The Surprising Cure for Sex and Love Addiction

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“Shannon, I really think you ought to go to Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous,” my Al-Anon sponsor told me one morning when I was in the thick of my final toxic relationship.

I instantly recoiled. Was she calling me a nymphomaniac? At age 32 I could still count my lovers on two hands (mostly). Was she mistaking me for Charlie Sheen?

What I didn’t understand then is that Sex and Love addiction is often more about the unhealthy quality of the sex they’re having, rather than the quantity. 

When I popped over to read the characteristics of Sex and Love Addiction, one of them jumped out and smacked me between the eyes:

We use sex to manipulate and control others.

I hadn’t been aware of it until I read that sentence, but I knew it applied to me and had to look at where it came from. Surprise, surprise:


As I grew up, my mom was addicted to an abusive relationship with my stepdad, which made her unpredictable, emotionally volatile and sometimes in need of support from me.

On the flip side, my mom was a fantastic hugger, snuggler and an excellent tucker-iner. She showed me every day how utterly loved I was with her appropriate, maternal physical affection.

Some of my favorite childhood memories stem from the times she sang Swanee River as she carefully, lovingly washed my long, often dirt-clotted hair (I was an intrepid tomboy, mud was my second home.)

Through no fault of her own (she had her own emotionally volatile childhood) I learned from my mom that love meant unpredictability coupled with moments of sublime physical connection.

So when I fell in love with my first emotionally unpredictable man, I used physical affection –which with him meant sex — to try make him love me.

Of course, I had no idea that’s what I was doing.

There were times when our sex was genuine lovemaking, but when we were in our emotionally-abusive cycle; which meant he physically and emotionally withdrew and potentially saw other women while I became obsessed, needy and clingy — I tried to use sex to “manipulate and control” him.

Even a woman raised in more functional settings can slip into using sex to manipulate a partner because she’s been indoctrinated by advertisers to see herself as a sexual object.

In her popular Ted Talk, The Sexy Lie, Dr. Caroline Heldman defines sexual objectification as:

“The process of representing or treating a person like a sex object, one that serves another’s sexual pleasure.”

She reports that “96% of sexually objectified people in advertising are women” and that “new technology has increased the sheer number of images that (girls) are exposed to everyday. In the 70’s, we saw about 500 ads a day. Now, we see about 5,000 ads a day.”

So from girlhood on, advertisers tell us our value lies between our thighs, rather than between our ears.

Marry advertising with codependency and you have the perfect cocktail for Sex and Love Addiction.

Cure for Love and Sex Addiction

One of the steps of recovering from addiction in Twelve-Step programs is Step Three; Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of our Higher Power.

This step was particularly difficult for me because of the intangibility of a “Higher Power.” I could never be certain when I was acting from “self-will” or from my “Higher Power’s will.”

What I didn’t realize then was that I was getting very concrete instructions from an entity I kept trying to ignore … my body.

When my first love relationship entered into a toxic cycle-of-emotional-abuse, my body began to rebel.

More specifically, my vagina rebelled.

Every time I instigated sex to bring my boyfriend closer, in the hopes of keeping him committed and faithful, my vagina turned into the Kalahari Desert.

It was all drought and dust. Nothing grew there, but the occasional tumbleweed rambling by.

I’m fairly certain my ob-gyn would’ve found the sun-bleached skeleton of a caribou had she examined me during the collegiate 30 seconds of foreplay.

Because I was new to sex, I didn’t realize it wasn’t normal for a 19-year-old woman to have a sub-saharan desert for a vagina.

My body, receiving strong messages from my deepest, uncorrupted intuition, was yelling at me. Don’t do this! You’re abandoning yourself to try to trap a man who’s on the run!

I ignored the signals my body sent through two, longterm unhealthy love relationships. But as I worked recovery, my body started to shout and I couldn’t ignore it any longer.

At the end of my final bad relationship, my lover tried to convince me to come back to him by holding me against his body in the spoon position, which is how we often slept at night.

Suddenly, I couldn’t breathe. My heart raced, adrenaline shot through me and my body went into flight-or-fight response. That’s how desperately it wanted to get away from him.

Often, when working with clients who struggle to leave emotionally abusive men, I ask them to notice what their body tells them during sex. These are some of the responses I’ve gotten:

  • They feel like they actually leave their body during sex.
  • They’re flooded by shame.
  • Their hearts seem to pound out of their chests.
  • They have no vaginal fluid during intercourse and must use lubricants.
  • They describe a sinking feeling, like they’ve been drugged.
  • They suffer waves of anxiety about being able to satisfy their partner.
  • They report spontaneous weeping.

While I’ve gone on to develop a relationship with a Higher Power I pray to; in the beginning of my recovery from Sex and Love Addiction, my Higher Power was the sacred temple of my body, whose intuition and spirit were intact.

What has your body been telling you?

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