Sex Addiction: Yearning for the Connection You Fear Most

A close-up picture shows two puzzle pieces about to be placed together.I want to address an issue that lies at the heart of sex addiction: the double bind a person with sex addiction lives with, and how the tension created by this double bind creates a vicious cycle —which only strong and consistent intervention can break, and keep broken in favor of a healthier life. (By intervention I mean treatment, recovery, etc.) This tension is created when a person both craves and fears true intimacy, that can only come through vulnerability—which the person with dealing with a sex addiction cannot offer.

Though I believe sexual addiction does exist, I don’t think that every kind of sexual compulsivity indicates sex addiction. The heartbreak and wreckage created by these behaviors is painful and real. What I’m addressing in this article is the relationship patterns employed by those addicts who “act out” (or sexualize) their deepest needs—needs that are too difficult or shame-filled to express in conscious, healthy ways.

These needs constellate around intimate connections with other human beings. These needs aren’t always romantic; they may indicate a need for non-romantic closeness with others. They are, however, sexualized. Sexualizing these needs allows the addict to control them (or maintain the illusion of control) within a compulsive ritual, and to numb or narcotize the shame, anger, or other strong emotion connected to these unmet needs. This narcotizing ritual appears, at first, to be under the addict’s power. At first, this is liberating: Finally, something works! But, like all addictions, that early euphoria gives way to a nightmarish entrapment and demoralization.

How does it get this way? Most of the people with sex addiction I’ve treated were raised in homes where personal boundaries were either too rigid or nonexistent, or sometimes both (i.e. chaotic), depending on their caregivers. Normal childhood needs for nurturing and connection were ignored, trampled upon, or deemed “unworthy” by dysfunctional and/or narcissistic parenting. Much of the time, the child had to “parent” the parent, to meet the parents’ needs at the cost of their own—which went unmet, to the point where the child thought his/her own needs were “wrong,” as many neglected or abused children feel. If I’m not getting any loving attention, the thinking goes, there must be something wrong with me.

Thus a child’s needs go underground, or behind a mask of “normalcy”—this mask becomes a dysfunctional way of coping within a dysfunctional system. The child learns to placate, isolate, lie, manipulate, and act out to get what he/she so desperately needs. Of course, these maladaptive behaviors produce maladaptive responses—crumbs of the actual “nutrition” the child truly needs. But crumbs are better than nothing (sort of). Meanwhile that shell hardens, and the organic self starves within.

This ravaging hunger, unmet, creates an anguish and despair that may, later in life, become narcotized via addiction. Depending on the circumstances, type of attachment pattern the child develops, and other factors (which can be difficult to tease out), that addictive or compulsive behavior could show up as sex addiction. Sexually compulsive behavior would be, in this case, the ultimate manifestation of the inauthentic self, in a maladaptive attempt to connect to other human beings and expressed needs that have been repressed, shamed, ignored, and so forth.

Addiction cunningly creates, at least at first, a sense of control, for a person who is both desperate for protection and craves true connection—two needs which cannot co-exist in an authentic relationship. True human connection is elusive, hard to define, and experiential rather than formulaic; it is resistant to control and the will to power. True connection is transparent, while addictive behaviors clothe the true self’s needs behind a veil of (false) power and control.

True connection, of course, is based on vulnerability and reciprocation of power. But for the sex addict, who grew up within a cocoon of an “adaptive” false self, vulnerability is too terrifying to bear. To be vulnerable is to open oneself back up to the possibility of abandonment, betrayal, engulfment, or annihilation: in other words, to re-traumatizing. It feels safer (and is ultimately self-defeating) to maintain power and control, especially in as intimate a setting as sex. Even when sexual acting out has a masochistic “flavor,” the addict maintains control—he or she writes the script, calls the shots, pays the players.

Sadly, true vulnerability is unthinkable for most sex addicts (prior to recovery and treatment, that is). But without it, intimacy is impossible. Thus the addict suffers from lack of an experience that involves a psychological strength and centeredness which simply does not exist in his or her “core.” Not because of inadequacy (though it often feels that way), but because of the hardened shell that developed around those earliest trauma-experiences, the false self that was erected to contain the psychic “bleeding” caused by primal wounds.

The addict lives in a torturous double bind, as he/she has the desire to connect, but lacks the psychic fortitude to do so. No authentic relationships can occur without that strength, but that strength cannot be nurtured without an authentic relationship. What is perpetuated, as a result, is the internal “command” to maintain the false self. The prospect of true intimacy and connection (romantic or otherwise) remains an illusion: a painful one, in that it drives the behavior and frustrates all hope of actualizing real human relations.

© Copyright 2010 by By Darren Haber, MA, MFT, therapist in Los Angeles, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Paulette Godwin

    April 20th, 2010 at 4:17 PM

    Although sexual feelings are natural,a person needs to draw a line and if this line is crossed,should seek help immediately.Its not like sexual addicts do it because they really want to.Its the way all other kinds of addictions work…The addict feels compelled to do so!

  • Kayla

    April 21st, 2010 at 3:18 AM

    great article with a lot of insight to a subject that I have dismissed in the past as simply being indulgent and silly, but you have shown me that there could be some validity to it after all- thanks for the eye opener that at least gives me a small bit of understanding

  • Darren Haber

    Darren Haber

    May 14th, 2010 at 5:06 PM

    Thanks to both of you for leaving your comments. I found your remarks to be very compassionate and understanding, which I much appreciate. Feel free to contact me with any questions or comments, etc.

  • Gary

    June 28th, 2010 at 6:58 PM

    PLEASE! Not every behavior, marital difficulty or interpersonal embarrassment is an “addiction” and not every different, diverse, or contrary historical or emerging cultural behavior should be called “pathologic”.

    Tiger Woods chases women because he is famous, rich, good looking and feels powerful and entitled. That is not addition, it’s playing to his strengths.

    There is no diagnosable scientific addiction to pornography described in psychiatric literature and likewise such a description does not appear in the DSM IV or anticipated in the DSM V. (Sorry, we won’t be able to pathogize another contrary to taste behavior to bill insurance companies or promote seminars). The literature clearly states, and always has, that excssive behavior of any type is a indication of some OTHER life difficulty that MAY NOT BE PATHOLOGIC. Problematic behavior of all types and forms is highly individualized and putting a mental health label on pornography when our culture is so highly sexualized (see the media, HBO, mags and tabloids at the supermarket), is counter productive to a full and accuate understanding of the new and emerging sexual landscape and its expression through the vast and uncontrolled mobile media and technology afforded everyone.

    Just because we mental health professionals see a buck to be made by pathogizing behaviors we do not like – or can point out a few incidents of excess and destruction does not make them truely mental health disorders. Its getting tougher to make money in counseling and therapy and yet it does not seem right or ethical to start calling out our cultural interests as sick so we can make money. I just do not think that telling lies to the public does us much good.

  • eva

    January 27th, 2011 at 10:25 PM

    I Agree.people suffering from sex addiction can be emotionally and mentally unstable.despite their constant pursuit for sexual pleasure they are rarely satisfied from their sexual activities and they have difficulty establishing any emotional bond with their sex partner.

  • Nicholas

    March 15th, 2011 at 1:00 AM

    Seems silly to me the argument over “addiction.” The point is, if M (Male) feels strongly that M is focusing on sex too much — to the point where other things in M’s life are being overlooked and neglected — what are some reasonable, practicle courses of action?

    Start with the free and inexpensive solutions first.

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