Sex and Love Addiction

Yes, love and sex can be addictive—and as destructive, at least socially, as compulsive substance use. The high hinges on physical or psychological arousal, and relationships can be marked by desperation. Successful treatment begins with stress management.


Love addicts go through life with desperate hopes and constant fears. Fearing rejection, pain, unfamiliar experiences, and having little faith in their ability or right to inspire love, they wait and wish for love, perhaps their least familiar real experience.

Addictive sexuality is like most other compulsive behaviors: a destructive twist on a normal life-enhancing activity. Defining sex addiction depends less on the behavior itself than on the person's motivation.

Sex addicts lack the ability to control or postpone sexual feelings and actions, with the need for arousal often replacing the need for intimacy. Eventually, thrill seeking becomes more important than family, career, even personal health and safety.

The sex addict follows a routine or ritual leading to acting out on desires, and is then fraught by feelings of denial then shame, despair, and confusion.

Addiction is characterized by the repeated, compulsive seeking or use of a substance or activity despite negative social, psychological and/or physical consequences. It is often (but not always) accompanied by physical dependence, withdrawal syndrome and tolerance.

Withdrawal consists of a predictable group of signs resulting from abrupt removal of, or a rapid decrease in the dosage of, a psychoactive substance or activity. The syndrome is often characterized by overactivity of the physiologic functions that were suppressed by the drug and/or depression of the functions that were stimulated by the object of addiction.

Tolerance is a state in which a drug or activity produces a diminishing response. That is to say, higher doses (or in the case of sex addicts, riskier behavior) is needed to produce the same effect that the user experienced initially.


For love addicts, love:

  • Is all consuming and obsessive
  • Is inhibited
  • Avoids risk or change
  • Lacks true intimacy
  • Is manipulative, strikes deals
  • Is dependent and parasitic
  • Demands the loved one's devotion

Sexual addictions usually are revealed in stages:

  • Preoccupation: continual fantasies about sexual prospects or situations, which can trigger episodes of sexual "acting-out"
  • Ritualization: a preferred sexual activity or situation is often stereotyped and repetitive
  • Compulsion: continual engagement in sexual activity despite negative consequences and desire to stop
  • Despair: guilt or shame over inability to control behavior or feel remorse
  • Other behavioral problems, particularly chemical dependency and eating disorders


In the situation of love addicts, often their own growth and development were thwarted earlier in life. Similarly, many sex addicts report some type of abuse or neglect as children and see themselves as damaged. Their parents are often sex addicts themselves.

Stress also encourages compulsive sexual behavior by feeding the addict's need for withdrawal and fantasy.

Levels of phenylethylamine (PEA)—a chemical in the brain involved in the euphoria that comes with falling in love—rise with feelings of infatuation, boosting euphoria and excitement.

Love and sex addicts, may simply be dependent upon the physical and psychological arousal triggered by PEA and stress-related neurotransmitters.


Overcoming sexual compulsion and addiction starts with recognizing that you are out of control in this area. You will need to take a hard look at yourself and the problems—emotional, physical, or financial—caused by your behavior.

If you are in an addictive relationship, you may want to seek professional assistance. Specialized counseling is available for those dealing directly or indirectly with this form of addiction.

Treatment should probably involve at least some of the following:

  • A commitment to abstinence
  • Rebuilding relationships
  • Managing stress
  • Self-help

Some treatment for sex addicts follows the format employed by alcoholics, viewing addicts as individuals trapped in a vicious cycle in spite of their attempts to change. The model, which is strongly based on 12-step programs, focuses on three elements of the cycle:

  • Use of sex
  • Self-judgment
  • Avoidance behaviors

The elements of the addictive cycle are impacted by a process created by using:

  • A therapeutic environment
  • A thorough assessment
  • A group process
  • Education
  • Self/peer assessment

These techniques are incorporated into a therapeutic process, which begins with the first contact.

The creation of an environment that supports the therapeutic process is essential to this approach. Clients must be provided with an opportunity to explore their self-judgments without fear of the judgment of others, and they must feel they are listened to with empathy and respect. In earlier models of this approach, the counselor was the only one who possessed so-called counselor characteristics. Although this element is still critical, it now applies to the whole multidisciplinary team, a staff of professionals who are therapeutic.

The counselor conducts an initial assessment, identifies the problem, and, if indicated, schedules the client for treatment.

A thorough assessment is conducted, and any problems or blocks to treatment are noted. The counselor begins the bonding with the client during the assessment, and then prepares a therapeutic or treatment plan (the change model) to help the client deal with any blocks that will prevent response to the treatment process.

Find a Treatment Program here.


  • North City Psychological Group, San Diego, CA
  • Addicted to Love: Sex, Love and Compulsion
Last reviewed 11/24/2014