Sex Addiction and Attachment Problems

by | Jan 29, 2013

The very words ‘sex addiction\’ are controversial. It\’s a term that some are not certain is a legitimate designation. But a Newsweek article (November 25, 2011) declared sex addiction a national epidemic, estimating about 9 million Americans—or 3 to 5 percent of the population—suffer from compulsive sexual behavior. That means they masturbate compulsively, watch excessive pornography, practice exhibitionism or voyeurism, engage in frequent anonymous sex, pay for sex or to watch sex, or behave in sexually compulsive ways that cause shame.

Obviously there are varying degrees of compulsive sexual behavior, and not everything is cause for alarm. But when sex takes over your life and you are helpless to stop destructive behavior, then counseling is in order. There is one thing sexual addiction is NOT—an excuse for sexual indiscretions and marital infidelity.

The Problem

Compulsive sexual behavior can destroy your life just as surely as alcohol or drug addiction can. And like other addictive and compulsive behaviors, sex addiction is usually a result of attempts to self-medicate. These behaviors very often arise from dysfunctional attachment patterns. That is, sex addicts have not learned early in life to find ways to soothe themselves or find comfort in others. Many have been sexually abused as children or suffered some childhood trauma. They self-medicate through inappropriate sexual activities that ironically do not fill their emotional needs to be intimate.

Why People Become Sex Addicts

The root of the problem lies with how an infant bonds with parents or caregivers. The nature of that bonding establishes emotional hardiness. The child develops attachment patterns that he will take with him into adulthood. When a parent or caregiver responds to the child\’s needs—food, safety, affection—then a healthy bond is created. But when the caregiver is abusive or neglectful, the child forms negative or faulty attachments. Because the child does not have an adult model to teach him how to seek and receive comfort, the child grows up to get temporary relief from unsuitable sources like compulsive sex or obsessive love.

The Consequences

When compulsive sex takes over your life, you repeatedly engage in behavior that is detrimental to you. Extra-marital affairs lead to divorce. Inappropriate affairs in the workplace lead to joblessness. And much of the activity is downright dangerous—online anonymous hookups, one-night stands, public exhibitionism, exchanging money for sex. All this is done for a rush of adrenaline to soothe a lack that probably originated in childhood.

What to Do About It

Adults generally fall into one of four attachment styles. Which one is yours?

Secure Attachment. This is a healthy person who feels comfortable showing affection to their loved one, and who can also be equally comfortable alone and independent. A love relationship is great, but not required, to make this person happy and whole.

Anxious or Insecure Attachment. This person needs constant reassurance from their partner and still will not trust that partner. The insecure person will remain in relationships that are abusive or combative, and may go to great lengths to check up on their partner. Those with anxious attachment styles are often irrational and emotionally erratic, requiring a great deal of energy from themselves and others to soothe their fears. These people have often been denied consistent love and care in infancy.

Avoidant Attachment. This is a person who is highly independent and hates to commit to a relationship. Often, they\’re afraid of intimacy and avoid getting close. Long-term commitment and ongoing emotional intimacy are beyond reach. Those with avoidant attachment styles often had their basic needs met in infancy, such as feedings, but other needs neglected, such as being held.

Disorganized Attachment. This style develops in a person whose parents or caregivers were abusive. Because the caregiver is frightening to the child, but also the only source of safety, the child dissociates. In adulthood, this person appears detached from reality and may overreact to their partner with unwarranted fear or anger. This person often unconsciously relives past trauma and then acts out inappropriately.

If you recognize any of these styles in yourself—and it\’s possible to have more than one—then consider counseling. Except, of course, if your style is secure attachment. Counseling can help you overcome the circumstances in which you were raised, and heal from unhealthy addictions.

Nancy Travers is an Orange County Counseling professional.  If you need safe, effective counseling services, please get in touch.  You can reach her here:


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