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Sex addicts are extremely lonely people. Some are isolated and awkward socially, while others seem to have friends and a very active social world. The former may not circulate and talk much with others at work. They may not go out with friends, be married/partnered or date.If they are partnered or married, they seldom share much information with their significant other. They can’t wait to get home to watch porn for most of the evening or take breaks in the bathroom at home or work with a smart phone and pornography. The alienation of massage parlors, prostitutes and anonymous hook-ups only further their loneliness.
The apparently sociable sex addict may have friends, attend parties, flirt with and tease everyone at the office while being married with kids or in a long-term partnership. But both look for opportunities to escape into their own small world of isolating sexual behaviors. When with other people they may be only partially present. They appear to be distracted and dissociated. It’s called “being in the bubble” or off in a sexual fantasy. They do everything to avoid true intimacy while feeling isolated, alone and extremely needy.
Sex addiction is not about sex. It is about using the excitement and danger of sexually acting out to numb the pain and loneliness of an intimacy deficit. It is a substitute for deep intimate connection. Like a drug, sex is reliable in what it delivers. It is a high intensity gratification that numbs the emotional pain of depression, anxiety, unresolved childhood and severe adult trauma as well as the everyday stressors of work, family or being alone.
Sex addicts are usually not aware of how fearful they are of intimate relationships. As a child they report feeling abandoned, ignored, discounted or invisible. Their childhood may have looked “normal” to everyone, including themselves. But their connection with adults was lacking, inadequate or inappropriate. Thus they adopt a way of relating that is based on fear and avoidance of true intimacy. Only through recovery can sex addicts begin to have the courage to know themselves as well as another person.
Fundamentally, all addictions are intimacy disorders. The primary relationship for the sex addict is the relationship with sex. The rest of life is organized around protecting and fostering the relationship. As a result, the addict is not available for relationships with their partner, friends, family or co-workers. They do not know how to be in relationships in a healthy, connected interdependent way.
A common pattern for sex addicts is to be love avoidant in their primary relationship using sex addiction as a way to create distance from their partner. Some sex addicts have never been involved with a partner or long-term relationship. They settle for anonymous sex or fantasy and addiction to porn and masturbation.
There are four common forms that intimacy disorders can take. Each form can occur alone or in combination with the others:
Sex addiction is first and foremost a disease of the brain. Even though it is not injected like a chemical it still dramatically affects brain chemistry creating a dependency on sexual arousal. Sexual arousal provides a hit of the neurotransmitter, dopamine to the reward center of the brain, the nucleus accumbens, a cluster of nerve cells lying underneath the cerebral cortex. Dopamine interacts with other neurotransmitters to take over the brain’s reward related learning. Repeated exposure to addictive sexual images, or behaviors cause nerve cells in the nucleus accumbens and prefrontal cortex to communicate in ways that link liking with wanting and motivates action to seek out the source of pleasure.
In nature, rewards come with time and effort. Addictive behaviors provide a dependable short cut to reward, flooding the brain with dopamine and other neurotransmitters. Viewing porn can release 20 times the amount of dopamine as watching a great movie or having sex within a committed relationship. In the hijacked/addicted brain the pleasure receptors become over whelmed. The brain responds by producing less dopamine or eliminating receptors. It’s like turning the volume down on a speaker when the music gets too loud. As a result the dopamine has less impact on the brain’s reward centers and tolerance develops and behaviors must be escalated. At this point compulsion and craving take over
Sex addiction is a process addiction like gambling, compulsive over eating, spending and workaholism. The difference between these process addictions and substance addiction is that with substance addiction (alcohol, cocaine, etc.) you can put the substance down. But sexuality is an innately powerful part of identity. For sex addicts their behaviors have affected their self-esteem and identity as well as relationships with others.
Recovery from sex addiction and the other process addictions is different because the addictive behavior revolves around good and necessary parts of life (food, sex, and work). Total sobriety from the behavior is not the goal. The goal is to have a healthy relationship with the behavior.
For sex addicts the source is always available. While a person addicted to a substance must go pick up the substance and ingest; the sex addict always has the source readily available in their mind.
Because the sex addict carries the source of their addiction with them, they have to work on both outward sexual behaviors as well as what they do in the privacy of their own mind.
In surveys of recovering sex addicts with at least 5 years in recovery, the three things they report as being most helpful are: (1) 12 step groups (2) Getting a sponsor and working the 12 steps and (3) Finding a therapist who understands sex addiction.
All sex addicts have secret lives that include their acting-out behaviors, be it pornography, one-night stands, hook-ups, affairs, encounters with prostitutes or just watching others in public places for the purpose of sexual objectification and fantasy building. The sex addict, when in this acting out mode has an alternate persona. Some addicts describe this as “a totally different/other personality.” They often describe their personality as “two people: the good self who is honest, dependable, hardworking, family oriented and the dark self who is dangerous, risk oriented and highly sexual in unconventional, dangerous ways.” The dark self inhabits the secret life, while the good self inhabits the world of work, family, friends and integrity. The dark self lives in a secret world of fantasy and acting out in ways that don’t integrate with the values of the good/ideal self.
These two disparate parts of the addict become harder and harder to integrate into a cohesive personality. Over time these people develop a very marginally integrated personality and experience instability of self-concept. As the pull of addiction becomes stronger, they will do almost anything to protect their separate lives. Anger, aggression, manipulation and lying are weapons used to maintain the separation of the two lives they lead.
The secret life with it’s acting-out behaviors, is a coping mechanism to combat stress. It also gives the addict a sense of autonomy and independence that may feel lost in partnership, marriage, work, family and friends. The secret life can be a powerful way to punish partners with whom you are angry. Getting away with something or fooling someone is a way to feel powerful. Self-esteem is temporarily improved by fantasy and acting-out. Pain, anxiety, depression and anger are numbed and an alternate sense of identity is created.
Having a secret life necessitates lying to yourself and others. Lying is a deliberate attempt to misrepresent or hide information. Lying by omission is an intentional failure to right other’s misconceptions that work to the addict’s benefit. The wife/partner, friend or employer assumes the addict is playing tennis because it is Wednesday evening and the addict plays tennis every Wednesday. The addict fails to correct this assumption when he or she was actually with a prostitute, affair or hook-up on Wednesday. Lying becomes a way of life. It permeates everything the addict does or thinks. One lie is used to cover up another. For every lie that is told another must be told to secure the deceit. Time is spent thinking about the lie and possible ways the addict could get caught. There is further time spent to create evidence that validates the trail of lies. There is little time left to enjoy the present moment with family or friends. The deeper the addict goes into addiction the deeper his or her sense of a false identity becomes. It is hard to feel good about yourself when you lie about most of your actions, thoughts and behaviors.
There is hope for change. Seek the help of a therapist who is trained and certified in sexual addiction therapy. Attend 12 Step meetings (SA, SAA or SLAA) and read as much as you can about sexual addiction in Portland and the problem. Refer to sexual addiction resources on this website and be sure to check out our sexual addiction groups, sexual addiction counseling options, and the many resources available on the internet.