Understanding Sexual Addiction

Janet Whitney, MA, MFT

Theravive Counseling


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The increase of seeing clients with sexual addiction in our private practices makes it imperative that we are able to identify, understand and begin to treat the addiction. The number of clients dealing with this type of addiction is soaring because of the easy access to pornography on the Internet, along with the inability for clients to deal with the stress of our daily lives in a healthier manner.

Looking at the power behind sexual addiction can help us to understand the depth of the grip it has on people. If we look at individuals who need to find a way to deal with their anxiety or stress, the use of alcohol has been an easy but unhealthy solution. Alcohol is a depressant. Guess what? So is sexual activity, in the way it can reduce anxiety and alleviate stress. So individuals who are over stimulated can turn to alcohol or to sex and other depressants like prescription drugs. Then there are the people who are under stimulated and bored. They might find themselves turning to caffeine, cocaine or speed for stimulation. Here again, sex can reduce boredom and cause a person to feel more stimulated and excited. So now we have sex activating or relieving 2 areas of the brain. The 3rd type of addiction people can turn to is one of fantasy. LSD, ecstasy, mushrooms and other hallucinogenics create an escape into fantasy. Here comes sex, also creating the same kind of escape. Now we have three areas of the brain that can get help by using sex. It is the only addiction that hits all 3 areas, like this. It is easy to see why sexual addiction becomes so powerful that it destroys the life of the individual and his or her family. Because men are more visual, the majority of sex addicts are male but females can also develop a sexual addiction.

The identifying factors for clients coming in with sexual addiction are the following: Visiting of strip clubs on a regular basis, multiple affairs, long hours looking at pornography at work or when alone or at night, lying and blaming of the partner for the issues or problems, loss of money because of these activities, loss of sleep, poor work performance and the basic destruction of the family. The partners of sex addicts generally report feeling “off balance”’ and feeling like there are secrets that don’t make sense. Once some of the sexual activities are discovered, a partner may become angry, hurt, suspicious, controlling and invasive of the personal properties of their partner. Many partners feel like they become private detectives as they try to unravel the extent of the activities in which their sex addict partner has become involved in. It is quite common for the sex addict to blame and deny his or her behavior, just as it is common in other addictions. Blame and denial are major indicators of an addiction. In the case with sexual addiction, the partner may claim that the partner is not affectionate or sexual enough so that is why he must look out side the relation ship. In many cases that may be true, but the lack of intimacy comes from the non-addictive partner feeling like a sex object instead of a lover or partner. Also, as the sex addict gets into his addiction, the mood swings and unpredictable behavior influences how easily he or she can be approached on a physical or emotional level. The non-addicted partner may have begun to withdraw emotionally and physically from the relationship, months before the adduction is discovered. Once the addiction is uncovered, the resentments and dishonesty make it very difficult to problem solve the situation for the couple.

Many women married or involved with sex addicts begin to question their attractiveness, their self esteem decreases and their investigative and mistrusting responses further corrode and already fragile sense of self. Both partners need to be treated in the case of sexual addiction. Certainly, there will be partners that feel so betrayed that they cannot even begin to work on the relationship. Educating them about the way sex addiction develops and the fact that this addiction does not have anything to do with their own level of sex appeal, is a place to start with the non sexually addicted partner. The couple needs to be educated about sex addiction and how powerful it is for the addict. The addiction arises because the addict does not have the tools to deal with his or her feelings. The feelings of shame, guilt, sadness, anger, hunger, boredom and loneliness can all be driving forces behind the addiction. Since these feelings seem so painful to the addict, he or she finds a way to escape the pain. Going on the Internet for sexual pleasure, having an affair or going to a strip club allows an escape route for the addict. But the cycle of addiction begins. He or she gets temporary relief but shame and embarrassment creep back in on top of any of the other uncomfortable feelings mentioned previously. The addict needs to get away from these painful feelings so he or she goes back to the behavior that brought them temporary relief. The cycle of painful feeling, search for relief, getting relief, guilt and shame and more painful feelings, keeps the addict hooked in the destructive cycle of addiction.

Looking at the goals of treatment, the first is education and awareness. It is important that the addict be able to admit the problem and the extent of the problem. He may want to first confess the extent of the problem in a solo session.  Most partners want and need to know all of what has happened so that they can feel some power in deciding if they can handle the depth of the betrayal that has occurred. It is typical for the addict to leave out some of the experiences that have occurred. The process of confessing may take several sessions.  Then educating the addict that he or she will need to identify the triggers of what gets them started on the cycle of this addiction. Once the triggers are identified, a plan for different reactions to the triggers can be put in place. The goal for any addict is to recognize, express and become comfortable enough with the whole range of feelings so that total honesty can be establish between the couple. This process can take years, but improvement can begin right away. There are great 12 step programs available to sex addicts and the partners of sex addicts. There are also effective long-term programs such as Life Star, which is nationwide, but started out of Utah.

There is a common profile for people who will succumb to the addiction of sex. It is similar to most addictions but some of the leading causes of sexual addictions are: coming from abusive homes, from overly strict religious homes, from cold and uncaring homes or from parents that had the same addiction or other addictions. The common theme is that there was not a safe place to identify feelings or express or encourage the importance of individual feelings so the person learned to stuff, ignore and deny their feelings. Just learning about how important and significant feelings are can help the client. They may need prompters to begin to identify their feelings, such as “ were or are you feeling lonely, angry, frightened, etc.?” As you work with the addict, the partner will need on going support and a place to safely express feelings. Often, a partner of a sex addict has grown up in a home where she or he has learned to become co-dependent. The symptoms of co dependency and the assertion skills necessary to over come codependency are often an integral part of the education of both the partner and the addict. Both individuals are going to be working on increasing their communication, understanding and their individual self-development, again with the goal of honesty about feelings and behaviors. Slip-ups for sex addicts are common. It is usually best to establish a 48-hour rule that the addict must confess any slip up to the therapists and his partner within that time frame. Bottom lines of unacceptable behaviors need to be established so the partner can feel safe in continuing to work on the relationship. Sex with another person or not fully reporting a slip up, may be deal breakers for the non-addicted partner. Each partner needs to be free to say what he or she can and cannot handle. As therapy progresses these bottom lines will change and the safety of the relationship can grow.

In review, the treatment of sexual addiction is complex and integrative in nature. A therapist may want to get special training in order to feel competent to treat the complexities of this disorder. It is rewarding to witness the changes that can occur when a couple is committed and willing to put forth the work and necessary effort. Recovery from sexual addiction is possible with the client who wants to get better and a therapist who is able to treat the addiction.

Visit the author at: janetwhitneyma.com

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