Intimacy After Sex Addiction Treatment: 5 Frequently Asked Questions

If you are in a relationship with someone who has been in sex addiction treatment you will have a lot of legitimate confusion and uncertainty.   Here are some of the questions I have heard most frequently.

Has he told me everything?

There is a serious chance that a sex addict who is in pretty good recovery may be holding back, some big or little fact about his sex addiction history.  As much as we would like for sex addicts in treatment to disclose everything that is relevant, there may be some information that they feel they simply cannot reveal, or at least not yet.  There is bound to be some residual shame about their addictive behavior and some fear that a particular fact would be a “deal breaker” for you.  If you can be non-judgmental and supportive, the addict will eventually feel safer telling everything.  But if you want to know it all, you should let the addict know that the whole truth is important to you.

Can I trust him not to cheat on me?

If having extra-curricular affairs was one of the addict’s sexually addictive behaviors, and assuming he has committed to avoiding this behavior then you probably can assume that he will not go out and start another affair.  But there is a caveat.  Addicts in recovery often find miniature ways of acting out their old behaviors.  He may flirt excessively, he may contact an old girlfriend online or he may have work relationships with women that are “just friends.”  These are things that are not a good idea for a recovering addict as they are ways of sneaking around the rules to get a “hit,” not to mention they will drive you crazy.  Someone he trusts needs to point this out to the sex addict when it happens because he will be unlikely to see it on his own.

Will he enjoy sex with me?

Your sex life may be perfectly fine.  However, for some addicts it is difficult to adjust to sex with a partner once they have stopped using sex as a “drug”.  The addict may even become sexually avoidant to some degree.  Sex with a partner can initially seem uninteresting to an addict who is used to the adrenaline rush of acting out.  And the addict may have insecurities about whether he or she will be sexually adequate, insecurities which were always there but which were submerged in the addiction.  The addict may be tempted to bring some addictive fantasies into your sex life, familiar thoughts and behaviors and role-playing that the addict found arousing in the past. This can be totally OK (if it’s comfortable for you both) but it can also be slippery territory for the addict; it is a judgment call and it’s important to talk about it together.

What are the signs of relapse?

The signs of possible relapse are many, but one of the most obvious is the addict’s letting go of his or her commitment to their recovery and continued growth.  Lessening of the total devotion to sex addiction treatment may be expected, but if the addict becomes too cavalier about being “cured” he may be at risk.  Another problem area is that of other addictions, which may surface and lead back to the sexual addiction.  Addicts may drink more, get too wrapped up in work or engage in other activities addictively.   If the addict begins using another substance or behavior as a drug this can lead back to sexual acting out.

Will we be able to feel intimate?

Regaining trust and intimacy is a long process.  It is necessary to be very patient and supportive with one another and not to panic.  Sex addiction is often called an “intimacy disorder” and this means that sex addicts have to gradually learn how to express things like nurturance and devotion.  Over the long haul, sex addiction treatment involves learning  how to be honest with a partner and how to feel safe being who you are, with all your imperfections and fears.  This level of honesty will ultimately lead to a closer, safer bond for both of you.  The addict (and you) will come to feel that you are going to be OK even if the relationship should end and that it is necessary to stop hiding and lying even if it means you risk everything.  I like the saying that your love should be unconditional, meaning you don’t have to sit in judgment, but that whether you choose to stay in the relationship is conditional.

Sex Addicts Need Healthy Narcissism

We are all getting pretty good a spotting unhealthy narcissism.  This is the narcissism that is often characteristic of sex addicts and that represents a kind of façade or false self.  The person is grandiose and self absorbed but underneath they feel unworthy and are deeply insecure.

The thing that distinguishes unhealthy narcissism is the lack of an underlying sense of self worth.  The person has a brittle narcissistic defense system which crumbles when the person gets negative feedback or when they are shown up or thwarted.  When the bubble bursts in this way, the narcissistic addict responds either with rage or with an orgy of self hatred, which can even turn suicidal.

The sex addict with a narcissistic defense system feels “I have to be the greatest or it’s all over.”  They are either feeling contempt for everyone else or they are feeling contempt for themselves.  These are two sides of the same coin.

What is healthy narcissism?

Healthy narcissism is not the same as self-esteem.  As I have argued previously, the concept of self-esteem involves judging ourselves, usually from the perspective of what others might think, and often from outward traits and accomplishments.  Self esteem, like unhealthy narcissism, is either high or low.

