Is It Infidelity or Cultural Values That Normalize Addictive Patterns of (Sexual) Relating?
While not without controversy, experts in the field of addiction agree that a pattern of sexual behaviors or love fantasies exists between men and women that poses risks and harm to them, and takes increasing control of their lives and relationships.
Though it may sound surreal, there is a phenomenon known as “sex and love addiction.”
In the main, it is often misunderstood as adultery, cheating or affairs. It is that, yet much more.
- The controversy surrounding sex and love addiction has been replete with misunderstandings and misinformation.
In research, it is known as “love,” “romance” or “sex” addiction or compulsivity.
After decades of research, most experts in the field agree, the debate is no longer on whether these behavior patterns exist, but rather on identifying the symptoms, types, causes and best course of treatment.
It is now recognized as a treatable and diagnosable problem, with symptoms that closely parallel other more “traditional” addictions, such as alcohol, food and drugs.
Addicted persons typically find their lives increasingly more complicated by secrecy, lies, and other compulsive behaviors. Many of the behaviors that accompany addiction are defensive in nature, that is, they are designed to help the addicted person avoid, hide or numb what they fear most: deep existential fears, such as fear of rejection, abandonment, loss of self and, or inadequacy, inherent to intimacy.
- The discovery of the brain’s neural operating systems has helped us understand these addictive self- and life-harming patterns.
We now better understand how intoxicating highs stimulate the “reward” centers of the brain in addictions.
The high is produced by pleasure-inducing neurochemicals, in particular, one known as dopamine. This chemical messenger, or neurotransmitter, plays a major role in the formation of addictions as it transmits “teaching” signals to the part of the brain responsible for acquiring new habits and behaviors. Offering a rush similar to adrenaline, dopamine affects brain processes that control emotional responses of pain and pleasure — and also determine what actions we take.
Unlike other addictions, what makes sex and love compulsivity — and even an affair or infidelity — even more addictive is the emotion of “fear” that accompanies secretive/deceptive actions — because of how hurtful they would be if discovered by partner.
Mixing emotions of fear with already potent emotions of sexual/sensuous pleasure spikes the release of dopamine like no other drug. It’s why, at times, we so enjoyed doing what we were told not to do as children!
Author and national expert on addiction and recovery, Patrick Carnes, Ph.D., credits the study of sex and love addiction with a greater understanding of all addictions in general.
In his book, Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sex Addiction, he states the following:
“As a result of our increasing awareness of sex addiction, we know more about the addictive family system, the neurochemistry of addictions, the role of child abuse in addictions, and the impact of shame on addictive behavior. As eating disorders have helped us understand healthy eating, so sex addiction has provided us with new perspectives on healthy sex. The women’s movement, the men’s movement, pornography, AIDS, sex offenders, sexual harassment–many of our most divisive or controversial issues are sexual ones, and they take on new shades of meaning within the context of sex addiction.” (p. xii)
- The term “sex addiction” itself understandably triggers strong reactions.
The mere intimation of a “sex addiction” often causes some uproar, with vocal protests of “What? Sex addiction? Me? No way!”
The reaction may be due to denial and shame that are characteristic of addiction, and more so in sex and love addiction. Sexuality, after all, is so personal to us. It’s the first thing others note about us, even at birth when they announce, “It’s a girl or it’s a boy!” Thus, the protests make sense as a protective strategy.
Another reason for the protests is that, for many, the thought of a “sex addiction” conjures up images of cruising for sex around the clock, whereas this is rarely the case.
More often, sex and love addiction have less to do with sex (and, in some cases, does not involve sex), and more to do with how persons experience their sexuality. A defining characteristic of a person with sex and love addiction is the inability to develop healthy emotional intimacy and relate to a sex partner as a human being, and instead to regard them as an object for the purpose of sexual arousal.
Of course some of the protest is natural as well. Most human beings instinctively desire to be seen as good persons, and so on.
- A final explanation for why people react defensively to the label is that it goes against the grain of old cultural beliefs and values.
Despite attempts since the 1970s to establish healthy sexual patterns between men and women, mass media and entertainment industries deserve much of the “credit” for their role in blocking the efforts.
In a cultural milieu that has increasingly portrayed porn and junk-sex values as norm—and that measures success in sexual relations based on performance, frequency, number of partners, size of penis, orgasm, and emotional detachment — it can seem confusing to learn that certain behavior patterns that have been portrayed as “cool” on TV and movies, in actuality, represent an illness that is devastating to the lives and relationships of individuals, and in many cases, also impacts their children and other loved ones as well.
- Another protest is the claim that the label of “sex addiction” lets people “off the hook,” absolving them of responsibility for their actions. Typically involving celebrities or political figures, it seems yet another smokescreen, however.
This makes sense only in the context of cultural norms that typically deal with taboos with extreme reactions, neither of which are healthy. With regard to infidelity, for example, we typically react in one of two defensive ways.
On the one hand, the powers that be tend to glorify sexual acting-out, particularly for men in positions of power. At best, it is viewed as normal “boys will be boys” behavior. Increasingly, mass media and entertainment have appealed to women to adopt sexual habits previously reserved for men to “prove” equality and worth or strength on the basis of casual, detached and frequent sex (as if junk values can ever prove one’s “worth”).
When sex is defined as a weapon with which to compete, dominate, prove worth, etc., it denies or minimizes the harm such behaviors cause to both men and women and their love relationships in general.
At the other extreme, we harshly condemn, ostracize, punish “wrongdoers” as evil, bad, and so on (or at least outwardly profess to do so). In fact, it is not unusual and rather familiar to find that some of the most condemning voices later find themselves in their own sex-blunders.
