Sexual Secrets Make You Physically Sick

“You are only as sick as your secrets” is a common saying among recovering sex addicts and other kinds of addicts as well.  What this implies is that you are keeping something about yourself a secret, like your sexual acting out behavior, because on some level you feel shame and guilt about it.

You believe that what you are doing is reprehensible and that you are unworthy.

In other words, it is accepted that your secrets are a symptom of your psychological sickness, your low self concept.  The more secrets, the more sickness. The implication is that once you quit keeping things secret from others, you will become healthier.

Turns out there is a scientific basis to this idea.

The topic of secrets and brain chemistry was recently discussed on NPR’s Fresh Air via an interview with neuroscientist Dr. David Eagleman.

The battle in the brain

“You have competing populations in the brain — one part that wants to tell something and one part that doesn’t,” he (Eagleman) tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross. “And the issue is that we’re always cussing at ourselves or getting angry at ourselves or cajoling ourselves. … What we’re seeing here is that there are different parts of the brain that are battling it out.  And the way that that battle tips, determines your behavior.”

So keeping sexual behavior secret, especially behavior that is as all consuming as that of many sex addicts, means continual struggle with yourself.  The internal dissonance and lack of a sense of personal integrity is draining.

Dr. Eagleman is arguing that this is a real physiological battle going on in the different parts of the brain.

The hormonal consequences of secrets

The struggle involved in keeping a secret is stressful.  This means that your brain will register the fact that there are increased levels of stress hormones going through your bloodstream as a result of this struggle.  Your brain does not enjoy this stress, as Dr. Eagelman points out, and there is pressure from one part of your brain to get rid of it by telling the secret.

Sex addicts live with the stress of keeping a whole section of their life secret from people they see every day and care about.  The fact that their brains are marinated in stress hormones due to keeping secrets (over and above the effects of the compulsive behavior) can cause an impairment in the addict’s ability to stay healthy and function well.

The health benefits of opening up about secrets

Research by James W. Pennebaker at the University of Texas Austin has been using blood tests and EEG’s to measure the results of letting go of secrets.  He has found that whether secrets were confessed to another person out loud or were merely written down privately and destroyed later, there were “tangible health benefits, both physical and mental.”  The research found not only improved relationships, but better sleep and improved immune systems.

The warning label

When is letting go of your secrets harmful?  When you do not consider the effects on another person.  There are a myriad of ways that a sex addict can confess his or her addiction to a partner that are damaging and hurtful to them.  In sex addiction treatment a great deal of care is taken around the issue of disclosure. The disclosure of sex addiction to a loved one should be done with planning and professional help.  There is a “Partner’s Disclosure Worksheet” which the partner may be asked to fill out.  The general idea is that sex addicts should not disclose to a partner something that the partner does not want to know.

Disclosure in general has many aspects which warrant fuller discussion, including what to disclose to children and other family members and what to tell other people you know or work with.  If at all possible, these are matters to discuss fully with a sex addiction specialist before you bare your soul.

The Stigma of Sex Addiction Part 1: The “Non-Anonymous” Movement

Membership in Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA) is currently growing at a rapid pace in the U.S. and abroad, with about a 20% increase in the number of weekly group meetings every year. SAA and other sex addiction support groups like it follow the AA model of self help support groupswhere the last names of the members are never mentioned and the members protect each other’s confidentiality.  Some people in the addiction recovery community are questioning what they see as a harmful tradition of secrecy. I see very strong arguments on either side of this issue.

The “non-anonymous” movement

A new support network called “Addicts NOT Anonymous” was recently founded.  It challenges the idea of anonymity based, says its founder, on the notion that “We may be addicts.  We may have done some terrible things to get our drugs.  But we are NOT nameless, faceless, anonymous nobodies.” 

By shedding their anonymity the non-anonymous people argue that they gain self respect and accountability for their actions.  They seem to see the whole traditional 12-step model as a rigid, ritualistic throwback.

