreme of enmeshment or detachment. The love addict who enmeshes with a partner has difficulty determining where they end and the partner begins. They are "one," they need the other person's attention to feel as if they have a valid self. They cannot accept the other person's need for individuality and would prefer to fuse together with the fantasy of creating one whole self. The other extreme seen in sex and love addiction is detachment. This is the tricky type because these addicts actually appear aloof. Their fear of intimacy is much more apparent as they literally go from one room to another trying to avoid the partner. They are uncomfortable with conversation that may require them to share something about themselves and have the persistent fear that they may be swallowed whole by the partner if they don't keep up the guard. The addiction is that they need to be persistently chased. They do not want enmeshment nor do they want the pursuer to leave. The message of this type of addict is "go away but please don't leave me." They avoid intimacy yet will panic if the partner threatens to leave. This type of addict can be very seductive in an effort to draw the partner back in.

In my next post, I hope to explain more about withdrawal and the recovery process for sex and love addicts.

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