Dealing with Sex in Drug and Alcohol Recovery

Weary man rubs his eyes as he wakes.At the very core of our lives is sexuality. Though, as a society, we are not trained to talk openly and honestly about sex. Nonetheless, we grow up recognizing and knowing, intrinsically, the need we have for sex and the roles it plays; with one of it’s main functions being procreation. And, what is the other function of sex? Well, and pleasure, of course.

If only pleasure were such an easy thing for us to comprehend. As a society, not only are we discouraged from talking about the pleasure that sex brings us, we are also led to recognize the detriments of deriving too much pleasure. The lack of ability to openly acknowledge things which bring us pleasure, may also cause us to abuse those same things.

It is known as hedonistic to throw oneself into pleasure all the way, to be unable to find a happy medium. When we begin to neglect our responsibilities—work, family, friends—in search of personal pleasure, we then call this phenomenon an addiction. And, when someone comes to the end of the rope with addiction, they often recognize that the only way to undo the damage is to go into what we call sobriety, or recovery.

When an alcoholic or drug addict goes through recovery, it is possible that sex is at the core; however, it is one topic that often gets neglected. Much of recovery is spent addressing the relationships, which affected and were affected by the addiction, coming to terms with our addictions and understanding ourselves in relation to our higher spirit. All of these are, indeed, important items on the road of recovery. However, it is not every day that the role sex plays in an addiction is explored.

It is important to mention that drug and drinking problems can be sexual problems in disguise. Sex plays a major role for some individuals who become chemically dependent. And, to break down its walls, it’s necessary to understand the effects of sex addiction.

Sexuality is often one of the most fragile areas of a recovering individual’s torn self-esteem. Many of the issues of love and relationships, that come up for addicts in recovery from alcohol/chemical dependency, have something to do with sexuality, once the walls are broken down.

Sexual fears and insecurities may be the force that drives a user to drinking or use drugs in the first place. For example, many professionals point to early sexual abuse as the place where some anxieties began. It has been recognized that childhood sexual abuse is a risk factor in drug dependence. Research indicates that, of all the people in treatment, about half have been raped or abused, while a third are victims of incest. So, as practitioners, we have to recognize that sexual abuse may be damaging to feelings of self-worth, which, in and of itself, is a risk factor for drug use and abuse.

Not only is sexual abuse is a major contributor to addiction. Sexual and gender stereotypes are another. Some of the tried and true gender roles still hold in our society, even though we are seeing progress and change. Many women are still the primary home caregivers, putting the needs of men and children ahead of their own, neglecting their own need for support and intimacy. And, men are often still expected to be the initiators, the aggressors, and the breadwinners forgetting to express their emotions and feelings. Ignoring needs and feelings are risk factors for addiction.

In treatment we learn that preserving sobriety involves more than merely reshaping the habits of drug or chemical use, it also requires throwing away stereotypes and reshaping old attitudes that have been hammered in over the years. In treatment the addict learns to start taking care of his/her own needs. The addict learns that their recovery depends upon addressing feelings and emotions. The individual in recovery must talk about things like sexual abuse, sexual gender roles and stereotypes. And, likewise, must also talk openly talk about his/her sex life.

The key is to deal with sex after sobriety. Avoiding sex may leave an individual poorly prepared to cultivate relationships that don’t revolve around, for example, singles bars and drinking, causing an addict to lose that hard-earned sobriety within months or weeks. Unless treatment addresses both the dependency and sexuality, recovering addicts risk relapse with every close romantic encounter. Most treatment programs do recognize that it takes two to repair a relationship strained by chemical abuse, and will incorporate the partner of the addict in the treatment process.

Though many addicts may feel like doing so in recovery, running away from sex is not realistic; it’s better to put sex in the context of feelings and factors that make up the whole person. Here are some things for the addict to remember when it comes to sex:

1. Talk about sexual feelings of guilt and anger in order to heal. Addicts need to learn to recognize the patterns of feelings, sexual or otherwise, that drive them to drink or abuse substances. Only then are they ready for new relationships, or of rekindling an old one.

2. A recovering addict also needs to move slowly, whether in a new or old relationship. Concentrate on building self-confidence and self-image, first, before building up a sex life. For many, it may be a good idea to wait six months, or even a year, before beginning a new sexual relationship. Couples should focus, first, on sharing time and feelings together before jumping back into bed and into their old, unstable, erratic sex life. Sex therapy is also a good starting point.

3. Start over by focusing on really learning about your own body and feelings. The goal here is to help ease fears that sexual feelings are abnormal or strange. It is important to take the time to really learn (or re-learn) what one likes, sexually. Couples should focus on sensuality and should take the pressure off of sex and orgasm for a while and, instead, do things like take bubble baths, sensual massage, and mutual masturbation, and openly communicate with each other about sex. It is important to recognize that, just like there’s more to alcoholism recovery than not drinking, there’s more to sexuality than just sex.

