Eyes Wide Shut

Sex addicts – men and women who obsess about and compulsively abuse sexual and romantic behaviors to the point of self-harm and/or harm to others – frequently appear to be quite functional in other areas of their lives. Unfortunately, as with most active addicts, these individuals are often out of touch with the unforeseen costs of their addictive behavior patterns until a related crisis emerges for which they seek help. Ignoring signs that most others would not miss – STDs, workplace trouble, related chemical dependency relapses, broken relationships, etc. – sex and love addicts place the compulsive search for sex and romance at the top of their priority list without a second thought. In fact, when confronted in the early stages of treatment with something as elemental as an adult sex and relationship history, many sex and love addicts are shocked to “discover” the extent and depth of their acting-out behaviors. This is their denial. It is almost as if they refuse to see, or are unable to integrate into their conscious thought process, the destructive effects of their sexual and romantic activity not only upon themselves, but on those who love them.

Unlike healthy individuals who utilize past mistakes as a guide to future decisions and behavior, individuals caught up in patterns of impulsive and compulsive sexual gratification tend to deny and defend against the seriousness of their romantic and sexual choices – rationalizing, minimizing, and justifying behavior that most others would readily identify as problematic or even dangerous. Denial is a subtle beast that slowly insinuates itself into the addict’s decision making process – relying on the secrecy, shame, and compartmentalization that it takes to carry out an active addiction to increasingly separate the individual from a healthy cognitive reality. Like someone who is found wandering around in the dark, sex addicts in early recovery often have little insight into the path that lead them astray, as their behavior patterns typically have escalated slowly over time.

Essentially, denial is a series of internal lies and deceits. Typically, each lie has its own rationalization, and based on that imperfect foundation the addict’s sexual behaviors can seem utterly reasonable to the addict in the moment of his or her obsession. The rest of the world would easily see through the smokescreen, but the addict cannot (or will not), repeatedly defending the lies and deceit until his or her functional world disintegrates into divorce, disease, job loss, arrest, etc. Often it is only in a crisis that that the addicted individual will finally become willing (and able) to examine the appallingly shaky foundation upon which his or her sexual house of cards has been built.

It’s Not My Fault!

On some level, even though their compulsive sexual fantasies and behaviors are clearly harming both themselves and others, sex addicts oftentimes feel as if they are the victim. This is their justification. Defending their sexual behavior patterns to themselves and others, many say they are at the mercy of people or problems in their lives, and that sexual acting out gives them a sense of freedom and control they do not experience elsewhere. These men and women see themselves as burdened by the seemingly unceasing demands of other individuals, especially those close to them, for attention, participation, validation, and support. Not surprisingly, they find it difficult to know what their own emotional needs are, and nearly impossible to ask directly for those needs to be met. Unfortunately, feeling like a victim leads to feeling entitled to act out, which of course leads to the behavior itself.

For sexually addicted individuals, denial takes many forms, the most common of which are listed below.

  • Entitlement: Just look at how hard I am working. I give and give and give to my family and the company. I work nights, and sometimes even weekends. There just isn’t any time left for me. But I deserve a little bit of pleasure in life. It can’t be all work and no play. So if I spend a few hours here and there online, getting off on a little fantasy, that’s a reward I deserve for all the work that I do and all that I give to others.
  • Minimization: I’m no different than any other guy. All of us are on Grindr, waiting for our smartphone to buzz and let us know there’s someone nearby who wants to have sex. Everybody does it. We meet somebody online, we have sex, and then we brag about it the next day. Besides, I’m not in any danger. I’m a big boy, and I can handle myself. And I can tell when someone is too weird or into drugs from the kind of things they write me, so I don’t get into those situations to begin with.
  • Justification: This is what single girls do. If I’m not in a relationship, then I need some kind of excitement. And all I’m doing is chatting up guys on Facebook, dating sites, and a couple of apps. It’s a lot better than sitting around in some cheesy bar waiting for someone to buy me a drink. Plus, it gives me something to look forward to after work. It’s exciting and distracting, and I don’t even have to leave my apartment. And if some of those guys seem nice and want to come over for a quickie, there’s nothing wrong with that. After all, if I was in a relationship I’d be having sex every night, so why can’t I have sex every night when I’m not in a relationship.
  • Blame: With the lousy sex life I have at home, who wouldn’t be looking at porn and chatting up women online for sex? Ever since we had kids, my wife doesn’t have time for me. Plus, she’s put on a lot of weight. It’s like she got what she wanted (the kids), and now she feels like she doesn’t have to worry about me anymore. Plus, even when we were having sex it was totally vanilla. She never wanted to try anything new or interesting, whereas some of the women I meet online are up for anything.
  • Rationalization: I’m not having affairs like some of the other women I know. I’m not even flirting with the doctors at work, even though most of the other nurses do. So if I go online for a few hours after my husband falls asleep at night and have my secret little intrigues, no one gets hurt and nothing comes of it. Lots of women are reading Fifty Shades of Grey and nobody thinks they’re doing anything wrong, so why am I?

Working through Denial

For sex and love addicts, initial treatment typically focuses on three main issues: 1) separating the addict from his or her harmful sexual and/or romantic behavior patterns; 2) breaking through the denial the addict uses to make that behavior acceptable; and 3) providing supportive tools and direction to help maintain sexual sobriety. One useful therapeutic task in terms of breaking through denial is asking the client to write down all the reasons his or her various problematic sexual and romantic behaviors are OK. In other words, ask the client to put his or her rationalizations, justifications, and minimizations down on paper. Then have that individual read those thoughts out loud, in therapy. Perhaps one excuse, by itself, will seem plausible, maybe even two or three excuses, but when the list of justifications goes on and on, eventually it starts to sound kind of crazy – even to the addict. This process alone can be enough to help some people begin the process of moving past the problem and into the solution.

Ultimately, the most effective tool for breaking through any addict’s denial is group therapy. Here, a treatment specialist works with six to eight addicts in a facilitated group setting. The group format is ideal for confronting the rationalizations and justifications commonly used by sex addicts. Group-level confrontations are powerful not only for the addict being confronted, but for the group members doing the confronting. Through such interaction, everyone present can see that denial is nearly always built on a foundation of small, seemingly innocuous falsehoods that over time combine to make irrational behavior seem rational (to the addict). Twelve-step meetings, especially when combined with individual and group therapy, are also effective in this regard. One of the great advantages of group addiction work is that it also helps minimize any potential power struggles between therapist and client, as the individual and shared voices of the group are much harder to resist than that of the hired gun (the therapist).

The best professional help for this kind of problem occurs when a client is referred for short-term work with a sex addiction specialist. This can occur at an inpatient sexual addiction treatment facility such as The Ranch in Tennessee, or an intensive outpatient setting such as the Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles. While traditional psychotherapy is very useful with most mental health concerns, addiction – sexual addiction in particular – needs a skill-specific clinician trained to ask the most useful assessment questions in order to fully understand and frame the client’s problem. In sexual addiction treatment settings, therapists are often able to do the heavy lifting of confronting denial and moving the client into sexual and relationship health, putting off the more dynamic and holistic psychotherapies until the addict is safely traveling the road of recovery.

 


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From Psych Central's website:
PsychCentral (November 1, 2012)

Es Fee La (November 1, 2012)

Ivar Jerstad (November 3, 2012)

From Psych Central's website:
Addiction and Narcissistic Shame | Sex and Intimacy (February 27, 2013)






    Last reviewed: 1 Nov 2012

APA Reference
Weiss LCSW, R. (2012). Sexual Addiction and the Power of Denial. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 21, 2014, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/sex/2012/11/sexual-addiction-denial/

 

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