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By Emma-Louise Boynton
“When your pursuit of ‘love’ is destroying your life,” says actress Charlene deGuzman, “when you’re thinking about killing yourself and you’re ruining your career – then there’s a problem.”
On Zoom with me from her home in Los Angeles, deGuzman speaks animatedly with a childlike exuberance that seems at odds with the topic of our conversation: her sex and love addiction.
Since she was a teenager growing up in San Jose, California, deGuzman has been addicted to love, her mind dominated by one thing: men.
Now aged 37, she remembers feeling inescapably depressed since she was 11 years old.
“I was actually a happy kid when I was younger… but as soon as I entered middle school I didn’t fit in, I couldn’t make friends, and I was bullied. That changed everything,” she says.
At 13, she got her first boyfriend and for a short while experienced an unfamiliar and unparalleled high – a brief escape from her middle-school misery. But then he broke up with her and deGuzman crashed.
“That’s when I started harming myself regularly,” she says. “From then on, I always had to have a boyfriend… or someone, or something.”
She then spent her twenties seeking solace in ‘love’ with particularly unavailable men, at virtually any cost. She jumped from boyfriend to boyfriend.
“When I didn’t have a boyfriend, I had sex,” she says. “And if I wasn’t having sex, I was pursuing, chasing, flirting, obsessing, fantasizing, longing”.
Then one evening she found herself pacing her apartment feeling crazed, staring at her phone for hours as she waited for her then-boyfriend to text her back, growing increasingly frantic when he didn’t. She contemplated suicide.
When eventually he got in touch, the blinding agony that had, for hours, consumed her evaporated almost instantly. She realised then, for the first time, just how sick she was. She knew things had to change.
A friend had introduced deGuzman to a sex and love addiction recovery programme in Los Angles sometime earlier. She hated the few meetings she initially attended, convinced they “weren’t for her”. But resolved she would tackle her addiction, deGuzman returned to the programme, this time determined she would commit to her recovery. Just 30 days in, she began writing about her experience of overcoming sex and love addiction, eventually turning it into the 2018 comedy-drama Unlovable.
‘I realised I’d never dated before – my boyfriends at that point had all just been one-night stands that lasted.’
When we speak, deGuzman says she is five years into the sort of stable and loving relationship she never imagined possible. But starting a healthy relationship – with another recovering sex and love addict, incidentally – threw up a whole spate of issues, she tells me, which she wishes someone had warned her about.
“The work gets harder when you have a partner,” she insists. “I’ve had to learn how to have sex again, how to be romantic again... After you go through the withdrawal you have to reintegrate everything else.”
This period of “withdrawal” was a key part of her recovery plan and required complete abstinence: no flirting with strangers, no texting with potential dates, no stalking exes on social media. But while staying “clean” for, say, a drug addict, means staying off of substances for good, for a sex and love addict, she explains, you must eventually learn how to reintegrate the very things you’d grown so deleteriously dependent on – love, sex and romance – back into your life. You have to learn what a healthy relationship looks like, often for the first time.
For deGuzman, this meant following a strict ‘dating plan’, after almost a year and a half of abstinence. She wouldn’t offer details regarding the plan she followed personally, but Sex and Love Addicts Annonymous (SLAA) – a recovery programme based on the 12-step model pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous) offers a template dating plan for sex and love addicts who attend its meetings online.
The plan outlines different “dating stages”, which encourage the person in recovery to move slowly with a prospective partner as they take a new relationship from “the public to the private”. It suggests they set clear boundaries around everything – how many dates they should go on before holding hands and then kissing, how many times they should permit themselves to speak to the person before and after the date, and how long each date should be.
“The dating plan I followed was really helpful,” she tells me. “Because I realised I’d never dated before. My boyfriends at that point had all just been one-night stands that lasted.”
Learning what a healthy relationship looked and felt like, she discovered, required unlearning most of what she’d learnt about love. For millennia, love has been portrayed through the prism of unbearable passion, from the Roman poet Ovid, who declared “I can’t live with or without you”, to Richard Curtis’ rom-coms, we have been bombarded with the idea that love inflicts a certain type of lunacy. The idea that love is akin to entering a super-charged battlefield is baked into many of us.
