For many psychotherapy clients, issues with relationships and intimacy are paramount. Typically, individuals seeking help with these issues display insecure attachment styles, usually the result of inconsistent, neglectful and/or abusive parenting – though many other forms of early-life (and even adult-life) trauma may also be in play. Sometimes these clients have turned to an addiction, either substance or behavioral, as a way to cope with the discomfort caused by adult-life relationships. In my practice I have dealt with many such people, primarily sexual addicts and co-occurring sex/drug addicts. For these clients, an integral (and somewhat advanced) part of the healing process is learning how to date in healthy ways. Oftentimes the creation of a “dating plan” is quite helpful.
Relationship breakups and the angst surrounding them have always been solid psychotherapeutic fodder. As we’re all aware, these issues are challenging in and of themselves, and they also tend to evoke deeper emotional and psychological issues that can be worked through over time in therapy. On the one hand, this can be quite productive, as a well-managed clinical crisis often leads to useful therapeutic insights and breakthroughs. On the other hand, the emotional pain of a disintegrating relationship is nearly always incredibly distressing for the client, particularly if that client is emotionally fragile to begin with.
Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse where false information is presented to the victim by a spouse or another primary attachment figure, causing the victim to doubt his or her perceptions, judgments, memories, and even sanity. The term derives from the 1938 stage play, Gaslight, and a pair of film adaptions, one in 1940 and a more famous one in 1944 starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman. In the 1944 film, Boyer’s character convinces his wife (Bergman) that she’s imagining things, such as the occasional dimming of the house’s gas lights, as part of his ongoing effort to steal her deceased Aunt’s money and jewels. (The gas lights dim whenever he is in the attic, searching for the treasure.) Over time, his insistent and persistent lies cause her and others to question her sanity.
Could the holidays possibly present us with a more of a confusing mish-mash of messages, expectations, and emotions? Sadly, that seems to be the nature of the beast. We turn on the TV and there’s George Bailey saving his depression-era town from financial ruin while simultaneously making new angels every time a bell rings. Change the channel and there’s little Virginia learning that there really is a Santa Clause. Switch the station again and we’ve got Charlie Brown’s friends deciding the woeful tree he chose for the Christmas play isn’t such a bad little tree after all. And while viewing these shows we can’t help but think: “Yes, this really is a wonderful time of the year.” But thinking this is not the same as experiencing it, and, given all the cooking, shopping, work, emails, bills, lists, gifts, etc., that we have to deal with throughout the holidays, what most adults seem to actually feel is, in no particular order: tired, overwhelmed, restless, stressed-out, impatient, and pressured. Did I mention tired? As adults, instead of focusing on the twinkling lights and pretty figure skaters like we should, we tend to mull over things like mortgages, taxes, and credit card bills, not to mention our snarling in-laws, while the whole world shrieks: “Give and now receive. Receive and now give. Now repeat.” By mid-December, even the most optimistic among us can find ourselves thinking, while waiting in yet another line in yet another store, “Gee, this kind of sucks,” or, employing the language of a bygone era, “Bah, Humbug!”
Technology and the Changing Face of Relationships
Modern technology affects virtually every aspect of human existence. For starters, the world is rapidly becoming a much smaller place. This is not to say that our planet is physically shrinking, it’s just that we can now travel from place to place more easily and affordably than ever before. And even if we’re not willing to hop into a car or onto an airplane we can still communicate almost instantly, IRL (in real time), with practically anyone, anywhere, at any time thanks to ever-evolving digital tools like computers, laptops, pads, smartphones, e-readers, and the like. Not surprisingly, this relatively recent and ever quickening onslaught of new technology has drastically changed the ways in which we view and value intimacy with our significant other, and even our ideas about what a “significant other” actually is.
Love and Marriage, Love and Marriage, Go Together Like a Horse and Carriage…
– Song lyrics by Sammy Cahn, music by Jimmy Van Heusen (Copyright Barton Music Corporation)
Mommy, What’s a Housewife?
For much of the 20th century young women dreamed of little pink houses, white picket fences, two (or maybe more) kids, and a cute, cuddly, calendar-worthy pet. And, of course, a faithful, clean-cut, high earning husband. Or so the story goes. In other words, young women were expected to have a “steady,” get pinned, get engaged, get married, get pregnant, and become a stay-at-home mom, at which point they could experience the joys cooking, cleaning, and generally catering to the needs and whims of their busy husbands and children. Barefoot and pregnant, educated just enough to make interesting dinner conversation, yadda yadda yadda.
In today’s tech-driven world, young people (digital natives) are as likely to communicate in the digital universe as they are to communicate face-to-face. In fact, more likely. A Pew Internet & American Life study conducted in 2012 found that texting is now the primary mode of daily communication between teens and their friends and family, far surpassing phone calls, face-to-face interactions, and emailing.i So in some ways it’s only natural that teens and young adults do much of their flirting online, too. A recent University of Michigan survey of 3500 young adults (ages 18 to 24) confirms this idea, finding that for this age bracket texting and sexting are simply another way of getting to know potential romantic partners and possibly advancing a relationship.ii
In 2005 I wrote Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men, a book that I took out of print in late 2010 because it desperately needed an update. Essentially, the volume was penned prior to the rise of social media, the explosion of user-generated porn, the advent of smartphone hookup apps, and numerous other advances in digital sexnology. And let us not forget the cultural changes “gay marriage” (and its effect on “gay monogamy”) has wrought in the past few years. Remember, many in the gay community used to deride marriage as an old-fashioned, demeaning, heterosexual ritual. Now, however, gay marriage is a hard-fought-for reality in several states, and with a forward-thinking president who has spoken in support of it on more than one occasion, other states are likely to follow. This has created a dramatic shift in gay men’s attitudes toward marriage and monogamy, leading in turn to quite a lot of individuals rethinking their sexual behavior, wondering if all the “fun” they’ve been having is actually compulsive and destructive rather than enjoyable.
“One word frees us of all the weight and pain of life: That word is love.” – Sophocles
“To be in love is merely to be in a state of perceptual anesthesia.” – H.L. Mencken
“Sometimes love is stronger than a man’s convictions.” – Isaac Bashevis Singer
“Loves makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place.” – Zora Neale Hurston
So, What is Love?
Romantic love, next to whatever happens after we die, has always been one of mankind’s greatest mysteries. LOVE is difficult to define, differs from person to person, yet somehow is easy for all to recognize. You sure know when it hits you – not unlike the flu. For eons men and woman have philosophized about what love is, how it occurs, and why it’s necessary, rarely coming up with anything more useful than really cool comments like, “Love is friendship set on fire.” Such sentiments make good song lyrics and poetry, but are not much help from a psychotherapy perspective. Nevertheless, despite centuries of vain attempts to fully define it, there is no denying that love exists, and that it’s as natural and essential to most human beings as breathing, eating, and sleeping.
Time Off + Gifts + Shopping + Expectations + Family = The Need for Solid Recovery
For men and women who suffer from sex and/or love addiction, the holidays present the following dangerous combination:
In essence, heightened emotions related to difficult family dynamics and numerous other factors make the season a more stressful than usual period, and this can feed into the chronic, progressive disease of addiction. Active addicts often experience escalation in this timeframe. Even addicts firmly grounded in recovery can revert to old patterns, especially if they stop attending their 12-step support groups, reaching out to supportive friends and family, and actively working their program of recovery.