While not without controversy, experts in the field of addiction agree that a pattern of sexual behaviors or love fantasies exists between men and women that poses risks and harm to them, and takes increasing control of their lives and relationships.

Though it may sound surreal, there is a phenomenon known as “sex and love addiction.”

In the main, it is often misunderstood as adultery, cheating or affairs. It is that, yet much more.

  • The controversy surrounding sex and love addiction has been replete with misunderstandings and misinformation.

In research, it is known as “love,” “romance” or “sex” addiction or compulsivity.

After decades of research, most experts in the field agree, the debate is no longer on whether these behavior patterns exist, but rather on identifying the symptoms, types, causes and best course of treatment.

It is now recognized as a treatable and diagnosable problem, with symptoms that closely parallel other more “traditional” addictions, such as alcohol, food and drugs.

Addicted persons typically find their lives increasingly more complicated by secrecy, lies, and other compulsive behaviors. Many of the behaviors that accompany addiction are defensive in nature, that is, they are designed to help the addicted person avoid, hide or numb what they fear most: deep existential fears, such as fear of rejection, abandonment, loss of self and, or inadequacy, inherent to intimacy.

  • The discovery of the brain’s neural operating systems have helped us understand these addictive self- and life-harming patterns.

We now better understand how intoxicating highs stimulate the “reward” centers of the brain in addictions.

The high is produced by pleasure-inducing neurochemicals, in particular, one known as dopamine. This chemical messenger, or neurotransmitter, plays a major role in the formation of addictions as it transmits “teaching” signals to the part of the brain responsible for acquiring new habits and behaviors. Offering a rush similar to adrenaline, dopamine affects brain processes that control emotional responses of pain and pleasure — and also determine what actions we take.

Unlike other addictions, what makes sex and love compulsivity even more addictive is the emotion of “fear” that accompanies most “infidelity,” a mixing of emotions pleasure and fear that intensifies the release of dopamine.

Author and national expert on addiction and recovery, Patrick Carnes, Ph.D., credits the study of sex and love addiction with a greater understanding of all addictions in general.

In his book, Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sex Addiction, he states the following:

“As a result of our increasing awareness of sex addiction, we know more about the addictive family system, the neurochemistry of addictions, the role of child abuse in addictions, and the impact of shame on addictive behavior.  As eating disorders have helped us understand healthy eating, so sex addiction has provided us with new perspectives on healthy sex.  The women’s movement, the men’s movement, pornography, AIDS, sex offenders, sexual harassment–many of our most divisive or controversial issues are sexual ones, and they take on new shades of meaning within the context of sex addiction.” (p. xii)

  • The term “sex addiction” itself understandably triggers strong reactions.

The mere intimation of a “sex addiction” often causes some uproar, with vocal protests of “What? Sex addiction? Me? No way!”

The reaction may be due to denial and shame that are characteristic of addiction, however, more so in sex and love addiction. Sexuality, after all, is so personal to us. It’s the first thing others note about us, even at birth when they announce, “It’s a girl or it’s a boy!” Thus, the protests make sense as a protective strategy.

Another reason for the protests is that, for many, the thought of a “sex addiction” conjures up images of cruising for sex around the clock, whereas this is rarely the case.

More often, sex and love addiction have less to do with sex (and, in some cases, does not involve sex), and more to do with how persons experience their sexuality. A defining characteristic of a person with sex and love addiction is the inability to develop healthy emotional intimacy and relate to a sex partner as a human being, and instead to regard them as an object for the purpose of sexual arousal.

  • A final explanation for why people react defensively to the label is that it goes against the grain of old cultural beliefs and values.

Despite attempts since the 1970s to establish healthy sexual patterns between men and women, mass media and entertainment industries deserve much of the credit for their role in blocking these efforts.

In a cultural milieu that has increasingly portrayed porn and junk-sex values as norm—and that measures success in sexual relations based on performance, frequency, number of partners, and emotional detachment — it can seem confusing to learn that certain behavior patterns that have been portrayed as “cool” on TV and movies, in actuality, represent an illness that is devastating to the lives of individuals and their partners, and in many cases, children and other loved ones involved.

Another protest is the claim that the label of “sex addiction” lets people “off the hook,” absolving them of responsibility for their actions. Typically involving celebrities or political figures, it seems yet another smokescreen, however.

In truth, our culture has reacted to infidelity in one of two defensive extremes. On the one hand, the powers that be tend to glorify sexual acting-out, particularly for men in positions of power. At best, it is viewed as normal “boys will be boys” behavior. Increasingly, mass media and entertainment have appealed to women to adopt sexual habits previously reserved for men to “prove” equality (as if junk values can ever prove one’s “worth”).

This approach denies or minimizes the harm caused to both men and women, and love relationships in general, by defining sex as a weapon to dominate.

At the other extreme, we harshly condemn, ostracize, punish “wrongdoers” as evil, bad, and so on (or at least outwardly profess to do so). In fact, it is not unusual and rather familiar to find that some of the most condemning voices later find themselves targets of accusations in their own sex-blunders.

This punitive approach also fails to address or resolve the real issues men and women face in creating healthy fun, friendship and passion in their love relationship.

