To be at risk for sex addiction, two psychological preconditions seem to exist during childhood:
- The child has become over-reliant on sources of comfort outside of himself to provide a feeling of being soothed, safe, and secure.
- The child had difficulty making a healthy separation from the primary parent, with later concerns that closeness and intimacy can be dangerous.
Both of these preconditions come about as a result of failure in empathy in the parent-child relationship that leaves the child feeling misunderstood, unsupported, and potentially unloved.
What develops is a developmental arrest, so that the adult in later life is more driven to seek pleasure and avoid the pain of living since the demands of reality appear too challenging. This theme of seeking solace in pleasurable experiences despite adverse consequences in reality is central in the lives of addicts.
A developmental arrest keeps a sector of the personality immature. The result can be deficits that leave the potential addict without the capacity to:
- Regulate inner feelings of distress
- Delay gratification
- Exercise impulse control
- Recognize and articulate feelings
- Create meaningful attachments to others
Why Sex Becomes Addictive
When active sex addiction sets in, the problems the individual experiences in dealing with the vicissitudes of living seem to be magically solved:
- The sex addiction is the glue that holds together the disparate parts of a fragile self. It reinforces a sense of omnipotence, grandiosity, and perfection and blots out aspects of reality that are not in concert with that perception.
- Sex addiction anesthetizes the individual from painful aspects associated with attempts at expressing the true self.
- Sex addiction defends against the need for intimacy or closeness, as the addict relies only on his sex addiction for a sense of pseudo-intimacy and closeness.
For an addict, to be without the addiction would feel like personal annihilation.
The inner world of the addict is characterized by intense feelings that are often experienced as unbearable, overwhelming, and not transitory in time. These feelings form the context within which the addict lives.
The actions and choices of an active sex addict are organized around an attempt to manage intense feelings. No object is too formidable as the addict, in an attempt to feel “normal,” succumbs to the imperious impulse to indulge. Unfortunately, the strength of the urge obliterates the ability to reflect upon the potentially devastating consequences of his action.
Sex Addiction and Alienation
Addiction is always experienced as a profound sense of alienation from self and others, since the ability to establish meaningful interpersonal relationships is often crippled by toxic experiences with early-life caretakers. I quote a former client:
I was alone and it was loneliness and it was intense. I think the only love in life has been the drug…I just felt so alone…I was sad, so lonely, so isolated. I knew I wasn’t being me… that I could be different, but I couldn’t with people. As far as having some friends, really being close to somebody, there wasn’t anybody…I just wasn’t able to keep connections.
Even in the face of devastating consequences to his external and internal worlds, the addict holds on tenaciously to his only source of identity, stability, comfort, and support – the drug.
It is only when the pain of active sex addiction outweighs its diminishing benefits that the addict holds out the white flag and asks for help. Many of these people get that help in the rooms of anonymous 12-Step groups.
Dorothy Hayden, LCSW has been specializing in treating sex addiction and chemical dependency for 15 years. She has training in sex addiction therapy, psychoanalysis, hypnosis and cognitive behavioral therapy. The full text of her writings on sex addiction can be found at www.sextreatment.com.