Other opponents of anonymity argue that “We are in the midst of a public health crisis when it comes to understanding and treating addiction.  AA’s principle of anonymity may only be contributing to general confusion and prejudice.”

Reasons in favor of sex addicts coming out of the closet

Coming out,” whether on the part of alcoholics, drug addicts, homosexuals, rape victims or even undocumented workers, has historically had a number of beneficial effects.

  • It allows people who were formerly shunned or seen as deviant to be seen in a more human light and integrated into society.
  • Making the problems of the closeted group more public improves the prospects for research, understanding and effective treatment for those who need help.
  • For sex addicts in particular, it is certainly true that greater public awareness and acceptance of sex addiction as a disease would greatly reduce the shame of those who struggle with it, and reduced shame would support healing.
  • Being secretive about a large chunk of who we are is always unhealthy and going public would allow the sex addict to have a greater sense of integrity.

Reasons against sex addicts coming out of the closet

“Anonymous support groups like Sex Addicts Anonymous that are modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous protect the identity of their members for some obvious reasons and some less obvious reasons.

  • Sex addicts tend to isolate themselves in one way or another.  It is part of their problem that they feel vulnerable and do not want to be known. They are therefore more willing to participate anonymously.
  • Society is nowhere near ready to accept the sex addict next door in a non-judgmental spirit.  Often sex addiction is seen as being the same as sex offending, child molesting and so on.  This is antithetical to getting help and threatens the very livelihood of sex addicts, particularly if they are teachers.
  • Most doctors and the majority of psychotherapists don’t have adequate training about sex addiction and couldn’t help pave the way for treatment.
  • Part of the basis for addiction treatment is the need for the addict to connect with others and form supportive relationships.  Anonymity provides a basis of equality, a leveling of people that takes out all considerations of differential power, success, and status.  Everyone is equal because everyone’s outward ego identity is concealed.

This last point is the most important.  In 12-step groups like SAA one of the basic tenets is: “Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.”

In creating a support group where people are “just people” not doctors, business executives, or janitors there is a greater possibility for people to see under the surface to the common humanity and common struggle.  This makes for real connection, spiritual connection rather than just membership in an affinity group.  The real connection with another person based on who we are on the inside is ultimately what makes change possible.


Six Things That Help Marriages Survive Sex Addiction

Couples can get through the crisis of sex addiction and recovery and they very often do so, more often in fact than you would think given how traumatic the disclosure of sex addiction is to a relationship.

Part of the reason that couples can get through the upheaval of sex addiction and recovery I think is that the addiction is really not a problem that is a product of the relationship or marriage.  Sex addiction has roots that go way back into childhood attachment issues and involve patterns of coping behavior that existed well before the marriage.

The following are six basic things that couples need to know and do in order to have the best chance of having a good relationship in the future.

  1. Do the work.  Most sex addicts find it impossible to quit on their own.  I have seen couples go for years without confronting the problem and their relationship just continues to deteriorate.  Partners are often the ones who have to provide the motivation for the addict to seek treatment.  Many addicts will only get help after their partner lowers the boom.  Partners must also be in therapy.  Partners are not the cause of the problem but they need a great deal of help and support if the couple is going to make it.
  1. Get some separation from each other in the beginning of treatment.  Many couples make the mistake of trying to confront sex addiction as a couple.  Sex addiction is not that kind of problem.  Couples may have many problems as a couple in terms of openness, communication, and so on, but they can only deal with those after the sex addiction has been treated for a while.  It is actually a good idea to live separately for a while without making a decision about divorce.
  1. Abstain from sex for 6 months.  Abstaining from all sex will likely be a part of the sex addict’s program in the beginning of treatment.  (The reasons for this are described in my Pushing the Pause Button blog.)  This period of abstaining includes abstaining from sex with spouses and partners of the addict.  This may be difficult or easy, or it may seem counter-intuitive but it is part of the process.
  1. Get “pre-marital” counseling later on.  Each person gets help with their own therapist and their own 12-step support group prior to coming together to work on “the relationship.”  In other words, both people are going to undergo a lot of changes in the course of getting healthier through treatment.  In some ways each partner will not be the same person they were before.  It remains to be seen whether these two “new” people want to be together or not.
  1. Be more honest than you ever thought of being.  A healthy intimate relationship demands a level of honesty, commitment and a willingness to share all parts of yourself with your partner.  It also involves letting go of competitiveness and truly being there for your spouse or partner, not only in terms of what they ask of you but in your ability to respond to and support who they are.
  1. Be prepared to continue to work on your relationship.  It is easy to backslide and become complacent.  Old patterns and ways of behaving can creep back in (also see my blog on how sex addiction can resurface in subtle ways.)  Some couples go to couple retreats periodically or go to couple intensive workshops to give themselves a booster shot.  And be supportive of each other’s continued work in individual recovery.

