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Sex, Romance, and Addictions

Todd, a thirty-one-year-old software engineer, has been a loyal husband for 12 years. When he met his wife, Stacy, they were both wounded, needy adolescents. Their bonding was immediate and intense. Each had been abandoned in childhood—one emotionally, the other physically. Rescuing one another from past pain gave them a sense of mattering. They eloped six weeks after their first date.

As a newlywed, Stacy couldn’t do enough to please Todd. Because she equated being needed with being loved, she found great satisfaction in caring for him. But it wasn’t enough. Her need to be needed soon drove her to look after other people too. She began to do nice things for everyone in sight. Then she had her first child. Mothering a helpless infant was the ultimate elixir. The more Stacy focused on her baby, the less attention she gave her husband. Todd felt neglected and confided his frustration to an understanding (female) neighbor.

Erin, wife, and mother of two preschoolers, struggles with intrusive thoughts. She’s fantasizing about having an affair with a hunky furniture salesman at the mall. The most confounding thing about it is that she loves her husband, adores her children, and is committed to her marriage. Erin believes in monogamy. Her value system precludes divorce. The compulsion to cheat is contrary to her nature. She feels like a rudderless ship being tossed about on the waters of moral wrongdoing. At the mercy of her imagination, she rapidly slips into behavior that could have devastating consequences.

What’s the Problem?

There are endless variations of these themes. We use terms like love, relationship, romance, and sexual addiction to describe such problems. By definition, sex, romance, and relationship addicts are people who don’t feel whole without the affirming presence of another person or the stimulation of a sexual, romantic or rescuing relationship to give them meaning and value. They derive their sense of feeling valued from the attention, affection, and admiration of another. They lust after the ego-satisfaction of desiring or being desired physically or emotionally. Some get high on the excitement of the chase, some get high on the conquest, some get high on being needed or wanted, and some get high on sexual acting out.

Let’s face it: the pursuit of a prize is exhilarating. Conquering is intoxicating. Whether the conqueror wins the Heisman Trophy, pulls a swift business deal, beats someone to the bargain counter at Wal-Mart, or charms a potential lover, victory is sweet. Triumph is a “rush.” Compound that with the fact that falling in love produces chemical reactions in the brain similar to heroin or cocaine highs. Many people make lifelong commitments when they are, for all practical purposes, inebriated by the first flush of romance!

Author Anne Wilson-Schaef describes sex, romance, and relationship addictions as separate and distinct disorders. Behaviorally, sex addicts “come on” to people to seduce them. Romance addicts “move on” from one relationship to another, addicting themselves—not to the person—but to the excitement of the chase and the accouterments of romance. By contrast, relationship junkies “hang on” (hold their partners hostage with various forms of control) because they fear nothing worse than abandonment. An individual can have one, two, or three of these disorders. Although they appear to be ways of achieving closeness and connectedness, they are a means of escaping intimacy.

Three Examples

Wes is a well-educated, highly-respected professional, a pillar in his church, and a leader in the community. Few suspect that he is a womanizer. But when in the company of a female to whom he is attracted, Wes becomes subtly seductive, sending out vibes (like fishing lines) to determine whether or not she’s vulnerable. He grooms women with flirtatious behavior and makes suggestive remarks to see how they will react. His goal is to have indiscriminate sex with as many women as possible and as frequently as possible. Thus, he views every female as a prospective partner until she proves otherwise. The outcome depends solely on her sexual boundaries. Women who lack boundaries will be victimized.

Matt (a romance addict) has different motives but uses similar methods. Matt goes through an elaborate courting ritual designed to spark her interest when he meets a potential partner. He offers all the accouterments of romance (candlelight, flowers, cards, gifts, secret meetings, travel to exotic places). Matt gets high on the Harlequin quality of his affairs. When the intensity of the affair diminishes, he assumes he has fallen out of love and looks for a new partner. He usually keeps two or three women on the back burner to avoid lag time.

