Why Some Sex Addicts Keep Relapsing in Recovery

Let’s assume you are already clear on the fact that you are a sex addict.  You have consulted with experts and ruled out other causes of hypersexual behavior such as medication reactions (as with some Parkinson’s drugs) and other psychological, physical or neurological disorders. Are there any wrong reasons to get help?  Yes and no.  The initial motivation for getting into sex addiction treatment is often as a means to some other end rather than as a way to become healthier. Yet in the process of recovery the motivation moves from outside of you to inside of you; from extrinsic to intrinsic.  This is when you become truly engaged in recovery.  And this process of embracing recovery even in the absence of any outside pressures to do so is what makes it possible to enjoy solid, long term sexual sobriety.

What drives people into recovery vs. what keeps them there

There are a number of  situations that lead people to reach out for help and then stall out. 

  • Getting in trouble

This could be anything from getting arrested for indecent exposure to losing your job after being discovered using pornography at work to getting in trouble for sexual harassment.  You may get into treatment because you are required to as a result of getting in trouble. But if that remains your only reason to change you will not get too far.  You may stay committed to your addictive behavior and simply “white knuckle” your sobriety in order to meet society’s requirements.  Chances are you will correct your legal or employment situation but you will  still lack the recovery skills to stay away from sexual acting out. It is extremely hard to “embrace” recovery while you are feeling forced into it.

  • Pressure from a partner

This is by far the most common reason propelling people to seek help initially.  It’s not a bad reason, but if all you want is to get your wife back or placate your husband you will not only have a poor prognosis in recovery, you will also probably find that your partner continues to be mistrustful.  And with good reason. Partners can regain trust in a sex addict but only if they see the addict as genuinely involved in their own individual growth.  Furthermore, if you only want to get things “back the way they were” (before you were found out) then the chances are you will continue unhealthy patterns in your relationship that provided the excuse for your addictive sexual behavior.

  • Social pressures

You may find that your sexual behavior is inconsistent with the belief system of your church or community.  You want the good opinion of people you need to impress. You seek to appear to yourself and others as though you care about changing. Wanting to behave in accordance with principles is a good things except when it involves placing the locus of control outside of yourself.  You are seeing your worth as determined by what others think and not what actually works for you in your life.  This is a position of low self esteem and if it does not change in the course of treatment you may remain stuck.

  • Self image

You may be  stuck in your addiction even though you are active in treatment and support groups.  Your addiction doesn’t square with how you want to think of yourself, and yet you don’t want to give it up.  In this case you are only partially engaged in the recovery process.  You can say “I’m trying really hard but I just can’t get sexually sober.”  This allows you to let yourself off the hook while you continue to have frequent relapses.  You can go to meetings that offer you fellowship and sympathy but you don’t have to change. The way out of this involves building in serious contingency plans for “upping” your program like going into a residential program and going back into therapy in the event that you are stalled out.

The right reasons

The journey of recovery involves establishing abstinence from the behavior, working through the issues that caused the problems, building a sense of commitment, connectedness and strength, and finding a new way of living based on honesty and integrity. If recovery doesn’t start to become valuable to you for its own sake then you are likely going to stall out half way through.  You have found a way to keep one foot in denial.  Find Dr. Hatch on Facebook at Sex Addictions Counseling or Twitter @SAResource

Sexually Addictive Behaviors Connect to Early Memories

In sex addiction treatment we describe the addicts addictive sexual behaviors as “acting out” behaviors.  What does this mean?  In general when we talk about acting out it means doing something that indirectly expresses a fantasy or feeling. Often this acting out is done without awareness of the real fantasy or feeling underneath.  For example, if I lash out when I feel hurt it means that I am acting out my hurt instead of being able to talk about it.

  • The sex addict’s arousal template

You will hear recovery people talk about the sex addict’s “arousal template.”  This refers to a particular addict’s preferred sexual acting out behavior scenario.  These vary widely from person to person.  Many different sexual behaviors can be addictive for different people.  The preferred behavior may involve other people or not.  It may involve voyeurism, paying for sex, anonymous sex, serial affairs, sexual massage parlors, cybersex, exhibitionism, fetishes, and so on.

