Clients often report to us during their prescreening admission process some sort of struggle with intimate relationships. In recent years, the term sex addiction is commonly used. Mainstream celebrities have even used their public platform to describe their own personal struggles with sex addiction. But it is important to understand the unique differences between all intimacy-related struggles and how they can become so intertwined. Here, our co-founder Carol Cannon explained the difference in her July 2000 published article.

When Romance Isn’t Real

Carol Cannon

In her book Escape From Intimacy, Ann Wilson-Schaef writes: “We are beginning to see a whole range of material on relationship addiction, sexual addiction, loving too much, loving too little, looking for love, and similar topics.” However, she notes, addictions that play themselves out in relationships are actually pseudo relationships. They generate an intensity that is often mistaken for intimacy.

I will portray the similarities and differences between sexual addiction, romance dependency, and relationship addiction by describing hypothetical characters who fit each category. (My hypothetical characters are men, but women are also subject to each of these addictions.) We will begin with sexual addiction.

Al is a well-educated, well-respected professional man—a pillar of the church and a leader in his community. Few people suspect that he is a womanizer. But when he is in the presence of a female to whom he is sexually attracted, he becomes subtly seductive, sending out “signals like fishing lines to determine whether or not she is vulnerable. Consciously or unconsciously, he grooms the woman with flirtatious behavior, small attentions, and flattering comments geared to establishing a relationship.

Because having indiscriminate sexual liaisons with as many women as possible as frequently as possible is like a drug to him, he views virtually every female he meets as a prospective partner until she proves to be otherwise. The outcome of every social interaction depends upon her sexual boundaries. Al’s modus operandi is “coming on” to women (to use the vernacular).

Bill, a romance addict, behaves differently, although he may use some of the same methods Al uses. At the outset, he goes through elaborate courting rituals designed to generate romantic excitement. The pay-off he seeks is not so much the sexual encounter as the emotional intensity of the affair, which he confuses with passion. When the passion fades, he “moves on” to the next candidate.

According to Dr. Schaef, the romance addict’s drug-of-choice is actually the accouterments of romance—the candlelight, flowers, cards and gifts, secret meetings, travel to exotic places, etc. When the intensity of the affair diminishes, romance addicts assume that they have fallen out of love, and they seek another lover, ordering up more candlelight, flowers, etc. Romance addicts have serial marriages or serial affairs. They’re always in love, but never with their spouse.

If sex addicts “come on” to people and romance addicts “move on” from one lover to the next, then relationship addicts “hang on.” As a relationship addict, Charlie relies on his partner for meaning, identity, and value. Their relationship is his sole source of self-esteem. He loses himself to his spouse. He becomes obsessed with controlling her every thought, attitude, and action in order to maintain his comfort level and assure himself that he is worthwhile. His wife eventually begins to feel engulfed. When she begins to draw away in order to maintain her autonomy, Charlie clings even more desperately because abandonment is his worst fear. The more frantically he clutches, the more smothered she feels. If she hints at leaving him, his fear will drive him to threaten suicide.

The bad news is that one can be addicted to one, two, or all three of these “drugs.” But recovery is possible if one seeks appropriate treatment. Unfortunately, sex, love, and relationship addiction are still held in denial in many quarters because they are the norm in this society. They have become the subject of sitcom humor on the one hand and the object of moral condemnation on the other. Neither of these attitudes helps the suffering person or his or her family.

Naturally, one must become abstinent to achieve recovery. But abstinence without proper guidance and support can leave the recovery-seeker extremely vulnerable to depression and suicide. No matter how sincerely he or she desires to change, it is unwise for a sex/love/relationship addict to try to “quit” without professional help.

Signs of the Times • July 2000 •