What is Sexual Addiction?
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How can sex be addictive?
Many people scoff when they first hear of sexual addiction? How can a part of life as essential and beautiful as sex become an addiction?
A behavior becomes an addiction when the addict can’t stop despite negative consequences, mood alteration occurs, the addict is in denial, the behavior is chronic and escalating, and withdrawal symptoms appear when the behavior is stopped. Compulsive sexual behavior involves these five elements.
Can’t stop despite negative consequences: Sex addicts may suffer the loss of valued relationships, employment, money, and even legal consequences, yet continue to "act out" their addiction.
Mood alteration: Sexual excitement and behavior are mood altering. The difference between non addicts and addicts is that addicts use the mood-alteration to deal with difficult emotions and situations.
Denial: Sex addicts rationalize, minimize, and excuse their compulsive behavior: The addict distorts reality without realizing it. Denial justifies continuing the behavior. Usually, only significant, negative consequences fracture the denial.
Chronic and escalating acting out: Sex addiction is not a phase; it is chronic. The addict needs increasing "quantity" to fill the need. The increased dose may be achieved by intensified behavior, more frequent behavior, or both.
Occurrence of withdrawal symptoms: Research with sex addicts finds that they often have many of the same withdrawal symptoms as alcohol and drug addicts. These include sleeplessness, intrusive dreams, high levels of anxiety, irritability, and roller coaster emotions.
In summary, it is clear that compulsive sexual behavior has all the elements that make up an addictive disorder.
About 6% of the population are sexually addicted.
The seeds of sex addiction are sown in childhood and often include ingrained ritualistic patterns that are hard to break without help. Shaming experiences involving sexuality along with other abuse set the stage for the development of addictive sexual behaviors in adolescence. "Feeling bad" comes to be associated with "feeling good".
The good news is that recovery from sex addiction can be successful, especially if the addict follows the tested methods of addiction recovery: going to 12-Step meetings, seeing a therapist, and sometimes entering a treatment program.
The Impact on Intimacy & Trust
When sexual addiction emerges in a relationship, a crisis occurs for couples. Typically, partners of addicts have "gut instincts" about relationship issues and sex. Partners often spend months or years trying to get the addict to share their inner world. Addicts cover their guilt and shame by turning the tables and making their partners feel "crazy". This fosters mistrust and deception. One partner is preoccupied with sexualizing their world while the other is preoccupied with the addict’s thoughts, feelings, and activities. Often both partners withdraw emotionally and physically.
Typically, co-sexual partners want to know everything. The addict wants to say, "I’m sorry, let’s start over", and distance from their sexual acting out behavior. Exposure of the addiction surfaces great shame and guilt. This is difficult for partners to understand.
Co-partners often experience abandonment, betrayal, and rejection. They feel hurt and angry. Statements like, "How can you say you love me" or" our whole marriage has been a lie…" are common. Initially, the addict’s discovery of their sexual addiction and efforts to change carry little weight for the partner. Communication is strained, and both partners feel misunderstood and alone.
However, many couples feel relief in naming the problem – sexual addiction. The "addiction model" offers hope and provides a foundation as couples acknowledge issues of betrayal, trust, and emotional and physical safety. By understanding the causes and consequences of sexual addiction, couples can rebuild trust, as well as develop a healthy sense of self and sexuality. Addicts feel that sex is their most important need.
The sexual addiction cycle begins when emotional pain is triggered. This may be pain, sadness, fear, shame, anger, unresolved conflict, stress, or loneliness. If the addict doesn't take care of the pain in a healthy way, he or she may move into the second stage of the cycle - disassociation . In this stage, the addict moves away from his or her feelings. A separation between thought and emotion occurs. If an addict does not reconnect thought and feeling, the third stage - the altered state - begins. In this stage dissociation is so complete that sexual acting out makes sense. Euphoric expectations of acting out predominate in thought. Awareness of negative consequences is absent. The person then moves on to the stage of ritual preparation to "act out" . The preparatory rituals vary greatly among addicts. For instance, this may be making a phone call to a sex line, going to a bar or a bookstore, or picking up a prostitute. The next stage is "acting out" behavior itself - whatever it is for each addict. The final stage is merely the passage of time until the cycle begins again.
Emotional pain triggers the addictive cycle. One key to ending sexual addictive acting out is to work at the first stage. As addicts learn to deal with pain in healthy ways, the pull to move into the cycle reduces. Another point of intervention is the second stage. Learning to recognize disassociation and then how to reconnect with self and feelings stops the cycle. Once dissociation advances to the altered state, addicts are usually unable see the danger. They enter denial and convince themselves that they will not act out, or that somehow it is okay to act out this time. Once someone is in this stage, they are riding a runaway train. It is difficult to stop.
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