Addictions wreck relationships. Addictions lead people to lie, steal from, and neglect the people they love. Sex addiction creates a unique havoc in marriages, because it strikes at the heart of the marriage commitment to sexual fidelity. But it doesn’t end there. Our addiction ultimately affects all the relationships in our lives. It creates sadness, anger, confusion, and a host of varied reactions from people who care about us.
When the truth about our behavior surfaces – and it always eventually does – friends and family will likely resent us for the hurt our addiction caused them. Sometimes mixed in with that anger are feelings of sadness and worry that they may have been in some way responsible for our addiction.
Spouses sometimes take on the belief that if they were more attractive, attentive, or available that they could have kept us from doing what we did. Sometimes we as addicts believe this too, and this blame-shifting is part of our denial. Many men I work with carry a secret reservoir of resentment towards their wives, mistakenly thinking that if their wives were more sexually available, they wouldn’t have such a hard time controlling their sexual urges. But the reality is that no spouse is capable of meeting the needs of a sex addict. There is not enough sex to satisfy someone who is using sex to cope with the pain, stress, and/or boredom of life. Even so, sex addiction is unique in the devastation it creates in the marital relationship.
Friends and family can heal during our recovery, just as we heal. Each person must concentrate on his or her own issues while learning how to detach with love. There are groups and therapists that offer support for spouses of sex addicts.
What makes sex addiction especially toxic for families is the wall of secrecy that is usually built around the addiction. Since sex is so personal, and fear of other people finding out about our struggles so overwhelming, many couples try to go about recovery while living in a bubble of secrecy and shame. Children, extended family, and friends experience various forms of suffering because of the addiction, and are often left in the dark about what is really going on.
Sometimes it’s necessary to withhold the truth of our addiction from people who were affected by it, because they can’t be trusted to handle the information. Discussions about how far to extend the circle of disclosure are ongoing and complex, especially during the early years of recovery. But even if we decide not to disclose the truth of our addiction to family and friends, we must honest with ourselves about the level of damage we have brought into these peoples’ lives.
Our addiction touches all the people in our lives, whether we realize it or not. It causes us to neglect people we should be attentive to, to isolate ourselves, to be withdrawn or cranky, and sometimes to sexualize people and situations that should not be sexualized. Our awareness of this damage will grow over time, and we must be careful not to drift into shame and self-hatred when it does. Our shame dissipates as we keep working our recovery, and as we make amends to the people we have harmed in whatever ways are appropriate.
William Cope Moyers says: “Addiction is a disease of the mind, body, and spirit. Addiction is not caused by a person’s character, or willpower; it is caused by the way an addict’s brain is wired.” I would add that especially with sex addiction, it is caused by the way early life experiences shaped the brain.
In other words, a tough marriage, boring job, or challenging boss doesn’t cause addiction. The availability of pornography or affair partners doesn’t cause addiction. Addiction’s roots go deeper. Difficult life events and the availability of sexual gratification lead to addiction when they meet a person who has been conditioned to seek solace in sex.
Is the knowledge that sex serves as an addiction enough to keep a person from using sex to cope with life’s challenges? Absolutely not. Does the fact that sex serves as an addiction mean that an addict is not responsible for the pain his or her actions bring to spouse and family? Absolutely not.
BUT … the fact that sex serves as an addiction can help us be more compassionate towards ourselves, and will guide us to greater wisdom about how to deal with our sexual struggle.
A person suffering from addiction can’t stop using, even when faced with losing everything. Addicts lose jobs, family, even their lives because of their addictions. This is because we can’t control the way our minds and bodies react to the stimulation we create with our acting out behaviors. This is powerlessness.
Learning to accept the reality of addiction is an important part of our recovery, because it forces us to face the power of sex in our lives. Once we accept that sexual craving has a grip on us that is no less powerful than the grip of alcohol to an alcoholic, or drugs to a drug addict, we are ready to take the steps toward recovery.
Then we can stop feeling frustrated or sorry for ourselves because we can’t watch certain movies, or read certain magazines without moving into obsession … like “ordinary people” seem to be able to. Then we can stop telling ourselves that it’s okay to isolate and that we can “take care of this little problem ourselves.”
It can be scary in the first few months of life without addictive sexual behavior. When we are in our addiction, we lived in fear of being found out. Now in recovery, we feel a great sense of relief to not be hiding those behaviors … but we also have other new fears to face.
Common fears of people in early recovery include:
- fear of returning to old behaviors
- fear of losing spouse and/or child custody as a result of our acting out
- encountering the stigma and judgmental attitudes from people who know about our addiction
- going to support group meetings for the first time and not knowing anyone
- fear of boredom or emptiness in life without our addictive behaviors
Fortunately, recovery also gives us new tools to face our fears.
As with any emotion, we learn that fear is not overpowering or permanent. Like a wave that washes over us, we know that it will come and go. We can reach out to others for support when we feel alone or insecure. We can turn our fears into prayers, and ask for God’s help.
