Love addiction existed long before the advent of digital technology and the Internet, but when AOL chat rooms came along love addiction found an online home. The disorder really took off when dating Websites and social media hit the scene. However, those initial digital venues all pale in comparison to the recent impact of “adult friend finder” apps (better known as “hookup” apps) like Blendr, Tinder, OKCupid, Skout, Ashley Madison, Badoo, Zoosk, Mamba, HowAboutWe and many more. And those are just the apps for straight people. Gay men have Grindr, Bear411 and Adam4Adam. Lesbians have PinkCupid, Dattch and Scissr. Etc.
In case you’re unaware, these apps offer affordable, relatively anonymous, 24/7 access to potential romantic partners. And quite often there are literally hundreds of these folks in a user’s immediate vicinity. Needless to say, this smorgasbord of romantic intrigue is like catnip for love addicts. They simply can’t resist it. For them, the adrenaline/dopamine rush provided by a smartphone screen filled with profiles of potential romance partners is, in many ways, comparable to the rush that crack cocaine gives stimulant addicts – the “substance” is just flat-out stronger and much more addictive than anything they’ve previously experienced.
Consider the story of Shari,[i] 43, a married mother of five:
I think I’ve been a love addict my entire life. I can remember as far back as middle school and high school, where I was “in love” with a different boy almost every day. I would flirt with them all day at school and try to get them to ask me out. And when I got home, I would escape my parents fighting by hiding in my room and fantasizing about how wonderful our lives would be when we got married and moved into a little cottage with a white picket fence and three kids and a dog and a cat. Even then I knew my little fantasies were never going to happen, but I lost myself in them anyway, I think because they were so much better than real life. The sad part was that a lot of boys fell for it and did ask me out, and it would be great for a week or two, but then I’d fall in love with someone else and I’d dump them. I really hurt some of them because I wasn’t very nice about it.
As high school went on, my dates started to get more and more sexual, and surprise, I got pregnant. Luckily, he was willing to do the right thing and we got married. His family has a good business and he’s worked there ever since graduation, so money has never been a problem. Unfortunately, I hated being married right from the start, even though I do love him. I just feel bored and trapped. But I never cheated on him until the Internet came along.
In the beginning I just went into chat rooms anonymously and flirted with men. Sometimes I sent them fake pictures of myself, and they probably did the same with me. At least once a week I’d fall in love with some new guy I’d met online, but I never hooked up with any of them because I didn’t want to be a woman who cheated. Later, when Facebook came along, it was more of the same, except it was less anonymous. I would go online when my husband was at work and the kids were in school, and I’d cruise profiles, and if I saw a guy who interested me I’d send him a chat request. But I never did this with anyone I actually knew, or even a guy who lived nearby. For me, it was the same thing as all the unrealistic little fantasies I had in my room growing up.
Then, two years ago, everything changed. I was chatting with a guy on Facebook and he asked me if I was on Ashley Madison. At the time I didn’t even know what AM was, but after I was done chatting with him I looked it up and saw that it was a hookup app for married people. I told myself I would never actually cheat on my husband, and then I set up a profile. Almost immediately I had guys who lived within a few blocks of me hitting me up for chats and sexts and, yes, to meet in-person. Even though I had sworn to myself that I would never do that, I gave in right away. I’ve had so many affairs in the last two years that I can’t even count them anymore. These apps are perfect for me, because I can hook up with guys once or maybe a few times, and then I can find someone else to fall for. And I’m not even hurting these guys because afterward they can go home to their wife or they can move on to some other love-addicted woman. So far, my husband doesn’t know what I’m doing, but I’m sure he’s going to find out eventually, and I’m terrified of what will happen when he does.
Sadly, Shari’s story is typical of love addicts, in that she didn’t really view her purely online romances as cheating, only thinking that she was cheating when she finally started meeting with men face-to-face. In reality, of course, any sort of secretive extramarital romantic activity qualifies as relationship infidelity. Furthermore, research shows that online romantic behaviors are every bit as hurtful to the cheated-on partner as in-person romantic activities. The most commonly voiced complaints from romantically betrayed spouses include loss of self-esteem, stress and anxiety brought on by the love addict’s lies and secret-keeping, diminishment of the sexual relationship and loss of relationship trust.[ii]
Shari’s story is also typical of love addicts in that she started using escapist romantic fantasies as a coping mechanism early in life (during adolescence), with her addiction escalating over time as the Internet and other forms of digital technology “refined the process” of finding and engaging with potential romantic partners. For her, hookup apps have provided stimulation to such a degree that she is no longer able to refrain from activities she once swore to avoid. Now she finds that her behavior is out of control, and her relationship with her husband (and also her kids) is in serious jeopardy.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. A licensed UCLA MSW graduate and personal trainee of Dr. Patrick Carnes, he founded The Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles in 1995. He is author of Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men and Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Porn, and Love Addiction, and co-author with Dr. Jennifer Schneider of both Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships and Always Turned On: Sex Addiction in the Digital Age. He has developed clinical programs for The Ranch in Nunnelly, Tennessee, Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu, and the aforementioned Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles. He has also provided clinical multi-addiction training and behavioral health program development for the US military and numerous other treatment centers throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. For more information you can visit his website, www.robertweissmsw.com.
[i] “Sherry” is an amalgam of many love addicts I’ve treated over the years.
[ii] J. P. Schneider, R. Weiss, and C. Samenow, “Is It Really Cheating? Understanding the Emotional Reactions and Clinical Treatment of Spouses and Partners Affected by Cybersex Infidelity,” Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity 19 (2012): 123–39.