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Love Addiction in Gay Men

We have all known him. The serial dater. The guy who drags you to the bars so he won’t be alone when he’s out there looking. The friend that rapturously describes every detail of his hot lover in the heat of summer, but who you just know will be out there man-hunting again by Halloween.

It can be difficult to understand how the gifts of love and romance can evolve into destructive, compulsive patterns. Yet for the love addicted, romance, sexuality and emotional closeness are experiences more often beset with painful emotional highs and lows than gifted with real intimacy or love. Living in a chaotic, sometimes desperate world of need and emotional despair, fearful of being alone or rejected, the love addict endlessly longs for that “special” relationship, his other half, the one that will make him feel complete. He lives in fear of never finding HIM or worse, afraid that when he does meet his special guy, he himself will be found unworthy of love. No matter how clever, how smart, how physically attractive or successful, the love addict feels incomplete and haunted by a desire for partnership that if fulfilled would somehow make life complete. Jon, a 27-year-old film student had this to say about his search for love –

Eventually I began to hide my dates. I didn’t want my friends to know that I met someone new because so many times in the past I had said, “he’s the one” and then have it not work out, that I thought they would laugh at me if I brought yet another guy to the table. In desperation I tried dating clubs, speed dating, Internet dating and the gay synagogue – even though I’m not Jewish. I asked everyone I know to introduce me to someone they could see me dating.

And then there were the hobbies I didn’t even like, desperately hoping to find HIM while making ceramics, going hiking or playing bad tennis. When I found one sometimes I would have sex right away hoping that would work, other times I would avoid sex until we knew each other better – trying to find the mix that would get it to WORK OUT but it never did. For a while I thought maybe I wasn’t cute or smart enough, later I just blamed the guys I dated for being screwed up. Ultimately it seemed no matter how hard I tried or where I put the blame, I ended up alone. Over time, my life became more and more about looking for the right guy and less and less about enjoying myself and doing the things that make me happy.

Caught up in the constant search for a partner, the love addict’s endless intrigue, flirtations, sexual liaisons and affairs often leave a path of destruction and negative consequences in their wake. Ironically, he has likely had many opportunities for the loving experience he seeks, but all he knows is the intensity of “falling in love” or the drama of “the problem relationship”, while ignorant of the relative calm of true intimacy. Struggling to have the boyfriend or relationship that everyone else seems to have and he does not, he attempts to resolve these painful circumstances by engaging in even more searching, desperately looking for THE ONE.

A sad irony is that even when dating someone who is safe, stable and appropriate, he often becomes steadily more dissatisfied and anxious. Bored and fearful of being trapped with the wrong guy, he will shove aside a perfectly acceptable guy or start looking outside of a perfectly good relationship for yet another new intensity or “love” experience. Thus the cycle begins anew.

Addictive relationships are characterized by unhealthy dependency, guilt and abuse. Convinced of his lack of worth and not feeling truly lovable, the love addict may use seduction, control, guilt and manipulation to attract and hold onto a romantic or sexual partner. At times, despairing of his cycle of unhappy affairs, broken relationships and liaisons, he may try a “swearing off” period, not unlike the anorexic stage of an eating disorder. He may for a while decide that “not being in the game at all” will solve the problem, only to later find the same issues reappearing whenever he reattempts intimacy. His denial of the problem can be seen in the ways he avoids taking responsibility for his relationship problems, blaming boyfriend after boyfriend rather than looking at himself. Like the alcoholic who offers up stressful jobs or financial problems as justification for his excessive drinking, the love addicts’ cycle of dramatic and empty relationships keeps him ever distracted from taking stock of himself or gaining the insight required for change.

Recovering love addicts who have worked on themselves in therapy and 12-step programs like Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA) can relate to the idea of having used a well-rehearsed repertoire of manipulation to find and hold on to sexual and romantic partners. Jose, a 32-year-old designer put it like this –

I never once went to a gym without looking around for someone to date or if that failed, at least someone who I could get to follow me into the steam room. In life I was always dressed to find HIM and always hunting in one form or another to find the special attention and sense of importance that only HE might make me feel if I could just find HIM. It was necessary for my healing and recovery for me to recognize all the sexual and other strategies I used to employ to attract and manipulate men for what they were. As I slowly began to cast these aside, with the support of 12 step members, friends and therapy I actually began to learn my own value and real human worth, which over time has helped to remove the powerful and empty fantasy life that I lived in for so long.

Unlike the kind of partnership and dependency that many of us seek to compliment our lives, the love and romance addict searches for someone outside of himself to provide the emotional stability he lacks within. Working to escape his own emptiness, he may find troubled or emotionally challenged partners to focus on, thereby giving away to others what he himself most wishes to receive.

Ultimately as his own emotional needs remain unmet, he may himself act out through verbal or physical abuse of a partner or though excessive spending, sex addiction, affairs or drugs, experiences that will ultimately reinforce the very feelings of shame, self hatred and loneliness that he seeks to escape. When love and sex are sought as a means to distract or escape from emotional pain, partner choice becomes skewed. Compatibility becomes based on “whether or not you will leave me”, “how intense our sex life is” or “how I can hook you into staying”, rather than on how much we have in common and whether you might truly become a peer, friend and companion.

Here are some typical signs of love or romantic addiction:

  • Frequently mistaking intense sexual experiences or romantic infatuation for love
  • Constantly searching for romance and love
  • Using sex as a means to find love
  • Falling in love with people ‘met’ online yet never having met them
  • Problems maintaining intimate relationships once the newness and excitement has worn off
  • Consistent unhappiness or anxiety when alone
  • When not in a relationship, misusing sex to mask loneliness
  • Consistently choosing abusive or emotionally unavailable partners
  • Giving emotionally, financially or otherwise to partners who require a great deal of care-taking but do not or can not reciprocate what they are given
  • When in a relationship feeling detached, fearful or unhappy, when out of a relationship, feeling desperate and alone
  • Using sex, money, seduction, drama or other schemes to “hook” or hold onto a partner
  • Missing out on important family, career, recreational or social experiences in order to find, create or maintain a romantic relationship
  • Giving up – by avoiding sex or relationships for long periods of time to “solve the problem”
  • Being unable to leave unhealthy or abusive relationships despite repeated promises to self or others
  • Returning to previously unmanageable or painful relationships despite promises to self or others not

For those seeking a long-term a relationship, healthy romantic intensity is the catalyst that brings about the bonding necessary to sustain love and attachment. The beginning stages of a potential love relationship are the most exhilarating because that emotional state helps us to bond and attach. This is when how HE looks, walks, talks, eats and thinks is the subject of endless fantasy, excitement and late night phone calls. Romance itself, with or without sex, does encourage personal growth when we are open to learning. Then each new relationship can offer insight and self-awareness. Most people easily relate to that “rush” of first love and romance; the stuff of endless songs, greeting cards and fantasy.

More than romance, intensity or even great sex, real intimacy is an experience of being known and accepted by someone over time. Loving relationships develop in part as those first exhilarating times together form a foundation of a deeper, long-term closeness. It is that deeper closeness which ultimately feeds our hearts and keeps us content; long after the rush of new romance has passed.