The Unfulfilling Promise of Sex Addiction and How We Recover
Addictions, chemical or behavioral, alter our mood and our state of consciousness. Our “drug of choice” promises us one (or more) of a number of things: Escape, excitement, numbness, soothing, relaxation, elevation, altered consciousness, happiness, peace, avoidance, possibility, validation, connection, etc. Yet as anyone in addiction recovery can attest, our drug of choice promises a lot more than it fulfills. Like the fairy tale that ends, “and they lived happily ever after” our fantasy about what the chemical or the process will give us rarely shows the end of that story – Suicidal depression after a weekend bender on crystal meth; anxiety, nausea, and headache after a heavy night of drinking; or incredible shame after sexual acting out.
Like any other addiction, in sex addiction the promises of what will come after a sexual encounter rarely are fulfilled in that encounter. In fact, most sex addicts will tell you that the actual sexual act is less fulfilling than the build-up to the act. For this reason, sex addicts will spend hours and sometimes days in the ritual or build-up phase of the addiction. Planning, obsessing, and ritualizing actions in preparation for a sexual encounter activates the pleasure center of our brains. This process creates excitement, flooding our brains with expectation of those “promises” listed above. Unfortunately, this anticipation is unfulfilled in the actual sexual encounter, since what we REALLY want is something deeper than what we experienced.
So why is this the case? Here’s how I understand sex addiction: It’s a deep hunger for intimacy but a terror of it at the same time. Sex addiction is an intimacy disorder. What we truly crave is connection, intimacy, peace, love, value, purpose, validation. Yet, due to early experiences or sometimes through the escalation of behaviors through the internet, we don’t learn to receive the true source of craving in intimate connection with others. Due to trauma or other adverse experiences growing up, we begin to fear receiving from other human beings the very things we’re craving. For if we truly open ourselves up to these deep longings, we also open ourselves up to pain, rejection, wounding, and further trauma. As a result, we learn to externalize our needs, objectifying others as a way of trying to meet our needs without risking the potential threat that comes with true vulnerability. For as most of us in long-term committed relationships know, intimacy brings amazing depth and beauty, but it also brings incredible risk – Because nobody knows us at our core as deeply as our intimate partners do, nobody can hurt us as deeply as our partners can.
Through this hunger for intimacy yet simultaneous terror, addicts begin to trade intimacy for “intensity.” Look back on those promises listed above that the addictive behavior can bring: Escape, excitement, numbness, soothing, relaxation, elevation, altered consciousness, happiness, peace, avoidance, possibility, validation, connection, etc. Those all sound pretty good, and if we take them outside our relationships we also don’t risk the wounding that can come from our partners.
Now of course, the whole premise of finding fulfillment outside our relationship is flawed for a number of reasons. As we talked about before, the promise of the behavior is never actually fulfilled. Quite the opposite. After a sexual encounter we’re left more lonely, miserable, shameful, disconnected, and broken than ever. This hunt for intensity is inherently DISCONNECTING rather than connecting. We have to objectify others to engage in these actions, which takes us further from the very intimacy we’re longing for. Yet unfortunately, those promises rear their heads again, and even promise us an escape from that shame we’re experiencing from the last encounter. Thus the vicious cycle continues. Even more than that, the damage our sexual behaviors have on our partners is incredible. The very person with whom we crave the most connection but with whom we’re too afraid to vulnerably seek the connection becomes collateral damage to the behaviors we’ve just engaged in. We therefore sever intimacy on the very journey we took to find intimacy.
So sex addiction becomes a misguided quest of trying to find intimacy through intensity, a task that can never be fulfilled. We settle for the crumbs of a quick high rather than basking in the love of knowing and being fully known. Building up dark and shameful momentum, sexually addictive behaviors develop a life of their own until the whole house of cards we’ve built comes crumbling down through discovery or disclosure. It’s at this point that our lives spiral out of control and our loved ones are devastated.
So what do we do about this? If sex addiction is an intimacy disorder, where addicts trade intimacy for intensity, how do we adjust our path towards our TRUE aim: Loving connection and intimacy? There’s no easy answer to these questions, because the answer involves something that’s not quick and easy: It’s the slow, consistent, and difficult work of building true intimacy back into our lives. It may involve resolving unresolved trauma from our past or from previous relationships. It may involve meeting with a specialist who understands the nature and impact of this addiction. It may involve a 12-step program of accountability and learning to share not just the façade we want the world to see but our true selves: messiness and all. It may involve intensive treatment or extreme life changes. And this journey will definitely involve others: Recovery from an intimacy disorder is going to require us moving out of isolation and into relationship with others. Collapsing in our own world got us into this problem, so learning to find safe, healthy relationships where we can be vulnerable and trust will help us learn our true authentic selves and how to be those selves with our loved ones. We will also need to fully embrace the impact of our addictive behaviors on those around us. Through our flawed attempt to meet our needs we have done damage on others around us. We will need patience, courage, understanding, behavioral change, and a lot of empathy to help support the loved ones we’ve hurt the most.
At Banyan Therapy Group, we see men and women every day who are taking the courageous journey of learning to reclaim intimacy rather than settling for intensity. The true satisfaction that this journey brings pales in comparison to the cheap promises of the addiction. So if you’re reading this and wanting to find this path towards true intimacy, if there’s any way we can help, please let us know.