Sex Addiction and the Fear of Intimacy.

In some respects the label ‘Sex Addiction’ can be misleading.  It’s just not helpful to both those struggling with compulsive sexual behavior and for those trying to understand more about it.  So often we see this misunderstanding expressed in the media whenever the subject of sexual addiction is being explored.  The title here suggests that sex addiction is all about the sex act, an excess of libido.  Those who understand this addiction know that this is really far from the truth and just like any other compulsive or addictive behavior, sexual addiction usually masks  a more serious emotional and personal turmoil.  As I’ve worked with any other addiction, I’ve found it helpful to see the compulsive sexual behavior as a symptom of underlying problems rather than the problem itself.  I see it as more the symptom than the root problem.  This of course may seem strange to anyone affected by these behaviors and the pain and chaos caused by them.  But the fact is that while treating the symptom alone and focusing only on the problematic behavior may result in some short term relief from the problem it does not bring about lasting and effective change.

Invariably the deepest layer of the issue for the addicted is the issue of intimacy, or rather, the fear of it.  What we are really talking about here is the difficulty that some people have in forming and maintaining intimate and close connections with other people.  Often with sex addiction we find that the person struggling with the behavior can be quite isolated, having very few close personal contacts.  Many of these people may be involved in a romantic relationship with a partner and may even be married.  However, even in these circumstances it is often the case that they struggle to be truly intimate.

An old therapists’ tool is to describe intimacy as “in-to-me-see.” In other words real intimacy involves a deliberate attempt to allow the other person to know us as we really are…..warts and all.  It is probably fair to say that this is a challenge for most people but for those who carry a deep sense of shame about themselves this is next to impossible.  When we feel ashamed of something we tend not to go around shouting about it.  We don’t want people to know how broken or damaged we really think we are, and feel vulnerable and exposed if someone does.  A person who is toxically shamed about who they are experiences intimacy in the same way.  They feel threatened and exposed by it.  It is terrifying in the extreme and they will avoid it at all costs.  It is important to understand too that the shame the person feels does not simply come from the compulsive sex acts that are engaged in, though these acts generally do leave them feeling worse, but comes from deep within themselves and has most likely been there for a long time -- most likely since childhood.  It is a shame about who they are and not just about what they do. 

As humans we are hardwired for intimacy with others.  From our earliest moments as infants we seek out and need the closeness, attention and affirmation of those around us.  If this works out well and the child gets what they need when they need it, it is likely they will go on to develop close and intimate relationships with others in their later life.  If this doesn’t happen and these early emotional needs are not met, we often form unhelpful and unhealthy beliefs about ourselves.  These beliefs usually take the form of ideas like “I am not good enough” or “I am not lovable,” the belief being founded on the notion that if I were good enough I’d get what I need.  See how this flawed and punitive belief could lead to intimacy avoidance?  If you believe you are not good enough or not lovable enough just as you are, it is likely that you will do everything you can to avoid being seen as that ‘unworthy‘ person or being truly known by any other.  Let’s face it, who would want a broken gift for Christmas?  Or any other time?  If they know who you really are they will leave.

In the real world intimacy with others is a risky business.  Not everybody we meet will like us and not everyone who likes us will be interested in forming a close and intimate relationship with us.  That’s how life is.  For a person with a healthy, individuated ‘Core sense of Self’ this reality of being accepted, as well as that of being rejected is one that they can cope with pretty well.  For people with the unhealthy Core beliefs described above this reality gets pretty distorted. They experience almost every interaction with others as a test ~  test which involves being accepted or rejected as an inherantly worthy person, and which is terrifying to take.  It’s the fear of failing as a human being that is so paralyzing. 

These people are hyper-vigilant and therefore hypersensitive to criticism or to any indication that someone doesn’t like them and interpret these events as confirmation of their core belief, ”I’m not good enough.” These core beliefs operate in relationships and inspire one of two kinds of strategies: either becoming so subservient and passive in order to avoid risking the displeasure or disapproval of others, or becoming aloof and distant so as to protect themselves against rejection.  It is possible too that some will adopt either of these positions depending on the person they are interacting with.  The bottom line is that the person’s own authentic self, their thoughts, feelings, opinions are sacrificed on the alter of intimacy avoidance.  The payoff for this is that they avoid the pain they believe is inevitable in intimate relationships. The price they pay is to live a life with an ever present pain of loneliness and disconnection -- from others and from themselves.

