CNM 035: Sex Addiction & Love Addiction – with Shena Tubbs, LPC

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In this episode we’re talking about sex addiction and love addiction, how they can go hand-in-hand, how they are different, and what it takes to heal from these types of addictions.

My guest’s name is Shena Tubbs and she’s a professional therapist who has also struggled with sex addiction.

So, let’s get right to it!

Here’s my interview with Shena…

Interview with Shena Tubbs on Sex Addiction and Love Addiction

Brian: Shena, welcome to the show today. It’s so great to have you.

Shena: Thanks so much Brian. I’m happy to be here.

Brian: Great. Well let’s dive right in. We’re going to be talking about sex addiction and love addiction today, something you have personal and professional experience with.

Question: Why don’t we start by having you define the difference between sex addiction and love addiction?

Shena: Yes. They are both intimacy disorders at their core. And for both of them there’s a compulsive cycle of seeking external validation, and there is attempt to self soothe and regulate your emotions by either using sex or love. They both have the same core issues where a sex addict and a love addict have impaired self-esteem, they might be carrying shame from childhood, they might have difficulty with boundaries (either being too rigid or too open and meshed), they might struggle with balance, and they might have a history of addiction and co-dependency rooted in their early attachment issues and developmental issues growing up.

But the differences is how they use it. For sex addicts, they might use sexual activities and fantasies to self soothe through some obsessive behaviors like subtly using porn or masturbation. For love addicts, they use relationships or the fantasy of a relationship to self soothe. They get comfort through seeking emotionally unavailable partners.

With a sex addict, they might use the sexual cycle of seeking out a partner, getting the high from that to escape unpleasant feelings. The love addict, of course, uses the relationship. So, whether or not they’re in partnership means that they’re lovable and good enough. For a sex addict, they focus on sexual pleasure without needing to have a relationship. For them it doesn’t matter if it’s their marital partner, their relationship partner or someone who is a stranger; it’s really about the sexual act in itself. For a lot of addicts it really is intended to where, ‘I don’t feel fulfilled if I’m not with someone whom I want to love me or whom I think might love me.’

Question: Would it be fair to say, based on your description of each of those, that you could really replace sex addiction or love addiction with other addictions like drugs, alcohol, gambling or even co-dependency? You’re using it in some ways to self-soothe because, perhaps, there is some sort of perhaps some shame that you’re covering up, or a variety of reasons that the people become addicted. But would you say that sex addiction and love addiction could be generally interchanged with other types of addictions? Is it really looked at as part of the ‘disease’ of addiction?

Shena: Yeah, absolutely.

It follows the exact same addictive cycle as, like you say, food, gambling and everything else where there is a trigger and then there is a need to have that substance to heal it. With all those other addictions as well as sex and love addiction, it’s about the thing but it’s not about the thing. It’s really about the trauma and the pain that’s underneath, and the addiction is just a tool used to hopefully recover from it.

Brian: That makes sense.

Question: You have worked in schools with children who are having these types of issues. I want to see how these problems, in your viewpoint, are showing up among our youth nowadays.

Shena: Like you said, I have been in recovery for almost six years now, and I see it in my practice. I also work at a normal, everyday school where teenagers have all types of issues from problems at home to their which boy or girl they’re going to have a crush on that day. I see a lot more love addiction than sex addiction in the kiddo’s.

As a teenager it’s typical for them to have that puppy love and that intensity like, ‘I can’t live without him or her’, or, ‘you don’t understand them like I understand them.’ They often have that “dough-eyed” feeling where everything is going to work out. But the difference with love addiction is the extreme measures that the person might go to; the severity of it.

If the “love” is not responded to in kind, I see a lot of suicidal ideations. I see a lot of self-harm. I see a lot of extreme depression that happens which is not typical to normal breakups and normal heartbreak because it’s impacting the functioning of the teenager. You also know its outside of normal trauma and development when there’s a connection to the person (their boyfriend or girlfriend) and the caregiver (the trauma) so that they’re recreating it. For example, I can think of a young man who was love-addicted to this young woman. The reason for this, as we found out, was that she acted in the same ways his mother did. So subconsciously, in a way, he was trying to get love and affection from her in replacement of what he got from his mother. And if he was able to change her and fix her, that would mean that he was good enough and that he was lovable.

Now, I’ve worked mostly with teenagers, but the last couple of years has been middle school. Sometimes people might think they (middle-schoolers) are not going to understand the underlying processes. But when we break it down, they’ve been able to say, “Yeah, this is my own mother-issues or this is my father-issues,” which is really important because once they’re able to realize that, it’s not really about that boy or girl; whether or not they break up with them or not. It is that they still have to learn and grow as people. Now they’re not so quick to confuse it as love. They’re able to externalize it.

