Sexual Addiction, Depression, and the Emotional Affair


JealousyI am helping my friend, I’ll call her Pam, end an emotional affair. I mean, it’s not the kind of emotional affair where she tells the guy that she loves him. They don’t have secret meetings, or talk every day, or have “code language.” To an outsider, the relationship wouldn’t seem inappropriate in the slightest. Yet she’s invested herself emotionally—letting it take a big chunk out of her heart—which is creating all kinds of guilt and anxiety for her.

Why would I bring up such a topic on a blog about depression and anxiety?

Because shady boundaries with friends of the opposite sex—emotional relationships that give you a shot of dopamine but leave you hung over—are dangerous territory for the person prone to obsessive thinking, addiction, or painful mood fluctuations. I used to write about this topic a lot on Beyond Blue because those pieces always generated a ton of traffic. The amount of mail and comments I received led me to believe almost every person battling a mood disorder, and especially those diagnosed with bipolar disorder, struggle with these kinds of relationships.

It makes sense, really, because who doesn’t feel good after a little flirting? The dopamine rush can be enough to give those of us who fight panic and sadness on an hourly basis relief for a few minutes, maybe longer. Getting attention from the opposite sex, especially any kind of flattery, emits some potent chemicals into our brain’s limbic system. “More, more, give me more,” it says.

With Pam, and with most of the people I’ve talked with, it’s not just one isolated relationship. It’s a pattern of relationships, over time, that go back to some basic needs not being filled. Abandonment crap that has a way of resurfacing in our lives at stressful junctures.

“You would think 14 years of therapy would be enough to overwrite this need for affection from unavailable men,” she told me. “Why am I here again? Stuck with the same panic and guilt?”

“You’re not in the same place,” I reassured her. Ten years ago she was involved in an emotional affair that almost broke apart her marriage. The immense guilt she felt for telling another man she loved him crushed her, leaving her in a severe depression that lasted two years. Every time she feels the familiar attraction, the emotional pull, she is trampled with guilt. She’s petrified of hurting of the one man in her life who has shown her unconditional love.

In her book, “Women, Sex, and Addiction: A Search for Love and Power,” Charlotte Davis Kasl, Ph.D., lists some core beliefs that women with sex addictions—and I’d add people who keep finding themselves in emotional “friendships”—hold, and how they translate those to operational beliefs.

Core Belief: I am powerless.

Operational Belief: I feel powerful when I flirt/am seductive; I feel powerful when I get someone turned on to me; I feel powerful/relief when I have a fantasy of romance or sexual conquest.

Core Belief: I’ll always be alone or lonely.

Operational Belief: I’m not lonely when I fantasize romance.

Core Belief: I’ll always be abandoned.

Operational Belief: I’m not afraid of abandonment when I have sexual fantasies.

Core Belief: My body is shameful, defective, repulsive.

Operational Belief: My body feels good when I get people turned on to me.

Core Belief: I am unlovable.

Operational Belief: I am lovable when someone wants me sexually; I am lovable when someone flirts with me/pursues me.

Kasl explains:

As a woman puts her operational beliefs into action, they become her reality and her painful core beliefs are increasingly forgotten and repressed. Painful childhood memories are relegated to the unconscious or kept at bay. She might even say, “Oh, I had a wonderful childhood,” or “It wasn’t so bad,” or “Underneath it all I know my parents loved me. They did the best they could.” The pain associated with the core beliefs is triggered only when life brings disappointment, rejection, or loneliness. That’s where addiction and codependency enter. When the pain associated with the core beliefs is triggered, the woman uses her operational tactics to fend off the feared feelings. Thus, the panic response to rejection, hurt, and disappointment can be stopped with the addictive or codependent behavior.

Craig Nakken, author of “The Addictive Personality,” also mentions the role of stress in addictive behaviors. It is during the tumultuous periods of an addict’s life that he reaches for the objects of addiction (or people or relationships) instead of the nurturing relationships or other support systems they have in their life. “The amount of mental obsession is often an indication of the stress in the addict’s life,” he writes.

“Remember the stress part,” I said to Pam. “A lot of the obsessing you are doing about him right now isn’t about him at all. It’s about finding an escape to your pain and all the unpleasant things you have going on in your life right now. Anyone would want a way out.”

“What do I do about all the fantasies?” she asked. “The adrenaline rush keeps me up at night and then it turns to a horrible guilt.”

“Don’t fight them, but don’t encourage them,” I answered, pulling from the wisdom of people I’ve interviewed over the years on relationship issues. “They will eventually go away if you stop talking to him.”

