This article on help for sex addition references the book, Ready to Heal, by Kelly McDaniel.
Love and sex addiction is a double bind. If we seek a relationship, which we are all designed to do, we will experience pain. If we then avoid relationships, which seems logical when we’ve been hurt, we will also experience pain – usually the pain of being isolated. When we are lacking healthy role models in our formative years, we may arrive at adulthood without the tools to navigate pain.
With repeated betrayal in relationships, we may end up with some of these feelings:
- I am not at “ease” or at peace.
- I rarely know a moment of comfort in solitude.
- I have difficulty being alone or still.
- I have disordered eating, sleeping, and/or spending patterns.
- I grow increasingly confused and tired.
- I have difficulty trusting people.
- I become more isolated while pursuing sex or romance.
- I lose interest in friends, hobbies, family, and work.
- I can’t seem to identify or live within my value system.
- I experience more and more episodes of irritability, rage, and restlessness.
Shame sets in when we can’t seem to free ourselves from choosing destructive relationships. Aligning with this shame of failure may follow secret thoughts (lies) of being a bad person, of agreeing that we are unlovable, of accepting we can’t rely on others, or of equating sexuality with love.
Choosing behaviors (masturbation, sex, drugs, food, alcohol, affairs, etc.) that soothe the pain and shame often start before adulthood, but can grow to unmanageability as we age. When we cannot control these behaviors, even in spite of some very negative consequences, we may need to define our actions as sex addiction – the failure to bond with others. We substitute self-soothing, escape, or fantasy for a healthy relationship because we have never learned how to have healthy interactions.
All addictions are – at their foundations – relationally based. The definition given for sobriety in any form is connection. There must also be sobriety from the addictive behaviors, but unless a person becomes connected with others in a healthy way, true sobriety has not been attained.
Effects of Psychological Isolation
Without relationships in our early years, the human brain doesn’t develop properly. Biologically, a child is born to grow and mature in relationships with other people. Hardwired to connection, the female brain (especially) is exquisitely sensitive to her mother. She looks to her for clues about her safety, lovability, and worth. In the absence of a warm, healthy connection with her mother, an infant or child feels lost and alone.
Serotonin and dopamine, the hormones the brain produces with healthy attachment and feelings of well-being, will flourish when a child is nurtured and enjoyed. When there is dysfunction and/or abuse, the isolation this causes alters the chemicals in the brain.
Stress hormones, including adrenaline and norepinephrine, become the chemicals that this child’s brain recognizes as “normal” in relationships. The child is learning to bond with caregivers that create pain and stress, setting up patterns of “attraction” that lead to adult “love” relationships with people who cause them pain, setting up the sex addiction cycle of pain and self-soothing, pain and self-soothing, pain and self-soothing.
The Painful Paradox of Love and Sex Addiction
A person who has bonded to caregivers who caused pain will often find herself spiraling between periods of intense pleasure and unbearable isolation in romantic relationships. This cycle of addiction leads to extreme fatigue and despair. Love and sex addiction allows for a sense of control over the pain, but produces in its wake deep shame. This cycle ends up becoming a form of self-abuse.
The following signs of sex addiction may emerge:
- Increased fear or hopelessness during periods of separation from the relationship
- A lack of trust that your partner is faithful or can handle your needs
- Craving more sex or shutting down sexually
- Changes in eating and/or spending patterns
- Increased use of alcohol or other addictive substances
- Frequent nightmares that leave you feeling insecure and panicked
- Times of extreme anxiety or panic when pursuing ambitions
- Increased isolation from friends and hobbies that once brought you pleasure
- Dampened desire for life that may manifest as depression
Understanding Compulsive Romantic Behavior
Sex addiction is insatiable. There is never enough love, attention, relief, or escape. Because real connection is not happening, many will create escape strategies to adapt in the relationship. Following are some examples:
- Being compliant and nice rather than truthful and real
- Lying and keeping secrets
- Talking nonstop to maintain the appearance of connection
- Misusing food to medicate unpleasant or shameful emotions
- Abusing substances to hide from painful feelings (prescription medication, illegal drugs, alcohol, food, and/or nicotine)
- Working too much, creating chronic fatigue and unavailability
- Creating financial problems through overspending and/or hoarding
- Staying busy to generate intensity outside the relationship and to avoid connection
- Using sarcasm in conversation
- Playing the victim/martyr to gain connection through pity
- Having affairs, both emotional and sexual
- Repeatedly choosing emotionally unavailable partners
The Body Knows
When sexual intensity contains an element of fear, it can be labeled as a “trauma bond.” The trauma keeps drawing you back in even when the consequences are negative. If the following statements seem true to you, you may be at risk for traumatic bonding and benefit from therapeutic focus and intervention. Without healing the original childhood betrayal, a woman will not be able to exit a trauma bond.
- I am drawn to partners who demand sex from me.
- I try to be understood by my partner even when he or she doesn’t care.
- I am unable to attract a healthy partner who could be good for me.
- I go to any length to help a person I know is not healthy for me.
- I think my relationship would end if we stopped having sex for a period of time.
- I want to get away from my partner immediately after we are sexual together.
- I am afraid of my partner.
- I have trouble protecting myself when my partner sexually approaches me.
- I try to change my partner into someone who won’t be abusive to me.
- I don’t trust my partner, but I can’t leave the relationship.