As far as sex addiction, it’s hard for me to see it in teenagers because there’s so much of their private life that I see sometimes as the counselor, but that I’m not aware of. The way that I see it the most is usually in the young men who would sexually ‘act out’ with our girls a lot, in a way of wanting to have dominance, power and control; a lot of crossing their own boundaries. We find out that they had a lot of pornography use in their past and that it didn’t stop. But it’s difficult for me to call it sex addiction because it seems very close to narcissistic behavior as well. Also, with them being so young and the fact that I’m not with them 24/7, it’s hard to diagnose. But those are some of the ways that I’ve seen it in the schools.

Question: I’m curious about the gender breakdown since you mentioned about the young men being more prone to sex addiction. If you were to give us some percentages between love addiction and sex addiction, male versus female, what do you say is the breakdown in your opinion?

Shena: I could speak to what I see at my school, but not really in the general public. With my background in the school, I would say for sexually compulsive behaviors, I see about eighty percent boys, twenty percent girls. The way that it shows up with girls (at least African-American girls) is we use the term that she’s ‘acting fast’ (she’s constantly with boys). But that can also look like love addiction. Love addiction really is 50/50 (boys vs. girls). There really are a lot of obsessive compulsive behaviors on both sides, and kids just trying to find healing and love in their relationships.

Question: Along that topic of looking to find love and healing, I want to go a little bit deeper. What are the underlying issues that lead to sex addiction and / or love addiction. You’ve spoken about that a bit, so if there’s nothing else to add that’s fine. But, you mentioned if somebody gets rejected they might have suicidal ideations, and that’s a fairly extreme symptom. What are the underlying issues with these types of addictions? Are they the same as other types of addictions, or is there something unique about them?

Shena: I would say they’re the same as other addictions and that there is usually a long history of childhood emotional neglect. This is why having another incident of abandonment or rejection is so devastating to them. They have this idealized version of this partner, and ‘if they reject me then there’s no reason for me living because life is sucky at home and my parents don’t really love me.’

In addition to emotional neglect a lot of times there’s a lot of abuse. Not always, but often there is verbal and physical abuse as well which is why they’re looking for relationships to be an outlet.

As far as why it manifests as sex or love addiction versus food or alcohol or anything else, I can say in my practice it really is like a rolodex of all the addictions interacting with each other. I could be working with someone who’s a love addict, and they’ll go into withdrawal and stay away from the person. But all of a sudden, they find out that they’re eating more often than they used to, or now they are working longer hours to keep themselves busy. There’s still the compulsive behavior because there’s still the underlying problem. It’s unresolved trauma – those core negative beliefs of ‘I’m not good enough. I’m not worthy. I feel like I am a burden.’ Once they’re able to heal that, the need for their addictive substances decreases.

Question: What are some signs that would clue somebody in that they’re struggling with these issues? I know a lot of times we become blind to them. We deny them. How would somebody know this is a problem for ‘me’?

Shena: I mentioned a little bit about things getting in the way of functioning. For a love addict and a sex addict, if you find yourself obsessing to the point where it’s hard for you to focus on your daily life activities, that can be a clue.

I remember when I was in the throes of addiction. I was so obsessive about my qualifier (the person I was addicted to). I was obsessing about driving to Austin because I thought he might be there. I live in Houston, so that’s a two and a half hour drive, and I’m like talking about taking off work and losing money. Until you get that sexual act, until you get that person to reciprocate ‘love’ to you, you can’t sleep, eat, etc. that’s a sign.

As far as sex addiction you need to look for detachment from the sexual activity, where it no longer emotionally satisfies you. Also, continuing to do sexual acts past the point of pain. STDs, physically hurting yourself with things like compulsive masturbation, and distancing from other people. With love addicts, when they’re not in a relationship or when they’re trying to be in a relationship with someone, then there’s a lot of chaotic behavior to try to get their attention and get them to come back. Once they’re in a relationship, then all of a sudden they’re ghosting their friends, they no longer have time for them because that person (their ‘qualifier’) has become their higher power, their drug.

Any kind of loss of yourself is definitely a sign that these might be more addictive issues than just normal problem behaviors.

Brian: You used a term that I’m not sure if I’ve heard before, ‘qualifier’. What does that mean exactly?

