By Nancy Greenlee, MAPC, LCPC
“I am hurt and I’m devastated. Being married to my husband is like doing yoga on one leg,” said a recent workshop participant. “I’m trying to hold things together, but I keep crashing down.”
By Georgia Fourlas, LMSW, LISAC, CSAT-C
There have been a number of high profile cases of sexual misbehaviors lately in the media. Each case has been accompanied by a barrage of interviews in the media with experts who discuss sexual addiction, excuse making, compulsive lying, bad behavior, legal actions, and a variety of other issues.
In the wake of these events, everyone wants to try to understand why individuals would act out in ways that could not only damage their own reputations, but also damage their families and risk the loss of their marriages. Help is often suggested or offered to those who have been “outed” as having engaged in sexually compulsive, sexually inappropriate, and deceptive behaviors— and it is critical that they get that help. But, where does that leave spouses and significant others of those with sexual disorders who have been traumatized by their betrayals?
“Where is my f@$%ing chip???” This is a statement I recently heard while working with a partner of a sex addict. It perfectly captures the anger and desperation often felt by partners of individuals with sexual disorders. This person went on to explain that her sexually addicted partner was in a 12-step recovery program, attending therapy, and recently picked up a chip (a token given at 12-step meetings to honor milestones in recovery) for sexual sobriety. She spoke of the intense pain, debilitating shame and searing anger she experienced while watching the addict being congratulated and hugged.
Meanwhile, the partner sat in the background feeling even further isolated, abandoned, and resentful. All of these emotions fed the anger in this partner and the other partners that were present as they ruminated about the injustice of the betrayal perpetrated by the addict and how the addict, now in recovery, is seemingly, treated like a hero for, in one person’s words: “What? Not being a liar and cheater for a few months? Where is my prize for not being a liar and cheater AT ALL…MY WHOLE LIFE?”
This imbalance can continue well into recovery, as much of the addicted partner’s time and some of the family’s funds get diverted to treatment and recovery activities. Even when the bad behaviors and destructive activities are replaced with recovery behaviors and healthy activities, it still leaves the partner of the addict alone to deal with the fall out. This often leaves the partner with the sense that everything is still all about the addict, and the partner still feels cheated in the relationship.
I heard these expressions of pain and anger in a workshop I facilitate at The Meadows called Healing Intimate Treason For Partners of Sex Addicts, which is based on the extraordinary work of Claudia Black. It is one place where a partner of a person with a sexual disorder can get help. The workshop is specifically designed to support and assist the spouses and significant others of individuals with sexual disorders and provides an environment that enables open dialog and honest sharing about all traumatic reactions that partners may be experiencing.
Partners are provided a safe place to take an honest look at their own behaviors. Sometimes, out of anger and in their own traumatic reactions, partners also behave in ways that are outside of their own value systems. This workshop can help partners to begin to make an internal shift from focus on the other person to focus on oneself. In this way, partners are encouraged to embark on a recovery journey that involves self-care and encourages healing. Partners can begin to make decisions for themselves based on what they want in their lives and what is best for them rather than making decisions purely from an emotionally-charged and reactive place of pain that results from betrayal.
A variety of skills are offered to help partners to find ways to regulate their nervous systems and cope with their own feelings about the betrayal. It also helps partner’s deal with the very complex grief and shame that accompanies the discovery of a mate’s sexually compulsive or sexually aversive behavior.
This workshop also offers a chance to give and receive support from others going through similar struggles while encouraging a focus on self when partners begin the difficult decision making process of “What now?” Partners will leave with their own “f@$%ing chip” but will also leave with so much more.
For more details or to enroll, call 800-244-4949. Our Intake Coordinators are happy to assist you between 6a.m. and 6p.m. MST on weekdays, and from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. MST on weekends.
The remaining 2015 dates for the Healing Intimate Treason For Partners of Sex Addicts workshop are October 5 – 9 and December 14 – 18.
