Sex addiction is a coping mechanism, much like compulsive eating, gambling or drinking, that works to either augment the addict’s pleasure or numb his or her pain. It’s a defense against overwhelming feelings that the addict cannot regulate, feelings that have their roots in childhood, when primary caregivers proved unreliable at best, and abusive at worst. Having failed to attach in a healthy way within these initial relationships, the addict now struggles to form bonds with others, either due to fear of abandonment, fear of enmeshment, or fear of harm. The result of these fears, regardless of their particular flavor, is a phobia of intimacy that pervades the sex addict’s life. In response, he or she turns to relationship substitutes that also function as brain chemistry-altering drugs; porn, affairs, prostitutes, promiscuity. Thus sex addiction is a complex and highly sophisticated “solution” to the addict’s emotional problems. It is not dismantled easily.
What’s needed is an understanding of the building blocks of intimacy, which when worked on individually and as a whole, will gradually allow the addict to learn a new style of relating to others. The goal is for the addict is to learn to securely attach to healthy partners and experience the joy of intimacy, which once tasted, can be so powerful it incinerates all illusions that sexual acting out can ever fulfill the deep inner longing for connection that all humans have in common.
One of the most important building blocks is transparency. This means allowing ourselves to be seen and known authentically, no matter the consequences. To a sex addict, this can be horrifying. The shame involved in coming clean about the addiction is enough to send the addict right back to the sex club. But transparency is not just about disclosing secrets or divulging details to a partner. It’s about letting other people know when we’re hurting; lettings others in on our humor; sharing our talents; and even just being “boring” when we’re tired or need down time. Transparency is like the clean oxygen needed for relationships to breathe, and it begins in the safety of a therapeutic setting where addicts can risk being themselves, perhaps for the first time ever.
Another major building block of intimacy is vulnerability. Through years of acting out, the sex addict has built of a brick wall of “toughness,” an emotional invincibility that is evidenced in the callous objectifying of others and the ability to stay emotionally detached from partners. Learning to accept that we can be hurt, that we most likely will be hurt from time and time, and that we can be hurt and still be okay is the key to moving towards healthy bonds. To even acknowledge how deeply we can be wounded by a cold look, an unreturned email or a rejected invitation can be daunting, but once viewed in the context of our shared humanity, it becomes easier for the addict to understand how normal their responses are, and to cope with the disappointment in ways that are loving and respectful towards oneself, rather than destructive.
There are many more building blocks and cornerstones of intimacy, and each one is like a key that can open the door to freedom for the sex addict. Throughout the journey, it is essential to having a kind and supportive guide in the form of a therapist or counselor, for this work can unearth traumas too great to be handled on one’s own. Support groups are also invaluable during this stage of recovery, where addicts can share their progress and ultimately begin to grasp that they are not alone.
Alexandra Katehakis, MFT is Founder and Clinical Director of the Center for Healthy Sex (link is external) in Los Angeles, Senior Fellow at The Meadows, Facility for the International Institute of Trauma and Addiction Professionals, and the 2012 Carnes Award recipient. She is a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist/Supervisor and Certified Sex Therapist/Supervisor specializing in the treatment of sexual disorders.