  • Healthy narcissism has no opposite.  It is an abiding feeling of inherent worthiness and value.  You may succeed or fail, you may do something you regret, and you may even decide to work on your issues and change, but you still feel OK about being you.
  • You feel good in your body and enjoy using your body for activity and pleasure.  You can even enjoy looking good, dressing and decorating your body and can do so without judging yourself or feeling self-conscious.
  • You have the ability to protect yourself from that which is harmful or dangerous to you.  You have an essential sense of your own emotional and physical integrity.  This in turn is a feeling of empowerment and safety in relating to people.
  • You are OK with your successes.  You are neither ashamed of them nor do you let them define you.  You don’t limit yourself from doing as well as you can do and reaching the heights that you can reach in terms of fulfilling your destiny, making money or whatever to try to do.  You don’t feel guilty about getting ahead.

Couples confronting sex addiction need healthy narcissism

Both partners in a couple need be narcissistic in a healthy way.  Particularly when confronting sex addiction, both partners will need to regain their sense of their own value and their own right to feel safe and empowered.  Regaining a basic sense of self worth supports the couple’s recovery.

  • Shame is a key feature of sex addiction for both partners and overcoming shame will involve feeling that although something you did was wrong or something that happened was wrong, you are not wrong.  You are worthwhile and not deserving of shame.
  • Couples in recovery need to learn to maintain boundaries that may never have been there to begin with.  Healthy narcissism means protecting yourself , feeling that you have the right to ask for what you want, and being assertive instead of aggressive.
  • Overcoming sexual addiction means learning to enjoy yourself physically to the fullest.  Caring for your body, enjoying your body and enjoying your sexuality will be growing over time in recovery for both partners.

Sex addicts in recovery will be engaging the world in a more confident way as their negative core beliefs about themselves subside.  This may take many forms but will often involve feeling entitled to fulfill your potential, feeling confident in situations that used to intimidate you and feeling important, not because you are superior but just because you are you.  Oh alright, you can go ahead and pat yourself on the back for all that great progress you’ve made!

Predatory Flirting and Intriguing as Sex Addiction Symptoms

When I first heard the term “predatory flirting” in connection with  sex addiction symptoms I was taken aback. Predatory sounds like something criminal, but flirting seemed so normal and harmless. But the term describes a symptom, a behavior, which is characteristic of certain sex addicts.

Who engages in predatory flirting?

One type of sex addict, dubbed the Seduction Role addict by Patrick Carnes, is particularly likely to engage in a lot of flirting.  The seduction addict gets his “fix” by getting women interested in him sexually or romantically.  The seduction is everything.  One seduction sex addict told me that the real high was the first kiss.  After that he would begin to lose interest and start looking for the next conquest.

The related concept in describing sex addiction symptoms is intriguing.”  Like flirting, intriguing is a way to create a feeling of private, personal intensity.  It is a way of establishing through some subtle means such as coded comments, private jokes or pointed eye contact, that you and the other person share a connection that no one else is a part of.

Other sex addicts whose preferred behavior is serial affairs have flirting and intriguing as sex addiction symptoms.  They may use flirtation as a way to line up their sexual supply.  They follow through with the sexual liaison but can only take things so far.  A real relationship is frightening and overwhelming.  The addict will find a way to end things and move on to the next affair.  Many serial seducers are married and are investing most of their sexuality in their secret life.

Sex addicts who are addicted to romantic seduction and affairs are driven by the need to constantly re-establish their attractiveness to the opposite sex.  They are as insecure as most other kinds of sex addicts and often feel that their sexual attractiveness is all they have to offer.  They fear that if they do not hook people sexually then there will be no reason for people to be around them.

What does predatory flirting look like?

Normal flirting is a casual and tentative way of initiating contact that may become romantic.  It is the first step in a possible courtship and lets someone know that we are potentially interested.  It involves saying things that are more personal, intense, suggestive or flattering than we would say to just anyone and then if there is a response, following up with real attempts to get to know the person better.

Smoke and mirrors

When it is predatory, flirting is intense but not sincere.  It is designed to capture the person’s interest and attraction but it is not backed up by any genuine interest.  Rather it is just a habitual way that the addict approaches anyone in a broad category of target people.  It is almost automatic, a default position which represents the addict’s safest way of relating.

Wholesale sexualizing

If you know the seduction sex addict well and you observe them flirting, you will see that they are rather indiscriminate in who they flirt with.  They want to captivate everyone, from the waitress to their mother-in-law.  Also, they will begin flirting right away with someone who is attractive looking even if they don’t know them and will never see them again.

Deniability

Another feature of the seduction addict’s predatory flirting is that it is eminently deniable.  It is throwing out a lure while and the same time pretending that there is no such thing going on.  It is suggestive of something but it is hard to pin down, and this vagueness is frequently a part of predatory flirting.

