Intimacy and Secrets: Why Sex Addicts Won’t Tell All

Telling a partner their sexual secrets is the last thing that most sex addicts want to do.  Yet it is considered a vital part of sex addiction recovery for the addict and not just for the partner or spouse.

Disclosing everything about the addict’s secret life is important in finding or maintaining intimacy and yet it seldom happens all at once. Despite the fact that sex addiction therapists and sex addiction support groups stress honesty and coming clean with your spouse or partner, addicts fear it like the plague.  (For additional information about the process of disclosure and planned disclosure in therapy see my postPartners Need to Know the Secrets and Lies of Sex Addiction”.)

Trickling or staggered disclosure

It is normal for sex addicts to want to hold back as much about their addiction as they think they can get away with.  So initially, they are likely to disclose only the minimum they think they need to.  As treatment progresses and the partner or spouse gets more involved, additional sexual behaviors or additional details about the sexual activities may come out or be discovered.  Staggered disclosure is considered by therapists to be the norm (see Corley and Schneider, Disclosing Secrets, 2002).

The resistance to revealing everything

There are a number of reasons why addicts find it so hard to just tell it all; some have to do with overt manipulation and some are more psychological.

  • Wanting to contain the problem and avoid the risk of turmoil or divorce.  Disclosure does cause turmoil but it does not necessarily cause divorce.  Addicts are often justifiably afraid that honesty may result in a break-up.  They have in effect made a bargain: they are giving up the possibility for real intimacy in their relationship in order to maintain the relationship.  This is probably a long-standing bargain so it is hard to see it as such.  It is based on the addict’s insecurity, abandonment fear and negative core beliefs about him/her self.
  • Wanting to “protect” the partner or spouse.  Yes, disclosure is hurtful to spouses and partners of the addict.  But here again the addict is making a trade off: they are saying in effect ‘Hurting my partner by keeping sexual secrets and sacrificing a closer bond is better than hurting my partner by telling the truth.’  Better for who?   In most cases the wish to protect the partner is a rationalization
  • Thinking that certain facts don’t count.  Addicts in early recovery may not really understand the many ways, large and small, that they have acted out their sexual compulsivity.  It is typical in recovery for addicts to add things to the list of sexually addictive behaviors as they gain greater self awareness.  A porn addict may not be thinking that his sporadic affairs were part of an “addiction.”  Another addict may not immediately realize that coming on to a friend’s wife at a party was related to his addiction to extramarital hook-ups.
  • Wanting to be able to continue the undisclosed behavior.  This is not necessarily a conscious wish to be devious.  It may be that the addict stays in denial about a particular behavior, believing it to be innocent or irrelevant because of an unconscious motivation to cling to the behavior and a fear of having to give it up.  Such is the compulsive and deluded nature of addictive behavior.

Honesty, remorse and empathy

Addicts hold the core belief that they are unworthy of love.  They avoid intimacy by losing themselves in their addictive behavior which not only serves to “medicate” anxiety, depression and other negative emotions but also serves to avoid the risk of rejection by an intimate partner.

As addicts recover, they gradually let go of long-standing feelings of shame, fear and inadequacy.  They are more willing to risk real intimacy and let go of their sexual fantasy life.  As they gain a stronger sense of self they become more courageous as well as more genuinely remorseful and empathic.

Honesty with oneself and one’s partner is considered to be an indication of progress in recovery. It is evidence of a new-found ability to connect.  It is both a cause and effect of the healing process.  The addict demonstrates a new more integrated self by being honest with himself and others—even when it’s scary.

In this sense the growing ability to tell our secrets is part of the process of trauma and addiction recovery.  It doesn’t happen all at once.

Find Dr. Hatch on Facebook at Sex Addictions Counseling or Twitter @SAResource

Too Good-Looking, Too Smart, or Too Rich (to give up Sexually Addictive Behaviors)

There is an old recovery saying that you can’t get sober if you are too smart, too rich or too good-looking.   Clinicians working with clients who have sexually addictive behaviors know that these attributes can sometimes present challenges.

I’m not saying that looks brains and money lead to sexually addictive behaviors but I can see some of the ways they might operate to prevent the addict getting better.


There is no longer any doubt that success (fame, money adoration) can cause what is known as “acquired situational narcissism.”  Narcissism is a false sense of self worth which can be bolstered and encouraged by massive amounts of positive feedback from others.  This feedback promotes narcissistic self-centeredness, lack of empathy for others and over-entitlement. (See also my blog Narcissism, Sex, Power and Herman Cain.)