We can use journaling to make a “fear to gratitude” list. We can list not only our fears, but also the things we are grateful for. By focusing on the things we’re grateful for, we’re reminded that God has protected and cared for us in the past. If we’ve been helped in the past, chances are we’ll also be helped in the future.
Ultimately, we don’t really “conquer” our fears, we surrender them. We acknowledge them, and choose to let them go. We turn them over to God.
I have it most helpful to do this by using the Serenity Prayer. When I pray the Serenity Prayer, I usually find that the fear I am carrying is about things I can’t control anyway. So I am reminded to simply focus attention on the things that I actually can do something about. Then I surrender the rest to God’s care.
God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Sponsorship is the missing link for many people in recovery … and especially for sex addicts. Sex addicts are especially prone to isolation and many guys struggle with the willingness to persevere in the ups and downs that occur in sponsor relationships. (I’ll be using male language here, because this was originally written for the 90 Days to Sexual Sanity program … which is for male sexual strugglers.)
I don’t have empirical research to back this up, but I talk to a lot of people about this subject, and continue to get this message: the sex addict who’s actively working with a sponsor is the exception rather than the rule. That’s a big part of the reason why so many people are struggling and not recovering.
In early AA, there were no “walkins.” People didn’t come to the meetings without being sponsored in by someone. AA continues to have a stronger commitment to sponsorship than most sex addiction groups.
This is especially true with church based groups like Celebrate Recovery. In fact, the material I have seen from Celebrate Recovery applies principles of sponsorship to either sponsors or “accountability partners.” Big problem.
If you are focusing your recovery around a relationship with an accountability partner, you are asking for trouble. If you were out in the middle of a lake, struggling to swim and starting to drown, who would you rather have … another guy who’s drowning like you, or someone who’s a strong swimmer? Your accountability partner in the water is just as likely to pull you down into the water with him as he is to pull you to shore. Find someone who is further along than you are, who you can learn from and lean on.
Continue reading Sponsors: the missing link for many recovering sex addicts
Recovery from sex addiction is counter-cultural and counter-intuitive. It requires thinking and acting in ways that run counter to many of the messages we hear from others, and tell ourselves.
The counter-cultural examples are probably the most obvious. Think about the many messages we get that promote recreational sex and pornography as normal and healthy. As sexual strugglers, we realize that these things are destructive for us. So we need continual reminders of this to counteract the onslaught of the messages of popular culture. We need continual reminders of our commitment to sexual sanity when we are confronted by suggestive TV or movie scenes, advertisements, or web sites.
But there are other kinds of messages that are just as destructive to our souls and dangerous for our recovery. Many of us fail to recognize their power. Shaming, self-derogatory messages set us up for relapse just as sexually-triggering messages do. To maintain our recovery, we must be on guard against messages that put us down and undermine our hope for a better future for ourselves.
We get these messages from other people, and from our own self-talk. Maybe when you were growing up, you were teased or put down in some way, and now as an adult you find that it’s very easy to put yourself down. You somehow internalized those messages, and now you’re hearing them in your own head.
There are two ways to deal with these negative and hurtful messages: (1) guard yourself from places where these messages get reinforced, by limiting time spent with people who are negative, critical, and/or disrespectful (2) counter-act the negative messages with positive messages that remind you of the truth, and reinforce your hope.
1. Limit exposure to negative messages
As important as this first strategy is – limiting our exposure to these negative messages – sometimes it can be hard to do. Some of us get a lot of negative, critical messages from our spouses. Especially in early recovery, we bear the brunt of anger and sadness from our spouses, and it’s not uncommon to hear a lot of “what is wrong with you?” kinds of messages.
Continue reading Recovery requires positive messages to counteract shame
Pat Carnes is one of the “founding fathers” of the sex addiction field. One of his fundamental principles is that the first task of recovery is to “establish sobriety.” There are two ways to understand this, both of which are essential:
1. To establish sobriety, we must define it
First, we need to “establish” what we mean by sobriety. This is not as easy as it first appears. “Sobriety” – when used in reference to compulsive sexual behavior – is the state of living that is free from the addictive or compulsive behavior. Sexual sobriety is not the same thing as sexual purity … it’s not sexual perfection. It is the ongoing experience of abstaining from unhealthy, addictive sexual behaviors. But, of course, this begs the question … which behaviors are addictive, and which behaviors are healthy?
Recovery from addiction to alcohol or drugs is simpler. Sobriety there means abstaining from the drug. Period. But sexual behaviors are much more varied, and recovery for most married people will not involve ongoing abstinence from sexual activity. The task of early recovery is to determine what kinds of sexual behaviors are healthy and lead to genuine intimacy, and which ones are unhealthy and destructive.
Some programs (such as Sex Addicts Anonymous) leave the definition of the specific behaviors in this category up to each individual addict. In these programs, each person decides for him or herself what behaviors are “off-limits”. Other programs are critical of this approach, believing that it creates too much room for self-delusion, and it allows people to define their sobriety so broadly that they don’t really make progress in addressing their problems.
Continue reading The first task of recovery: Establishing Sobriety