Sex addiction recovery takes a long time; three to five years for substantial recovery to be achieved.  Couples who decide to stick it out together need to take a very long view.  Both addicts and partners tend to panic in the early phase of discovery and often overreact one way or the other.  But keeping a level head and reminding yourselves that it is a long process and that you can get through it will be an invaluable tool.

Why Sex Addicts Seem Sociopathic

To their partners and spouses, many sex addicts will, at some point in their addiction, seem to lack a conscience.  They may lie, cheat, exploit others, think only of themselves and disregard the harm to others.  And they will often be able to do all this while keeping up a façade of social acceptability.

When you’re around a sex addict, it’s easy to see them as a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde kind of person; liable to slip into a primitive and depraved state when your back is turned.  Sometimes even the addicts themselves feel that they are two people, one of whom is decidedly anti-social.

The majority of sex addicts (at least those we know about) are not “sociopaths.”  They do not qualify under the diagnostic term of antisocial personality disorder.”  Their behavior takes on this appearance for some very understandable reasons.

What causes the addict to behave without conscience?

  1. Creeping Denial

Sex addicts try to avoid feeling shame.  They also know on some level that others would disapprove of their addictive behaviors.  In order to keep the feelings of guilt and shame at bay, sex addicts find ways to minimize, rationalize, or justify their behavior.  In so doing they build up a layer of denial.

Over time, this habit of denial can then spread to other areas of the addicts life leading to dishonesty and disregard for risks and consequences in general.

  1. Going it Alone

Along side of their public “normal” life, most sex addicts conduct their sexually addictive life such as anonymous hook-ups, online sex, prostitutes, strip clubs and so on, in secret.  In other words they lead a “double life.”  They are intimacy avoidant and can’t integrate their sex life into their normal life.  This leads to withdrawing from people generally and becoming a closed system, often seeming to lack empathy.

  1. Narcissistic Over-Entitlement

One of the defense mechanisms sex addicts use to justify their behavior is narcissistic over-entitlement.  They come to feel that they are special and that they deserve to act out sexually for one reason or another.  They are important, over-worked, stressed out, and just plain different from everyone else.

This is what sex addiction therapists call being “terminally unique.”  They come to feel that the rules for others don’t apply to them.

With treatment the sex addict can re-connect

The reason we know that most sex addicts we treat are not truly sociopathic is that most of them have the capacity to change the way they live.  With treatment and support they can learn not only to overcome their sexually compulsive behavior, but they can learn to live in honesty and integrity.  They can gain self esteem and drop the narcissistic mask of self importance.  And they can gain intimacy skills and connect with others.  They can experience true empathy.

Are some sex addicts real sociopaths? 

Some sex addicts actually do have a diagnosis of anti-social personality disorder. But because they lack the ability to genuinely connect with other human beings:

(1) They will not feel motivated to seek help, and will not respond to treatment, perhaps even ending up in prison, and

(2) They may not actually be addicts but may simply be as opportunistic and self-serving in their sex life as in life in general.