One type of predatory flirting involves being over-attentive or caring toward a woman.  This suggests that the addict has a real interest in her and also that he is a caring and generally good guy.  This may be a consciously seductive scheme or not.  But often the woman will get interested in this “nice” guy and approach him back only to be told that she has misinterpreted the situation.

Intensity without intention

The predatory flirter will throw out seemingly suggestive comments designed to create a feeling of connection with not other intention than to get the woman’s attention on him. I observed a seduction addict I know run into a woman whom he had seen once before somewhere.  She remarked that it was a coincidence to which he responded: “There are no coincidences.”  It is the initial stage of the empty seduction, the attempt to create a feeling of intensity without intention.

Why is this process predatory?

The addict’s lack of intention or ability to follow through in establishing a relationship with his target women are not just sex addiction symptoms in the abstract.  What the behavior means is that he is being exploitive and insincere.  He is using his ability to hook the woman into thinking he is interested in her when in fact he is using her to get an addictive hit, to make himself feel attractive.

This kind of seductiveness and compulsive flirting is a distortion of what flirting is really for.  It is a symptom of a problem that underlies most sex addiction: deep insecurity and the fear of intimacy.   Find Dr. Hatch on Facebook at Sex Addictions Counseling or Twitter @SAResource

Partners Need to Know the Secrets and Lies of Sex Addiction

People generally do not want to disclose their sex addiction to their intimate partner.  And yet in sex addiction treatment we believe that couples cannot begin the process of recovery as long as the addict is still keeping secrets or telling lies.  Hence the saying in treatment circles:

Tell it all, tell it soon!

This is not to say that we cannot have a private inner life or that we have to tell our spouse or partner everything we think or do.  But telling the truth about sex addiction is an essential part of recovery.  It is essential for the addict, for the partner and for the relationship.

When disclosure is not necessary

Disclosing the full extent of a sex addiction is not generally advised when the couple are planning to divorce or separate.  Couples in the process of separation and divorce are dealing with a lot of emotional and real life upheaval.  The disclosure of the details of sexual betrayal may be detrimental to the process of separating.  It can fan the fires of resentment and conflict around settlement and custody issues.  Often a partial disclosure has taken place which is part of the reason for the divorce.  Disclosure can add to the traumatization of the partner who already feels betrayed, without serving any useful purpose.

Disclosing to a partner is often partial and disorganized

Partial disclosure, or disclosing in “stages,” is the norm although it is not considered a good idea.  The addict feels the pressure to come clean but wants to hold back some facts about the sex addiction, usually those that are most damaging or shameful.  The addict who has been partially found out is in a crisis state and is most often very afraid of abandonment by a partner.  The feeling is that if the spouse or partner knew everything they would surely leave.  This is not necessarily a true or rational idea.

However, full disclosure sets the stage not only for the addict to begin a new way of living but for the relationship to begin on a new basis of honesty and trust.  Every time another little piece of information about the addict’s past behavior trickles out it makes the partner feel like it is just more than they can take.  This is because the partner feels the dishonesty may have no end.

The commitment to truthfulness going forward

Holding on to secrets is a sign that the addict is not in very good recovery.  “Rigorous honesty” is considered to be at the heart of the 12-step model of addiction recovery.  There is a level of self hate and shame in the addict who feels he cannot be honest.  He is continuing to act on the core belief that if someone really knew him they could never love him.  It is a way to hang onto control but it is unfair.

Dishonesty about who we are sexually is a way to keep ourselves apart from our partner.  It is a fatal barrier to true intimacy, which involves allowing ourselves to be known.  It also gives the addict unequal power.

To the partner, the fact that they do not know what is going on or has gone on means that not only do they not know their addict partner very well but they do not have a view of their life that is based in reality.  Partners cannot find contentment and happiness if their reality is being manipulated by someone else.

What not to disclose

The optimal way to disclose the facts of a sex addiction to a partner is thought to be through a “planned disclosure.”  This is one where the couple prepare separately with their counselors and carry out the disclosure in the presence of a treating professional.

As part of the preparation, the partner or spouse will decide what it is they want to hear.  This is very important.  The addict may want to tell more than the partner wants to know.  The addict will have to take direction from the partner as to what to disclose.  For example, the partner may or may not want to know how many times the addict did a certain thing, or with whom, or what the details of the act were.

Planned full disclosure may be the ideal, but people are human and it is often not that neat.  We need to accept that both people may be afraid and mistrustful.  The addict may try to get away with holding onto a few key pieces of information our of fear, and the partner may resort to spying on the addict’s email in order to deal with the crazy-making feelings of mistrust.

But even if it is not perfect, the disclosure must take place for the relationship to survive and thrive.