Shena: If you go to any twelve-step meetings about sex addiction or love addiction, they call the person that you’re attracted to your ‘qualifier’. Basically, this is your qualifying relationship. This relationship marks all the checks to show that it is an addictive relationship versus a normal one, so they call it a ‘qualifier’ for short.

Question: What’s the first thing somebody should do if they think they’re recognizing that sex addiction or love addiction is an issue for them? What’s the first thing they should do to help themselves?

I think they should find someone to talk to who specializes in either of these issues.

One of the things that holds up a lot of people from getting better is that they’ll talk to a friend or family member, or they’ll talk to a mental health professional who might discount it or say that it’s not really a problem. And so, they’ll go about their business doing the same thing they’re already doing versus dealing with the traumatic underlying issues. They need to find someone who specializes in that so they can help you get better faster.

Also, in case you’re wondering, ‘Well, is this really me?’, I highly suggest going to a twelve-step meeting if one is available in your area. You can search for ‘sex and love addiction’,sex and love addicts anonymous’ online or you can search for ‘sex addicts anonymous’.

The thing I really want people know about sex addiction is there’s so much of a negative connotation to where some of us assume there will be people in trench coats who are child molesters in these meetings. But you walk into these rooms and you see stay-at-home moms, doctors, lawyers, engineers and you see normal people.

Again, it’s not about the drug, it’s about how people are using it to self-soothe. Normal people just like you are in these rooms. Being in that place, hearing their stories and hearing commonality is really helpful because, 1) you realize you’re not alone, 2) it gives you hope, 3) it gives you a plan to get out of it, and it’s free. There’s a triple benefit.

Question: As far as finding somebody who specializes in that, I imagine that if you’re in school you could be candid with a counselor about this and you might be able to get some help. If you’re an adult, maybe you don’t have those kinds of resources but you do have professional counselors that could be hired for a fee. If somebody is recognizing this issue and says, ‘I do want more intimate, one-on-one help with this beyond the groups’, are counselors who specialize in sex addiction common, or is it difficult to find somebody who really understands it and can help you with it?

Shena: I think it’s difficult. I think it’s very difficult based on my own experience and the experience of friends and other colleagues because of the stigma attached.

This isn’t all sex therapist, but some sex therapist feel as though there is a pathologizing of healthy sexuality when it comes to sex addiction, which is another way of saying that people who specialize in sex addiction are imparting our own morals and values on people, and so we’re calling it addiction when really people are just struggling with sexual shame. That could be the case, but I think it’s important to go to someone who’s trained in sex addiction as well so they’ll be able to determine if you have a high sex drive, or if there are things that you’re interested in sexually and you’re just having some shame about it. Perhaps you grew up in a religious atmosphere that discounted it, for example, and so we work on the shame piece. Or, is your functioning really being impacted and you’re losing money, you have chronic affairs on your wife, or you don’t care that you’re about to lose your job, you still keep going. That’s an addiction.

You need someone who’s going to help you cease those behaviors or have different tools instead of telling you that you just need to do more of it, or everything you’re doing is okay because they’re not validating your experience. To find that person, there’s a certification called CSAT which stands for Certified Sex Addiction Therapist. You can go to the IITAP website which is iitap.com and search the directory, and you’ll find people who have certifications in that. Even though it says sex addiction in the title, they’re also trained in treating love addiction and love avoidance as well, so they’ll be able to determine that for you. They’ll also be able to tell you, “I don’t think you have this.”

I’ve had people come into my office saying they think they’re a sex addict. I don’t get any more recognition or value by telling you that you have a problem you don’t have. But we’re going to find what the problem is to help you get better.

Question: You mentioned some of the first things somebody can do if they think they have this kind of a problem. But let’s zoom out a little bit here. What is the big picture solution to overcoming sex addiction and love addiction in your opinion?

Shena: We need to start to validate what we’re going through.

I think a lot of times people think they’re crazy and they just need to ‘white knuckle’ it and stop it on their own. I think part of the healing that happens in helping people overcome sex or love addiction is they hear, for the first time, that this is a real problem and that because it’s a real problem there’s real solutions. So, I really think having that validation that what you’re dealing with exists and that there are people who are trying to help you and not shame you is imperative.

Think about it. Think about anyone you can think of that might fit the qualities of love addiction -someone who is constantly attracted to an unavailable partner, they keep getting into these destructive relationships they can’t let go, and they’re doing crazy things to keep them. When you have a friend that’s like that, it gets annoying, right?

You start thinking, ‘Why don’t you just stop?’ That person is trying their best to stop, and they can’t stop. So, they’re getting shame from their friends or family members like, ‘I don’t understand why you’re doing this’. Then they have their own internalized shame where they think, ‘I don’t know why I’m doing this.’ To be able to step out of that is so powerful and transformational in itself.