Even within these categories the behavior may be done in a particular stereotyped way by a particular addict.  And too, the arousal template may be exhibited in the type of pornography scenarios that the addict prefers.  The behavior may be perfectly legal, like viewing pornography or going to strip clubs or it may be illicit, such as child porn or sexual exploitation of the vulnerable.  Whatever it is, it may be done addictively or not.  If it is done addictively it will be done to excess, with escalating intensity, with negative consequences, and with an inability to quit.

  • The arousal template as an X-ray of early trauma

Where does this arousal template come from?  In sex addiction theory it is believed to be based in stressful experiences in childhood.   Any traumatic childhood experiences including an inadequate bond with caregivers can deprive a child of necessary supports and lead to problems in development that lead to any number of addictions as adults.

In childhood any highly charged experience has the potential to become sexualized in the course of development whether it started out as a sexual experience or not.  Take for example a patient who is raised by deaf parents who later becomes an exhibitionistic sex addict.  He grew up never being sure of getting his parents attention because they could not hear him.  He had to be looked at in order for them to know that he needed something, and in order to connect at all.  This produces intense feelings of anxiety and frustration in the child who in adolescence begins compulsively exposing himself to the young girls on the block.  This escalates into various exhibitionistic behaviors in adulthood.

In the above example, it becomes very clear that the sex addict’s addictive sexual behavior is related to early experience.  In the same way we can look at a given addict’s preferred acting out behavior and use it as an X-ray of early experiences that were intense or stressful, or that were violating or frightening.

Of course many other factors come into play in the creation of an addiction in any given person and their life experience.  There are genetic factors, temperamental factors, and family dysfunction which can all increase or decrease the risk of future addiction.

Some experiences are extremely powerful but occur too early to be remembered in words.  These experiences are stored in the brain and body but are not able to be dredged up into conscious memories.  Sometimes we can reconstruct experiences based on what we know of a person’s history and what we can deduce they may have gone through as a young child.

In any case the more strongly the person’s arousal template is connected to a childhood trauma, the more addictive they are likely to become in their sexual behavior.

  • Treatment and the arousal template

Early experiences can shape sexual behavior in ways that are an obvious reenactment of traumatic experiences.   The addict may repeat his or her victimization or may reverse the situation and take the role of the perpetrator.  It is said that repeating trauma in this way “deepens the trauma wound”.

Sex addicts do not know why they are compelled to do a particular thing.  They only know that doing that thing is their most exciting “high”.  In treatment addicts are forced to abstain from their sexually addictive behavior which allows them to begin to see what their emotional landscape looks like without their sexual drug.  This in turn opens the way to connecting with the feelings and experiences that played such a formative role in their early life.  Understanding these feelings and experiencing them instead of acting them out allows the addict to escape from the endless cycle of re-enactment of sexually addictive behavior and to learn healthy coping mechanisms for dealing with emotional stress.

Talking about Sexually Addictive Behavior: Inside a Sex Addicts Anonymous Meeting

Would you like to sit in on a Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA) meeting?  Would you like to hear what real addicts sound like talking about sexually addictive behavior?

What follows is a fictionalized account of an average SAA meeting.  All the names are fake.

The Intro

The room is small and comfortable.  People are saying hello and chatting casually; there is already a sense of common ground.

The meeting starts with the serenity prayer followed by a reading of the guidelines for the meeting: there will be no “cross talk,” meaning you  listen to what people say but you don’t respond or comment.

Next certain readings are read aloud by members who volunteer.  These are short sections taken from the SAA literature that describe the program and the 12 steps.  “SAA is open to men and women of any religious affiliation or of none….”  The readings promise a new way of living “if you want what we have and are willing to go to any lengths to get it…”  Then it’s time for sharing.

Tom W.

Tom is the leader for tonight, meaning he talks for a somewhat longer time and chooses a topic for that meeting.  He is a tall handsome entrepreneur in his 40’s.  He had been in the program on and off for over 15 years.  Tom recounts his early history of verbal and physical abuse by his mother.  As a child he struggled with learning disabilities.  His father was a sex addict who kept a separate house for women he was seeing.

