Is Sex a Struggle but not an Addiction? Here’s what to do

strugglingOver the years in my work with sexual strugglers, it became clear that there is a spectrum of struggle … some people simply fight a battle with sexual temptation (and periodically lose), and others would fall into the category of sexual addicts. The line between the two is not always clear — it’s more like a spectrum, not a simple either/or — and many people struggle to honestly face the extent of their problem.

I have come to call this group of people — who fall repeatedly into sexual temptation, but don’t fit the diagnostic criteria for addiction — “sexual strugglers.” Often people in this category don’t have the patterns of emotional and sexual trauma from early life, and they don’t give evidence of other problematic addictive behaviors. But for some reason, they still struggle with behaviors around sex — often related to Internet pornography.

I believe that sexual strugglers need to focus on four things. If they keep these four things in place, they will do well. Also, at the end of this article I will give you an easy, sure-fire way to tell where you fall on this spectrum. So here we go … the four things strugglers need in order to deal with their struggle:

1. Vigilance

Sexual strugglers need to maintain an awareness of their vulnerability to sexual temptation, and realize that this will be an ongoing challenge area for them. Many people who are dealing with sexual temptation at this level try to downplay its importance, or view it as a temporary thing. They may tend to blame other people — especially their spouse — but the problem is internal, not external. If they were in a relationship with someone different, they would likely still struggle sexually.

Often sexual strugglers downplay the problem in their lives, because they are able to go for certain periods of time without falling into behaviors. But inevitably, if left unchecked, their sexual struggles will come back, and they will get into some kind of problematic behavior again if and when the circumstances allow. In other words, they can stop, but they can’t stay stopped.

The solution is a bitter pill for some people to swallow: recognize that this is an ongoing issue, and it won’t go away. We need to keep vigilant. How? Read on …

2. Boundaries

The sexual struggler needs to establish new guidelines or safeguards around his or her behavior. This is the flip side of the first principle, the need for vigilance. Sexual strugglers need to be aware of their vulnerabilities — and do something about them. They need to put filters on their computer, establish guidelines around safe conversations with members of the opposite sex, establish plans for business travel, and for time spent alone (like when their spouse goes away on a trip and they are home alone).

An important step for sexual strugglers is to look back on the times they have fallen into inappropriate sexual behaviors and pinpoint the areas of vulnerability that were in place that led up to his behavior. Then they need to decide what kind of limitations or boundaries need to be put in place. People often resist this because it creates limitations and hassles. But the alternative is more acting out, and further movement on the continuum of sexual health towards addiction.

3. Support

Along with establishing new safeguards, the sexual struggler needs to put in place new strategies for support. Like most addicted people, pretty much every sexual struggler I have met will admit to being fairly isolated, and sometimes feeling quite lonely. They will frequently:

(a) not have any friends who know the truth about their sexual struggles, and

(b) not have anyone they can rely on other than their spouse for emotional support and conversation about matters of deep emotional import.

At a minimum, people who are struggling sexually need to find a group of people, or some kind of informal relational network, where they can be completely transparent about the struggles that are going on in their lives, as well as their sexual temptations. These relationships can provide a certain measure of accountability, in the sense that other people now know about their struggle and may ask how things are going.

But beyond the need for accountability — and I believe even more significant — is the need for friendship and ending aloneness. Most people have friends — but their relationship stays at a surface level. And because sexual struggles carry so much shame, often people will keep these struggles hidden from the friends they have. The sexual struggler can be greatly helped by ending the isolation that is all too common in our world today.

4. Emotional awareness

People who want to deal with their sexual struggle need to develop more skills related to emotional awareness. By “emotional awareness” I mean becoming aware of one’s emotional ups and downs, dealing with and finding solutions to one’s emotional challenges. This is a little different than the “emotional intelligence” that is often talked about today. Here the issue is not so much being sensitive to the emotional dynamics when relating to other people, rather it is being aware of — and tending to — your own emotional needs.

