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, PsyD, MFT. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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