Both approaches fail to address or resolve the real issues men and women face in creating healthy fun, friendship and passion in their love relationship.
- Old social ideals block approaches that would genuinely heal intimate relations between men and women.
Sex and love addiction have deep roots in cultural values that perpetuate a view of power as either a weapon to dominate or a venue for the “mighty” to express anger, rage, hatred against those who symbolize weakness or difference.
Though dominance as a value on the battlefield may make sense, hierarchy and competition in a love relationship harm and block the formation of emotional intimacy.
When we do not feel safe in our relationships, automatically, our brains go into fight or flee mode. Over time, we “perceive” one another as #1 enemies (during conflict in particular). This causes other problems. It blocks us from the closeness and emotional intimacy we desire.
Sex and love addictions, like other compulsions, speak to our greatest fear: fear of intimacy. In one way or another, both men and women have been socialized to use defensive ways of relating when we feel stressed. They are widespread.
We came by these methods honestly, learning them in childhood. In varying degree, even in the best of childhoods, our parents instilled us with fear, shame or guilt to get us to cooperate. They thought they had to, and most parents still do. We observed one or both parents, perhaps even a sibling or two, exercise their power to dominate the other with passive aggression, such as denial, forgetfulnees, avoidance of conflict, lies, living secret lives, and so on.
Later in life, subconsciously, punitive tactics re-emerge in our love relationships whenever we get triggered.
- Like our parents, we use our own combination of these methods to express our anger when we felt hurt or to attempt to get the love we want.
- Also like our parents, our highest intentions are basically good — we are seeking to “teach” our partner to better cooperate with us, to love us the way we need to feel loved and secure.
The intentions are good, it’s just that they don’t work. In fact, if you pause to think about it, don’t you have all the evidence you need to “see” the tactics that you or your partner are using, have an opposite effect from what you’re really trying to achieve, that is, to get the love and fun back that you once felt at the start of the relationship?
Unless we change them, old patterns imprinted in childhood tend to endure. Rising rates of infidelity, sex and love addiction, are not even on the radar screen, yet countless marriages and families are hurting, my guess is, in crisis proportions.
Infidelity and sex addictions are rooted in beliefs that value dominance, and derive pleasure in observing one prove dominance over the other (usually male dominance over female, but not always). Dominance values are rooted in “might makes right” beliefs. Regarding sexual relations between men and women this means:
- The person who “proves” their “might” wins the “prize” of having/owning/treating another person like a possession, a slave of sorts, an object they are entitled to do whatever they wish to do, i.e., to force, to inflict pain, to humiliate, to torture.
- It means the object not only does not complain, but also derives mutual pleasure.
If you think that’s sick, then it likely means you’re healthy. Such desires are evidence of individuals who are hurt, wounded, in need of healing.
In “real” life, it is highly unlikely to find a wife or girlfriend who is both “healthy” and who will go along with such demands (except perhaps at the start).
(Note: Due to socialization, codependency traits in women are high; this predisposes them to go along with what is against their values to “please” their man, etc. Men be warned. Women misrepresent themselves; in other words they lie, telling men what they want to hear. They think men cannot handle not getting their way. Your ability to make or persuade her to do something against her may “initially” work, but beware the costs and backfire, to include permanent loss of their desire for sex!)
The emphasis for men to prove superiority unfortunately sets up the couple relationship in their mind as a competition.
- It’s no wonder men are attracted/addicted to pornography. In pornography (or with prostitutes), men can feel free to play out their fantasies for dominance, to finally feel like the “real” men they “should” or are “supposed” to be according to what they’ve been promised.
- It is no wonder that men get cold, harsh, dismissive or withdraw when their female partners invite them to vulnerable places. Most men have trained themselves from boyhood to disdain, look down on, distance themselves from what is soft, vulnerable inside of themselves in order to feel and prove to others they are men.
- It’s no wonder men are confused about their role in couple relationships. They were told that their wives/family/society expects them to prove dominance and superiority to make themselves attractive. So, why does their wife or girlfriend get so upset when they try to “fix” them?! Isn’t that a man’s job?
- It’s no wonder women are confused about their role in a couple relationship. Women may buy into the male dominance thing as romantic at first and perhaps in certain contexts, however, regardless of socialization, no human being finds pleasure in being dominated. And because women are not socialized to prove their worth or to find pleasure on the basis of their “strength” to dominate, they do not understand why their husband/boyfriend’s call them “controlling” just because they have a list of things they’d like them to “partner” in taking care of the responsibilities of home and children.
Healthy human beings do not derive pleasure from inflicting pain on another. Hurt people hurt people. It’s an unhealthy way of dealing with inner pain, anger, unfulfilled expectations, rage, hatred, and the like.
And let’s put the “mutually consenting adults” argument to rest. Just because one emotionally wounded person gets another emotionally wounded person to agree to do something that is contrary to the health directives of both their bodies’, does not make it okay. It keeps both persons stuck, addicted to a toxic relationship.
Human beings are wired by nature to seek to matter, to seek to create fulfilling relationships, and it’s impossible to realize your own fulfillment in your relationship, without also working to help your partner feel mutually fulfilled.
(And by the way, it’s not supposed to be easy; nature seems to love to challenge us by matching us up with someone who is our polar opposite along several dimensions. Differences are there to grow us! The only exception to this is a different values, in which case it is wise to run away from each other.)
It’s time to awaken cultural values that normalize the healthiest conditions possible for human beings to heal and grow, as individuals and couples, families and communities.
Staik, A. (2014). Is It Infidelity or Cultural Values That Normalize Addictive Patterns of (Sexual) Relating?. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 30, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/relationships/2011/04/is-it-infidelity-or-cultural-values-that-normalize-addictive-patterns-of-sexual-relating/