Why Sex Addiction is an “Intimacy Disorder”

What is an Intimacy Disorder?

Intimacy is the ability to be real with another person.  In its essence, intimacy is the connection between two people who are equals and are genuine and open about what they are feeling in the moment.  In other words the capacity to be intimate involves the ability to take the risk of being known for who you really are.  It is necessarily a willingness to take the risk of getting hurt or rejected.

Addiction and intimacy

Addicts of all kinds, including sex addicts have difficulty being real in their relating to people including a significant other.  They typically have early experiences in their family of origin that failed to produce a secure attachment to their caregivers.  These may take the form of neglect, abuse, abandonment or the absence of an appropriately nurturing caregiver.  Addictions are an adaptation or coping mechanism usually beginning early in life as a way to handle stress and regulate emotion.

Addictive behaviors are a way to adapt that does not depend on another person for comfort or support.  If other people are involved in the addictive behavior, it is because they facilitate or support the addict using a drug or behavior with which to distract, stimulate or soothe themselves.

Addiction is intimacy avoidance

Because of their early life experiences, addicts are afraid of intimacy.  Depending on their early experiences with their caregivers addicts will predictably approach the prospect of being intimate with:

Fear of abandonment

The addict tends to do and say what the other person wants rather than what they really think and feel

Fear of rejection

The addict feels that rejection will be devastating and will reinforce an already insecure self-concept

Fear of engulfment

The addict fears losing their separate identity and becoming totally absorbed into another person

Fear of conflict

The addict fears the other person’s anger and the sense that they cannot stick up for themselves or set boundaries

Addicts prefer to avoid getting close beyond a certain point.  Patrick Carnes states that intimacy is the point in a relationship when there is a deeper attachment and that this requires “profound vulnerability.”  He calls this “the ‘being known fully and staying anyway’ part of relationships.”

Addicts view intimacy as potentially painful.

Addicts often view intimacy as an inherently painful experience.  This may be all they know from experience and all they have ever observed growing up. Many addicts would much prefer physical pain to the emotional pain they might experience in an intimate relationship.  Often they learned early to be careful and self conscious around people.  Addicts will often avoid even close friendships or social situations because they anticipate having to play a role.  And playing a role is much more strenuous than being yourself.

Intimacy requires strength

The strength required for intimacy is a strong sense of self and self worth.  I prefer to use the concept of “self-efficacy” over that of “self-esteem.”  Being intimacy “abled” is not so much having a positive view of yourself as it is having a sense that you should and can act in effective ways to protect yourself and enhance your own life.

This is the strength that neutralizes all the fears that make the addict run from intimacy.  It is not a question of being tough; on the contrary, it is knowing that you may get hurt but that you will not get devastated.

Gaining these skills involves a combination of not only addiction treatment and therapy but assertion training, which involves de-conditioning what is essentially a phobic reaction to being emotionally honest and practice with basic relationship and communication skills.

Learning to be stronger is what allows us to be vulnerable in relationships.  And this vulnerability is a sign of strength.

4 Responses to “Why Sex Addiction is an “Intimacy Disorder””

  1. This is one of the best summaries of what intimacy is that I have ever read. Thank you! All of the material on your website is excellent as well.

    • Agreed. This is a subject that continues to fascinate me. There are so many levels of intimacy involved in true relationships and for most of us, there will always be a challenge to “go deeper” and achieve strength through vulnerability.

      Thanks for sharing on this important subject.

  2. I’ve been dating someone who recently came clean to me about the fact that he’s a sex addict. He said he was fully embracing treatment, which included 90 days of celibacy, and told me he wanted to continue dating me because he saw a real potential with me. One week later, as he entered his 2nd week of celibacy, he told me he couldn’t handle dating me anymore and it was “bad timing”. I was left reeling and grief stricken. His responses have sometimes seemed emotionally off; Perhaps the explanation lies in this article. I guess it’s possible he’s just freaking out because now, not only do I know about the addiction (and the celibacy is really stressful and hard for him), but we were moving closer toward actual intimacy. Now I am struggling to move on, but am seeing more and more signs of a man who doesn’t currently seem cable of offering me emotional intimacy. I feel sad for him and for us.

    • Lynn, sex addiction is the most difficult addiction of all…most often because it can be symptomatic of any number of manic/depressive, anxiety and personality disorders. Hopefully Dr. Lynn will find the time to expand on this…and how you can deal with your experience. I can only encourage you that one day you will look back on your experience and realize what a kindness your fellow has done you. As they say… been there done that.


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