People seeking help for sex addiction are anxious to see the light at the end of the tunnel. They are often stunned when I tell them that, even for those who are diligent and motivated, the whole process takes about 3 to 5 years.
Some practitioners might say that, like alcoholism, sex addiction is a chronic condition requiring continuous treatment for life to prevent relapse. I don’t think this is always the case. As I have argued elsewhere I believe that sex addiction recovery is possible and lasting. At some point people can say “I am a recovered sex addict”.
And yet the actual process of getting to that point of solid and reliable recovery seems to take a determined effort over a period of years. There is one possible form of sex addiction which may be different, and I will discuss that further on.
The Six Stages of Sex Addiction Recovery
In a study of recovering sex addicts reported in 2000 Dr. Patrick Carnes identified the typical phases that addicts went through in the recovery process. Interestingly, he found that during the first year in recovery there was no measurable improvement in areas such as coping with stress, self-image, financial situations, friendships, career status and spirituality even though the addicts reported that they felt that their life was “definitely better.”
The first year of recovery does appear to be one characterized by turmoil and it is typical for slips to occur during the second 6 months of recovery. During the second and third years of recovery, after a period of sexual sobriety, there began to be improvement in the areas named above, areas having to do with overall functioning, emotional connectedness, self-activation and the like. These improvements then continued into the later years.
In the third year and thereafter greater healing tended to occur in terms of the addicts’ relationships both with a partner and with their extended family/children, and in the area of healthy sexuality and life satisfaction in general.
The six stages that came out of the content analysis in the study mentioned above were:
The Developing Stage (up to 2 years)
The Crisis/Decision Stage (1 day to 3 months)
The Shock Stage (6 to 8 months)
The Grief Stage (6 months)
The Repair Stage (18 to 36 months)
The Growth Stage (2 plus years)
Is all this inner change really necessary?
I think it is clear that sex addiction is not just a matter of kicking a drug, although that is certainly the first phase of sex addiction recovery. Initially, addicts must go through a withdrawal process. This period of withdrawal is usually characterized by:
• Strange sexual dreams and fantasies
• Peculiar physical symptoms
• Restlessness and mood changes
But sex addiction is more that just having gotten hooked on a mood altering experience. For most sex addicts, the addictive behavior is entwined in a whole adaptation to life based on long-standing ways of coping with inadequacy and insecurity.
Without deeper change, the addict is still at risk for relapse into the old addiction or substitution of a new one.
The old sense of self vs. the new sense of self
It has long been accepted that the sex addict’s addiction is based on a set of core beliefs. Even though many sex addicts do not suffer from any diagnosable mental disorder, their behavior is based on false beliefs such as “no one could love me as I am”, “If I have to depend on someone else to meet my needs they will never get met” and “sex is my most important need”.
These beliefs lead not only to a secret sexual life in which the addict meets his or her needs, but also involve:
• Avoidance of intimacy with a partner whether sexual or emotional
• A narcissistic false self which is shown to the world and which hides underlying shame
• Dishonesty and manipulation
• A strong tendency for other kinds of addictions as well
In the 6th or “growth” stage of recovery (from 2 years on) these core negative beliefs are unpacked and long-standing defenses slip away as a product of therapy and program work. The addict begins to be more available to other people and to move about the world in a much different way. This change is demonstrated in:
• A more confident and more integrated sense of who they are
• The ability to set boundaries and to speak their truth
• The ability to share all parts of themselves with a partner
• Functioning at an optimal level
Internet porn addiction may be the exception to the rule
More and more young people are being exposed to internet pornography at an earlier and earlier age [http://time.com/3148215/poll-teenagers-pornography-damaging]. And as that “supranormal” stimulus becomes more intense and more powerful than anything previously known in real life, the probablility that any given person can get addicted is going up.
When internet porn is the only addictive behavior, recovery may not involve such a long and complicated process. The young porn addict needs to get off porn and allow their brain to return to normal functioning. They also need to get on track with a more normal sexual maturation.
Increasing numbers of young people have not had any sexual experience with a real person and fear it. There is evidence of “porn induced erectile dysfunction” which resolves once the porn addict kicks the habit. In these cases the addict may not have any need to go through the lengthy process of overhauling his/her adaptation to life.