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.
Marie Woods, LMFT,CSAT
Primary Therapist, Gentle Path at the Meadows
If you are reading this, you probably know the pain of discovering the once hidden, out of control sexual behaviors of someone you love. These discoveries are often what catapult sex addicts into treatment. Following the discovery, there was likely some sort of intervention, and expedient efforts to find help. That process likely took up a lot of your time, attention, and energy until they were finally admitted to treatment. At that point, you may have felt some temporary relief, like you could finally breathe again.
Unfortunately, though, the distraction of getting the addict into treatment is now gone, and you are left with your thoughts, worries, and anxieties over what is to come. You may start to feel alone, isolated, and even resentful that the addict is getting all of the help. You may find it difficult to sit with the knowledge of the discovery because you have so many thoughts and unanswered questions. What should you do?
Now that the addict is in a safe environment, utilize this time to engage (or re-engage) in your own self care. In the midst of the chaos of addiction your own physical and emotional care usually takes a big hit. So, utilize the time to reconnect with yourself. This might include engaging in a moderate amount of physical exercise, taking reflective walks, taking a long hot bath, meditating, leisure reading, or engaging in other hobbies that you enjoy.
At some point, you may have a desire ─sometimes a very strong one─ to try to sort things out with the addict. You may think that if they could just answer your questions, then you could make sense of this whole situation, and order in your life could be restored. The truth, however, is that the behaviors that occurred as part of active addiction are irrational. They won’t ever make sense.
Furthermore, the addict engaging in treatment at the inpatient level is in no position to understand and convey the nature of his or her addiction yet either. By giving in to the urge to sort things out right now, you run the risk of increasing your anxiety and feeling more hurt and pain.
At most sex addiction treatment centers, including Gentle Path at the Meadows, patients are highly encouraged to limit their communication with the outside world. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is to help them stay focused and engaged in treatment in order to initiate their healing process as quickly as possible. The other is to prevent any further hurt and damage to their relationships with others. Sex addiction has often already caused a lot of pain, chaos, and turmoil. Although we cannot change that, we can help prevent future damage. So, it’s important for both you and the addict to take advantage of the built- in time away from communication that treatment provides.
In addition to your loved one, you also deserve to be supported through this process. That’s why it’s a good idea for you to build your own support network. Family members are highly encouraged to seek out their own therapist to assist them in navigating through the emotional maze of sex addiction. It would be ideal to choose a therapist that is familiar with sex addiction; however, the most important thing is that you connect with, and feel supported by, your therapist.
Although the inpatient treatment team may reach out to you for collateral information or to coordinate Family Week, their role is to help connect you with more substantial ongoing support rather than serving as your primary support. You may also consider confiding in a few close friends and family members who you trust, and who understand your situation. Additionally, there are also a variety of support groups, both twelve-step and otherwise, that can be helpful as well.
As you read them, these points may seem obvious, but in the midst of the chaos of addiction we often lose sight of what’s important. Gentle loving reminders such as these can help bring us back to reality. Shifting the focus from where it has often been (on the addict) can be hard because it slows you down, and often brings up emotions that have been buried for a long time. As you embark on this journey, it is important to be gentle with yourself. Changing and developing new patterns is not easy.
Keep in mind, though, the growth that will result for you and your family member may end up changing your relationship with them and your lives in ways that are far better than you could have hoped!
Gentle Path at The Meadows has announced the addition of Couples Recovery Workshop to its services available to patients. Designed by Kenneth M. Adams, PhD, CSAT, with input from over a dozen leading national experts and Gentle Path at The Meadows clinical and executive teams, this program emphasizes hope for couples struggling with sexual addiction to recover trust and intimacy in their relationship.
"This unique program offers couples a one-of-a-kind opportunity to heal from the impact of sex addiction through a series of intensive workshops that track specifically the couple’s needs from disclosure to renewal,” said Adams. “Long overdue, it is my sincere hope that this program becomes an important contribution to the support of couples wanting to rebuild shattered lives."
The Couples Recovery Workshop, based on a developmental model of couple's healing from the impact of sexual addiction, encompasses sound clinical and research-based components of sex addiction, complex partner trauma, and couples treatment. Workshop participants can choose from three specific modules that can be taken together or separately to shape treatment for optimal timing and needs. Modules include:
Allan Benham, Executive Director for Gentle Path at The Meadows, says, “This workshop is an exciting addition to our sex addiction treatment program. It offers couples a chance to address the impact of sexual addiction on the couple in a supportive, respectful, and caring format.” He adds, “We’re excited about this workshop helping us to more completely serve all of those who are impacted by this disease and working with the providers who send us their suffering couples to work with by providing specific written follow-up plans after each workshop module to guide the couple and their on-going treatment provider.”
Gentle Path at The Meadows is a confidential inpatient treatment center for men 18 and older who battle sexual addiction, relationship addiction, and sexual anorexia. To learn more about Gentle Path at The Meadows’ work, contact an intake coordinator at 855-333-6076 or visit www.gentlepathmeadows.com.
Understanding Karpman's Triangle
Marie Woods, LMFT, CSAT
Primary Therapist, Gentle Path at The Meadows
In relationships, individuals tend to develop a predictable pattern of acting and reacting to one another that they become accustomed to. This dynamic is sometimes referred to as their dance. This can often be a rather beautiful thing, as the dance metaphor implies, however, in relationships in which there is a great deal of conflict, these patterns can keep couples stuck in rather unhealthy patterns. Relationships in which these problematic patterns present are also often characterized by elements such as high reactivity, over control, manipulation, blaming, and other elements of dysfunction including addiction, for example.
