Emotions and the sex addict: what is love?
“The Eskimos had fifty-two names for snow because it was important to them: there ought to be as many for love.” Margaret Atwood
There seems to be a cliche in our culture that every sex addict is a cold-hearted sociopath devoid of caring. The truth is that sex addicts report a wide range of complex emotions, but typically haven’t learned a healthy relational model for appropriately expressing and regulating their emotions.
As it is, love is a most mysterious feeling. It is often interchanged with more technically specific feelings of longing, preoccupation, attraction, affinity, appreciation, validation, comfort, commitment, and security. When we speak of love, it is very easy to get lost among assumptions and projections. This is because, perhaps more than any other emotion, love means something different to everyone. Love will even mean something different to the same person at different times.
Even non-addicts may occasionally find themselves questioning the nature, reality, and consequence of love in their lives. Such confusion might be traced to conflicting information that is perpetuated about sex and love around the world. We don’t have to look very far to find strange and distorted concepts about the true nature of sex and love in any culture.
Sex addicts and expressions of love
Often sex addicts first get into treatment to save a relationship (sex addiction and marriage are rarely compatible). In treatment, sex addicts who relate with any of the 10 types of sex addiction do report feelings of love. While it might seem that the reasons for cheating are to get out of a relationship, most sex addicts I’ve met do not want to get out of their primary relationship. They express genuine love for their partner, whatever that looks like.
At the same time, sex addicts will sometimes express momentary feelings of love for prostitutes and other acting out partners. Contrary to all these feelings, there can be a complete avoidance of love in any relationship. This raises many questions, with no easy answers. How can the sex addict feel love and yet show such lack of caring through their actions? Are sex addicts deceptive or truthful when they say they love?
A sex addict typically sexualizes situations and tries to manipulate outcomes. The sex addict brain will use people, places and things to escape reality. This is not an honest and transparent way to interact. Some addicts might even think they’re being honest, might think they love, but they might be in denial and might not actually know that they’re being deceptive. Others might experience a clear awareness that they are being deceptive when proclaiming their love, but they too might be in denial and might be avoiding true feelings of love.
An addict is emotionally unavailable
If there is one trait that applies to all sex addicts, and all types of addicts, it is emotional unavailability. What does this mean?
All addictions serve to numb overwhelming feelings of stress and trauma through substance abuse. In the case of sex addiction, addicts will compulsively substitute pornography, prostitutes, binge sex, stalking, obsessing for appropriate feeling and relating. Feeling and relating are two aspects of intimacy. In fact, sex addiction is often referred to as an intimacy disorder. Intimacy is related to the verb “to intimate”: to make known. Sex addicts are usually incapable of making themselves truly known as they often lack the tools for healthy self-knowledge.
Most addicts have suffered trauma – either in childhood through early neglect or abuse, or later on in life through a pivotal traumatic event. When such events have not healed, we refer to this as unprocessed trauma. It’s possible that the love experienced between an addict and co-addict might more aptly be described as a form of trauma bonding.
Early childhood attachment patterns
There are four basic attachment patterns that are imprinted during infancy. These are secure, insecure-ambivalent, insecure-avoidant and disorganized/disoriented. Secure attachment is established when the primary caretaker is able to relate appropriately with the child by sharing love and affection, responding to the child’s needs in a timely manner, setting healthy boundaries that support the psychological growth of the child, and repairing any disruptions to these interactions. Repairing is one of the most important stages for secure attachment and will impart a healthy model for how to repair difficulties in any relationship with tools for handling stress and trauma.
Without a significant psychological event establishing a new pattern, these four infancy attachment patterns will develop into the following four adult attachment patterns:
- Secure Attachment – A relational pattern typified by the capacity for healthy intimacy.
- Anxious-Preoccupied Attachment – A relational pattern typified by a general need for enmeshment at the expense of intimacy.
- Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment – A relational pattern typified by a general need for independence at the expense of intimacy.
- Fearful-Avoidant Attachment – A relational pattern typified by a general need for self-protection at the expense of intimacy.
Secure attachment and intimacy is possible
Through therapeutic treatment and/or recovery in support groups and 12-Step programs, sex addicts learn new patterns of secure attachment implicitly modeled for them by therapists, support groups, and sponsors. In therapy, this is called Empathic Attunement, the capacity to connect, resonate and calibrate with a client’s state of being for the purpose of developing relational intimacy as a continuous and dynamic process.
Creating secure patterns of attachment is a slow process that actually changes the neural pathways of the sex addict’s brain that were established over a lifetime. To use a simile, it is like re-routing a nation’s transport infrastructure to reach a remote island – and the remote island is healthy love. Healthy love is a place that is not accessible to the sex addict, but it resides inside all of us. With the help of a higher power (higher than the sex addict’s own overpowering addiction – be it therapist, support group, or sponsor,) the sex addict can develop reliable tools to locate and develop true healthy love.
Questions about sex addiction and love
Do you have questions about sex addiction and love? Do you want to bring some light to your own personal experience as a sex addict? Please leave your questions, comments and feedback here. We do our best to respond to all comments with a personal and prompt reply ASAP.