I used to be addicted to cocaine. There’s a pretty simple treatment for that: quit doing coke. (I said simple, not easy…) Tada - I am officially no longer a cocaine addict. You’re an alcoholic? Don’t pick up a drink. Compulsive gambler? Don’t place that bet. Done and done.
Of course, this usually involves finding a new friend group — odds are if you’re one of the above, you’re not the only one you know — plus finding new tools to manage stress and anxiety, and a few other things that tend to involve therapists and/or support groups. But the first step is always the same: Stop Doing That. Be abstinent from the addictive substance. Don’t pick up, and your life gets better. There are a hundred tropes, cliches, self-help programs and motivational wall hangings all saying, in effect, Just Stop It Already. Stop using. Stay stopped. Rinse and repeat.
But what if your addictive substance isn’t a substance? What if your addictive substance is a feeling? Love, lust, limerence… whatever name you choose for that jolt, that hit, that warm fuzzy sensation of completion that you get from the person you’re infatuated with. Or pursuing. Or can’t disentangle from. Sex and love addiction comes in many forms, but it usually ends up in one of the same two places: fetal position on the floor, or gun in the mouth.
FYI, the onset of withdrawal symptoms is the easiest way to tell if you’re addicted to something. Or someone. In case you weren’t sure of your diagnosis.
Abstinence in sex and love addiction is kind of like abstinence in compulsive overeating. You can’t be abstinent from food; you’d starve. So people try to identify their food triggers and cut them out of their daily diet. Usually, list starts not unlike it does for cokeheads: Give up the white powder, kid. Sugar, flour... maybe even salt. My ex-husband couldn’t stop himself from overeating Mexican food. “I’m like dog,” he said. “It’s ridiculous. I’ll eat until I’m sick.” His solution: He didn’t eat Mexican food, even though he loved it. Go figure.
You can’t give up sex and love any more than you can give up food. But maybe you can cut out some of those triggers. That list usually starts with porn, promiscuity, and the person you’re currently addicted to. (You’ll often hear that person referred to as your Qualifier, as in “that which qualifies you as an addict.”) I wasn’t trapped in a toxic relationship when I started working on this, so my first abstinence consisted of not dating married men, not having sex on the first date, and not dating anyone under the age of 30.
That was a while ago. The age has since crept up to 50. And to be perfectly honest, I’m making excuses for 49-year-olds today the same way I was making excuses for 29-year-olds back in 2001. I did say this wasn’t going to be easy, yes?
The good news is, we never have to commit to any of this for forever. Usually, the best anyone can do on a qualifier who doesn’t want to get gone is, like, a week. “I will not call, text or stalk them for the next 7 days.” If you’re lucky, you can re-up for another week after that. I also recommend that people take a 30-day-masturbation cleanse. “No problem, I can take it or leave it,” you say. Get back to me in two weeks and tell me how that’s working out for you.
“One day at a time” also works.
The point is to give your brain a break. When all that dopamine (and oxytocin, and a few other fun neurotransmitters) is no longer flooding in from outside, we start producing it from the inside. Slowly, the addiction loosens its grasp.
You don’t have to believe me, even though I do look cute in my professor glasses. You can believe a real scientist. Psychiatrist Dr. Anna Lembke wrote a whole book about this phenomenon called Dopamine Nation, and Terry Gross was kind enough to bring her in to discuss it (click to listen) on Fresh Air. It’s a great interview. Check it out, then get back to me and tell me how you’re doing.
There are gold stars for that second week… ;-)