Any sex addict can adopt a narcissistic defense system but the process is magnified if the person is rich, beautiful, etc.  The greater the narcissistic self-importance the greater the sense of being exempt from the ordinary rules that govern behavior.

If this superiority is constantly reinforced then the addict has a hard time getting a grip on reality.  His attitude is “I’m special, I’m allowed; even my flaws aren’t flaws.”

Masking shame

Most addicts feel some level of guilt or shame about their sexually addictive behavior.  After engaging in a behavior like repeated visits to prostitutes or sexual massage parlors or the wasting of hours on internet porn and masturbation most addicts go through a period of feeling let down.  They have engaged in an out of control behavior that they must keep secret and they soothe the feelings of self-loathing in any way they can.  Often they use other drugs to numb the feelings.

The problem for the rich successful or beautiful person is that they can use these assets as tools with which to numb or mask their negative emotions and restore their facade of self worth.  The more easily the addict can dodge the feelings of self-hate, the more easily they can avoid coming face to face with their own double life.

Normalizing sexually addictive behavior

Normalizing is one of the defenses invoked by most sex addicts but with the brilliant, beautiful or rich addict it is particularly useful in certain cases.  Take the guy who engages in repeated seduction, predatory flirting, workplace harassment or serial affairs.  If he is successful or good-looking he can much more easily excuse his behavior by saying “I can’t help it, women just come on to me—what am I supposed to do?”

In this case the special attributes can function to keep the addict in denial.  Special levels of status or achievement can be seen as justifying behavior which would be reprehensible in mere mortals.  “Beauty is life’s Easy Pass,” as a New Yorker cartoon put it.  Or in the words of Henry Kissinger, “Power is an aphrodisiac.”

Never hitting bottom

For the very good-looking, smart or rich addict can to a great extent use their special advantages to avoid or greatly minimize the adverse consequences of their behavior.  These attributes give them power and that power allows them to maintain the status quo.  They may never have to confront the reality of what is wrong with their way of life let alone what they have done to others.

The very smart, successful or powerful addict will have a hard time accepting the basic fact of his or her powerlessness over the addiction.  The very smart addict is used to relying on his ability to think his way out of a problem.  There is nothing he can’t solve.  Therefore he doesn’t need to rely on others, doesn’t need to take direction or work a program.  He’s got the answers, or so he believes.

Those around the addict face a dilemma

Attractive high-achieving people often do have many strengths.  Their intelligence, attractiveness and resources can be used in a positive way to help them overcome sexually addictive behaviors.  But as a therapist—or even as a friend, colleague or partner it is  important to notice when these traits are being used in the service of self-delusion and be prepared to confront the addict directly about it.

Adult Children of Sex Addicts: What are the Residual Effects?

Growing up with a sex addict will leave its mark.  These are my thoughts based on my own life experiences and my observations over many decades about the results of having a sex addict for a parent.

As I watched the recently publicized exchange of tweets between Mylie Cyrus and her father I saw a myriad of familiar patterns.  I am not saying that Billie Ray Cyrus is in any way a sex addict.  And I am no doubt reading into the situation, but it seemed to me that there were key elements in their relationship that rang a bell.

There are many different ways for a young person to experience the sex addiction of a parent that are covert and unconscious both on the part of the addict and the child.  My own father was a sex addict (and an actor) and I experienced his addiction indirectly in the subtle objectification of me as well as in his “girlfriend-izing” me and implicitly using me to triangulate with my mother.

Sex addicts place undue emphasis on sex.  Thus sex addicts can communicate the over importance of sex to the child in a myriad of ways. Here are some of the dynamics that play out in such families.

  • Sexualizing the child or young person by making comments about their body or their sexual desirability or even their prospects for sexual relationships later in life.  This can include taking a personal “interest” in the young child’s underwear purchases, “compliments” on their appearance which are sexually toned and so on.
  • Giving added importance to sex by making it totally taboo.  The hiding of sexuality, the refusal to acknowledge it as something to be talked about at all can convey that sex is not only dangerous but more powerful than it really is or needs to be in the young person’s mind.
  • Sexual duplicity is engrained in the child when there is a total denial of whatever is going on sexually and a repressive atmosphere around sex.  The message is that one must lead a double life, compartmentalizing sex and keeping it secret.  This means that the child and family are engaged in a collective form of denial in which there is a façade of normality and “healthiness” with a whole secret life going on.
  • Early exposure to sex either directly or by observation can be traumatic to a child who is not yet developmentally ready to make sense of this information.  At least it can be confusing and troubling and takes away a level of safety that the child needs.
  • Infidelity, whether it is explicitly seen or just going on behind the scenes can place the growing child and adolescent in a number of binds.  The child may be caught in the middle, may be made into a confidante or used as a weapon.  All these things violate the child’s generational boundaries.  The parents are supposed to be the grown-ups who take care of the child, not the other way around.

