Recovery from sex addiction is more than just an obsession with not lusting

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There’s a line in How it Works that says, “If you have decided you want what we have…” I must say that as I’ve sat in many meetings over the years, I’ve wondered if I really want what some of the long-time sober people have.

I encounter people at meetings with distressing frequency who have significant sobriety, but exhibit this pattern: week after week they are checking in with almost obsessive detail about things like seeing a woman in a grocery store and taking a second look, or seeing a magazine ad and not “bouncing their eyes away” within the allotted 1.5 seconds. I appreciate their zeal, but it makes me uncomfortable to think that this is the future we are inviting people into:

obsession with not lusting

It seems to me that real recovery is something more than that, something bigger than that. I get it that people want to be scrupulous about their boundaries, and that a meeting is a place to get things off our chest, and share even minor dalliances with middle circle behaviors. But there’s got to be more. There’s got to be more talk, more focus on the inner aspects of recovery, the experience of joy and freedom, the experience of not being obsessed with sex anymore.

In short, there’s got to be more focus on emotional and spiritual health as the basis of ongoing recovery … not just a focus on behaviors and boundaries. I’m not saying that behavioral solutions aren’t part of the cure … only that they are PART of the cure. We’ve got to get at what’s underneath, what’s driving the addiction.

What’s “underneath” may not be all that mysterious

By the way, this thing that’s driving the addiction, this thing that’s “underneath” is not always some deep, dark, mysterious trauma from our past. Often it’s our inability to manage our current life. Often it’s the craziness, boredom, anger, and sadness that we keep trying to push back. When we do this, our psyche pushes back … we find ourselves seeking solace and distraction wherever we can (and that probably means sex or fantasy in some form).

Some people trade the obsession with having sex for an obsession with NOT having sex. I don’t know about you, but I don’t just want sobriety, I want recovery. I don’t want to just stop acting out, I want to be happy, joyous, and free.

The really important news here is that if we don’t get under the surface and deal with what’s driving our addictive behavior, all our obsession with avoiding sex — our “white knuckling” energy — isn’t going to be enough to keep us out of trouble.

True recovery, recovery that lasts, is going to involve learning to live with serenity and emotional and spiritual health. Anything less is incomplete and ultimately unsustainable.

What do you think? Agree or disagree? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

12 thoughts on “Recovery from sex addiction is more than just an obsession with not lusting”

  1. Mark, what a great article. I totally agree about what you’re saying here and it applies not only to sexual sobriety but across all addictions. There’s got to be more to life than just not using your drug or behavior of choice. And after a period of time in sobriety, we will only begin to grow when we begin searching for more for our lives than just abstaining. It’s certainly true of quitting smoking and I would venture it is true for alcohol and other drugs. We need to look at our lives and what caused us to take on the addictive behavior in the first place, that’s where our true growth will emerge. When we can free ourselves from our original “cause” (pain, fear, betrayal, family issue, trauma), then we can begin to heal beyond just staying abstinent. That healing goes hand-in-hand with a personal spiritual source.

  2. Thank you so much for this article! You have hit the nail on the head of various feelings, thoughts and experiences regarding my personal recovery over the past five years. I will share this with friends. Thanks again and please keep up the great job!

  3. Mark, I agree that there needs to be more focus on emotional and spiritual growth and health. I have come to learn that my addiction and acting out behaviors stem from relational issues. So that is where my focus is; strengthening my emotional (with wife and significant others) and spiritual (Jesus, and other belivers) realtionships. I did not have this understanding before a yr ago. By applying relationship building principles in both areas, I am experiencing greater recovery results, and THIS is what I share during our small group time. Thanks for your blog, I will share this topic in upcoming groups.