Marie Woods, LMFT, CSAT
Primary Therapist, Gentle Path at the Meadows
When our culture hears about a person with sex addiction, often the automatic assumption is that he (or she) must like a lot of sex. In light of the nature of their behaviors, sex addicts are also often labeled as perverted, creepy, or strange.
These distorted perceptions aren’t just limited to the public, but are often among the core beliefs that sex addicts have about themselves. As patients engage in treatment and begin to understand themselves better, they often begin to realize that their behaviors are not solely about the sex itself, but about some larger constructs.
As a treating therapist, I’m aware from the moment a patient enters my office, that the symptoms associated with sex addiction have less to do with sex, and more to do with limited coping skills for what is often an intense amount of pain. This is not to say that the sexual behaviors are excusable, but it does help us to shift the focus from the stigma of sex addiction and onto its possible underlying causes.
For many sex addicts, their problematic sexual behaviors developed early in their lives as a way to deal with significant stressors or trauma. For example, compulsive masturbation often stems from a child’s early learning about how to self-soothe in a chaotic home environment. At its onset, this coping skill was not necessarily problematic. But for sex addicts, the behavior becomes problematic when they do not acquire a more expansive set of coping skills as they continue to develop. This is just one example of the many ways in which engaging in normal and pleasurable sexual behavior may develop into problematic sexual behavior.
It is important to recognize that in our most functional human state we use a variety of coping mechanisms, including positive sexual behavior, to regulate ourselves, and that is not necessarily pathological or problematic. What can become compulsive, and perhaps problematic, is when this is one of our only coping mechanisms to regulate stress and anxiety over time.
As treatment providers, we work with patients to look at both the sexual behavior itself, and also at what may drive it. Sex addicts often have an immense amount of shame around their sexual behavior, so it’s important to help them understand any connections that may exist between specific sexual behaviors and their pasts.
But, some of their unwanted sexual behaviors are more about activating a part of the brain that allows them to numb out, dissociate, fantasize, or even feel deprived in order to provide some temporary relief from their emotional pain. In these cases, we would want to spend some time focusing on why a patient may choose these ways of responding, and what other coping skills they may need to develop in order to feel better about themselves rather than perpetuate the cycle of toxic shame they experience after engaging in their addictive behaviors.
The vast majority of addicts that we work with express an adamant desire to stop engaging in the use of alcohol, drugs, and to stop acting out sexually. Many of them can also identify numerous failed attempts to stop their behavior.
Before we make assumptions about what the behaviors associated with sex addiction mean, it is worth stepping back and considering the bigger picture. Moving towards lasting change with sex addiction means that we must examine both the behaviors themselves and the stories surrounding them. This opens the door for compassion, which is an essential component of the process of healing from sex addiction.
The article entitled “Insatiable: The Real Lives of Sex Addicts” in the May issue of GQ magazine is a positive step in helping to overcome the stigma attached to sexual addiction. The media can serve as a source of much-needed education when it allows people to understand the pain associated with sexual addiction, and sometimes get in touch with their own difficulties associated with the multitude of behaviors of sex addicts. Sexual addiction is like any other addiction, and there is more and more neuroscience evidence to support this fact. Unfortunately, the media also glamorizes sexual addiction at times, which impedes the process of raising awareness about its true nature. Casting the struggles that some high profile individuals have with sexual addiction in a positive light leads people to believe that sexual addiction is just an excuse for people to engage in affairs or that it’s appropriate and celebrated celebrities get to have lots of sex while lay people who engage in the same behaviors are frequently vilified.
The article in GQ magazine, which was written by Nathaniel Penn, addresses the plethora of “hookup” apps like Tinder and Grindr as ways that individuals find sexual liaisons; the number of professionals seeking sex addiction therapy training doubling since 2008, the lack of insurance coverage for sex addiction; and the increasing popularity of Sex Addicts Anonymous as a 12 Step Group for sex addiction growing by 10 percent each year for the past decade. The article focuses on a potpourri of individuals—from all walks of life—who have struggled with or who still struggle with sexual addiction and through that we see the wide range of behaviors associated with this addiction.
