Sex addiction is by definition a pattern of compulsive sexual behavior that resembles any other behavioral addiction such as gambling addiction in that it is maladaptive and difficult to put down. You may think of sex addiction in any of a number of ways: as a symptom of deeper problems relating to early attachment injury, or a constellation of symptoms such as intimacy avoidance, secrecy and dissociation, or a brain disorder resembling chemical dependency. Or all of the above. But no matter how you choose to think about it, sex and porn addiction are diagnosable and treatable.
Chronic or curable?
You will probably not get 100% agreement on whether sex addiction is a chronic disorder which can never be totally cured or whether it can be overcome completely through working on the underlying issues over time. My own opinion is that you can be a “recovered” sex addict.
But no matter what you believe, if you work with sex addicts in treatment you are bound to see people who are sitting ducks for a relapse along their road to recovery. This doesn’t mean that relapse is inevitable, it’s just that certain situations increase the likelihood that the addict will slip off the wagon.
In the following scenarios recovering sex addicts appear to have followed through with a good recovery program. What is it that has gone wrong when they suddenly and inexplicably have a slip or relapse?
One of the most common ways in which people can be on thin ice without knowing it has to do with the rhythm or pattern of their acting out behavior. This is simply the typical amount of time between episodes of acting out or the periodic nature of acting out in their particular history.
Many sex and porn addicts act out continuously with little or no “down time” when they are active in their addiction. Most sex addicts have multiple behaviors so, for example, an addict may use commercial sex in one form or another but may look to porn to fill in the gaps when commercial sex is not an option.
Other addicts may act out as seldom as once or twice a month or even once every two months or more. For example, an addict may engage in voyeurism or extramarital affairs in a persistent pattern but with periods of time in between. Sometimes these dry periods represent a “binge-purge” pattern like that of other kinds of addicts and often addicts have down time that is characterized by remorse and feeling turned off.
Until an addict understands his or her own cycle of acting out, the periods in between episodes may appear to the addict and others as representative of an actual recovery. It then comes as a rude shock when the urges return and the addict finds that they have not changed after all. Looking at the timeline and pattern of acting out episodes will be important in identifying when a slip or relapse is most likely.
Many addicts when they are in the initial crisis phase of recovery and are just beginning treatment feel little or no interest in their former compulsive sexual behaviors and some feel an active aversion to sex. It is very common to mistake this period of temporary sexual anorexia for a true change.
This initial period of being turned off is more likely a reaction to the fact that the addict’s denial has cracked and been replaced with overwhelming negative emotions surrounding the addictive behavior. This is particularly likely in situations in which the addict has gotten in trouble.
It is very important for addicts to understand that this is just an initial reaction and that they still have to proceed with their recovery program. If they rely on the fact that their addiction has come out in the open and upended their life, they may feel that they will never act out again and don’t need further help. In such cases the addiction is probably still there under the surface and may appear again at a later date unexpectedly. It is not unusual for addictions to actually become worse during a period when they are dormant, thus making them more powerful when they reappear.
The “boutique” recovery program
I have seen many addicts who do only a part of what is necessary for them to be in sustained recovery. For sure, everyone does addiction recovery in their own way, the way that works for them. But leaving out important aspects of recovery work is perilous.
Some addicts do partial recovery because they are going into treatment for someone else. When that person lightens up, they figure the problem is cured. Some addicts go into an intensive program of residential treatment and feel that when they are released six weeks later they are done with the problem for good.
Some addicts feel they are what is called “terminally unique”. They don’t want to go along with the program of meetings, therapy etc. because they’re not as bad off as all those “other” people.
Many addicts are unaware of their own therapy-interfering behaviors. These are behaviors like continuing to be deceptive or keep up a front in some way, or putting recovery activities low on their list of priorities. Often these addicts are too busy or they are too important, visible, or famous. Or their work is too all consuming. These addicts need to accept the recovery dictum that “anything you put ahead of your recovery you will lose.”
Going for the love cure
Last but not least, many addicts get into a relationship too early in the recovery process. They are doing the difficult work of recovery and they don’t have their usual outlet. These folks jump into a relationship because they are “lonely” and think they are “ready” to date. But in fact they are seeking to distract from or numb out negative emotions.
Most often these new relationships are built around sex or fantasy and predictably reenact their typical relationship scenario. This scenario is usually one that develops in tandem with their addiction and until it is understood and re-imagined, no new relationship is likely to be sustainable. Instead, when the relationship doesn’t solve their problems, they will be vulnerable to sliding into relapse.
There is no one size fits all, but I tell my clients that sex addiction recovery usually involves at least a three year commitment to working a recovery plan that includes some combination of individual therapy, group therapy, 12-step meetings, spiritual practice, fellowship and learning new relationship skills. The relapse scenarios described above all have to do with a failure to grasp the kind of deeper change that is necessary.
I have seen it work all different of ways. Some people like to read and do experiential exercises and inventories. Others hate doing task work but will follow a trusted mentor or sponsor through the 12-step process. Some people place great emphasis on the recovery fellowship. Others go deeply into self examination and trauma work. Some are deeply religious, some are atheists. However it is done, the process is one of profound transformation and it takes time.
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