How sex and love addiction can align with problem gambling

Are you wondering whether you have a problem with your sexual behaviour and do you or a loved one struggle with problem gambling?


Behavioural addictions can so often be misunderstood and can also be the subject of misguided moral judgements and stigmatisation which can leave you feeling confused, isolated and lonely. These states of mind can make you feel desperate, but help can be at hand if you are willing to change.

Addiction can be defined as a slavish compulsion to pleasure and an activity in search of emotional satisfaction, comfort and security. Sex and love addiction share a number of similarities with the issues presented by problem gambling. They each offer the immediate prospect of mood regulation and emotional relief. There is also a kind of mental foreplay that fuels compulsive behaviour which can prove so seductive and compelling for individuals in search of emotional comfort. People who struggle in these areas typically experience a gradual loss of control and greater preoccupation with their chosen activities.

'Play' was what the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga termed the "magic circle" involving a process of stepping out of so called 'real life' into a temporary sphere of activity with a disposition all of its own. Sex and gambling can fit that definition of play as they both offer players the potential for peak experiences and by pumping the 'feel good' neurotransmitter dopamine into the reward centres of the brain.

'Anticipatory fantasy' is a term associated with sex and love addiction treatment and can be viewed as a form of mental foreplay. Similarly, the 'problem gambling zone' is a term that describes how players seek to escape their everyday reality by spending as much time as possible attached to their repetitive activity.

'Anticipatory fantasy' can involve obsessive thinking and intrigue about having sex such as pondering how to find a suitable sexual partner, where to go for sexual adventure and excitingly speculating about possible outcomes. It can involve passive behaviour such as day-dreaming about being with a friend or work colleague or flirting with a potential partner.

It can also involve active sexual behaviour such as watching porn, multiple partners, affairs, driving around the block a number of times before visiting a massage parlour or brothel and calling numerous escort numbers to build up intrigue about a possible visit. Invariably the buzz is not about actual sex, but the real excitement is in the intriguing mental foreplay that precedes the sexual encounters.

This can be why behavioural addictions are so misunderstood. People who have a problem in this area have reported that this mental foreplay delivers huge amounts of exhilaration, excitement and feverish energy in the chase for sexual satisfaction.

Where the 'problem gambling zone' differs to 'anticipatory fantasy' is in the build up to active play. Whilst there can also be an intense lead period for gamblers too, such as speculation about a visit to the casino, racetrack or with online activity, the real payoff for them is in active play. The zone of active play for escape gamblers offers a retreat from everyday worries. People who have a problem in this area have described a state of existence that represents an oasis of calm, that is free from everyday worry so long as they can keep playing.

Sex and love addiction and problem gambling also share similarities in the guilt and remorse suffered after active engagement. There can also be a form of post-coital depression following such behaviour when the exhilaration and excitement brought about by the intrigue is replaced by low mood and a sense of doom. For sex addicts, this can be the post ejaculation phase and for gamblers, it is when the money has run out.

It is not uncommon that individuals suffer a great deal of personal shame too as a result of their personal escapades. It is these feelings associated with the aftermath of a binge which distinguishes problem behaviour from lifestyle choice. 

Therapy will help in confronting 'here and now' feelings by creating a safe place to discuss your troubles and past emotional wounding. Sex and gambling can be immediate mood shifters, so quite often individuals will have become accustomed to avoiding uncomfortable feelings. Dealing with such feelings will be challenging but will ultimately prove to be very rewarding. Learning to master difficult feelings can be hugely transforming and can lead to a new and empowering life.

Treatment for sex and love addiction differs to how problem gambling is treated. It is best to identify personal rock bottom behaviours for sexual recovery and to adhere to strict boundaries when trying to change old behavioural patterns. Rock bottom behaviours are those that cause most harm to an individual's peace of mind and spiritual equilibrium.

Integrative tools and techniques can help to devise an appropriate programme of recovery. Since sex and love are so closely linked to survival and to our drive to affiliate, it is difficult to adopt an entirely abstinence based programme of treatment. It is possible, however, to strive for abstinence from identified rock bottom behaviours.

Problem gambling, on the other hand, invariably involves an abstinence based approach since a harm reduction strategy involving controlled gambling often leads to ongoing compulsive and binge behaviour. When problem gamblers cross an invisible line into loss of control, it is difficult for them to regain discipline and control once again in this area.

If you're looking for support with addiction, you can use our search tool to find the right therapist today.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London SE1 & SE26
Written by Noel Bell, MA, PG Dip Psych, UKCP
London SE1 & SE26

Noel Bell is a UKCP accredited psychotherapist in London who has spent over 20 years exploring and studying personal growth, recovery from addictions and inner transformation. Noel is an integrative therapist and draws upon the most effective tools and techniques from the psychodynamic, CBT, humanist, existential and transpersonal schools.

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