“You think love is supposed to feel like suffering,” says deGuzman. “You see it in the movies and in books, that longing and that pining, that unattainable person in your fantasies. It [the love addiction] was all based on such unrealistic expectations.”
Yet while the pursuit of sex and love has dominated so much of deGuzman’s life, the question of whether you can be addicted to love as you might be to drugs or alcohol continues to divide the scientific community.
“Love addiction is a phenomenon that still isn’t recognised by any of the diagnostic manuals,” says Dr Daria J. Kuss, Associate Professor in Psychology at Nottingham Trent University.
“However,” she continues, while “the evidence base of love addiction is still in its infancy” and there is no consensus on the diagnostic criteria for love addiction, “on a neurological level it is very similar to substance addiction as it activates the same neurological mechanisms and areas in the brain that are activated when a substance addiction develops and is being maintained.”
The addiction to love and sex that deGuzman experienced were inseparable but they are “distinct, problematic behaviours,” says Dr Kuss. “For love addiction the focus will be on the partner addiction, spending time with the partner, being intimate with the partner. Whereas sex addiction is driven by the need to engage in sexual activity which is often more physical than cognitive.”
Debate on the topic continues within the scientific community, but the conversation around love and sex addiction has moved on since deGuzman first sought help.
“A lot more people are now discovering, as I did, that they’re not crazy and they’re not alone in what they’re feeling and what their patterns have been like. That’s the good part about it. You can put a label on it, read a book, an article, see what you’ve been experiencing and not feel so crazy or alone.”
How then does deGuzman feel now, years on, when she reflects on some of the darkest days of her addiction?
“I feel sad for that version of myself. I feel compassionate towards that person. And then I just feel so thankful I don’t need to live like that anymore,” she says.
“But here’s what I’ve been thinking about all these years. Love addiction isn’t the most accurate term for what it is. Love is a good thing, it’s what heals the addiction. It’s being addicted to the idea of what we think love is.
“As humans, we can become addicted to anything. It’s all about filling this void and not wanting to feel the pain that is there. With love addiction, it just so happens to be for romantic experiences, sexual experiences.”
Having just got married in a private ceremony over lockdown – something she notes is “huge for a sex and love addict” – deGuzman says that she and her husband have gone to therapy together since the start of their relationship, as they’ve each worked through the issues that first led them into the throes of addiction.
‘As humans, we can become addicted to anything. It’s all about filling this void and not wanting to feel the pain that is there.’
“The hardest part about being in this relationship is that for a while I couldn’t have sex. My body couldn’t do it. I would get triggered and I would cry. There was so much trauma to look at and so much stuff there that needed to heal.”
“Dr Patrick Carnes [author of Sexual Anorexia: Overcoming Sexual Self-Hatred] writes about how when you recover from the addiction, you go into an ‘anorexia’ phase with love and sex [defined by Carnes as a compulsive avoidance of sex and intimacy]. I feel I’ve gone through that in my relationship… I’d want to be romantic, but then I wouldn’t want to be close to anybody.”
Step one for deGuzman and her partner was simply learning how to talk to each other through Imago therapy (which focuses on communication tools and techniques that enable patients to move through conflict effectively and strengthen the connection in a relationship). Eventually, she says, they moved on to sex therapy.
“After all the painful stuff was out of the way, we were ready to focus more on building our sex life,” she says.
With the mental space that was once monopolised by obsessive thoughts of men, deGuzman is finally free to explore who she is outside of the addiction, what she likes to do with her time, what she wants from her life.
“I just wish love addiction was something we talked about more. We need to talk about what healthy love looks like,” she adds.
Lead image by Mauritius Images / Alamy Stock Photo
After years of being addicted to love and sex, Charlene deGuzman shares the darkest days of her obsession with men and how therapy helped her to re-learn what love looks like.
By Emma-Louise Boynton