Valentine’s Day is once again upon us. For most happily paired individuals, February 14 is a day of chocolates, roses, and intimate time with a spouse or partner. However, for some more emotionally vulnerable single individuals, V-Day can feel like a cruel, frustrating, unjust reminder of their loneliness and unhappiness. The greatest sufferers are those who rely on an intimate relationship as their primary means of emotional stability and affect management. And while some men do struggle, SLA (Sex and Love Addiction) issues are more often a challenge faced by women, specifically those women for whom not being partnered can destabilize an already fragile ego state. For these “love addicted” ladies, the experience of romance, sexuality, and emotional closeness is, at best, a wildly emotional challenge beset with exuberant highs and painful lows. Living in emotionally chaotic, sometimes desperate worlds of emotional need and psychological despair, they fear being alone, being rejected, getting stuck in the “wrong” relationship, and most of all that they will never find that special someone – or, worse yet, that they will find the “perfect partner” and be deemed unworthy.
Women who struggle with relationship and love addiction spend the bulk of their emotional energy hoping, longing, and searching for the perfect partner – that one person who can make them feel whole. And if they find someone who feels like an imperfect match for that need, they are prepared to meet, ensnare, and cling to the next person. Using wit, flirtatiousness, and outright seductive behavior, these vulnerable women – often with histories of early sexual abuse and/or attachment disorders – perpetually hunger for the intensity of a new romantic connection. They base nearly all of their life choices on this all-consuming desire – what they wear, how much time they spend at the gym, where they live, work, and eat, the car they drive, the pet they own, where they go shopping, etc. Nearly every decision they make is passed through the filter of finding and connecting with their “other half.”
Making Sure Cupid NEVER LEAVES
Love addicts are hooked on the same basic neurochemical rush as sex addicts, and they are often just as detached from the reality of their situation. Much like sex addicts, who sacrifice time, health, money, self-esteem, and focus in pursuit of a sexual high, love addicts neglect personal interests, exercise, self-care, friends, and sometimes even career and family in favor of “the relationship.” The dopaminergic, oxytocin-driven neurochemical rush of “falling in love” is the drug these women use to feel whole, contained, and connected. Romantic intensity is their drug of choice, evoked by fantasy and used compulsively as a way to dissociate from and/or tolerate stressful emotions and underlying issues related to anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, attachment deficits, and trauma.
Like all addicts, love addicted women live in denial about their behavior and its consequences, avoiding responsibility for their troubled relationships by placing the blame for their predicament on the date, lover, partner, or spouse. They try desperately to get these unfortunate individuals to love them the way they want/need to be loved – regardless of whether the other person is willing or even capable of doing so. And when these empty women are unable to get what they want out of a relationship, they either begin to act out romantically yet again, or they (briefly) avoid relationships altogether in an attempt to remedy the problem. Either way, their unconscious and repetitively problematic approach to love and relationships traps them in a downward spiral of poor relationship choices (based more on need than companionship), further longing, regret, and loss.
Common signs of love addiction include:
- Constantly craving and searching for a romantic relationship
- Using romantic intensity to tolerate difficult experiences or emotions
- Struggling to maintain an intimate relationship once the newness and excitement have worn off
- Mistaking intense sexual experiences and new romantic excitement for love
- Feeling desperate and alone when not in a relationship
- Using sex, seduction, and manipulation (guilt/shame) to hook or hold onto a partner
- When in a relationship, being desperate to please and fearful of the other’s unhappiness
- Giving up important interests, beliefs, or friendships to maximize time in the relationship or to please a romantic partner
- A history of short, failed relationships where sex is the primary bond
- A pattern of inappropriate sexual relationships (i.e., with a boss or a married man)
- When not in a relationship, compulsively using sex and fantasy to fill the loneliness
- Choosing partners who are emotionally unavailable and/or verbally or physically abusive
- Choosing partners who demand a great deal of attention and caretaking but who do not meet, or even try to meet, your emotional or physical needs
While all people may exhibit some of the above signs at least occasionally, especially during our adolescent and young adult experimental years, love addicts demonstrate well-established and consistent patterns involving one or more (usually more) or these behaviors, resulting over time in ongoing and escalating negative life consequences.
