November 8, 2012 | by Michael Radkowsky
Hook-up addiction?
smartphone, gay news, Washington Blade

(Photo courtesy bigstock.com)

Dear Michael,

I seem to be spending more and more time on my phone lately, looking for hookups, but I’m having some doubts that this is all good. Pro: I’m meeting lots of hot guys and having a lot of hot sex. Con: I still am not in a relationship and want to have a boyfriend. Pro: All my friends are on the same apps and we have a lot of fun comparing notes. Con: We don’t seem to talk about much else. Pro: It gives me a rush and feels fun.  Con: I think it’s eating up all my time. Pro: It’s fun to be able to meet guys quickly, wherever I am. Con: I almost had an accident while looking for guys on my phone while driving through North Carolina.

What do you think?

Possibly Screwed by my App

Dear Screwed,

Hooking up with people and the hunt for hookups, can feel great. Our brains produce chemicals that give us intense feelings of pleasure not just when we have sex, but also as we move toward getting naked: during foreplay, while we’re flirting, and — if we’re using an app to look for potential partners — when we take the very first step of launching the app. So, as you start scanning all those alluring possibilities on your phone, you are triggering a neurochemical response in your brain that can create an awesome high.

The problem is, because simply getting on the app makes you feel good, you are likely to get on it more and more often. And because actually finding hookups makes you feel good, you can easily get obsessed with chasing this particular high.

If it sounds like I’m using the language of addiction: You’re right, I am.

Now, let’s look at your situation from a slightly different perspective. The road to hooking up can be a speedy route to feeling attractive and desired. The validation we get, from both hookups and potential hookups, can seem like a powerful self-esteem boost. Typically, this leads us to pursue more and more hookups. Gay men, who usually have a core experience of feeling different and defective, are highly susceptible to this sort of fix.

Some problems with this: The boost is fleeting, because external praise for our surface attributes doesn’t really change how we feel about ourselves and we are likely to spend more and more time chasing short-lived validation from people we hardly know.  If you don’t actually feel good about endlessly pursuing hookups, then hanging out with your app will ultimately lower your self-esteem. This is the opposite of what you’re looking for — and what you feel like you’re getting — when you launch the app.

The upshot is, you may be addicted to an experience that is keeping you hunting for hookups, even though you say you want a relationship. And because the particular high of intense excitement that you are chasing is a very different experience from the intimacy and commitment of a relationship, you are conditioning your brain to crave hookups, and their pursuit, rather than something more long-term.

If you want to make a change, you would benefit tremendously from strong support, because it isn’t easy to stop a behavior with such seductive and pleasurable payoffs, even if there are also negative consequences. You report that all your friends are similarly engaged, which makes it difficult to do something different. Consider looking for an additional social network (live rather than virtual) and perhaps a therapist knowledgeable about this issue to help you broaden your sources of pleasure, stimulation and connection.

Michael Radkowsky, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who works with gay couples and individuals in D.C. He can be found online at personalgrowthzone.com. All identifying information in the questions has been changed for reasons of confidentiality. Have a question? Send it to Michael@personalgrowthzone.com.

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