  • Old social ideals block approaches that would genuinely heal intimate relations between men and women.

Sex and love addiction has deep roots in cultural values that perpetuate a view of power as either a weapon to dominate or a venue for the “mighty” to express anger, rage, hatred against those who symbolize weakness or difference. Starting with Plato and Aristotle, philosophers in Western civilizations have long promoted “might makes right” ideals as proof of self-worth and masculinity.

Though dominance as a value on the battlefield may make sense, hierarchy and competition in a love relationship harm and block the formation of emotional intimacy.

In an article from the book Co-Dependency, An Emerging Issue, Robert Subby described codependency as:

“An emotional, psychological, and behavioral condition that develops as a result of an individual’s prolonged exposure to, and practice of, a set of oppressive rules — rules which prevent the open expression of feelings as well as the direct discussion of personal and interpersonal problems.”

In her groundbreaking book, Codependent No More, Melanie Beattie describes one common denominator in codependency as “having a relationship…with troubled, needy or dependent people.” The same can be said of addicted persons. Both the addicted and co-addicted are “troubled, needy, dependent” – the main difference being how the neediness manifests itself. Beattie goes on to describe a second common denominator in family systems with codependency and addiction as follows:

“…the unwritten, silent rules that usually develop in the immediate family and set the pace of relationships. These rules prohibit discussion about problems; open expression of feelings; direct, honest communication; realistic expectations, such as being human, vulnerable, or imperfect; selfishness; trust in other people and one’s self; playing and poking fun; and rocking the delicately balanced family canoe through growth or change — however healthy and beneficial that movement might be.”

  • As relationship beings, dominance fails us – as we are not designed to relate to one another in ways that easily activate our survival fears.

The latest findings in neuroscience tell us that the human brain is a relationship organ, and that what most motivates us to act are our inner strivings to love and meaningfully connect. We seek to care for and contribute to one another’s well being because, in doing so, these actions keep our bodies and minds healthy and strong.

When we do not feel safe in our relationships, automatically, our brains go into fight or flee mode. Over time, we “perceive” one another as #1 enemies (during conflict in particular). This causes other problems. It blocks us from the closeness and emotional intimacy we desire.

Sex and love addictions, like other compulsions, speak to a fear of intimacy. In one way or another, most of us, both men and women, have been socialized to use defensive ways of relating when we feel stressed. They are widespread.

We came by these methods honestly, learning them in childhood. In varying degree, even in the best of childhoods, our parents instilled us with fear, shame or guilt to get us to cooperate. They thought they had to, and most parents still do. Later in life, we brought these punitive tactics to our love relationships, and used them to express our anger when we felt hurt or to “teach” them to better cooperate with us.

Unless we change them, these old patterns imprinted in childhood tend to endure.

Punitive ways of dominating or diminishing one another’s worth, however, never work. They also leave both partners feeling powerless, resentful, etc.

In couple relationships, sex and love addictive relating patterns, defensiveness and other dominance tactics are like junk food.

  • They have been normalized by culture, and reinforced by mass media and entertainment (with “profit” motives).
  • They have caused widespread addictions.
  • They never really satisfy as they are only quick-fixes.
  • They overstimulate our senses to where we crave bigger and more frequent doses.
  • They eventually dampen our ability to take any pleasure from them.
  • They take center stage in our lives and push out every thing and person, dream and activity, we once held dear.
  • They eventually destroy health, physical, emotional, mental.

Whereas the richest industrialized country in the world should be free of addictions, healthy and educated — compared to industrialized nations, we are instead the most addicted, least healthy, and toward the bottom in literacy.

Sex and love addiction patterns of relating are not even on the radar screen, yet individuals with addictive relating patterns, and their families are hurting, my guess is, in crisis proportions.

It’s time to awaken cultural values that normalize the healthiest conditions possible for human beings to heal and grow, as individuals and couples, families and communities.



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From Psych Central's website:
PsychCentral (April 17, 2011)

Elena Lau (April 17, 2011)

Elena Lau (April 17, 2011)

Athena Staik, Ph.D. (April 17, 2011)

Wendy Rawley (April 17, 2011)

Nanda Jansen (April 17, 2011)

Debi Levine (April 17, 2011)

Stop Cheating (April 17, 2011)

Debi Levine (April 17, 2011)

Athena Staik, Ph.D. (April 17, 2011)

From Psych Central's website:
PsychCentral (April 18, 2011)

From Psych Central's World of Psychology:
Best of Our Blogs: April 19, 2011 | World of Psychology (April 19, 2011)

Athena Staik, Ph.D. (April 20, 2011)

Dreams.jasee.info » Blog Archive » Best of Our Blogs: April 19, 2011 (April 25, 2011)

Is It Infidelity or Cultural Values That Normalize Addictive Patterns of (Sexual) Relating? « A Textbook of Love (April 26, 2011)

    Last reviewed: 22 Oct 2011

APA Reference
Staik, A. (2011). Is It Infidelity or Cultural Values That Normalize Addictive Patterns of (Sexual) Relating?. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 30, 2014, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/relationships/2011/04/is-it-infidelity-or-cultural-values-that-normalize-addictive-patterns-of-sexual-relating/



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