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Love, Relationship, Sex Addiction: What’s the Difference?

February 28, 2018

By Dr. Stefanie Carnes, Ph.D., CSAT-S, Senior Fellow at The Meadows

Women who seek treatment related to their out-of-control romantic and/or sexual behaviors are sometimes unsure about how to label their issues. They ask, “Am I a love addict, a relationship addict, or a sex addict?” Generally, their confusion stems from the fact that love, relationship, and sex addictions manifest in similar and sometimes interrelated ways, making it difficult to distinguish one from another. That said, there are some subtle differences that can usually be identified.

Regardless of the label, addictions (of all types) are nearly always driven by a desire to escape from (to not feel) emotional discomfort—stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness, shame, boredom, etc. Most often, this sense of emotional discomfort is rooted not in the moment, but in childhood trauma. In fact, the vast majority of addicts—including love, relationship, and sex addicts—report extensive early-life histories of neglect and various forms of abuse, and these are the unresolved issues that underlie and drive their addictive behaviors.

If you are confused about whether you are a love, relationship, or sex addict, the information below may help to clarify your situation.

Love Addiction

Love addiction is best described as loving another person with an intensity that is not in the best interest of yourself or the other person. Typically, love addicts are preoccupied to the point of obsession with another individual, and they push aside their own needs and wants to fulfill the needs and wants of the other person. This creates an unhealthy dependence where the needs and desires of the other person are invariably met by the love addict, while the love addict’s needs and wants are mostly ignored.

Love addicts tend to garner and measure their self-worth based on external things—how they look, what they wear, and, most importantly, how much someone else seems to want/need them. Basically, they confuse being needed with being loved. Instead of getting their own needs met, they choose to compulsively focus on the other person, using that person’s response as their primary (and sometimes only) source of validation. So, a love addict’s self-esteem is not self-esteem at all; it is other-esteem, generated by who the addict is with rather than her internal sense of self-worth.

Relationship Addiction

Relationship addiction is in many ways similar to love addiction. The primary difference is that love addicts tend to focus on a single long-term relationship, whereas relationship addicts typically bounce from one relationship to another. As such, relationship addicts expend a tremendous amount of time and energy on romance—hooking partners, looking for a new partner, escaping one relationship to pursue another, juggling multiple relationships simultaneously, and, at times, struggling to avoid relationships altogether.

Relationship addicts are preoccupied to the point of obsession not with a single partner, as love addicts are, but with falling in love. Except they’re not actually looking for love. What they really want is the emotional and neurochemical “high” they feel when they meet someone new and start the chase. When this occurs, instead of moving forward into healthier but less intense long-term intimacy, they focus on and compulsively pursue the all-consuming escapist “rush” of early romance.

Sex Addiction

Sex addiction is in many ways similar to love and relationship addiction. The primary difference is that sex addicts are obsessively focused on sex rather than a person or relationships. Highly objectified sexual fantasies and the pursuit of sexual activity take over and control the addict’s thinking, eventually creating a wide variety of consequences—damaged relationships, trouble in school or at work, depression, social and emotional isolation, loss of self-esteem, financial issues, physical ailments, legal trouble, etc.

Another primary difference between sex addicts and both love and relationship addicts is sex addicts typically use the lure of romance to attract sexual partners, while love and relationship addicts do the opposite, using the lure of sex to attract and/or keep a romantic partner.

The Connection Between Addiction and Childhood Trauma

The compulsive search for love, relationships, and/or sex is nearly always rooted in childhood trauma. Basically, individuals with less than nurturing childhoods tend to have lower-than-normal self-esteem, which causes them to look outside of themselves for validation. Their sense of worthiness may come from being needed (as in love addiction) or through constant romantic and/or sexual validation provided by other people (as in relationship and sex addiction). The most important thing to remember is that if you or someone you know is struggling with one of these intimacy disorders, is healing is possible with treatment and recovery.

Love, Relationship, and Sex Addiction Treatment for Women

Willow House at The Meadows located in Wickenburg, Arizona, provides an intensive, 45-day treatment program for women with the complex issues of intimacy disorders, love addiction, and relational trauma. In a safe and nurturing community composed of their peers, women are guided on their journey of recovery by examining the underlying causes of their mental health struggles and self-destructive behaviors. The goal is for these individuals to gain the courage to face difficult issues including grief and loss, heal from emotional trauma, and become accountable for their own feelings, behaviors, and recovery. To learn more call 800-244-4949.