People who have been on the receiving end of a sex addict’s betrayal, manipulation, lies, and other forms of uncaring and abusive behavior experience serious emotional trauma. Lives are torn apart, children are affected, families are alienated and as if that weren’t enough there are often dire health and/or financial consequences.
But is any given sex addict really a perpetrator? A psychopath? Well, they could be. And there is no doubt that those around the addict are victimized. Many sex addicts initially seem sociopathic, so the case for approaching all sex addicts as perpetrators is an easy one to make. The only problem is that as a strategy for making things better it’s pretty much useless. And potentially harmful to all concerned.
Leaving aside the criminal sex offender and the controversy over the use of sex addiction as a legal defense (that’s a whole other blog) there are a number of ways in which the tendency of some people to see sex addicts as perpetrators, to “perp” them, gets in the way of the addict’s treatment and their partners’ recovery.
Untreated sex addicts often do act in ways that are so exploitive that they appear to be lacking the capacity for empathy at best, and sociopathic at worst. I will return to this issue further on. But first I want to look at some of the unintended consequences of “perping” the addict.
Self-awareness vs. guilt and shame
Helping someone to change a destructive behavior pattern requires a balance between accepting the person (i.e. understanding the psychological reasons for what they do) and motivating them to change. Addicts often come into treatment motivated to change by a job or family crisis resulting from their addiction. But once the crisis has died down, an addictive pattern will most often return unless there is some deeper level of self awareness. The addict needs to answer the question “how did I get this way?”
It is tempting to think that the addict should just forget about what caused them to be the way they are and focus on the harm they have done. But judging the addict and seeing them as simply a perpetrator gets in the way of any attempt at lasting change. The addict is suffering from an illness and condemnation subverts recovery by promoting self-hate and driving the addict away. It says in effect “there’s no point in self exploration, you’re just a bad person”. As an addict you cannot run and hide from your condition and at the same time work to understand and unravel it.
Polarizing the addict and the partner
While it must be understood by all concerned that partners and spouses of sex addicts do experience abuse, abandonment and emotional trauma because of the addict’s behavior, it is a mistake to see the couple solely as villain and victim. Such a view can lead those around the couple to take sides and perpetuate hostility. This can further polarize the couple, and prevent them from working together on the slow process of doing whatever is necessary to rebuild trust. It can also be disempowering to the partner if it places all the responsibility for the partner’s well-being in the hands of the addict, saying to the addict in effect: “From now on you owe it to me to make my life ok”.
Undermining the partner’s quest for safety
With the disclosure of sex addiction partners and families question their reality and their very sense of self is undermined. The natural reflex is to want to anticipate and control for the possibility of danger going forward. To an extent, knowing more about the addict’s movements, thoughts, feelings, and behavior, leads to a sense of control and therefore security. If the addict agrees to adhere to certain standards and is even willing to take a polygraph it may help reassure the partner.
But further into the recovery process, even total control and total knowledge will not necessarily lead to feelings of safety and trust. Why? Because such an approach puts the focus on the addiction, the possibility of future addictive behavior. This leads to the endless attempt to catch the addict in a deception and the illusion that safety will come with ever more control or information. This is sometimes called “dancing with the addiction”.
Real safety is possible when the addict is committed to recovery and change. This is evident in the increase in openness, vulnerability and other changes in style and behavior. These are what lead to genuine trust and safety in the long run.
In the attempt to support the partner and break through the addict’s self-focus, the helping professional may inadvertently cast the addict as a perpetrator and the partner as a crime victim. This can create a triangle with a counselor playing the role of rescuer. Further, in perping the addict, the counselor will tend to triangulate against anyone who is trying to help the addict, or at least to see the addict’s treatment person (or fellowship, or sponsor) as part of the problem.
Without a more in depth approach to the addict’s addiction there can be gross misunderstandings about the addiction. Therapists or partners may become unduly afraid that the addict will turn out to be a child molester or that a straight person is really a homosexual. Labels can get thrown around without any clinical justification which add to the level of mistrust and alienation.
How should we think about the antisocial aspects of sex addiction?
Sex addicts as well as other kinds of addicts often appear to have sociopathic traits. Usually the addict is not a true sociopath; rather the addiction promotes a life of delusion, deception and detachment from reality. This insulates the addict from feelings of guilt and shame as well as preventing empathy and connection. As they recover, addicts predictably become more connected, more aware of the feelings of others. And they begin to live in reality as opposed to a self-centered world of delusion.
This reconnection process takes time and a genuine commitment to recovery. So while a small number of sex addicts may be true sociopaths or pathological narcissists, such people will seldom show the long term commitment to growth or be willing to engage in the demanding and arduous process of recovery.