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Strange Bedfellows

Just how closely are love and sex addiction intertwined? In an excerpt from her new book, Love Addict: Sex, Romance, and Other Dangerous Drugs, a writer in long-term recovery breaks down her experiences with the two.

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Sex and love addiction: two sides of the same (heart-shaped) coin

By Ethlie Ann Vare

08/23/11

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My pet name for love addiction is affection deficit disorder. It beats hysteroid dysphoria, which is what psychiatrist Donald Klein called it in the 1980 Diagnosis and Drug Treatment of Psychiatric Disorders. I crave affection, yearn for affection, long for affection…I can never seem to get enough affection. Interestingly, I have the same problem with appetizers. Sit me in front of a nice buffet and I can eat for a week. The mechanism that signals the brain, “No more, thanks. I’m fine!” doesn’t function properly. I’m never fine, and I always need more. The psychological, neurological, and biochemical reasons for this phenomenon are discussed in more depth later in my book. For now, we’ll call it love addiction and leave it at that.

Like any other psychiatric disorder, love addiction has both symptoms (subjective: what you feel) and signs (objective: what others notice). The buzzing in your ears and red haze in front of your eyes when you see the guy you like drinking sake with another woman is a symptom. Immediately throwing up your sushi is a sign. Running outside and slashing her tires is a felony.

I’d just as soon identify as a sex addict than a love addict. “Sex addict” seems stronger, more powerful than love addict. Love addiction is whiny. Sex addiction is badass.

If you feel a crippling surge of adrenaline when you pass by your ex-lover’s house, you are probably normal. If you feel a crippling surge of adrenaline when you drive by any house painted a similar color, you may have a problem. If you glimpse a pretty girl across a crowded room, get an instant erection, and announce, “I have found the mother of my children!” you are probably normal, if you are a heterosexual male. If you have seen, felt, and announced the same thing a dozen times, you may have a problem. We love addicts are rarely the wife who wonders why her husband complains that she’s a backseat driver. We’re more likely to be the mistress who wonders what it would be like to drive her car through her married lover’s living room window.

I’m the kind of love addict who can walk into a room filled with admirers, find the one person who is not interested, and fall in love instantly. It’s their very unavailability that makes them desirable. If you could only get him (or her, or him/her, or wherever you sit in that church), it would prove, damn it, that you’re not the unlovable dweeb you know yourself to be. Because if someone that hard to get gets got—and a quickie in the ladies’ room stall counts—well, you must be all that, plus tax and tip. Why do women love bad boys and men love bitches? Well, they’re dangerous, and that’s exciting. We tend to confuse excitement with happiness and fear with lust. But mostly, it’s because they treat us like dirt. They see us. We are dirt.

This gnawing low opinion of ourselves makes love addicts great groupies. We gravitate to stars like planetary bodies circling a sun, except in stiletto heels. Sometimes, we take it all the way to becoming an actual star. If I’m famous, then they, whoever they are, will have to notice me! I once asked a television personality at the height of his fame whether he was finally getting the attention he craved, whether it finally filled that aching black hole. “Not really,” he said. “It’s always the wrong kind of attention, or from the wrong people, or at the wrong time.”

Here’s another hallmark of unhealthy romantic obsession, as compared to your standard, garden-variety crush: it comes with a sense of urgency so profound it feels like life or death. I like this description by a woman caught in the throes of obsession:

The compulsion to call was completely beyond my control. I couldn’t stop myself. I would hold off for short intervals, but always there would come the tide of an overpowering necessity. I was engulfed in it; I felt such a sense of panic that I really believed I would die if I didn’t pick up that phone.

“A tide of overpowering necessity.” The phrase is striking, lyrical, and accurate. It’s also me cheating. I took that paragraph from the book Alcoholics Anonymous; it’s actually about the writer’s relationship with booze. I just replaced the word “drink” with “call” and “phone.” Works, though, doesn’t it? If you’ve ever felt a sense of all-consuming urgency to dial that number, drive by that house, or read that diary, you know what it’s like to be inundated by an oceanic wave, struggling desperately to reach the surface and just please, God, finally breathe again.

I came of age in that golden hiatus after the Pill and before AIDS. Sex was my generation’s superpower, and there were no negative consequences—or so it seemed at the time. Sure, we were running in and out of the Student Health Center at U.C. Santa Barbara—fondly known as the Clap Clinic—with new and exciting strains of gonorrhea, but it never occurred to me to turn down a request for sex. It would have been uncool. Rude, even.

I therefore slept with boys I didn’t particularly know, boys I didn’t particularly like, and boys I wasn’t particularly attracted to, but it seemed easier to say yes than to explain why I was saying no. The sex wasn’t mind-blowing in and of itself; the anticipation was more exciting than the act. After all, 18-year-old girls are miles away from their sexual peak, and 18-year-old boys barely know what hole they’re supposed to aim for. The goal was the lover, not the lovemaking. If sex was the going rate for the thrill of not waking up alone, I called it a bargain. So while my sex life has been..let’s go with “colorful,” and the number of partners, um, above average, I am not a certifiable sex addict. Mind you, I’d just as soon identify as a sex addict than a love addict. “Sex addict” seems stronger, more powerful than love addict. Love addiction is whiny. Sex addiction is badass.

That is, of course, unless you actually are a sex addict. In which case, it’s not nearly as jolly as it sounds. In a pre-Internet porn survey (1991) of approximately one thousand self-identified sex addicts, 40 percent lost a partner or spouse due to their compulsion, and 70 percent had serious marital or relationship problems. Another 13 percent lost the right to be with children and eight percent lost contact with their parents. Fifty-eight percent reported financial problems, 11 percent were demoted, and 27 percent could no longer work in their career of choice. Nineteen percent had been arrested.

Are we having fun yet?

This is an excerpt from Love Addict: Sex, Romance and Other Dangerous Drugs (HCI Press, 9/1/2011). Writer/producer Ethlie Ann Vare has helped shape such popular television shows as Gene Roddenberry’s Andromedia, Adventure Inc. and the Jane Doe mystery movies on the Hallmark Channel. A former rock journalist, she worked in front of the camera as a "music gossip" on E! Entertainment Television and is an award-winning historian.

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