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.

8 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.

  3. wow this was really very helpful to me, an admitted addict. truly brings to light my intimacy issues and lack of skills to cope. I have not been open for intimacy to anyone, not even my wife. my work travel has allowed me to keep my secret life hidden until travel stopped. the wife would like me to work on the marriage and cannot understand what my mind is like now that I’ve crashed earlier this year and all was exposed. the fear of rejection is so strong, that I absolutely do feel devastated at times. and things from our earlier marriage days still haunt and scare me.

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

    and now feel so worthless and unforgivable that I’m just in survival mode each day. I have detached the sex from relationships, and yes I can see how detached my family of origin was like, and why I’ve never had close friends nor relationships all my life. and why I’ve hidden behind activities and work. and why now that things are exposed personally, I have a deep seated insecurity at work like I’ve never had.

    some reading this weekend will help me with my counselors this week.

    the multiple personality view is a façade. you need to spend some time with someone like myself, who provided a face to the sexual partners that was different than the home life, and that was different than the work life. I moved from reality to reality, though at times with difficulty. causing the anxiety anger blank-stare and other traits to show up because I was in need of the fix but couldn’t plan and get myself into that hidden world.

    it’s also why some tend to say that I’m just making excuses for cheating, that I was able to do rational things like make plane and dinner reservations. what they don’t see is how after that first tryst, you crash dramatically. in the hidden world where no one else can see you. that your worst fears are true. you weren’t good enough or they didn’t care about you and moved on. and with the adrenaline and testosterone gone or greatly reduced, your body craves that pre-tryst high and can’t just get it back. so both physically and emotionally you are devastated. then you think the next time it will be different, and you get really anxious to try again with someone else, or to do better the next time with that partner.

    and the lack of proper coping skills and detaching earlier, has left you with no close friends to talk to, no spouse you can confide in, and no ready person / counselor to talk to. the deep shame and embarrassment over using sex in this manner is so great you dare not speak a word for fear of being called an offender or using a minor. even when you first start counseling the questions asked are so embarrassing that you feel like you’re so low to be even compared to those 2 groups and that others are looking at and judging you as worthless and repugnant too.

    you avoid 12 step programs for feel of being placed into 1 of those groups. should have done this back in 2008 during an earlier marriage counseling process. but the fear and lack of self worth kept me from even going near anything associated with a sex offender program. and alcohol/drug rehab programs just don’t align with my issues.

    so much to ponder right now. had made way, way too improper statements earlier in the year that hinted at suicide. believe me, simply being weak and making a really bad comment, landed me in a hospital for a few hours for an evaluation. that furthered deepened the low. and not in a good way. for you therapists, don’t consider that a rock bottom. consider that as attaching an anchor to a person with a low self worth in a very bad way. feel like I’m still dragging that around right now. all the questions, all the extra people who got to see me in that state. you don’t know how that has vaporized whatever pieces of me remained that are supposed to help create self effacy in the future, as you call it.

    I’ve gotten bits and pieces from about half a dozen sites thus far, and will work to put it together this weekend and the coming week.

    can’t really face anyone still. not even the person I married. and the adult kids don’t want anything to do with me. the wife somehow thinks the marriage can be saved, though she’s not sure. the fear and devastation I’ve inflicted on her is extremely harmful emotionally. and any of you therapists that want to refer to spouses as co-addicts better get your heads on straight. from the front lines – the “attachment injury trauma” is 1,000,000% accurate. she needs someone to help her, not accuse her. no wonder why some of you are scorned by the spouses. to call them a co-addict is like telling a rape victim they were asking for it.

    thank you for letting me reply. will see whether or not I have good counselors this week – of the 2 – I think one knows what she’s dealing with

    • Hopefully, you started getting the help you need. As the spouse of an SA who just found out a month ago I can understand what you are saying. My husband has expressed just how much pain, shame, guilt, unforgivable, worthlessness and hopelessness he had. He started Christian counseling (even though he was embarrassed beyond words) and he now has hope. He has even had days when his “mass” was removed. He has started group therapy too. His counselor was very careful to find a group that did NOT lump him in with sex offenders. He recognized that would traumatize my husband more.

      Not to say he is any where near fully recovered, but he can now see a light at the end of the tunnel and is “excited” about each counseling session and group therapy because he feels a little better and/or more understanding of why he became an addict and how he can recover and NOT be addicted anymore.

      Please get help NOW! I told my husband I wished he would have done it years ago earlier in our marriage and the pain for me would have been so much less and he could have not wasted so many years in turmoil! My husband was fearful of the rejection too and yes, he had every right to be! I’ve threatened divorce numerous times, but in reality, I want to make this work. The threats are the initial pain and devastation talking. Even though we spouses are devastated and angry, we can also sympathize with the childhood trauma that SA goes through. I really do want my husband to work out and get healed from these painful issues. It’s painful to hear all what he went through and that it led to this addiction. RUN…get help now to begin the process of healing!

  4. I love the concept of self-worth instead of self-esteem. I believe that it a far more workable definition, and a healthier goal.

  5. Hi……thank you for these healthy tools of profound revelation of some of the biggest issues of my life. But I have always been resourceful in trying to research why things have been the way it has over the years. Thank you, education is power if we use it in the right areas.


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