But sex addicts typically differ from other addicts in that they can appear more normal over a much longer period of time than say, an alcoholic or a drug addict. The damaging affects of substance abuse and other addictions such as food and gambling tend to be more obvious in that the addict shows outward signs of deterioration in health and ability to function in the world.
When sex addiction is the primary or only addiction the addict may feel and seem healthy and high functioning for years. The addiction is compartmentalized and the addict can secretly indulge in whatever the addictive behavior is and then return to the “real world” apparently normal. It’s all an act of course, but sex addicts can fool others and themselves for a long time. Unless you know what to look for.
What follows is written in an effort to increase the addict’s as well as their partner’s understanding of this internal process. Here are the underlying mechanisms and some of the ways they manifest.
The addiction changes over time
The reason the addiction escalates is both physical and psychological. There are brain changes that seem to characterize all addictions, although the neurobiological research on sex and porn addiction is relatively new. As the brain becomes habituated to the substance or behavior the enjoyment of the experience is gradually replaced with craving. The experience of “liking” is replaced with the experience of “wanting”.
Sometimes addicts experience this obsession or preoccupation while admitting that it isn’t even fun any more. One sex addict with a long term pornography habit described his acting out behavior as “like an unpleasant, angry dog I have to take out and walk every night.”
- The sexually addicted person must then seek out different or more extreme stimuli or behaviors in the effort to make the acting out experience “fun” again.
- This can mean delving into new kinds of sexual behavior such as same-sex experiences, increasing interest in youth or seeking out more violent images or high risk experiences. These may be seen or diagnosed as fetishes or paraphilias when the addict may simply be seeking a new “high”.
As with any drug addiction, the sex addict can escalate in terms of the amount or frequency of the behavior.
- He or she may spend more time pursuing the experience or engage in it multiple times a day. I had one client who managed to have 6 or more sexual encounters with different people in the same day.
- For porn addicts escalation may mean being swallowed up online for many hours a day bingeing and seeking out new sexual content.
The habit of duplicity becomes a life built on denial
Sex addicts lead a “double life” of deception and secrecy. Typically they are ashamed of what they are secretly doing and are afraid of the consequences if the addiction is made known. They go to great lengths to keep their behavior secret.
Sex addicts have to both justify their deception and alleviate their feelings of shame. To do this they increasingly engage in denial. In the beginning of the sex addiction the addict may write the episode off as a fluke. As time goes on addicts finds new ways to delude themselves and to avoid discovery by those around them. Denial spreads and the addict must then justify all kinds of things they do that would never square with their original value system.
- The sex addict becomes adapted to playing a fraudulent role and manipulating others. They begin to look like a sociopath. And they find ways to justify even this.
- The whole denial system begins to backfire because the addict’s sense of reality is gradually giving way to the delusional system of denial. This distorted thinking then allows the addict to be more flagrant, blame other people for their problems and take greater risks.
This life of unrealistic thinking has other consequences that the addict often experiences subjectively.
- Addicts lose touch with a deeper sense of meaning in their life. This loss of purpose and depressive thinking can lead to more extreme behaviors in order to seek relief and thus perpetuate the addictive cycle.
The addict loses a sense of free will
Because the sexually addictive behavior becomes increasingly entrenched and compulsive, and because the addict tends toward losing touch with the reality of their life and the sense of who they are, the addict will lose a sense of being in control of their life in general.
At this point many addicts believe that they are, as one addict put it “a sex addict of the hopeless variety.”
- When they finally do admit to their addiction, addicts may tend to see everything that is going on as external to them. They are in recovery for someone else or because they are forced to be. Their ability or inability to work a program of recovery is felt as a product of their circumstances or of external forces. For a while, going through the motions may be as good as it gets.
It may be a long time until an addict can make a decision or feel in charge of their own recovery. And correspondingly, it may be years before the addict is recovered enough to fully understand and have remorse for the harm they have done to others.