  4. Thanks Catherine and J. I appreciate your feedback. Catherine, I know that you see this issue a lot in the recovery coaching you do for smoking and other addictions, so I appreciate what you’re saying. You know whereof you speak. It’s always seemed to me that program work of recovery (working the 12 steps, or other kinds of recovery reflection work) does get at some of these deeper issues, if it’s done well, and guided by a skilled sponsor. But not everyone has access to that, and most people in recovery groups (at least from what I see) are not benefiting from working the steps – they’re just going to meetings. So really there’s a great opportunity here for people to be teaming up .. to have support and a recovery program going for the surface, behavioral stuff, and then some kind of therapy / guidance to get at what’s underneath.

    J – I really appreciate your feedback. Glad you found this helpful. Hopefully if more people find real “recovery” there will be fewer meetings dominated by old-timers who are doing little more than “white-knuckling” it.

  5. Hi mark,

    I work with men in the UK with sexual addiction and at times I have found some men not wanting to go deeper to their wounds. Their theology gets in the way, they see their addiction as just a manifestation of sin and that they will always struggle. How do you help men become more emotionally aware and in tune with their feelings? Thanks for your blog!

  6. Bret – thanks for your comment and for letting the rest of us in on the insights you’ve come to over the years in your recovery. I remember working with you, and I’m really excited to hear how things are going for you. What you describe about your journey of coming to understand the relational, emotional, and spiritual dynamics that lie at the heart of addiction for you … that seems spot on from what I have experienced, and from what I observe in the men I work with.

    I think there is a process where we come to understand ourselves and our addiction in new and deeper ways as time goes on. It’s unfortunate when people never have that happen … those are the people who, even after years of “recovery” are still bewildered as to why they are acting out when they are trying so hard not to. Getting a filter on your computer, getting an accountability partner, unplugging the TV in your hotel room are all good things in and of themselves … but over the long term recovery will never work unless we move beyond behavioral strategies and get at what’s underneath.

  7. Tim,

    Thank you for your comment, and I’m excited to know that you’re working with men in the UK who are dealing with this issue. I don’t mean to dodge it, but I think I want to take some time to respond to it in greater detail … with a separate post just for this question. I think you touch on two huge issues: (1) the challenge of helping men become more emotionally aware (2) the challenge of helping Christians face their sexual struggles in a different way than simply viewing it as a sin they can and should stop doing. What many people misunderstand is the roots of addictive behavior in innocent and legitimate needs that didn’t get met, which we then turn to things outside of ourselves to comfort, distract, etc. Big, important switch to make in one’s mind … seeing this as “looking for love in all the wrong places” instead of “something sinful I do simply because I’m a bad person.” It doesn’t make it less sinful, but it changes how we deal with it.

  8. Mark – your article reminds me of an old timer in AA in Des Moines (so old he once called Bill W. a “crap”head to his face) would often say… “D*** right I wanted to drink today! If it weren’t for the temptation, where would the victory be”? Sometimes we need the awareness of the temptation around us to be aware of the victory.

  9. Hi Mark,

    Thanks for your response. I agree totally with you. I find many men unwilling to look at the context-their family dynamic when they were growing up. The legalistic Black & White thinking in the house, not a safe place to become emotionally vulnerable and openly process their loneliness. I have one mate who has gone from one addiction to another, gambling, and now porn, who totally refuses to see addiction as Escape.

    Most of the Christian men I work with spend lots of emotional time defending their families and their “broken but intact” families. Recovery would go much quicker if the would accept the reality that birthed their addict. Our Father wants us to grow up as sons and daughters and he wants us to come to him and ask Him to heal what we are aware of? Do you know any narrative books that unfold the love of the Father toward us. I usually ask people to read The Return of the Prodigal, but I have one young german guy who only is touched by narrative stories. Thanks

    Tim

  10. Tim, two books that I know of that are good on the subject of God’s love towards us are “The Shack” (don’t know the author’s name) and “He Loves Me” (by Wayne Jacobsen). He Loves Me may not be a full blown narrative book, but it’s really really good.

    1. Michael … this blog is not the place for condescending and snarky comments. Read other articles on the blog, read my free ebook, see a counselor.

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