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The Whack-a-Mole Effect: Tackling New Addictions in Sexual Recovery

substitute addiction whack a moleSex Addicts in recovery have worked hard to identify their damaging addictive sexual behaviors such as out-of-control porn use, constant sexual hook-ups, or the obsessive pursuit of commercial sex. And they are often able to identify and eliminate other addictions such as drugs or alcohol which co-exist with their primary sex addiction.

In addition to these off limits behaviors, sex addiction treatment and 12-step programs help the addict to be on the alert for “slippery” behaviors. These might include things like driving through the neighborhood where the addict’s favorite sexual massage parlor is located. These are red flags because although they are not forbidden, they can lead down the path toward relapse.

After an initial period of abstinence from their problematic sexual behaviors, sex addicts continue to work on the issues that led to their problems in the first place. In other words, they kick their addiction and then, over time, they become more reliably “sober”. They gain a stronger sense of self, build integrity, learn relationship skills and embark on a new way of living in recovery.

Stress in recovery

Here’s the catch. Achieving solid recovery can take anywhere from 2 to 5 years. And in the meanwhile addicts continue to experience some of the unpleasant feelings of withdrawal from their sexual “drug”. These are not the overwhelming feelings of early recovery such as the desperate sexual urges, confusion, agitation and irresistible impulses. But while working on their underlying insecurities and self destructive patterns addicts may continue to experience unpleasant mental states, negative emotions their addiction used to mask.

When faced with negative emotions such as feelings of self doubt, fear of failure, stress and depression it is natural that the recovering sex addict will reach for another way to escape.

Types of substitute behaviors

All of the mechanisms outline below are designed to sooth or escape unpleasant emotions. These substitute addictions or mini versions of the sexually addictive behaviors can take many forms. But the substitute will often reflect the addict’s preferred mode of escape. Each provides new challenges to the addict’s recovery.

  • Numbing, self soothing behaviors. These addicts have been used to using sex as a narcotic of sorts.  Very often they are porn addicts.  In recovery they may turn to over eating or drinking more. Or they may engage in compulsive internet use and spend endless hours looking for and fantasizing about buying expensive items. This kind of withdrawal can ultimately slow down or threaten their recovery. The addict may even disengage from recovery activities and from human contact. Dissociation, i.e. checking out, was likely their preferred reaction to relational stresses in their family of origin.
  • Risk taking behaviors. Many sex addicts act sought highly stimulating or illegal sexual behaviors such as frequenting prostitutes, voyeurism and exhibitionism. In recovery they may slip into new obsessions involving high adrenaline, risk taking or rule breaking behaviors. This might take the form of gambling, day trading, over-work, over-exercise or highly demanding and dangerous projects. Self destructiveness of this kind may have been an adaptation to early trauma or neglect.
  • Self affirming behaviors. Some addicts, such as those whose addiction involved constant sexual encounters, cheating and serial affairs have a need to prove their self worth in sexual terms. They need to sexualize relationships and turn normal encounters into seductions. Often they have been sexualized or molested early in life. In recovery these addicts will likely continue to unconsciously “cruise” or “scan” for sexual targets, ogle or intrigue with people, and flirt with people even in the presence of a partner. These addicts often come from an underlying false belief that they are unworthy and can only be valuable to another through their sexual attractiveness.
  • Codependence. Most sex addicts have an underlying codependent streak the size of the great barrier reef. They have poor relationship skills and often experienced narcissistic caregivers. They can engage in any of a number of sexually addictive behaviors which help to quell their feelings of inadequacy and emotional deprivation. One common behavior that can become addictive in its own right is relationship seeking. The need to attach to someone else and escape into a romantic or sexual fantasy can take the form of spending huge amounts of time on dating sites or in reading and posting personal ads online. This may progress to contacting potential acting out partners online or contacting old acting out partners. When it becomes clear that this is itself a problem, the addict may switch to more “harmless” social media. But this too can easily deteriorate into viewing soft-core ads or sexual YouTube videos and so on.
  • Compulsive self-deprivation. Self deprivation is the flip side of addiction. If addiction is out-of-control behavior, deprivation is over-control. In recovery addicts may become over zealous about their treatment. They may become anorexic with food or deny themselves in any number of ways. They may even forget how to have fun or enjoy life. Some engage in self harm as a reaction to depression, guilt and resentment. Though this compulsive self deprivation helps soothe their negative emotional states, it is a set up for relapse. Instead of building a stronger sense of self, the addict has gone the other way and given up. The striving for perfection and the need to live up to someone else’s set of standards may be a trigger for rebellion and loss of control.

Some of the therapeutic strategies for dealing with these substitute addictive behaviors involve

Gaining the ability to expect and deal with negative emotions when they crop up using techniques for emotion regulation, distress tolerance and trauma work.

Confronting these new behaviors as treatment-interfering behaviors which may lead to relapse and encouraging the addict to work a 1st step around the new issue.

Placing an emphasis on finding healthy new passions and outlets including finding harmless ways to get centered and/or escape, such as mindfulness and meditation.

Please share your own experiences with substitute addictions.

Find Dr. Hatch on Facebook at Sex Addictions Counseling or Twitter @SAResource and at www.sexaddictionscounseling.com

The Whack-a-Mole Effect: Tackling New Addictions in Sexual Recovery


Linda Hatch, PhD

Linda Hatch is a psychologist and certified sex addiction therapist specializing in the treatment of sex addicts and the partners and families of sex addicts. Linda also blogs on her own website at Sexaddictionscounseling.com


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APA Reference
Hatch, L. (2015). The Whack-a-Mole Effect: Tackling New Addictions in Sexual Recovery. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 19, 2019, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/sex-addiction/2015/02/the-whack-a-mole-effect-tackling-new-addictions-in-sexual-recovery/

 

Last updated: 9 Feb 2015
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