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Sex Addiction as an Intimacy Disorder


by Mike Quarress MA CCAC CSAT-S (Certified Sex Addiction Therapist)

While we know relationships are negatively affected when someone is suffering from a substance use disorder, the dysfunctional relationship is at the centre of sex addiction. Us counsellors view sex addiction as an intimacy disorder. A person’s pathological “love” relationship, in this case, becomes a mood-altering experience, one which causes damaging consequences.

It is important to view the addictive sexual or relationship behaviour as a mood-altering experience which does not require alcohol or drugs.

People who suffer from either substance use disorder or sex addiction typically have problematic relationships due to difficulties trusting others, therefore any form of intimacy other than sex becomes very difficult. Given these relationship issues, this blog may be helpful to anyone struggling with any type of addiction.

What is Intimacy?

Intimacy is often defined as a familiar and very close connection with another as a result of a bond that is formed through knowledge and experience of the other. Again, this connection is not possible when the person has to be close to anything other than their addiction.

Genuine intimacy in human relationships requires dialogue, transparency (openness), vulnerability and reciprocity (giving back). These characteristics are often missing when a person has an addiction, as the person is focused on living two different lives. Intimacy precludes the secrecy needed to conceal this double-life; after all, the verb intimate means “to state or make known”.

Looking at different areas of intimacy to understand the total effect they have on a person’s relationships is important:

Physical/Sexual Intimacy

  • This intimacy can include sensual proximity or touching
  • It is an act or an expression of feelings (such as close friendship, love, or sexual attraction) which people have for one another

Emotional Intimacy

  • Depends primarily on trust and involves disclosing or sharing feelings in order to reach an understanding, offer mutual support or build a sense of community

Moral Intimacy

  • A way of giving support to a person without making any contribution beyond the emotional or psychological value of the encouragement

Spiritual Intimacy

  • Sharing a connectedness to a larger reality; yielding a more comprehensive self, with other individuals or the human community or with a Higher Power

Recreational Intimacy

  • Spending leisure time, or engaging in activities, with others for the purpose of enjoyment, amusement, or pleasure

Exploratory Intimacy

  • Assisting someone with examination or investigation for the purpose of discovering something

Many people with sex and love addiction mistake sex for intimacy. Sustaining intimacy with others is next to impossible while one is active in addiction as the need to conceal and limit detection of any addictive symptoms makes it impossible to let others “see into you”. Intimacy requires authenticity, honesty, transparency, and openness, which are not behaviours common in sex addiction. Addiction in any form does not allow for solid bonds as the primary relationship in the person’s life is them and their addiction.

Relationships in Addiction and Recovery

While people may get sober temporarily, many struggle to sustain recovery as they fail to cut off the connection to the most meaningful relationship in their life: themself and their addiction. I truly believe that a successful treatment for any addict is one that offers opportunity to grieve the loss of this primary “love” relationship and, finally becoming emancipated, allows the patient to free themself from the relationship entirely.

Many sex addicts seek out connection through avenues that do not require any forms of intimacy, such as online hook-ups, one night stands, and cybersex; these encounters offer little to no true interpersonal connection. What they offer instead are opportunities for people with addiction to bond in the ways in which they are capable, not requiring any forms of intimacy while at the same time feeding their desire.

Intimacy, Recovery, and Healthy Relationships

To sustain intimacy for any length of time requires well-developed emotional and interpersonal awareness.  Intimacy requires an ability to be both separate and together with someone in a relationship. Often, people with sex and love addiction cannot see themselves outside of their addictive relationship—a form of enmeshment that represents no intimacy with self and solely a dependency on another. This lack of self-intimacy often stems from early childhood patterns. For example, perhaps the child was not permitted to trust themselves, develop a strong sense of self, or to trust others apart from their sole caregiver.

As we review different forms of intimacy, it is easy to see how someone with a sex addiction has a fundamental failure to trust others enough to build meaningful bonds and sustaining intimate relationships. This then leaves them susceptible to less meaningful relationships, such as those with prostitutes. They might also seek out anonymous sexual encounters (as can often be the goal with online dating platforms or adult apps) where they may or may not be unfaithful to their life partner. These platforms provide arenas in which people with sex and love addiction can act out, securing attachment and practicing false forms of intimacy that leave a person in a pathological love relationship with their addiction.

The result of this false intimacy is the blocking out of true intimacy, which is crucial for a lasting recovery. As they say in recovery circles, the opposite of addiction is connection, and in order to feel any true connection with another, some sort of intimacy is required.

EHN Canada Can Help You

Suffering from sex and/or love addiction and wondering how to stop? We can help. EHN Canada has programs for sex and love addiction. This includes an online outpatient program for those with less complex histories of sex and love addiction.

If you are interested in enrolling yourself in one of our programs, or in referring someone else, please call us at one of the numbers below. Our phone lines are open 24/7—so you can call us anytime.

  • 1-800-387-6198 for Bellwood Health Services in Toronto, ON
  • 1-587-350-6818 for EHN Sandstone, in Calgary, AB
  • 1-800-683-0111 for Edgewood Treatment Centre in Nanaimo, BC
  • 1-888-488-2611 for Clinique Nouveau Depart in Montreal, QC
  • 1-866-860-8302 for virtual outpatient support, available wherever you are
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