Many people come to therapy for addictive behavior, but have a difficult time understanding exactly what they are addicted to. Although sex and love addiction have some similar features and can often happen simultaneously, they are different. They can be confused very easily just as love and sex are often confused or used interchangeably. Luckily, although they are different, they can both be treated.
Patrick Carnes, author of “Facing the Shadow” and sex addiction treatment expert, defines sex addiction as “a pathological relationship with a mood-altering experience”. It is considered an intimacy disorder that is often characterized through compulsive sexual thoughts and behaviors. Much like a chemical addiction, in sex addiction, people develop a tolerance, experience withdrawal, continue engaging in the behavior despite negative consequences, and have a difficult time stopping. Sex addiction can involve various types of sexual behaviors such as masturbation, sexual relationships with numerous partners, pornography use and collection, voyeurism, exhibitionism, and virtual sex.
Pia Mellody, author of “Facing Love Addiction,” defines love addiction as “dependence on, enmeshment with, and compulsive focus on taking care of another person”. She differentiates this from codependence by defining codependence as a “disease of immaturity caused by childhood trauma”. Although some people can develop love addiction from codependence, they are not one and the same. Love addicts have several defining features. Firstly, they attribute a disproportionate amount of time, attention, and value to the person they are addicted to. Secondly, they often have unrealistic expectations of how they should be treated by the other person. And thirdly, they have difficulty caring for and valuing themselves when they are involved in a relationship.
Both love and sex addiction have 12-step programs. There are therapists who specialize in the treatment of both, and there are groups/communities for people in recovery for either addiction. However, there is a greater availability for residential and intensive outpatient treatment for sex addiction than there is for love addiction.
During recovery for both addictions, people are often asked to abstain from their addictive behaviors for a period of time before re-engaging in them in a more mindful manner. For sex addicts, these behaviors may include masturbation, sex, watching pornography, going to strip clubs or massage parlors, or soliciting prostitutes. For love addicts, these behaviors may include dating, sex, or communicating with romantic interests. In both cases, “sobriety” is very individual and each person’s recovery program may look different, depending on the compulsive behaviors and on the person’s ability to manage their urges. Many people experience sex and love addiction at the same time and benefit from simultaneous recovery and treatment for both. Regardless, it is a good idea to find a therapist who understands the difference between the two and has experience treating them.