An addict will very likely need to rewire his/her ideas about sex. Taking time and talking openly about sex are the keys. The addict who discovers that sex can be a bridge to intimacy, satisfaction, and a strong self-image, is likely to find deeper, more honest and satisfying relationships—sexual and otherwise.

© Copyright 2010 by Mou Wilson. 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.

  • 19 comments
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  • Jane

    Jane

    March 12th, 2010 at 6:00 AM

    Why is it thought here that drug and alcohol abuse in many cases masks sex problems or issues?

  • Brosnan

    Brosnan

    March 12th, 2010 at 11:48 AM

    Most addicts are treated like something different from the mainstream and like they are people with special needs. Although it is true in theory, that is one area where there is room for improvement. If the treatment of such people is like with regular people, I think it is easier for them to recover.

    If we treat them like we would normal people and if they are treated in such a way in their goods family, they would feel much better and there would be better chances of a sustained recovery.

  • Mou Wilson

    Mou Wilson

    March 12th, 2010 at 10:42 PM

    Excellent comment Brosnan.

    To answer your question Jane, let me first say that not all addictions mask sexual problems and/or issues. Many addictions have other root causes (such as attachment, or family of origin issues which are emotional in nature and not at all sexual.) However commonly seen that when an addict trying to recover/stay sober finds him/herself slipping/relapsing into old behaviors and patterns that have not been addressed, sex commonly comes into play. Some people, not everyone, and more commonly women, mask sexual issues with drugs/alcohol and thus should explore sex in order to prevent relapse.

  • Loungi

    Loungi

    January 19th, 2018 at 10:16 PM

    I don’t think addiction stems from people having previous issues at all. I think it’s genetic. Watch as numerous people from the same family are affected by different types of addiction.

  • Sammi

    Sammi

    January 31st, 2013 at 9:27 PM

    Im in a new relationship with a recovering addict and sex has only come up in our conversations once and he seemed to really regret doing the things he did. We were both sexually abused as kids so we’re both insanely shy about it. Im just trying to figure out how to love and support him through his recovery instead of distract and cause him to relapse. His recovery means too much tk me for me to be the reason why.

  • Ronita McNealy

    Ronita McNealy

    May 10th, 2013 at 8:07 AM

    I’m in my second marriage to a wonderful man, our problem is I never initiate sex, I won’t even kiss him or hug him to let him know that I’m interested or that I love him if I don’t make the first move he won’t even touch me or kiss me or anything I need to learn how to initiate these things in our marriage my first marriage was a horror, and frankly I have rejection fears because it was what my first husband did to me. I don’t want to lose my husband please help me

  • Ronita McNealy

    Ronita McNealy

    May 10th, 2013 at 8:09 AM

    Having problems in my marriage as far as initiating the first move. If I don’t make the first move then he won’t either. Please help me

  • Moushumi Ghose

    Moushumi Ghose

    May 11th, 2013 at 9:02 PM

    Ronita, Thanks for your inquiry. Have you two considered couples counseling or sex therapy? Generally speaking, change in relationships doesn’t automatically happen on it’s own, but happens with concerted efforts for both parties. Initiating can feel awkward at first, but once you start doing it, eventually it will become second nature, and if you don’t take some action then things are unlikely to change on it’s own.

  • Carrie

    Carrie

    June 8th, 2013 at 1:29 PM

    I agree that addiction can help mask sex issues, I am a recovering alcoholic – 2 and half years now – but sex is a major issue. I have been with my husband 20 years and love him very much. I used to think we had a healthy sex life but since stopping drinking I am having real difficulty with the intimacy part of it. Thinking back, I was drunk in almost all intimae moments.
    Thank you for this article, I agree it is something that’s gets swept under the carpet too much, I’m not sure what I should do.

  • Mitch

    Mitch

    November 29th, 2014 at 8:22 PM

    Thanks for the comments my spouse has been sober for 10 months and still makes me sleep in a separate w absolutely no sex or emotional
    connection I need to move on I can’t understand why she can’t connect w me or just try to feel my pain it’s all about her needs.

  • Paul

    Paul

    March 25th, 2014 at 10:58 PM

    I am recently coming back from a relapse and am in my first 30 days of sobriety. My last relationship ended bc of my using and I am more or less over my ex even though she is still the last person I had sex or was intimate with over 6 months ago. I recently had the opportunity to reconnect with a friend who is married but poly amorous. She has always liked me both personally and physically and she is not looking for a relationship, just someone to talk and be intimate with. It has been really helpfull for me to talk to her bc I have a really hard time opening up about my feelings and the intimacy of laying next to someone makes it a lot easier for me to be open and to cry which I feel is a healthy outlet for emotions I keep inside bc it is hard for me to share openly about them especially with other men. The thing is that ever since my relapse I am constantly questioning my motives in every action I take bc my last relapse almost killed me. Is this non romantic but intimate relationship something that I should be leary of or is it a healthy outlet for my feelings and physical needs without the relationship aspect that is often warned about in early recovery?

