Many recovering alcoholics and drug addicts have problems with their sexual and relationship life. Even though they have been in 12-step recovery, they may still have problems with intimate relating.
They may have great difficulty following through with relationships and instead go for repeated seductions in which they use the feeling of falling in love as a substitute high. Other recovering chemical dependency people become sexually compulsive with online hook-ups or internet pornography as their new drug of choice. Still others have intense, high drama relationships in which they seek to control the other person out of fear. As they often say, “I don’t have relationships, I take prisoners.”
Recovering alcoholics and drug addicts may use denial mechanisms to avoid seeing their problems with intimacy and sexuality. When we talk about being “in denial” what we mean is that the addict is using one or more habitual ways of thinking about a situation which serve to eliminate the need to take the situation seriously or to do anything about it.
This is the tendency to see anything to do with sex and relationships as relatively minor and harmless. The alcoholic/addict may argue that behaviors like compulsive porn use, preoccupation with online hook-ups, or frequent visits to prostitutes are not nearly as risky or life threatening as chemical dependency. Also they may rely on the argument that sexual acting out is entirely legal and that it is victimless.
Sex addiction can creep into the recovering addict’s life because it is a drug that can substitute for the previous addiction. The addict may “rationalize” this use of sex as a drug on the basis that it makes sense to rely on sex because it is a way to stay away from another addiction. They may argue that “love” is a good thing and that being hooked on sexual behaviors “keeps me out of trouble.”
Recovering alcoholics and addicts can appear to be leading a normal life. As practicing alcoholics and drug addicts, their daily functioning was probably much more compromised in a much more obvious way than that of the practicing sex addict. Sex addicts can keep their sexual behavior compartmentalized and hidden. Out of sight out of mind. Thus the addict can convince himself and everyone else that there is nothing wrong. There may be not obvious consequences and there may be no one in the addict’s life who ever calls him on his behavior.
Recovering addicts often take a superior and derisive attitude toward sex addicts. This grandiosity is a part of a narcissistic defense system that many addicts have and that covers up a sense of inferiority. It can also take the form of machismo and sexism in which recovering alcoholics or addicts may engage in seductive and sexually predatory behavior toward people in their recovery groups. This is sometimes referred to as “13th stepping.” It is a need to feed the ego and to feel better by seeing other people as worse off. Thus recovering alcoholics and addicts may even take the attitude that sex addiction recovery is a kind of joke.
Recovering addicts and alcoholics often attribute their sexually compulsive behavior to something other than sex addiction. They very commonly are aware that they behave in a sexually inappropriate manner prior to chemical dependency recovery and they attribute that to the fact that they were high on drugs or alcohol. Drugs and alcohol allowed them to overcome their inhibitions and behave in overtly excessive ways sexually.
What they fail to see is that the sexually compulsive behavior is a drug in its own right and has the same roots and their chemical dependency. They may also attribute their sexually addictive behavior to another psychological problem such as bipolar disorder. In any case, these are ways of saying that a pattern of sexually addictive behavior doesn’t exist because it is really just a byproduct of something else.
This can take various forms in which the alcoholic uses semi-logical argument as to why they cannot or need not do anything about a problem. One form is to take a victim role, i.e. to feel helpless and hopeless about changing how they relate to intimacy and relationships. They argue that they have already worked a program and that there is nothing more they can do. In other words this is as good as it gets.
Recovering alcoholics and drug addicts often have little or no experience with healthy intimate relationships. Their primary relationship has been with a chemical and they are most often avoidant of true intimacy.
It is important for those of us in the sex addiction field to help educate chemical dependency professionals and people in the recovery community about the next phase in sobriety and about the importance of gaining relationship skills and becoming “intimacy-abled.”