As the GQ article rightfully states, the absence of a DSM code is a deterrent in that it doesn’t allow sexual addiction treatment to be covered by health insurance nor does it provide funding for much-needed research. The sexual addiction research currently being conducted is largely funded through private donations from organizations like the American Foundation for Addiction Research (AFAR).
On a brighter note, the recent inclusion of Internet gaming and gambling disorder in the DSM has bolstered credibility for the recognition of non-substance related addictions, paving the path for sexual addiction to be recognized in the near future. Hopefully, in the interim, the media will continue to portray sexual addiction in an honest light in order to reduce its stigma and to open the door for people to become more educated about the true nature of this painful addiction.
While most sex addicts have a history of trauma and tend to come from certain specific family structures, we’re witnessing an increasing number of sex addicts in recent years whose addiction did not seem to have these typical precursors. One of the reasons for this shift is the proliferation of the adult entertainment industry, online pornography, and the widespread availability of hookup sites such as Tinder and Grindr. This landscape allows people to become addicted to sex because these types of technology-assisted sexual behaviors are strong enough to stimulate the brain beyond what it was originally designed to tolerate.
Sexual addiction has one of the most diverse manifestations of any addiction. When you’re working with alcoholics, it really doesn’t matter what they’re drinking, it could be beer, wine, or vodka and abstinence from alcohol is the goal. Individuals who suffer from alcoholism know what they have to stay away from. When you’re dealing with sex addicts, their behavior manifests in so many different ways and understanding the specific behaviors reveals important clues as to how to treat the addiction because different behaviors are treated in different ways. While one person may act out through juggling multiple relationships, another person may turn to prostitutes or child pornography. Certain behaviors may be intended to meet different underlying unmet needs and wants or they may be manifestations of various types of unresolved childhood trauma. No matter how the sex addict is acting out in their disease, a life in recovery from sex addiction still has healthy sexual activity in it. Sex addicts must find a healthy relationship with sex in order to live a healthy life. Therein lies one of the challenges of treating sex addiction.
The vast majority of sex addicts suffer from some sort of physical, sexual or relational trauma, which lies at the core of their addiction. Sex addicts often do not believe they have any inherent worth or value and typically don’t believe they can rely on other people to meet their needs, making it difficult for them to be honest, authentic and vulnerable enough to sustain long-term relationships. These faulty core beliefs come from childhood as we learn what to expect from other people from our primary caregivers when we’re young.
Developed by Patrick Carnes, PATHOS is a brief screen for sex addiction that is composed of six questions. Using a cutoff score of three, the PATHOS correctly identifies 88.3% of male sex addicts. In such cases, individuals should be assessed for sexual addiction.
At Gentle Path at The Meadows, we acknowledge the contribution of underlying trauma and insecure attachment to the development of adult addictions and relational problems. At the same time, we hold patients accountable by asking them to take responsibility for how their maladaptive behaviors have negatively impacted and even harmed other people. At Gentle Path at The Meadows, the difficult journey of working through trauma and being accountable for one’s addiction takes place in an environment that is strengthened by peer support. Our clients can comfortably share their stories with each other and build healthy friendships with other males who are also in sexual addiction recovery. When men gather together with the intention of changing the core of who they are, without distraction and fear of stigma from the outside world, a container of safety is created. This safe container in treatment creates the foundation of peer support that will continue to be fortified through continued participation in the 12-step recovery fellowship.
Amy Sohler, MPA, MA, LMHC, CDP, MHP
What do Isaac Newton and sex addiction treatment have in common? Linear momentum is related to Newton’s second law, which looks at how things gain speed, or ‘kinetic energy’ (the energy of motion). It is the product of the mass and velocity of an object.
Imagine a boulder starting to roll down a hill. It’s a big rock, and it picks up speed as it rolls down. This means it has a large momentum—it takes a large or prolonged force (the hill, the boulders size) to get the rock up to this speed, and it takes a large or prolonged force to bring it to stop afterwards. If the boulder were lighter or moving more slowly, then it would have less momentum. If it just stays at the top of the hill, it takes very little energy to keep it there—it’s planted solid.