When I learned of the idea of Mylie and her father “working on” their relationship it reminded me that although this sounds reasonable, the generational boundaries can become blurred in this kind of set-up and lead to serious confusion for the adult child.

I believe the best things that adult children of sex addicts can do are:

  • Realize that your experience growing up was dysfunctional in subtle or overt ways and that this will have an impact on you.  Everyone’s childhood has its own problems, nobody’s early life is flawless.
  • Learn about sex addiction if you want to but don’t become obsessed with your parent’s problems.  If you have insecurities about yourself, your worth, your attractiveness or doubts about ever having a healthy relationship these are things you can work on in your own growth and development.
  • Don’t become over-involved with your parent’s treatment or recovery.  This is their journey and you have your own life to live.  If you get drawn in you are just continuing to re-enact the early inappropriate family patterns.
  • Be open to new models of relationship and intimacy.  What you observed in your parents as a child may have been a distorted role model built to hide, rationalize or adapt to dysfunctional relating.

Notice that your parents may have grown and changed through therapy and treatment.    If your parent seems to have pulled away from you this may just be because they are learning how to play a more appropriate, less enmeshed role with their children.  Understanding this allows you to shuffle the deck in your own life and have some faith that things can work out well for you; that healthy, happy relationships are possible.

Intimacy Disorder: An Addictive Relationship Self-Test

Intimacy disorder and addiction are most often two aspects of the same problem.  While it is true that any addiction can cause relationships to deteriorate, it is also true that sex addicts tend to end up in unhealthy and unsatisfying relationships.

Even sex addicts in good recovery may have many residual problems in approaching intimacy and relationships.  See also my article “Intimacy 101”.

What I am calling addictive relationships are relationships that are usually part of a pattern of negativity, turmoil and alienation.  The majority of the addicts I’ve worked with have grown up in families where their parents were not consistently loving, contented or appropriate with each other or their children.  Often they had addictions of their own.  This dysfunctional model may be all the addict has ever known.

Below is a self-test designed to get you thinking about the intimacy disorder aspect of sex or love addiction.  It is not scientific but it is based on my experience working with addicts.  It is adapted from my recent book Relationships in Recovery: A Guide for Sex Addicts who are Starting Over.

  1. My relationships typically start with intense sexual attraction and rapid involvement.
  2. I find it easy to start relationships, but they always get complicated.
  3. I sometimes stay in a relationship because I am afraid of being on my own.
  4. I sometimes placate or manipulate my partner to avoid confronting things.
  5. I find it easy to get into thinking that my partner is to blame.
  6. My partner and I don’t talk about our feelings about the relationship.
  7. Either I feel superior to my partner, or I feel my partner is superior to me.
  8. I am dishonest with my partner at times to avoid upsetting him/her.
  9. When I am in a relationship, my partner and I don’t socialize with friends as a couple very much.
  10. I feel that having a good relationship is hopeless.

You will see that some of these items are characteristic of dysfunctional relationships in general.  But sex addicts will have experienced at least half of them when they have attempted to sustain an intimate bond with a partner.

The intimacy avoidance characteristic of sex and love addicts means that they can’t get close; they are afraid of intimate, honest relating and expect it to bring pain and shame.  They also can’t let go.  They often put up with a bad situation due to their fear of feeling abandoned and inadequate.  Thus addictive relationships are characterized by ambivalence and feeling stuck and hopeless.

The fears, insecurities and low self worth that characterize addicts predictably lead to relationships that are intimacy avoidant.  Addicts growing up did not experience intimate bonds as supportive, validating or safe.

