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Sex and Love Addiction: What's the Difference?

Both sex and love addiction are intimacy disorders, but they're not the same.

Robert is a subdued, depressed 35-year-old interior designer who began compulsively masturbating at age nine to anaesthetize himself from the neglect and verbal abuse he suffered from his chemically addicted parents.

Over time, his childhood ritual morphed into anonymous sex in public bathrooms and with strangers he meets in Internet chat rooms. His partner is threatening to leave him and his daily acting-out detours have hurt his career. He experiences intense shame and self-loathing after each anonymous sexual encounter. He has no idea why he continues to put his personal and professional lives at risk and is unable to stop his behaviors.

Clarissa is a stunning 32-year-old public relations executive who jettisoned a brief early marriage when the sexual intensity cooled. Hooked on the "high" of the chase, she pursues rich, unavailable men — similar to her rich, unavailable father — convinced she will achieve psychological nirvana if she can get one of them to commit to her.

On the occasions when an object of desire does become fixated on her, Clarissa's sexual interest dive-bombs and she's on to the next man whom she believes holds the Holy Grail of Romance. She longs to settle down and start a family but can't sustain an interest in an available partner. Her mood, appetite, and sleep patterns carom wildly as she ping-pongs from man to man. Like Robert, she has no idea why she can't stop her pattern of destructive behavior and sustain a meaningful relationship.

Both Robert and Clarissa suffered emotional deprivation in childhood. Both have developed rituals to mask the wounds that never healed. While their motivation and end result--despair--are the same, their acting-out blueprints are different.

A classic sex addict, Robert is more attached to specific sex acts and sexual encounters than to people. His style of relating is detached, aloof, and avoidant — thus his preference for nameless, interchangeable sex partners. Some of the criteria of sex addiction include:

  • Preoccupation with sexual behavior or preparatory activities
  • Inordinate amounts of time spent in obtaining sex, being sexual, or recovering from sexual experiences
  • Need to increase the intensity, frequency, number or risk level of behaviors to achieve the desired effect
  • Distress, anxiety, restlessness, or irritability if unable to engage in the behavior

Clarissa's compulsions are more indicative of a love addict. Her interactive style is labile, with a come-here/go-away emotional charge that is echoed in her chaotic relationships. Clarissa's "drug" of choice is less about sex than about a particular romantic experience. Below is a partial list of love addiction symptoms:

  • Unable to stop seeing a specific person even though you know that person is destructive to you
  • Gets "high" from romance, fantasy or intrigue
  • Having "relationships" to try to deal with or escape from life's problems
  • Feeling desperation or uneasiness when away from your lover or sexual partner

Sex addiction and love addiction are both intimacy disorders. Preoccupation with the sexual act or the idealized, fantasy relationship acts as a barrier between the addict and another person. Individuals like Robert and Clarissa need specialized treatment to give up their unhealthy attachments to sex and/or fantasy in order to be present in a genuine, intimate relationship with an available partner.

More from Alexandra Katehakis Ph.D., MFT
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