Another way of saying this would be that healthy people are aware of what they are feeling, and what they need. Instead of closing off emotions (like resentment, fear, or sadness), they learn to recognize them, and take steps of self-care. If people don’t learn to do this, they will feel a sense of deprivation, which often turns into entitlement. If we are emotionally depleted, we lose what little will-power we have, and anything that looks like it might bring relief starts to look very good, even if we know it’s very bad for us.

People with healthy levels of emotional awareness will recognize when a relationship is dysfunctional and destructive. They will recognize that being around a certain person makes them feel said, inadequate, or afraid. They will recognize when a situation or environment (like a place of employment) is destructive and needs to be changed. This is a matter of trusting your intuition about things (because our intuition is often manifested in our emotional reactions to things), and also a matter of having compassion for yourself. We either learn to care for ourselves in healthy ways, or we wind up trying to “care” for ourselves in unhealthy ways.

howHow can you tell if you are a “struggler” or an “addict”?

All of this brings us to the question that many people obsess over: “How can I tell if I’m really an addict?” This doesn’t have to be hard. Here’s what you do:

We will assume that you recognize you have a problem with something — like drinking, or using pornography — and that you keep going back to behaviors that you want to change. So this is a “struggle” for you.

Work on implementing the four things I suggest in this article. Set clear boundaries about the behavior, be vigilant, get support, and work on building your emotional awareness, making sure that you meet your needs in healthy ways (so you don’t feel the need to meet them in unhealthy ways).

If you are able to find joy, peace, and “sobriety” from the drinking/sex/overeating/whatever … then you are a struggler, and you know what you need to do. Just keep working on these four things.

But if you work on these four things and still keep falling back into the behavior … then you are further along towards the addict side of the continuum. You have more issues to deal with than what we’ve talked about thus far.

If this is the case, nine times out of ten the missing link will be emotional trauma/deprivation from your upbringing that still needs to be dealt with. Chances are that you were turning to various coping strategies — maybe even the addictive behavior itself — fairly early in life.

With sexual strugglers, the issue is more about the need for greater vigilance, support, and emotional well-being. With sexual addicts, it’s those things PLUS work of inner healing.

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Whether the issue for you in sexual struggle, or sexual addiction … I invite you to take the Recovery Journey with me for the next 90 Days. The recovery journey is a 90 Day Home Study course designed to give you a deeper understanding of the inner dynamics and spiritual issues of the path towards recovery.  (There’s also a program for the partners/spouses of sexual strugglers.) Just click on the link below:

CLICK TO LEARN ABOUT THE RECOVERY JOURNEY PROGRAM

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5 thoughts on “Is Sex a Struggle but not an Addiction? Here’s what to do”

  1. I appreciate the distinction you mention in your article between “addicts” and “strugglers.” That gives voice to some of my wrestling about this issue. While there was a 10-12 year period in my own life where I struggled with porn, I did not experience many of the classic marks of true “addiction”–porn, for me, was not a “gateway” to even more destructive behavior, I didn’t build up a “tolerance” for the drug, it didn’t touch on any sort of childhood trauma, etc. I think the reality that I “struggled” more than was “addicted” also helped in learning to manage and eventually find some healing in this area–simply because the roots perhaps did not extend as deeply or intertwine so much with my core identity or woundedness.

    That said, I’m still wrestling with some of the “solutions” I hear lifted up in field. Five years ago when my porn-viewing had been discovered by members of my church, the church board and I learned together some of the standard responses to these situations: take a break from ministry, get into counseling, put safeguards on your internet, have an accountability partner, etc.

    While I’m not minimizing these strategies, many of them did not resonate deeply with me because they seemed more externally based on behavior modification or control rather than going deeply into the roots of my genuine spiritual hunger and thirst. For me, addiction is a fallen symptom of a very legitimate, God-given hunger for connection and meaning and identity.