In the center of all addictions is this circular dynamic: Sex (or any ‘focus’ of the addiction) => Love => Sex => Pain => Love => Sex, etc... It's circular, see?

All of this is important in helping us to understand why someone might develop and maintain an addiction to pornography, prostitution or cyber-sex.  These activities demand nothing of the person’s emotional self.  There is no risk involved, no danger of rejection or humiliation. Pornography is always available and prostitutes never say no.  Neither cares who you really are.  For people who are terrified of intimacy these behaviors can be really attractive and seductive ~ an apparant way of getting legitimate needs for connection and closeness and sex met in a way that involves little or no risk of being exposed or hurt.  As I just alluded, the problem is that what is offered here is illusory.  It is not real and all that is achieved is the illusion of connection.  For this reason many people who engage in these behaviors will report feeling worse afterwards, more ashamed, guilty and full of self-loathing – a sure sign that the legitimate emotional need has not been met in a healthy way.

Think of it this way:

Imagine you are driving home from a long, hard day of work.  You haven’t had a chance to get a proper meal and it’s been hours since you had that coffee and doughnut. You are hungry. Famished in fact and you can’t wait to get home, unwind and cook something to eat.  But it’s going to be at least an hour before you get home and cook the meal and besides, you’re exhausted and just want to chill out.  You start to feel irritable and agitated. “Oh hell, why did they have to keep going on about that account anyway…I could have been out of there hours ago if they just would have shut up...where’s all this traffic coming from….S***!   And then you see it...those bright yellow arches rising up at the side of the road like two open arms waiting to give you a big hug. McDonalds!!  Oh…a big Mac, fries and coke….I am hungry….but I shouldn’t….I felt awful after the last time…..but it has been months since I had one…Oh go on, you deserve it…their fault anyway, keeping you stuck in that meeting….Screw it…I’ll DO it...

And you do.  The excitement building as you inch your car along the drive-in lane.  The smells of salty, fatty, fried food filling your nostrils. Your mouth watering with each nudge of the accelerator. And then you have it.  You get sucked in, forgetting all about work and the traffic and that pain-in-the-butt account that’s been giving you hell for weeks. Aaaaaahhhhh the taste, the feeling……bliss. Mmmmm, munch, munch……munch…….munc……mun….mu…..m…Oh no…

You’re fumbling around in the bottom of the bag for more fries….surely they couldn’t be all gone already….They tasted so good….you lick the excess salt from your fingers and consider getting some more. No, you shouldn’t...Anyway, you’re not hungry and there’s that feeling in your gut…full, bloated, uncomfortable…and something else too…you don’t feel so good….”damn….why did I do that?  I could be nearly home by now and could have had something healthy.”  The aftertaste of salty, fatty, fried food lingers in your mouth and the back of your throat. You don’t feel that good.  The more you think about it the more you curse yourself for being stupid and impulsive, and now the damn seatbelt feels too tight and you’re tempted to open the top button of your pants. And that meeting went on and on and kept you longer than you needed to be and now the traffic seems even heavier than before and now you feel sick to your stomach.  Sick, angry, ashamed and unfulfilled. You went about meeting the legitimate need for hunger in an unhealthy way...

For people who are intimacy avoidant this analogy to junk food works well.  They forego the roast beef dinner, for the junk – avoiding  healthy, close, intimate and rewarding relationships for the meaningless, superficial and illusory encounters experienced through sexual addiction. This is really important: they forego it not because they want to.  They actually crave close connections with others but are simultaneously terrified of them.  They are not faulty or defective but fearful and afraid.

Effective therapy can help those struggling with intimacy avoidant issues to re-connect and bond with others in their life.  Slowly the client learns to take little steps, risky and challenging but nevertheless necessary and worthwhile.  It is the therapist’s job to encourage, explain and to support the client in their efforts to meet these challenges and risks.  Over time, clients come to see compulsive sexual behavior for what it is – meaningless, shallow, and illusory and shame inducing. With increasing individuation and self esteem begin to experience the real and deep rewards available from connecting in a deeply personal way and hopefully come to appreciate this.   I mean, who among us would choose McDonalds over roast beef anyway -- really?

If you live in the Lansing, Michigan area, please feel free to contact me with any questions or comments.  

Peter Roseman Psy.S.
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