In recovery from sex addiction the addict who is ready to try for a healthier kind of relating will have to do three things:

  • Examine his/her relationship history in detail
  • Come to understand their past relationship style and how it supported the addiction
  • Write a plan for the future which puts rules and boundaries in place for healthier relating

In addition, the recovery from intimacy disorder will involve making an attempt to envision and outline the kind of relationship the sex addict wants for the future.  This vision may be totally new to the addict.  It will involve:

  • Living together in integrity and harmony
  • Giving and providing safety and support
  • Sharing all the parts of oneself including intellectual, social and sexual life
  • Being able to commit and developing a capacity for devotion
  • Willingness to be hurt as part of healthy vulnerability
  • Putting energy into the relationship but being willing to be alone if things don’t work out

In emerging from an intimacy disorder the good news is that relationships can be the most meaningful and enjoyable aspect of your life.  You can continue to grow as you enjoy the fruits of recovery.

When is Cheating a Sexually Addictive Behavior?

As is the case with all sexually addictive behavior, having extramarital affairs can be part of an addiction or not.  Addiction is not defined by the nature of the affair or even necessarily the quantity of affairs.

Sexually addictive behaviors vary widely. But all such behaviors have certain common elements.  These have to do with

  • The way the behavior is conducted
  • The presence of sexual compulsivity in other areas
  • The function it serves in the person’s emotional life,

The way the behavior is conducted

What if one partner in a relationship has a one-time sexual experience while on a business trip?  Let’s suppose this kind of thing has never happened before and the person feels terrible about it.  He or she decides not to do it again (and doesn’t), tells their spouse about it (and whether it was protected sex or not) and does whatever is necessary to reassure the partner or spouse and repair the damage.  In this case the person has done three important things:

  • Has been honest right away
  • Has learned from the experience
  • Has been able to repair his relationship
  • Has made a decision to avoid further betrayal

This is a “pure case” in which the person shows none of the typical responses of the addict.  He knows his priorities and can act on them.  He will be motivated to be honest with his wife about what he wants to do in the future.  For example, he may want the freedom to go to a strip club with his colleagues while on a trip.  If this is OK with his wife then there is no problem.  The same holds true for pornography use; if it is done in moderation, is OK with the spouse, does not harm the relationship etc. then it’s not addictive.

Affairs can be part of a larger set of addictive sexual behaviors

But what if this person in the above example who has the one-time “fling” is also compulsively viewing internet pornography?  What if he is keeping the extent of his porn use from his wife?  Here a clinician would begin to see the affair as part of a larger picture.  Most sex addicts engage in more than one sexually addictive behavior.  If there is a secret sexually compulsive behavior then the affair may be part of the same problem.  And there may be other affairs or behaviors that are hidden.

So the extramarital affair in the context of another sexually addictive behavior or set of behaviors is one way in which it can be categorized as sex addiction.

The function the affair serves

Obviously if the person in a relationship is having repeated affairs and keeping it secret one would suspect that the person is using the affairs as a drug.  Of course some people are just cheaters, people incapable of an intimate commitment or unable to be accountable for their behavior.  These people may be extremely emotionally undeveloped or they may be sociopathic, but they are not sex addicts.

Most sex addicts have a long-standing habit of using their sexually addictive behavior to medicate fears, insecurities, loneliness, or other negative emotions.  You will most likely see that having affairs is being used to:

  • Take the place of vulnerability and openness in a committed relationship
  • Escape self-hate by living out a fantasy role
  • Deal with fears of abandonment by their partner
  • Affirm their worth by proving they are sexually attractive
  • Avoid sex with a real person or a person who is their equal

Low self worth, fear and shame

The common denominators in sexually addictive behavior, including addictive affairs, are low self worth and avoidance of real intimacy.  These things may be especially hard to decipher when the affairs are separated by long periods of time.  Emotional insecurities are also hard to spot in addicts who simply maintain one long affair outside their marriage.

I have seen more than one sex addict who sustained an affair with one person over decades.  In these cases the people qualified as a sex addicts because their affairs represented a deep seated and compulsive need to split off part of themselves from their spouse or partner.

Having secret, separate life strongly suggests that the person is avoiding something threatening or painful in relationships.  The fact that they are long-standing and hidden, strongly suggests that the person feels that this part of his or her life is shameful.

Very likely a thorough professional evaluation will be able to discover whether affairs are part of a larger pattern of addictive behaviors, whether they are being used as a drug to escape from oneself and whether they represent an avoidance of intimate relating with a partner.  Not surprisingly, affair addicts often see that they have a serious problem but fail to identify it as sexual addiction in themselves.

Find Dr. Hatch on Facebook at Sex Addictions Counseling or Twitter @SAResource