Question: At the core, are we going back to deal with traumas, shame and things that may have happened when we were younger that caused some sort of a behavior pattern in us that we’re trying to heal? And when we heal those things are we free from the addiction? Is that is that also the case with these types of addictions?

Shena: Oh yeah, absolutely. Going back to the qualifier term – everybody’s qualifier looks different. The type of person that I’m attracted to in my addiction is always different than my best friend that I met in program as well. For me it’s a re-creation of one of my parents because I have this unmet need of feeling seen, validated, and good enough. If I can get this person to give me what they never gave me then I’m going to feel better. Once I’m able to actually verbalize it and start to re-parent myself, and love myself and fill that hole with other things, then I no longer need that qualifier or partner because I’m giving it to myself.

So much of sex addiction is a lot about power and control. It’s a dependence on something else, or something outside of you to give you what you need. That’s why part of healing from addiction is returning to you, learning about you and how to love you so that you have more control and fulfillment that you didn’t have before.

Question: It is your personal scenario, has it held true for you that you were able to overcome these addictions by dealing with certain things?

Shena: You know, the thing about addiction is some people call it a disease, some people say it’s a temporary problem and that they’re completely healed. I tend to think this is something that someone deals with for their entire life because there are so many layers to our own internal wounds and internal processes. For example, I can get something healed or get clarity on it, and get tools from it. But it’s like peeling an onion; there’s something that’s underneath.

But the beauty of being in recovery and getting better is now I’m able to notice that when I have this desire to act out in whatever way I want to act out, it’s because I feel hurt because this thing happened at work earlier today, or just because I feel not good enough or I feel like my husband isn’t giving me the attention I want. It takes the power out of the person or the substance. So, where I can realize that it’s not about them (it’s about me), I can give that to myself. To answer your question, of course I’m still triggered, but I am more capable, more in control, and I have more tools to help me get better and help me get the love that I need in the moment.

Question: What would you say your biggest piece of advice is for a codependent person?

Shena: Start to say ‘yes’ to yourself first and start to choose you, which of course means starting to have boundaries (as I’m sure your folks have heard many and many a time before). I started with codependency before I figured out that I had sex and love addiction, and one of my biggest lessons in my journey to healing was that everybody could survive when I said ‘no’.

In my head, I was the Messiah, and I was going to change and save everybody; if I didn’t take care of them, how are they going to function? But lo and behold, they were still alive when I moved away or when I had boundaries. I needed to learn that people can be upset, but when you’re healthy you can be in a better place to be there for them. Once you get there, you’re not getting better for them anymore – you’re getting better because it feels good to love yourself. So start to choose you.

Question: Is there anything else that you want to share with the audience before we wrap up?

Shena: Yes. For anyone who wants to learn more about sex and love addiction, I have a podcast called Love Junkie. I talk about love addiction and love avoidance which is the systematic putting up of walls because you are afraid of intimacy and commitment. You might get with multiple partners and not be able to be truly seen and vulnerable with them. I talk about all that along with tools for healing. So, if you don’t have a CSAT in your area or if you’re still on the fence, you could check that out.

Also, to anyone who is listening and relates to this – you’re not alone. There is help for you.

Brian: Excellent. Well, thank you for sharing that message. This is a topic we haven’t delved into a whole lot yet on the show, so thanks for bringing some expertise and personal experience.

Anybody who’s listening that wants to know more about this, feel free to contact Sheena, and like she said, that information will be in the show notes.

Thank you so much for coming on the show Shena, and we wish you all the best with your practice.

Shena: Thanks for having me. This is great.

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2 Comments
  1. I loved this so much. I am from a rural area where we do not have CSAT in the area and I have wanted to find one. This was very helpful for me. Over a year ago I finally came to terms with my sex addiction, while I have not been formally diagnosed, I believe I have been struggling with this for years. If I tell anyone about my addiction I either get that people don’t believe in that type of addiction and it is an excuse for my actions or people “want to help me”, which is incredibly demining and frustrating to not be taken seriously. I am an addiction counselor and it is already difficult for some people to accept addiction to substances so addiction to sex and love is beyond their comprehension. I plan to look further into this for myself and continuing to look for a qualifying therapist. I am currently in therapy and also plan to start brining this up in therapy to see if we can deal with some of it.

    • Thanks Renee, and all the best as you address this! If you don’t have luck finding someone local, virtual options are becoming more and more prevalent.