Many female love addicts who present for treatment arrive with co-occurring disorders that must also be dealt with. In fact, romantic/love addiction is most often recognized only after a woman seeks help for a related condition such as drug/alcohol addiction or an eating disorder. Essentially, a lot of the women who seek help for love addiction only do so after they’ve sought help for substance abuse, an eating disorder, or some other issue and treatment has failed (or they’ve been asked to leave), directly related to their sexual/romantic behaviors. The Ranch, a gender-separate sex and love addiction treatment facility in Tennessee, actually specializes in women who have failed in treatment elsewhere because of their problematic sexual or romantic behaviors. Many such women act out sexually in similar ways to a male sex addict, but they will not seek therapy or treatment for a “sexual problem” as would a man. Instead, they are much more likely to present in therapy as having “problems with relationships,” as they view their objectified search as being about “love” as opposed to sex.
Clinical work with this population can feel like playing a game of Whac-a-mole – whack the addictive behavior and depression pops up; deal with the eating disorder and the client is off and running in another abusive relationship. One problem pops up, and while you’re busy pounding it down another problem emerges. One sad reality is these women often are seemingly unable to remain sober from drugs and alcohol. In their desperate search for love/sex they set up situations involving partners who use, and they relapse. Or they simply drink or use to alleviate their intolerable feelings of shame and loneliness. When treating such individuals, the problem behaviors (love addiction, sexual acting out, alcoholism, etc.) need to be addressed in treatment prior to or simultaneously with the underlying disorder (depression, anxiety, childhood trauma, etc.). If you don’t deal with both, the client may not heal from either.
Treating Female Love Addicts
The approach to treating love addiction is very much the same as the approach to treating sexual addiction. This should not be surprising since love addicts, like sex addicts, are searching for something outside of themselves – a person, relationship, or experience (read: object) that will provide them with the emotional and life stability they lack internally. In other words, both sex and love addicts use their highly stimulating sexual and/or romantic experiences as a way to “fix” themselves and feel emotionally stable.
Typically, recovering love addicts require long-term external reinforcement and support if they wish to permanently change their deeply rooted patterns of behavior. To this end, addiction-focused group therapy is strongly recommended. Generally a treatment specialist works with a group of six to eight women utilizing a structured, high-accountably, cognitive behavioral methodology. This facilitated group setting allows patients to see that their problem is not unique, which helps to reduce the shame, remorse, and guilt associated with sexual and relational acting out. The group format is also ideal for confronting the denial and rationalizations common among love addicts. Such confrontation is powerful not only for the addict being confronted, but also for the women doing the confronting, helping everyone present learn how personal denial and rationalization sustain addiction. Patients are also able to learn what works and what doesn’t based on other members’ experience, strength, and hope. Keep in mind that no woman (or man for that matter) will openly and honestly discuss these issues in a mixed mental health or addiction group; the issues and behaviors are just too personal. A heterogeneous group of women who share similar problems with sex, intimacy, and relationships – with a group focus on those specific issues – is nearly always required for an effective long-term outcome. Additionally, love addicts should attend 12-step meetings, preferably Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous. Some SLAA meetings are open to anyone who wishes to attend; others are open only to those who identify as a sex or love addict. A few meetings are gender specific, which can be helpful in terms of providing women with a safe, supportive environment.
It is imperative to also keep in mind that female love addicts often struggle with substance abuse and other addictive behaviors. A failure to recognize and address the full spectrum of a woman’s addictive issues can result in her moving from one problem to another without ever achieving full remission of her symptoms. Oftentimes multi-addicted women will strongly benefit from the containment and structure of residential treatment programs designed specifically to anticipate and meet their individual needs.