Sex and Love Addiction Treatment and Recovery

June 10th, 2024

By P. Casey Arrillaga, LCSW, LCDC

Sex and love addiction [SLA], is a process addiction. If you’re not familiar with that term, check out our previous blog post, “Process Addictions.” Like many process addictions, there is controversy and doubt about sex and love addiction from some people but great hope for others, as they have found recovery from this life-threatening illness. This post will look at what we know so far and what can be done.

What We Know So Far

Sex and love addiction [SLA] is one of two process addictions in which the person is addicted to something that is part of the normal human experience (food addiction is the other). Sex and love are things about which almost everyone has strong feelings and usually has strong desires. Our very biology draws us to engage in romantic and sexual activity. Without this, our species would not survive.

So how can we tell the difference between addiction or normal behavior when it comes to sex and love? After all, poets have said that love is madness and many people have done things sexually that they later regretted. To answer this question, we need to understand a couple of things.

The first is that for something to be an addiction, it must involve obsessive and compulsive thoughts and behaviors. It must cause significant problems in someone’s life. The person suffering from it will often see an increase in the thoughts and behaviors over time. There will be cravings and withdrawal if it has been too long since the behavior has been done. There are often accessory behaviors such as dishonesty and rationalization of the behaviors. At some point, the person with the addiction will want to stop or at least moderate their behaviors, and most will find they cannot stick with that decision without help.

Sex and love addiction qualifies for all of these hallmarks. It involves obsession and compulsion. It can destroy a person’s life. It can cause great damage to those who love them or even come into contact with the addicted person when they are engaged in acting out. The cravings and withdrawal can be very intense, so much so that some of our clients have said their withdrawals from sex and love addiction were worse than what they went through quitting heroin or fentanyl. There can be incredible levels of dishonesty to the point of living complete double lives. Most people with sex and love addiction have made countless promises to themselves and others, meaning every word at the time, and then compulsively gone back to acting out.

The second thing to understand is that sex and love addiction is arguably not really about sex or love. Unlike what some professionals and researchers seem think, it’s not about chasing the orgasm either. It is about obsession, often an obsession for affirmation and escape. Many who suffer from the condition are obsessed with images, fantasies, or situations that replay past trauma, especially sexual trauma. The empty promise of resolution or at least escape never lasts, and soon the internal pressure starts to build once more, demanding another hit. The craving can be for another look at or interaction with the person who will “make it all better,” another pornographic video, another match on a dating app, or another hour lost in fantasy. The guilt and shame of the acting out turns into fuel for more cravings. The cycle can seem endless and despair often sets in.

All of this makes sex and love addiction very hard to beat. Not only is it based in our deepest survival instincts, it is something that cannot be avoided. Even if the person with the addiction dedicated themselves to a lifetime of celibacy, they cannot escape the need for human connection, at least not in any way that leads to a healthy life. Sex and love are part of countless songs, videos, advertisements, and the subject of many common conversations. Even if someone managed to shut themselves off from all media and social contact, the addiction can be found in obsessive fantasy. It has been said that dealing with sex and love addiction is like getting sober from heroin while carrying a lifetime supply of the drug in your pocket. To make things worse, smartphones offer a practically infinite supply of romantic and sexual contacts, images, songs, stories, etc., making the” drugs in your pocket” analogy into a stark reality.

While there are some people who still think sex and love addiction sounds like indulgence in fun and games, those who live with it know it is incredibly demoralizing, and it can lead to depression, anxiety, physical disease, and death. The latter may come from jealous lovers, but most often it is from suicide. There is also a high rate of crossover with chemical addictions and other mental health disorders, along with all the dangers that come with them.

Despite all this, sex and love addiction has not been acknowledged by the American Psychiatric Association, so it is usually not formally diagnosed as such in the United States. The World Health Organization started recognizing compulsive sexual behavior a few years ago, but romantic obsession or love addiction are still not seen as diagnosable disorders.

What Can Be Done?

The lack of professional recognition has not stopped recovery fellowships from forming, starting in the 1970’s and going strong today. The most popular are 12 Step programs based on the model pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous. These include Sex Addicts Anonymous, Sexaholics Anonymous, Love Addicts Anonymous, Sexual Recovery Anonymous, and the all-inclusive Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous. SMART Recovery, Celebrate Recovery, and Recovery Dharma also support recovery around these issues as part of their general help with recovery from any addiction. All of these have regular meetings, publish literature, and have other resources such as websites, podcasts, social media groups, etc.

Help can also be sought through individual therapy. Many therapists now specialize in working with sex and love addiction, although it is best to interview a potential therapist ahead of time to get an idea of their point of view and the treatment they offer for these issues.

Treatment centers are also increasingly offering relief for sex and love addiction. As detailed in our previous blog post, “Process Addictions,” at Windmill we support people with many different conditions, and this certainly includes sex and love addiction. We offer many resources based in Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous [SLAA], as this is the most inclusive. We have a weekly SLAA focused process group for clients to explore how these issues and how they may interact with other addictions and life issues. We have SLAA literature available in our bookstore and recovery coaching offices. We have multiple staff members who are experienced in working with SLAA issues. We provide opportunities for clients to attend online SLAA meetings, and we connect clients to SLAA sponsors if they want that level of support. Most importantly, we offer a safe and supportive environment for clients to recognize, acknowledge, and heal from the unique challenges of sex and love addiction.

The Bottom Line

Sex and love addiction is a real and dangerous disease, one that often destroys lives and can be fatal. Professionals and society may not fully recognize it yet, but there is still help available. This can be found through recovery fellowships, individual therapy, and even residential treatment such as at Windmill Wellness Ranch. If you think you or someone you love may suffer from sex and love addiction, reach out for help today.

About The Author

P. Casey Arrillaga is the Team Leader for Education at Windmill Wellness Ranch, and he is the author of books including “Realistic Hope: The Family Survival Guide for Facing Alcoholism and Other Addictions”.

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