That’s the painful realization for Pam and those like her. While others can pull off a friendship with someone to whom they are sexually attracted, she can’t. She just has too much stuff working against her: the abandonment issues, her substance abuse history, and her volatile mood disorder. You throw one dopamine rush in there, and her sympathetic nervous system is on fire, even after lots of meditation, exercise, and other stress relievers.

“You’ll be okay,” I said. “You’ll get beyond this obsession soon. Go easy on yourself. Most importantly, try to practice some self-compassion.”

Originally published on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.



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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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6 Responses
  1. And this is just not limited to ‘friends of the opposite sex’. Women may feel this way with other women. Perhaps even more! Gawd you sound so churchy! 😉

  2. Maybe the ugly truth is that the “unconditional love” you mentioned is not the love she needs and the person she’s with is not the right guy for her. Does he know about her condition? Did they talk about it? Maybe she should let him go and “feel powerful” (if you know what I mean) until she finds the right man who will give her what she wants. I personally think it’s better to stay alone than to be with the wrong person. She should be convinced that she is the one choosing, not the one waiting to be chosen. But I don’t know how beautiful or smart Pam is. What do you think?

    1. Fandingo

      I think this advice is stupid. You don’t just up and leave your man because you’re unhappy; she wouldn’t be happy with anyone she was with because she isn’t happy with herself, and is seeking the adrenaline rush an affair offers. Validation external to her relationship, as it were. If she left her man and got with a new one, she’d need validation from yet another man who was not the constant in her life. So…

      1. Gary

        Hi. @fandango. You are right. Sadly, my wife of 21 years left me. Chasing a co worker. It’s 5 years later, we’ll really 6, we have 2 kids, now 18 and 21. Girls. Eldest is close to her, youngest closer to me. I was in heaven with my family. For three years afterwards I was alone in the marital house, first two years with my youngest daughter was hard, but she left to be with her mom the third year. I wanted whatever she wanted. Today is her 18th birthday. I love her so much. Miss her. She’s beautiful. I have to put my ex out of my mind. She read books about marrying a millionaire. Obsessed with it. Even though we had it all/ house paid. I paid for kids college when they were born. I’m still trying to recover. Instead of hurting myself physically I lost a lot of money at the casinos.:.after divorce. No debt during marriage. Just trying to heal pain. Have learned that you have to feel with it. I only wish my faith I wasn’t so messed up. I believe in god. But not sure about anything beyond that. Thanks for listening. Gary Sorry. Open for friendships

  3. Dusty

    Seems to me that relationships that are built over long periods of time are the kinds that.. at least I cant seem to get over. I grew up with my ex, we lived down the road from each other, I was about 10 when we first met. I knew there was something special about her, it was a wonderful feeling just being around her. We married in our 20’s raised a family together, and the two kids were each moved out on their own. We decided that I would relocate with the company I worked for about 6 hours away from or home, and once I get settled in she would follow. I loaded up what I needed in my truck and the day I was leaving she told me she fell in love with a young man she worked with. The year before she told me she had an affair with this man but she ended it. I believed her because he was married and 35, and she just turned 50….anyway the day I was leaving she says she never ended it. I was shocked …hurt..and couldn’t believe I was being thrown away….that’s how I felt. She kept saying I deserved better, and she was confused. about a year later we were divorced. I had just turned 50 myself and never ever imagined I’m find myself single at this point in my life. This all happened about 9 years ago…. I haven’t dated, no relationships, just worked as much as I could and stay home when I wasn’t working.. I still feel like doing nothing at all… cant seem to find any hopes and dreams. I know depression has really set in. Nothing seems to help at all. I thought I just needed time to rediscover myself, and figure out what really matters at this point in my life… sounds good… but it hasn’t worked. I relocated with my company again, but nothing has changed. I see women… and I have desires, but I don’t act on them. I think I might be what I’ve always heard as..”being a one woman man”. Because I feel very very sexual, but I haven’t been with a woman other than my ex, and that was 9 years ago. I tell myself, and feel sex has to mean something to me, and most people I’m thinking confuse sex with that undeniable closeness feeling in a relationship where words aren’t even needed, that just a touch of the hand can mean so much.
    I know this article is about depression, anxiety, and sex addiction. Maybe this isn’t the place for what I have to say, but I’m putting it out there because I’d like people to respond, I’m looking for other points of view, or maybe I just… just aint right! It seems to me everything I thought I knew… when I turned 50…was wrong.

    1. Aby

      Just reading this article. Nothing wrong with you. Your wife just wanted more adventure. Some people go through that stage.