Can you be addicted to love? How about sex?
People often confuse couples in open relationships with sex addicts, or accusing us of being love addicts. Many people believe that if someone has more than one sexual or romantic partner, they must be a sex addict. If we explain that polyamory is not just about sex, it is about loving more, then they say we are love and relationship addicts.
Many polyamorous people do not believe that sex addiction really exists, and that it is a convenient fiction to attack those of us who do not conform to traditional relationship models. In my professional experience as a counselor and in an open relationship for nearly 40 years, I have seen many happy, healthy polyamorists, and I have also seen many bona fide sex and relationship addicts.
Some people who claim to be polyamorous are really sex or relationship addicts using polyamory as an excuse to act out compulsive and destructive relationship patterns. Just as some people choose monogamy for unhealthy reasons or to hide their dysfunctional relationship behaviors, some people may polyamory as a cover-up for their addictive behavior. People who have an addictive relationship with sex or love make very poor relationship partners. They are too self-centered and too caught up in their own addictive disease to be capable of real intimacy or of truly loving anyone. If you recognize the warning signs, you can save yourself a lot of grief by avoiding involvement with people suffering from sex or love addiction. If you recognize some of these traits in yourself or your partner, you can minimize the damage to yourself and your relationships through counseling or support groups.
Sex addiction and love and relationship addiction are the same disease manifested in two different ways. Sex addiction is a compulsive need to engage in very frequent sexual activity with many partners: pursuing and procuring sex becomes the number one priority in life. Sex addicts feel driven to pursue all sexual attractions they experience. Sex is the only thing that creates feelings of comfort and satisfaction in their lives. They feel alive and powerful in their lives only when pursuing or having sex. Their desire for more sex with more partners clouds their judgement. They violate their own values and break existing agreements with partners, lying to cover-up their betrayals. They use sex like other addicts use drugs or alcohol: to experience an intense high they can’t get any other way, to distract themselves from boredom and anxiety, and/or to numb loneliness and emotional pain. And like other addictions, sex addiction is a progressive disease that worsens over time. At first, a sex addict will bend the rules to break agreements with partners. The addict may try to exercise some restraint to avoid sexual situations which are sure to have disastrous consequences. But, eventually, they take more and more risks, regardless of the consequences. Finally, they lose all self-respect as well as the respect of their partners because of their lying and inability to keep agreements.
Love and relationship addiction manifests in a different way. Instead of being primarily focused on sex, a love and relationship addict is excessively dependent on being in love and being in a relationship. Love addicts organize their lives around their relationships and sacrifice their own needs, careers, health, and even self-respect in order to stay in relationships no matter how badly they are treated. Their attachment to their relationship partners provides their only sense of being valuable and worthwhile human beings.
The majority of sex addicts are men, and most love and relationship addicts are women.
Why? Men are taught to prioritize sex and women are trained to value relationships over all else. And, recent research indicates that men and women may be “wired” very differently in their sexual desire and response as well as in their experience of sex and relationships. While the jury is still our on the “nature vs. nurture” controversy, men are more likely to become addicted to sex while women are more likely to become addicted to relationships.
Healthy polyamorous people prioritize sex and intimate relationships in their lives and devote time and energy to creating and sustaining romantic relationships. Some focus more attention on emotional intimacy, while others emphasize sex more than long-term relationships. However, we are not addicted to sex or relationships.
I sometimes jokingly say that I am a “sex maniac” and a “relationship enthusiast” because I value sex and relationships. Sex and relationships bring me physical, emotional, and spiritual satisfaction. I find that intense and loving relationships make me a warmer, more compassionate, and more open person in every other area of my life. However, I am a whole person on my own, and could live a happy and meaningful life without sex and relationships, focused on other meaningful experiences and activities. Connecting lovingly with others gives me a deeper understanding of people and encourages me to know myself better and become a more loving person. Since I feel secure that I am a lovable and valuable person, I don’t need to constantly validate my desirability through sexual or romantic conquests.
Look for Part Two of this article next week as Kathy's discussion of polyamory, love and sex addiction continues...
For more on polyamorous relationships, read Kathy's new book: Love in Abundance: A Counselor's Guide to Open Relationships