By Robert Weiss, LCSW, CAS
Much of the love addiction literature speaks to the love addicts’ inability to live their lives without a relentless search for a partner in most any situation or experience. Upon reflection many recovering love addicts can relate to having used some strategy or another all of their lives in an attempt to find and keep sexual and romantic partners. One woman put it this way, “I never once went to a party without wondering who I could get a date with or get into bed, I always dressed for it and I always looked for it.” Whether through revealing dress, flirtatious manner or seductive talk; the addict is always hunting and searching in one form or another to try to bring that special attention, intensity and arousal that the latest tryst or liaison can bring forth. One important part of the love and sex addicts’ recovery process is recognition of those methods used to attract and manipulate others.
As the addict begins to consciously cast these aside, using the support of 12 step members, friends and often therapy; they come to learn their real human worth, lessening the need for superficial, sexualized attention.
In order for recovery from any addiction to take place, there must be a bottom-line definition of sobriety. For the alcoholic, this is a simple definition — alcoholics and drug addicts define sobriety as the amount of time they have abstained from the use of alcohol and other mind-altering chemicals. Abstaining from the use of these substances is the recovering person’s sobriety time. (E.g., “I stopped using drugs and alcohol on June 15, 1987; therefore, I am over 10 years sober”).
For the recovering love or sexual addict, however, sobriety can be a more challenging to define. Unlike sobriety from the use of substances, love or sexual sobriety is not usually considered to be complete abstinence from romantic relationships and sex, although recovering persons may use complete abstinence for short periods of time to gain personal perspective or address a particular issue. Love addiction and sexual sobriety is most often defined as a contract between the sexual addict and their 12-Step recovery support therapist or clergy. These sobriety contracts are best when written, and involve clearly defined, concrete behaviors from which the addict has committed to abstain in order to define sobriety.
Some relationship or sexual recovery plans have very strictly defined boundaries — “No sexual activity of any kind outside of a committed marital relationship” could be one such defined boundary, “no sex without at least 30 days of dating”, another. Sobriety can be delineated as abstinence from any romantic or sexual activity that causes the person to feel shameful, hold secrets or which is illegal or abusive to others. Personal definitions may change over time as the recovering person evolves in their understanding of the disease. An example of such a plan might be, “I am sober as long as I do not date anyone who is married or in another relationship, whom I would not introduce to friends, who is abusive, unresponsive or uncommunicative to me,” or ” I am sober as long as I do not engage in flirtation, intrigue or sexual seduction with strangers, have sexual or romantic liaisons with strangers or with anyone I have not known for at least 90 days.” These types of definitions are always discussed with at least one other recovering person, therapist or clergy, and are not changed without thorough discussion and understanding
The underlying motive for a concisely written plan of recovery, beyond a clear definition of unwanted specific sexual or romantic behavior, is to offer the addict an ongoing recovery reminder, even in the face of challenging circumstances. One characteristic of addiction, particularly for love addicts, is a difficulty in maintaining clear focus on personal beliefs, values and goals, when faced with situations which potentially involve intensity, arousal and stimulation. This is where the best of intentions, the pleas to be trusted “just one more time,” and promises “to be good” go out the window. Without clearly defined boundaries, the love or sex addict is vulnerable to deciding “in the moment” what action is best for them. Unfortunately most addicts’ “in the moment” decisions are not the ones which help them maintain their long term goals and values. A written plan helps to maintain a clear focus on recovery choices, regardless of situation or momentary motive.
As the love and sex addict recovers, they begin to discover themselves in new and unexpected ways. Time formerly put into flirtation and “the hunt”, now may go into family involvement and work. Creativity formerly used to seduce or attract now goes into hobbies, self-care and healthy relationship exploration. This self-redefinition allows the love and sex addict to have a much clearer understanding of healthy partnerships. As the single person begins to really recover and their self esteem and understanding improves, so does their choice of dating and romantic partners. No longer willing to take anyone who might have them or give him or her away, they begin to develop clear criteria (often written down) of the type of partners they wish to engage. Recovery for the coupled person brings a deeper understanding of their emotional needs and wants in their partnership, encouraging them to take more intimacy risks in their relationships. As hope and honestly slowly replace despair and superficiality, the recovery process brings about a deepening maturity and sense of choice that the addict may have never previously known.