The idea that a mother may not love or be kind or that she might even abandon her daughter is a threatening concept. A mother’s rejection is a threat to survival. We never outgrow our desire for a mother – someone to comfort us when we’re broken, celebrate us when we’re strong. If your mother can’t be this person, you’ve been looking for someone (or something) that can. Mother loss can fuel a painful search for love or need for sex.
The mother-daughter relationship not only helps a daughter form her sense of self, but also helps her comprehend how relationships work with others. Daughters who lose their mothers prematurely experience the following:
- A deep isolation from their remaining family members
- A sharp awareness of death
- Feeling “stuck” emotionally
- Feeling younger than their peers, but often act older
- Look for nurturing from a partner or friend who can’t meet her needs
- Intense abandonment fear and anxiety
If your mother was dismissive, shaming, or physically abusive, you carry a dark, secret belief that something is wrong with you. If isolation is chronic (as in the case of neglect, abuse, and touch deprivation), the child learns to self-soothe. Self-soothing is a substitute for mother-love.
With repeated loss of connection, the brain won’t develop healthy ways to regulate emotions. This is why as an adult you may experience anger outbursts that surprise you and scare others, or tears that seem to come from nowhere. Or on the other hand, you may share very little of your inner thoughts and feelings with others, so nobody gets to know you.
When you’ve decided that you’re addicted to love and sex – and you no longer want to be – you’ve made a powerful first step toward a new life. Denial won’t work anymore. It won’t be fun to repeat your destructive habits. You’re too smart. With new insight comes a healthy desire for change. This flows from a place deep inside that knows you deserve more from life. It comes from having faith that shame and despair aren’t your legacy. You’re meant to be happy. You’re designed for joy.
Healing from sex addiction takes courage and faith. It takes courage to face the feelings you’ve been avoiding for a long time; it requires faith that life will be better for your efforts. There are rewards for your hard work, too.
Eight Benefits of Stopping Addictive Behavior
You will instinctively know when and how to avoid certain situations that put you at risk. Decision making will become easier. You will have less confusion.
- You will learn to trust and accept others as you learn to trust and accept yourself.
- You will learn to take responsibility for your own well-being and happiness, putting self-responsibility in place of self-abuse.
- As you surrender, moment by moment, your obsession with romance and sex, you will develop a stronger spirituality. Spirituality, which is distinct and separate from religion, involves a certain knowing that you are no longer alone in your efforts to heal from past abuse and your sex addiction.
- You will begin to know peace. Solitude will become nourishing rather than frightening or lonely.
- Your shame and perfectionism will diminish, leaving room for authentic feelings of joy, pleasure, humility, and pain.
- You will become honest at expressing who you are in relationships with others. You will experience real intimacy.
- Sexual feelings and expressions will emerge as a result of honest sharing, commitment, and trust in a relationship.
In general, it takes 30 to 90 days to detox from addictive behaviors and get over the minute-by-minute agony and craving. Before recovery starts to feel better, you’ll encounter sadness and loss.
Each day you will be creating new neural pathways that will help you form healthy relationships and make room for feelings that have been depressed for years.
In the next six to twelve months, your brain will be ready to rebuild damaged dreams, and reclaim the life that was taken from you. The first year will be filled with emotional highs and lows. The tools you have used to self-soothe have become a part of yourself. It’s time to let that part go, and begin to establish habits that bring life to you.
It’s not going to feel good. You are facing more than a broken heart and the inability to feel high. You are facing a kind of death- the death of your double life, your second self, and your addict. Your addict’s job was to provide an escape into love and sex.
You are going to feel irritable, tired, hungry, lonely, scared, and confused. You may have headaches and stomach aches. You will begin to feel the original terror of your early childhood abuse and / or psychological isolation.
Rebuilding after Sex Addiction
Recovery means getting back something that was lost. You are recovering the little child and watching her grow up into the woman you want to be. You will experience freedom from fear and anxiety, shame and confusion, and anger and irritability.
In recovery it is no longer acceptable to be deprived. As you reclaim your value and worth, deprivation is unveiled as self-abuse rather than self-control or strength. You learn to embrace the care and love that is now available to you.
Self-acceptance comes with recovery, and replaces the self-hatred that fuels your addictive behavior. Self-acceptance allows you to take an honest look at yourself and have compassion for your mistakes, feel pride for your successes, and join the human race.
Most women addicted to love and sex struggle with self-hatred. By treating your sex and love addiction, you have the opportunity to learn to like being a woman. With new self-love, you’re becoming ready for intimate relationships. Recovery is like basic training for intimacy. Loving takes practice, but in your addiction, no amount of practice could teach you to love.
Reclaiming yourself includes building healthy relationships with women. Learning to have friendships with women is a measure of your own self-love. It will not happen overnight, and you may make some mistakes.
Recovery is a journey, not a destination. As your recovery deepens, so does your capacity for intimacy. You no longer seek to avoid pain, pleasure, or reality. Efforts to manipulate people will disappear. As you shed the trappings of your disease, the former haze covering your days lifts and clears. You no longer wake up filled with dread and anxiety. You find joy in loving others and contributing to their well-being.
You become human – complete with imperfections, vulnerability, and beauty. Recovery prepares you for a whole new life with God and with others.
“Girl on a Beach,” courtesy of Zack Minorm, unsplash.com; “Alone,” courtesy of Joseph Gonzalez, unsplash.com; “A Mother’s Love,” courtesy of Tanja Heffner, unsplash.com; “Walk with Me,” courtesy of London Scout, unsplash.com