If one of the core beliefs of people If one of the core beliefs of people

Bored to Smiles: Sex Addiction and Social Attunement

Woman in bathrobe looking out windowIf one of the core beliefs of people addicted to sex is that “sex is my most important need (or the most important sign of love)” (Carnes, 1983), then sex addicts active in their disease will be targeting sex as the highest point of human interaction. The social universe of an addict becomes a vast haystack concealing a golden needle that must be found, no matter what. If sexual partners can’t be found through social networking, they can be paid for or created through virtual means such as pornography, phone sex, videos, and so forth.

This zeroing in on sexual interchange as the decisive interpersonal event may be overt or covert. Through his/her sexualization of just about every empathic human interaction, the overt addict threatens to destroy his/her life by taking great risks to find sex or to pursue sex inappropriately with co-workers, partners of friends, and so forth. Such addicts may even glorify these risky sexual pursuits: a grandiosity that covers a very fragile self-esteem.

Mostly, however, a person with sex addiction’s motives and intentions are closeted, since sex addicts tend to see their sexuality as shameful—they know their behavior is out of control and risky, but they are powerless to stop it and feel ashamed of their own turbo-charged impulses. It is rather like a car with broken brakes; the vehicle is out of control, careening toward disaster, while the driver smiles and pretends everything is fine.

Struggling for Human Contact

Such covert addicts will find others sexually attractive, but remain terrified to initiate authentic relationships. Sex may be the most important transaction, but some addicts remain ashamed of it to the core. Not only for the reason I just mentioned, but also because at the core of an addict is the belief that he or she is truly a bad person, and that one’s inner desires must also be “contaminated.” Additionally, each addict reflects the times we live in. Our society is deeply conflicted about sex—we both flaunt it and condemn it—and the addict’s own feelings reflect this unresolvable conflict in a mostly negative manner.

Another difficulty in revealing true intentions or desires toward a potential sexual partner is because those desires are so “heavy,” given that sex is overly important. How could it not carry such weight, considering that it signifies love and worthiness to the addict? There is much to lose if it doesn’t happen—and if it does, an addict risks revealing the depths of his/her desire for acceptance and love, a desire that’s wrapped in shame.

Thus the covert sex addict desires from afar. They feel as if they are looking at life from the outside through a window that cannot be removed until sex is found. At this point, the window vanishes—for a few moments. Then reality arrives, and the addict finds his/her nose smashing up against the glass. Namely, the awareness that he/she has still not found the love and psychological nourishment he/she so deeply craves. The result is disorienting and deeply demoralizing.

Cycling Through Thrills, Cycling Through Trauma

When a person with sex addiction does find a sexual partner, or partners, they become constant sources of “replenishment.” Sex, in other words, replaces love, kindness, empathy, and other human interactions that add dimension to one’s social experiences. Those elements may exist, but they are not felt with the same intensity as sex for the addict who has yet to seek or perhaps has just begin seeking help for his problem. Love and kindness are nice, but pale in comparison to the “rush” of compulsive sexual behaviors. As Carnes has so wisely pointed out in many of his works, intimacy equals intensity for the addict; affection and kindness don’t compare to the full-on headrush of an adrenalized sexual encounter. Sure, the encounter may be risky due to health, legal, or other concerns, but that’s actually part of the payoff; consequences become, well, inconsequential when the addictive hunger takes the wheel. The “risk” may feel similar to the rush a gambler feels as he/she approaches a casino. Given this inability to connect with “boring” feelings of everyday kindness, the addict’s friends and family rate fairly low on the addict’s own worthiness-meter. Those in the addict’s close circle often end up feeling taken for granted, ignored, or abandoned. This is an ironic development, given that sex addiction is often kickstarted by abandonment or misattunement by his or her own caregivers. Thus the addict ends up hurting others in ways that parallel his or her own trauma.

This is why many clinicians report some people with sex addiction as having a very “narcissistic” flavor; addicts become numb to everyday human interactions, to the point of feeling disembodied—or dissociated, in clinical terms. As sex addiction progresses, the body becomes numb to anything but the sexual “hit,” which is when life becomes vivid again… for a short time. Until then, other people may not even register on the addict’s radar. They are ghostly, two-dimensional figures existing in black and white, compared to the Technicolor excitement of a shadowy sexual adventure.

This intense focus on self, which creates a perception of massive self-centeredness to those close to the addict, is actually a combination of shame, fear, pain, and a blunted ability to connect with other people in a meaningful way, due to the numbness and obsessions with sex described above. It is a black hole that needs constant feeding. The tragedy is, the addict craves actual human contact but is too numbed by addiction to truly connect. He/she is also, in all likelihood, overwhelmed and demoralized by the lonely confusion and social “wreckage” the addiction has created.

The good news is that when the behavior stops and the cravings subside, an addict becomes able to receive and (just as important) give attention, affection and positive regard to others, interactions which seem “boring” when addiction is screaming for attention, but help us feel connected and attuned to others as we wade through the difficult contingencies of everyday existence.

© Copyright 2010 by By Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT. 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.

  • Leave a Comment
  • AL

    May 14th, 2010 at 8:21 PM

    I was addicted to pornography until 3 years ago and I didn’t know it until I was caught by my parents.They did well to actually understand the problem rather than feel disgusted and ashamed.They helped me go through counseling and I’m today free of it!

  • George

    May 15th, 2010 at 5:40 AM

    But just like any other addiction can you ever be totally free of it? Are there those trigger issues that could start you back down that same path all over again?

  • Donna

    May 16th, 2010 at 3:12 AM

    I’m sorry but I just don’t get it. Your article makes it sound like this is something that is legitimate and that cannot be controlled like other addictions. I am not buying that. You are a grown up. You know the difference between what is right and what is wrong. Surely you know thta making choices like this is going to hurt others and put you at risk for who knows what. So why in the world would you risk all of that for that kind of behavior, for the “rush” that comes along with the action? there are other things that you could do to get that same feeling that do not have the potential for huring you and others on the same way.

  • Darren Haber

    May 16th, 2010 at 12:47 PM

    These are legitimate questions, it is very hard to understand addiction since it goes against the logic of most human behavior. But research shows that anything that provides our pleasure center with a direct “hit” (sugar, sex, gambling, alcohol) has the potential to become addictive and override the frontal lobe/logical part of the brain. Basically, the brain feels that it will not survive unless it has more of whatever behavior or substance is “feeding” it that primal, dopamine-based rush. Yes you can be free of it, with the proper help, although those who qualify as addicts are always susceptible to new compulsions (smoking, eating, etc) that could become unhealthy. Thanks for writing in, and congratulations to Al on his progress!

  • Gary

    June 28th, 2010 at 6:59 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.

  • The human spirit is stronger than anything that happens to it

    March 22nd, 2015 at 8:51 PM

    This article has really helped me to relate and actually help me in realizing what I was dealing with!

    My boyfriend told me specifically that he didn’t care how nice I was to him, how motherly I was to his kids, how much I always told him i loved him and reassured him, but rather would have liked for me to touch him and more foreplay.

    Your first paragraph in this article says it all. It is very sad. I wanted more than anything to help connect him with that loss or emptiness he was feeling and to help him feel the love he deserved.

    But he was not looking for that although I still feel he desires it more than ever, that true feeling of love and care. That is truly what I gave him and he rejected that, in favor of the sexual desires..

  • The human spirit is stronger than anything that happens to it

    March 22nd, 2015 at 8:53 PM

    I feel I overcompensated on my end just to shower him with love and affection. I guess I thought of all people he would appreciate it :)

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