    Because of our own fallenness, we misidentify what really has the power or ability to satisfy that hunger (or, we attempt to numb the hunger) with illegitimate strategies. Therefore, I have learned to be skeptical of any strategy that only promotes behavior modification, but fails to address the deepest root causes. For quite awhile after “treatment” in 2009 (including a seminar with you), I was abstaining from viewing porn, but felt like a “dry drunk.” I still struggled with lust in my heart and felt dysfunctional and “unhealed” in many ways. After a brief two-week slip just three months ago (after five years of sobriety), I realized I had a LOT more work to do to find genuine healing and new life. I want the “inside of the cup” to be clean, not just the outside.

    Thank you for all of your ongoing work in this issue. At the seminar with you and Dr. Laaser back in 2009, I found you to be extremely relatable, humble, and committed to bringing healing to people who struggle in this area. I just listened to a sermon from Larry Crabb who indicates up to 60% of men struggle with porn–including those in the church. What a painfully negative ripple effect that will have on the church and our greater culture. I am thankful for Jesus and the new life and transformation he brings.

    1. Hi AF,

      Thanks so much for your comments. I remember you, and am happy to hear that you are doing so well in your recovery. You describe challenges and things you’ve been learning, and I hope you can also see that the things you’re talking about represent a LOT of growth in your life over the past few years.

      I find it interesting, sad, and very predictable that the “interventions” that were suggested/mandated to you were not really hitting where the real need was. Although, to their credit, it sounds like the interventions where all helpful in their own way. I think there are two reasons why advice and mandated interventions imposed form the outside by well-meaning associates usually misses the mark:

      1) My sense is that people who haven’t experienced brokenness / addiction / struggle have a hard time understanding it, and therefore will suggest “solutions” that they have heard or read about that make sense to them, but maybe aren’t really the issue for you. Over the years I have found that pretty much EVERY author/speaker/teacher who’s offered suggestions for healing/recovery from sex addiction who has not shared the same struggle — has given direction that is useless at best, and damaging at worst. Whenever someone who doesn’t identify as a struggler/addict asks me about doing ministry for strugglers/addicts, I try to discourage them as directly, yet tactfully, as I can.

      2) Having said that, it also is sometimes the case that different people need different things. So someone could suggest something that is a good and important thing, but it’s not really what you need at that time. Over the years, I have run into this OVER and OVER again. Whenever I talk to a group about addiction and recovery, I’m aware that every suggestion or intervention I offer may be really helpful to a third of the audience, not really hit the mark for a third, and may actually be really BAD idea for a third. Everyone needs to work out the individual application for themselves, hopefully with the help of a trained counselor and/or sponsor.

      Wow … I really got long winded here! Hope this is helpful.

  2. Mark, I just want to tell you how much I enjoy your newsletters. You’re a great writer and it’s easy to understand. Thanks. Hope you’re doing well.

    I wanted to mention something to you: I’m doing a workshop/training on my new book (Reclaiming a Lost Soul: Codependency Revealed & Recovered). It outlines how to treat codependency (I use the term, losing one’s soul) but I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback from clients. So I’m putting together a workshop for lay people and I do one for therapists and pastoral counselors. If you’re interested in hosting something like that, I love to talk more about it with you.

    People can go to our website, too, to get more information — spiritofhopecc.com
    Thanks again Mark!

    1. Peg that sounds great. I’m hoping to start up teleseminars again soon, and I would love to have you on to talk about this book, and your work. Let’s keep in touch! – Mark

  3. I am one of those guys that don’t like drawing these lines. 🙂

    However, Interesting distinction between sexual stragglers and addicts. In the past I have determined more on the lines of how “ritualistic” the behavior has become. I have heard stories of several men in my groups that don’t relate to trauma (Big T trauma or little t trauma) from their childhood. I have one guy in my group that believes his counselor has been on a “wild goose chase” in his childhood.

    However, if its addiction or a struggler I see more commonality than differences. What might be sexual strugglers in my groups seem to often have less emotional awareness (sometimes called emotional IQs) than the addicts. The shame of a struggler is just as deep as the same of the addicts.

    It seems to me a lot of how “emotionally” prepared we are in the world comes from how our families managed negative and positive emotions. Addict or not learning to become comfortable discussing comfortable feelings is a part of the jpurney.

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