Love, Sex Addiction at Root of Many Substance Use Disorders

Adriana knew deep down she had a drinking problem but didn’t know exactly how it had gotten so bad. She had liked drinking since high school, but for a long time, she could take it or leave it. It had started out as a weekend thing, but as work life and relationships—oh, the craziness of relationships—had evolved, she’d somehow stepped up to drinking on weeknights. Then every night. Finally, her drinking had gotten so bad that she was regularly going into work the next day still drunk from the night before. She’d lost her job. Her family had intervened on her, which was how she’d found herself in rehab for alcoholism the first time. It wasn’t until her third rehab stint that it started to take, that she finally began to take her health and sobriety seriously. She knew she was on the verge of losing everything if she didn’t stop drinking. And it wasn’t until this rehab that she confronted the fact that she had more than just an addiction to drinking; she had an addiction to romantic relationships—the toxic kind. When Adriana was 9, she’d witnessed her alcoholic father beat her smart, sophisticated mother to within an inch of consciousness. Her parents had fought before, but never had things gotten physical. Her mother divorced him after that and her father had gotten sober in order to be able to see his children. But Adriana was never wholly comfortable around her father again. What she’d witnessed had somehow affected her ability to share intimacy. From the time she was 14, she’d entered one relationship after another, often beginning one before the last one had ended. And each time, the relationships were volatile, abandoning, poisonous. There had been love, she thought, but mostly there had been madness, though she couldn’t say for sure how much of it had to do with her drinking. She knew her “picker” was broken. She’d been choosing the wrong men. She also knew that she needed to learn new strategies in recovery for relationship wellness, as much as for alcohol sobriety. The two seemed inextricably linked. If she reentered the world with only one set of tools, the other was bound to return her to doom. So she hunkered down and focused. She opened AA’s Big Book and read. She walked into group meetings and allowed herself to be vulnerable enough to share. She did what needed to be done.

Co-Occurring Addictions Common With Love and Sex Addiction

A Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA) old-timer joked that other anonymous meetings (for drugs and alcohol) were the “junior varsity” of addiction, while sex-and-love-addiction type were the “varsity” camp. “Everybody eventually ends up here,” he said. “They just don’t know it yet.” While this particular old-timer was generalizing, it’s true that a great many people who seek treatment for love, relationship and sex addiction do so only after coming to recognize they suffer some other addiction. In the language of mental healthcare, exhibiting two or more addictions side-by-side is called having “co-occurring addictions.” Those people who suffer from love, relationship and/or sex addiction (these addictions are often intertwined), tend to suffer from at least one other addiction, such as disordered eating, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, shopping addiction, debt addiction or gambling addiction. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) shares many similarities with addictive thinking and behavior, and may be another co-occurring issue alongside love or sex addiction.

Healing Intimacy Disorders

When taking on substance use disorders (drug or alcohol dependencies), some individuals may choose to focus solely on the day-to-day work of remaining sober, only occasionally considering the life circumstances that helped to inspire their addiction. But with love, relationship and sex addictions, there must be a recognition that, at base, these dependencies are intimacy disorders—the individual is unable to share true and honest emotional intimacy and uses the intense highs and lows of relationship or physical interactions as a replacement for the feelings of emotional security and connection. Getting to why this is so is as necessary as changing the habit, though it can be daunting. Often, early life traumas arise, revealing the genesis of self-destructive life patterns. This fact should not erase accountability from the addict, but it can light the way to understanding and healing. For any addict with a co-occurring addiction, both must be addressed simultaneously. If Adriana attempted to recover from alcohol addiction alone, she would reenter the world at great risk. By entering into relationships without having the tools she needs, she would expose herself to an intensity of feeling that would almost certainly cause her to drink again. The reverse is also true: if she were to heal only the relationship addiction piece, drinking would eventually ruin her emotional sobriety. Combining recovery of more than one addiction may seem overwhelming to the newly aware addict, but there are many integrative treatment strategies that help addicts to incorporate multiple layers. Fundamentally, the same sets of tools apply across the board. The bottom line is this: you no longer have an excuse; you can get well.  

Scroll to Top