People with antisocial personality disorder have a poor prognosis in any case.  As you can imagine, it is important for the treating professional to understand what it is they are dealing with, but it may take some assessment to separate out the truly anti-social personality from the addict who has just built up an elaborate wall of defense and denial.

What about other diagnoses?

But you might ask “what about sex addicts having other diagnoses such as depression, bipolar disorder, or ADHD?”  There is reason to believe that sex addicts can have many different kinds of other psychological problems along side their addiction, although these other diagnoses don’t predictably cause sexually addictive behavior.

Addicts who have a co-occurring psychological disorder, such as a mood disorder, can and should get help with their psychological disorder and their sexual addiction for optimal treatment of both.

How to Survive Sexual Betrayal

Why do most spouses and partners react to the discovery of sexual addiction with such a sense of total devastation?  Sexual betrayal is an emotional blow that can be harder to deal with than anything, even death.

Most therapists who deal with partners of sex addicts now see the partner as experiencing severe trauma and PTSD symptoms, at least in the initial period post-discovery.  This suggests a theoretical framework that can help us understand the partner’s recovery  process as it proceeds.

The usual tools for dealing with hardship seem to fail us

Our usual arsenal of tools for transcending heartbreak and loss seems to break down in the face of the discovery of sexually addictive behavior in a loved one. For example:

We try:

Practicing detachment by reminding ourselves that the betrayal is not about us, and going to support groups and 12-step meetings, letting go of comparing ourselves to the addict’s other sexual interest.  But detachment seems to keep slipping through our fingers and we feel a mix of strong emotions.

We try:

Educating ourselves about the disease by reading and learning about the roots of sex addiction in the early childhood attachment issues, by learning that sexual addiction is not a deliberate attempt to hurt us.  But still feelings of anger and blame seem to hang around forever.

We try:

Meditation, prayer or other spiritual practice to help us realize that we did not cause the problem and we cannot cure it, and to let go of outcomes.  This will work perfectly for some things; the job we didn’t get, the flooding in the basement, but in sex addiction disclosure there is something so totally unacceptable that we want to tighten our grip.

All of the above tools are very important in a partner’s recovery  and should be practiced even when their efficacy seems limited. But why is sexual addiction so much harder to deal with?

Some reasons why sexual betrayal is different

Here are some factors that “up the ante” in sexual betrayal.

  • The personal closeness you have to the person who has been deceiving you, the person you saw as your support system
  • The abandonment  by the most important person in your life (death is easier to accept because it is something that can’t be helped)
  • The blow to your sense of reality

The last of these, the way sexual betrayal messes with your reality, is one of the most powerful factors.  Sexual addiction is often so extreme and so out of character that it calls into question all your assumptions about “normal” life.

Surviving sexual betrayal as a grief process

I tend to think of surviving sexual betrayal as a grief process because I think it is the most useful way to look at it.  I believe that seeing it this way will give you permission to take better care of yourself and to make allowances for your own healing.

  • Grief is a process that follows its own course.  It is also a process that is very different for different people depending on your own personal make up.
  • Sexual betrayal is a loss and therefore must be grieved.  It is a loss of the relationship that you thought you had and produces the same pain and abandonment as other losses.
  • Recovery from sexual betrayal seems to follow the familiar stages of grief.

The initial stage of denial often takes the form of believing the addict’s false promises or trying to set up a quick cure.  In other words, the belief that things could be patched up and go back to “normal” is a form of denial.

The bargaining, anger and depression stages of grief are also clearly identifiable.  For example, self blame, feeling that you somehow failed, is a form of bargaining.  It allows you to hold onto a feeling that you can control the situation.

The grief process is one that must be allowed to occur.  Feelings must be experienced and emotions expelled in order to move through the process.  There is no way to make it pleasant, but it will eventually lead to acceptance and a new and better relationship life.