  • Moushumi Ghose

    Moushumi Ghose

    April 4th, 2014 at 4:05 PM

    Hi Paul,
    Thanks for your question. In the early stages of recovery, especially after a relapse, your feelings and emotions can be extremely raw, and triggers are often compounded, as in situations of severe trauma. Right now you need a lot of support, tenderness and whir having a place to share your emotions is wonderful, having intimacy without strings attached, especially in this time, could leave you feeling even more unsupported. It’s really important that you be careful of that. One big area in which addiction plays a role is in the affected’s inability to set boundaries, but also to be unaware of triggers. You do not have to necessarily stop the relationship, but your second guessing might be a sign that you’re just not ready yet. Go slow, take your time, write in your journal (I find this to be very helpful for clients) and make sure you have a good support network to fall back on.

  • Randi

    Randi

    June 13th, 2014 at 6:01 AM

    I am about 75 days clean from alcohol and married to a man with a head injury. I am having huge problems with sex and basically not wanting anything to do with it. My husband told me this morning that he won’t sleep in the room with me until i figure out what the hell is wrong with me. he makes it all about himself and doesn’t understand I have issues to work out. My drinking career was 30 years and I slept with a lot of guys. We have been married 6 years and at first things were great. I am also his care giver since he can’t work, drive and has seizures. It’s hard to separate the mommy / caretaker from the wife and maybe that’s the issue, i don’t know. Do you ever get your interest in sex back?

  • Moushumi G.

    Moushumi G.

    June 19th, 2014 at 7:56 AM

    Randi,
    Sounds like sex and intimacy is associated with the substance use and since you are abstaining from using you are also not interested in sex either. You can definitely get it back, but just like recovery from substances requires support, so does this portion. If you can get your husband’s support in this, invite him to meetings or joint couples/sex therapy it would be the best for you and your relationship.

  • Moushumi Ghose

    Moushumi Ghose

    December 1st, 2014 at 4:26 AM

    Mitch, Have you tried going to therapy with her, or attending some sort of group like Alanon, for friends and family? It is really important to get support, especially good to remind you that you are not alone.

  • Loungi

    Loungi

    January 19th, 2018 at 10:25 PM

    My partner is 18 years sober. He is like a teenager constantly wanting sex. He mentions it all the time as a joke and makes nasty comments if he doesn’t get it for over a week. He then says he may as well drink to annoy me. We have been together 29 years and I’m over his needs. We went to counselling but he never did what was told by the therapist. He has a split personality as well he’s the class clown then Grinch. I love it when he goes away on business. I wonder if he’s substituting his addiction. I don’t know what’s normal for our length of relationship as everyone’s different. I’m 13 years younger than him and over sex.

  • Jon

    Jon

    June 13th, 2016 at 1:04 PM

    Thank you for this article. I am going to visit my wife for the first time after she has been in rehab for 30 days and of course I’m the idiot that brought up intimacy. She told me that fornication was not allowed for the first 90 days. I am mediately felt like a jerk for suggesting it in the first place and then my head spinning. I can understand what the article is saying, but is it wrong that has a couple weeks? We haven’t stop being a couple. Feeling a little lost right now. ..

  • Piper

    Piper

    August 18th, 2016 at 1:18 AM

    I found this useful to read I’m a recovering addict and have been clean and sober for just over a year. I still have no interest in sex because I dont associate it will anything good it was just something you had to do or done for drugs or it was expected for you also experienced sexual abuse and violstion. Will my sex drive ever come back and my beliefs around it will change? I have been through rehab and therapy’s and still feel the same about it although I dont have partner so might change I feel abnormal because of the lack of interest in sex I have no idea what a healthy loving relationship is like feel as though I’m missing something

  • Chris

    Chris

    August 30th, 2016 at 12:46 AM

    I am a 45 year old male alcoholic/addict with 75 days of sobriety. During the last 5 years my wife and I sex life has been non-existent due to no libido and I believe alcohol and opiate dependency played a huge role in this. Also, I should mention that this is totally on me! After re-hab and having deep, deep conversations with my wife the intimacy is still there and we are very happy and still in love. Here is my delima: now that I have a little clean time my sex drive has went into extreme HYPERDRIVE!!! We’ve definitely been making up for lost time- my concern is am I just trading one thing for the other? Is the chemical make up in my brain really that messed up? Any comments would be helpful- thank you

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