The concept of the Karpman Triangle developed by Psychiatrist Stephen Karpman is a great illustration to help couples become more aware of this dynamic, and also learn how to change it. Within this concept, there are three primary roles that an individual may play. They include the victim/martyr, perpetrator/offender, and the rescuer/enabler. Individuals tend to play one role most predominately in their relationships with others, but in the process they often move around while typically still landing back where they started. The victim/martyr tends to have unrealistic expectations and avoids sharing their thoughts and feelings while blaming others. The perpetrator/offender tends to engage in a number of acting out behaviors that are offensive or harmful to others, or to themselves. The rescuer/enabler often engages in caretaking behaviors and sometimes serves as the pseudo-peacemaker in the relationship. Although these roles can play out in a variety of different ways, one of the most common dynamics is two individuals moving between victim and perpetrator typically followed at some point by one of them moving into the rescuer/enabler role to temporarily alleviate the problem.
In couples where sex addiction is present there is an obvious victim-perpetrator dynamic. The individual engaging in sexual acting out behaviors through lies, deception, and secrets, is operating in the role of the perpetrator/offender, and the partner is the victim of this behavior. Typically, when the partner discovers the sexual acting out behavior, they may stay in the victim role, and remain in a very painful place filled with constant self-loathing and blame. What is also common is that they can become aggressive and offensive towards the perpetrating partner and thus move into the perpetrator role (not to be confused with righteous anger). In this moment, the sex addict partner would be in the victim role. This movement from perpetrator to victim and vice versa can happen very quickly. In fact, individuals in a relationship can move back and forth between these roles numerous times in a matter of minutes. Because this exchange is exhausting, one person usually attempts to “fix” the situation. This can look like asking for “cheap forgiveness,” being overly compliant, or even showing extra affection despite their true feelings.
You might be wondering what is wrong with this attempt to repair the relationship hurts. The truth is that in healthier relationships where there is not a lot of underlying hurt and dysfunction it often does work because it offers temporary respite from the disagreement, and both individuals typically engage in the repairing at different times, so there is some balance. In more dysfunctional relationships, such as those where addiction exists, these superficial dynamics don’t really create lasting change. This is because they don’t really address the underlying problem that is often that each partner feels disrespected, unheard and misunderstood.
When presented with the Karpman’s Triangle, many individuals can quickly identify their primary and secondary roles. They can often see how the content of their disagreements in a relationship change, but the same patterns emerge. The difficult part is learning how to change that dynamic, or “get off the triangle”. For each role, there is a respective antidote that will most effectively allow an individual to step out of that role. For the victim/martyr, the most critical thing for them to do is to begin taking responsibility. This means identifying and owning their part in the problem. For the perpetrator/offender, they need to learn to negotiate. This means that they are not always right, and will need to work with others to create a situation where both people walk away satisfied. For the rescuer/enabler, their solution is in realizing that they have options, so it is their choice to try and fix a situation, or to step back and let each adult discern a solution for themselves. Real change tends to happen when individuals engage in these alternatives roles. Often, when they begin to see that the conflict is rarely about the topic at hand, they can begin to address deeper issues requiring more vulnerability and allowing them to move closer to true intimacy.
Every journey begins with one step. To learn more about the Gentle Path at The Meadows program or if you have an immediate need, please contact us or call 855-333-6076.
Gentle Path at The Meadows founder, Dr. Patrick Carnes, will be featured on BlogTalkRadio’s program “Sexual Addiction: Hope/Strength/Recovery” with host Carol Juergensen Sheets, LCSW, CSAT, PCC, on Monday, April 20, 2015 at 9:00 p.m. (EST). Dr. Carnes will be speaking on the topic of sexual addiction: its definition and how it affects the addict. The program can be accessed by going to this website.
Patrick Carnes, Ph.D., C.A.S., is a nationally known speaker on sex addiction and recovery issues. He is the founder of the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals (IITAP) and Gentle Path Press. From 1996 until 2004, Dr. Carnes was Clinical Director for Sexual Disorder Services at The Meadows Wickenburg. His achievements include the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health (SASH), where they present an annual "Carnes Award" to researchers and clinicians who have made exceptional contributions to the field of sexual health. He is the author of Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction (1992), Contrary to Love: Helping the Sexual Addict (1989), The Betrayal Bond: Breaking Free of Exploitive Relationships (1997), Open Hearts (1999), Facing the Shadow (2001), In the Shadows of the Net (2001), and The Clinical Management of Sex Addiction (2002), Recovery Zone (2009), and A Gentle Path Through the Twelve Principles (2012). Dr. Carnes’ article, “18.4 Sexual Addiction,” appears in Kaplan & Sadock’s Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry (2005).
Carol Juergensen Sheets, LCSW, PCC, CSAT, is currently in private practice in Indianapolis, IN. She speaks nationally on mental health issues and is featured in several local magazines. In addition, she is featured in regular television segments focusing on life skills to improve one’s potential.
Gentle Path at The Meadows is a confidential inpatient treatment center for men 18 and older who battle sexual addiction, relationship addiction, and sexual anorexia. To learn more about Gentle Path at The Meadows’ work, contact an intake coordinator at 855-333-6076 or visit our website.