Tom has used pornography, gone to prostitutes, and had extramarital affairs.  He has been a compulsive seducer.  He says of the women he has dated: “I wanted to take them prisoner.”

Tom has been sexually sober for a few years.  He describes his current stormy relationship.  He knows he is attracted to angry women who remind him of his mother. Tom can flash a dazzling smile but in meetings he is mostly in pain, often tearful when he talks about his struggles.

Tom suggests a topic of relationships.

Joe S.

Joe is a middle-America looking guy in his early 60’s. He has a small mustache, glasses and a paunch.  Joe is married with children and he is active in his church.   Joe is a professional man who lost his job and retired from his career a few years ago after being caught with pornography at work.  His wife has stuck it out even though he has had relapses every so often.

Joe says that when he first got into recovery he felt like: “Quit porn? You gotta be kidding!”  Tonight I see Joe avoiding talking about his marriage.  He talks about seeing his grandchildren that week, about singing in the church choir, and about how life is basically good.  He cannot find anything to complain about in his childhood.

Joe admits, in vague general terms, that he does not have sex with his wife.  He wants to dodge this issue.  He tries to be a glass-half-full kind of guy but it comes off a little forced.  What he does not say out loud is that he is still in love with porn.

Dave T.

Dave is a short and pudgy guy in his 30’s.  He has some kind of job but also gets aid for psychological problems.  He has been acting out continuously by going to strip clubs multiple times per week.   He uses up all his money on strip clubs and he seems to have little if any other life.

Tonight Dave talks about wanting to date one of the strippers he goes to see.  He has tried to strike up an acquaintance with her but nothing came of it.  He doesn’t see that dating a stripper is part of the same fantasy life as his addiction.  He is unable to get abstinent for more than a few days.

Ian A.

Ian is a 30 year-old gay man.  He is fit and pleasant looking in a boyish way.  Ian was physically and emotionally abused by his mother and step-mother and sexually abused by his father.  Ian was a voyeur and an exhibitionist until he got into recovery.  He says that had he kept on acting out he would probably be in prison today.

Ian is very bright and is dedicated to his own recovery.   He quit college and took a low level job until he can get his life on track.

Ian recently decided to break a long-standing habit of showering at the gym.  He did so because he realized he had been using the locker room as a surreptitious way to peek an naked men.  Even as he struggles, Ian is articulate and often very funny.  He wants to be a psychologist.

Bob R.

Bob is a 70-something retired doctor.  He was married to the same woman his whole life and during that time secretly carried on dozens of affairs.  When his wife found out and left him he got into the SAA program.

Bob is funny and philosophical.  He pays lip service to wanting to recover from his addiction but is mostly focused on getting his wife back.  Tonight he announces triumphantly that his wife has agreed to try living together again.  He says he is deeply grateful to the program.

Teri B.

Terri is a serious, pretty woman in her 20’s.  She recently graduated from university with a degree in chemistry.  Her history is one of poor family boundaries, sexualization by her father and molestation by an older girl.  Terri in her young life has a history of compulsive masturbation, indiscriminate sex and exhibitionism.

She talks about her relationships with men.  She has typically picked younger men she could dominate.  She then breaks up with them before they can break up with her.  Teri is in good recovery and is looking to start a healthy relationship.  She recently took up with a guy who is several years older than she.  It feels different, but she is cautious.  She says some day she wants to have children and doesn’t want to pass her problems on to them.

The the meeting goes on for an hour and a half.  There is a new member, Jeremy, barely 20, who was in residential rehab after he admitted watching child pornography.  There is Jerry, who cries when he talks about giving his pregnant wife a sexually transmitted disease resulting in damage to their child.  There is Jeff, who is making no headway in his career in internet technology but instead habitually exposes himself in movie theaters.

After the meeting there is “fellowship” (conversation).  What becomes clear is that these people are struggling and suffering but they are doing so with a purpose.  They read a lot they think a lot and they go to meetings a lot.  Mostly what seems to help is that they are together in their struggle.  They witness the gradual changes in one another.  They are not alone.  Find Dr. Hatch on Facebook at Sex Addictions counseling and on Twitter @SAResource.