Process Addictions

What is Relationship and Sexual Addiction?

Relationship addiction and sexual addiction, also known as sex and love addiction, are different intimacy disorders that share similar characteristics. Learn more about each of them.

What is Sex Addiction

Sex addiction is also known as hypersexuality or compulsive sexual behavior disorder (CSBD). An individual with a sex addiction is unable to control sexual urges and behaviors. It is characterized by failure (despite the addict’s efforts) to control or curtail sexual behavior even though such behavior leads to harmful consequences. Sex addiction can interfere with daily life and, without treatment, can eventually result in serious physical, social, and psychological complications.

Someone who is addicted to sex, also known as a sex addict, engages in sexual behaviors that are compulsive, concealed, and obsessive. Rather than integrating sex into life and relationships, someone with a sexual addiction may use sex as a means of coping with stress, dealing with loneliness, handling boredom, and feeling important or powerful. Like other forms of addiction, a person with sex addiction will develop tolerance to sexual behavior so that they must engage in more and/or riskier or more intense sexual behavior to achieve the same high. They will also experience withdrawal symptoms when not engaging in sexual activity. Some individual with sex addiction also suffer from cybersex addiction, a type of internet addiction disorder. Cybersex addiction involves compulsive cybersex, pornography viewing, and other sex-related online behaviors.

Love Addiction and How It Compares to Sex Addiction

Love addiction, on the other hand, is characterized by an addiction to romance or fantasy rather than sexual acts. A person with love addiction operates with a push and pull emotional charge and is continually in chaotic relationships. Someone experiencing love addiction may use sexual behavior as a means to pull another person into a romantic relationship.

Similar to sex addiction, an individual with love addiction is unable to either stop engaging in potentially harmful sexual acts or can’t discontinue a relationship with a sexual partner despite negative consequences. In both types of intimacy disorders, the individual is preoccupied with thoughts about sex or the person they are in a relationship with (or the person they are trying to be in a relationship with) on a daily basis.

How Does Sexual Addiction and Love Addiction Affect the Body and Brain?

Both relationship addiction and sexual addiction are behavioral or process disorders. In the case of sex or love addiction, sexual activity triggers the reward system in the brain, releasing neurotransmitters associated with pleasure. As with other process disorders, when the behavior occurs repeatedly, the brain can become dependent on the behavior to stimulate the reward system. When this happens, the person seeks more and more of the behavior in order to get the good feelings associated with it.

Over long periods of time, the person becomes addicted to the behaviors and has to repeat them more and more in order to gain that good or pleasurable feeling again. When they are not engaging in the behavior or are attempting to stop it, withdrawal can occur.

This is very similar to how the brain responds to chronic substance use. However, a substance is not what is inducing pleasurable feelings; instead, it is behaviors like sex or chasing romance. The high the person with the addiction gets, though, is very much the same.

Negative Health Impacts of Sexual Compulsivity in Sex or Love Addiction

It’s important to understand that sex addicts and some love addicts are at greater risk for certain negative health impacts such as sexually transmitted infections (STI).

Additionally, people with both sex and love addiction can inadvertently put themselves in dangerous and risky situations when pursuing sex. For instance, they may meet someone they only know online or through a dating app to have sex. This can put them in harm’s way in the case that the person isn’t stable and intends to do them harm. In fact, continuing to engage in the behavior despite the dangers is one sign of a sex or love addiction.

Signs and Symptoms of Relationship and Sexual Addiction

Signs and Symptoms of Sexual Addiction

The signs and symptoms for sex addiction are varied but include some of the following:

  • Continued, obsessive and/or compulsive behaviors, despite interference with everyday life
  • A need to increase the intensity, frequency, or risk of sexual behaviors in order to achieve the same desired effects (tolerance)
  • Increased isolation
  • Losing track of time when engaging in sexual behaviors
  • Failure to resist impulses
  • Withdrawal symptoms when behaviors are discontinued
  • Obsession with sexual thoughts and behaviors
  • Feelings of distress, anxiety, restlessness, and, in rare cases, violence if unable to engage in sexual behavior

As sex addiction progresses some of the behaviors can increase in riskiness and intensity. Some of these behaviors can include:

  • Multiple affairs
  • Multiple and/or anonymous sexual partners
  • Compulsive masturbation
  • Porn addiction
  • Using sex workers for sex
  • Engaging in unsafe sex
  • Exhibitionism
  • Sexual harassment
  • Sexual abuse
  • Molestation
  • Rape

Signs and Symptoms of Love Addiction

There is overlap between the symptoms of sex addiction and symptoms of love addiction. Here are some signs and symptoms of love addiction:

  • Continuing to see someone even though they are destructive to you

  • Feeling ‘high’ from being with the person or interacting with them

  • Feeling ‘high’ from fantasies about a specific person or romance

  • Being in a relationship or more than one to escape reality or problems

  • Feeling anxious when not with a partner or lover

Overall, the inability to stop the behavior despite negative consequences is a strong sign of a sex addiction and/or love addiction.

Signs and Symptoms of Relationship and Sexual Addiction Withdrawal

Love and sex addiction are different from substance use disorders in that there is not a drug-related physical withdrawal component. However, process addictions still spur the dopamine in the brain as do drugs and alcohol and some of the withdrawal symptoms are similar, such as:

  • Exhaustion and fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Anger
  • Loneliness
  • Obsessive thinking
  • Denial

Withdrawal and tolerance are two of the fundamental principles in identifying addiction. When a person stops or even cuts down on their behaviors associated with sex or love addiction and experiences withdrawal symptoms, it’s usually a telltale sign of addiction.

Consequences of Relationship Addiction and Sexual Addiction

Many people misunderstand sex and love addiction and mistakenly believe that the consequences aren’t that bad. However, sex and love addiction can cause major problems for not only the person with the process addiction but also for partners of sex addicts and those with love addiction and other loved ones.

Some of the consequences of love and sex addiction include:

  • Decreased self-esteem for individual and family members
  • Increased levels of stress
  • Increased levels of anxiety
  • Lack of trust
  • Increased anger and arguments
  • Financial issues (money is spent on pornography, strip clubs, prostitutes or jobs are lost)
  • Increased divorce, domestic abuse, and relationship issues
  • Increased risk for substance use problems
  • Severe and intense mood swings
  • Legal problems
  • Increased risk of getting and transmitting STIs to romantic partners

The effects of addiction—whether to a process or substance—can be detrimental, especially for children in families with either a substance or behavior addiction. It’s vital to seek treatment for love addiction or sex addiction.

Treatment For Relationship and Sexual Addiction

Various types of therapies are helpful in treating love and sex addiction—including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), psychotherapy, and support groups. Processing through the causes of the sex or love addiction, as well as replacing the thoughts associated with the behaviors are essential in recovery from these types of addictions.

Additionally, like other addictions, once clinical sex addiction treatment is over, the need for support groups is essential to maintain recovery. Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA) is a 12-Step program that helps people recovering from sex and love addictions. With dedication and work, sex-addicted people can learn to set healthy boundaries and have meaningful, healthy relationships.

At Caron, we believe recovery from addiction is possible. Learn more about our approach to process addiction treatment for disorders like sex and love addiction online or call us at 1-800-854-6023.

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