Jessie grew up without a father and starved for male attention. In her teens, she relied on boyfriends for identity and value. When she married Tom at age 20, she lost her “self” in him. She expected Tom to focus every thought on her. His devotion gave her a sense of worth. Without him, she was nothing. Eventually, he began to feel overwhelmed and drew away. Jessie clung frantically to him. The more she clutched, the more he longed for freedom. When he told her he needed space and wanted to take a break from the relationship, Jessie begged him to stay. Insisting that she couldn’t live without him, she threatened suicide.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Addiction to sex, romance, or relationships is not uncommon among people with high moral values. The initial urge to violate their principles is confusing and distressing. They struggle to resist temptation. Sometimes they succeed. Sometimes they don’t. But they feel guilty either way. They see themselves as morally defective when, in fact, they may be in the early stages of a dependency disorder. Describing addiction as a disease or disorder does not excuse inappropriate behavior. It simply defines the problem as treatable and suggests an effective course of action. A physician who was dependent on drugs said, “It’s a relief to know that my addiction is a disease. I’m a doctor. I know what to do about diseases.”

Viewing sex/romance/relationship addiction as a defect of character rather than a disease prevents many addicts from addressing the underlying issues that made them susceptible to unhealthy dependencies in the first place. If untreated, these issues compromise the quality of life and contribute to relapse. Getting the right kind of help at the right time is vital.

But, historically, there has been little help for the addict. Many well-meaning people unwittingly “enable” addicts (help them stay sick). If a prospective helper is uninformed about the nature of addictive disorders and how to treat them, they may do more harm than good. All social systems, particularly families and churches, need a grace-based understanding of sex, romance, and relationship addictions to provide appropriate care.

Religious People Are Not Immune

Many sex and romance addicts are spiritually drawn to religious environments. Their motive for church attendance may be mixed. Some attend church because victims are readily available there, and legal recrimination is unlikely. Others go to church because they sincerely desire to heal—preferably the instant kind. Religion holds that promise. Who wouldn’t prefer miraculous healing to painful surgery or prolonged therapy? Unfortunately, hoping that God will miraculously heal them or remove their desire to “use” may keep addicts from addressing deeper issues—immaturity, lack of adult coping skills, etc. Even if the desire to act out is miraculously removed (the “demon” is “cast out”), these issues must be addressed, or seven devils will come back in (irritability, rage, demanding/controlling behavior).

Relationship addicts who hold their partners hostage with their neediness face unique challenges in the church setting. Living in fear of abandonment, they sometimes use religious beliefs to justify undue control of their spouse, which leads to physical, sexual, or psychological abuse. They justify the abuse based on their belief system’s domination/submission model. The spouse may play the victim role based on the same misunderstanding of Scripture.

Recovery, Therapy, and Healing

Sex, romance, and relationship addictions are prevalent in our society—almost to the extent that they are the norm. Few of us recognize them as the serious diseases they are. Sexual addiction, for example, has long been the subject of sitcom humor. Our attitude toward this disease ranges between two extremes: we treat it like a joke or assume it is a hopeless, untreatable condition. Neither is true.

Where recovery is concerned, as long as the addictive behavior is “working” (providing the desired high without undue consequences), the addict is unlikely to want to quit. Addicts don’t usually seek help until they lose everything or are threatened with the loss of everything. When that happens, they are at risk for drug or alcohol abuse and/or suicide. Their vulnerability is based on the fact that recovery begins with abstinence, abstinence begins with withdrawal, and withdrawal from an addictive agent is characterized by major anxiety and depression. When the family of an addict learns about his/her behavior, the news shocks them. When the shock wears off, they are depressed too. It is important to recognize and treat their emotional wounds.

People affected by a loved one’s addictive behavior deserve a chance to express their feelings in a safe place. The addict (the afflicted) and the affected (his/her family) need professional help. Neither the addict nor his/her loved ones should be expected to do it alone, no matter how determined they may be to change or how anxious they are to restore normalcy to their relationship. They deserve support.

Underlying Issues

Underlying issues that made the addict susceptible to self-medicating behavior must be addressed once abstinence is established. Otherwise, sustainable recovery will still be out of reach. The addict’s immaturity issues must be studied, and a strategic plan for continued emotional and social growth must be implemented. This requires specialized help. Reaching out for the guidance of this kind is a matter of life or death—both for the addict and those who love him/her.

Research shows that combining therapy and 12-step groups is the most effective approach to healing. Certified counselors and agencies prepared to address sex, romance, and relationship addictions can be accessed on the Internet at SexHelp.com. Inpatient treatment for sex addiction, workshops that address romance or relationship addiction and underlying issues, and corollary support groups for recovering addicts and their loved ones are readily available. One day at a time, recovery is possible for those willing to go to any lengths to achieve it!

If you liked this, you might also like Addictive Behaviors 

Carol Cannon writes from Kentucky.

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About Carol Cannon

Carol Cannon

writes from Kentucky.

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