First, an important point to remember is that only those therapists who are already licensed or otherwise credentialed in their particular counseling field (e.g. psychologists, clinical social workers, marriage counselors, pastoral counselors) are eligible to enroll in the CSAT training.
Addicts are profoundly lonely. They may be active and sociable; they may have friends. But in terms of the deeper emotional connection to a partner, they tend to keep themselves on a starvation diet. The loneliness of course is self-imposed. Addicts are not addicts because they are making up for the fact that they don’t happen to have a lover. Their addiction and their emotional isolation are both related to a deep fear of intimacy. It has always been striking to me that they should suffer so much in their alienation.
I find that most often sex addicts are not aware of how fearful they are about intimate relationships. They have most likely come from families in which they received inadequate or inappropriate forms of connection with adults. Without realizing it, they have adopted a way of behaving based on fear and the avoidance of intimate connection.
I have heard many addicts tell me that as a child they felt ignored discounted, abandoned or invisible. This is their model of close relating; it is one of intense pain and stress. And this can be true despite the fact that their family life and childhood appeared outwardly “normal“.
Intimacy avoidance and sexual acting out
Many sex addicts are using their addictive acting out behavior as a substitute for an intimate connection. Their addictive behavior provides an illusion of some kind of connection, reinforced by sexual gratification in a situation that is safe. Sexual acting out is emotionally safe because it requires nothing from the addict on an emotional level.
For the typical sex addict, this way of finding gratification without intimacy is not a matter of wanting to be selfish and controlling, although that is how it ends up looking. But rather it is a way of finding an escape from negative emotions and achieving some gratification without having to experience intense discomfort and fear. Sometimes it is due to sexual inhibition and shame. Other times it is the fear of letting their guard down and feeling that they will inevitably be hurt. Or it involves feeling so unworthy and unlovable that they cannot feel free to be who they are. Usually it is a combination of the above.
Intimacy avoidance in relationships
The intimacy avoidance that goes along with sex addiction shows up in relationships in a number of ways.
- Avoiding sex
Sexual connecting in the context of an intimate relationship can be too difficult for an addict to do comfortably. Even if they are very attracted to their partner or would-be partner, they may try to create emotional distance. For example, they may be emotionally absent during sex or lost in fantasy, they may want to drink alcohol as a way to be less present during sex, or they may avoid sex altogether.
- Avoiding physical intimacy
Sex addicts often come from families in which there was an absence of physical touching and affection. Thus they may feel that hugging, cuddling, etc. are awkward and uncomfortable. Some addicts were smothered by physical touching in an inappropriate way and they too may avoid physical affection due to feeling vulnerable.
- Not being able to express their needs
Many sex addicts isolate themselves emotionally by avoiding letting the other person in on what they feel, need or want. This is a fear of being unworthy or of being rejected or hurt.
- Being self conscious around people or in social situations
Often addicts substitute a role or facade for actually showing up emotionally. They may play a role, eg teacher, guru, performer, etc. with people instead of just being able to be who they are and take their chances.
- Withdrawing into work or another addiction
Some addicts escape the demands of intimacy by becoming swallowed up in work or exercise or other hobbies that take them away from their partner and other potentially intimate contacts.
- Fleeing intimate connection
Many addicts can enter a relationship but leave before it becomes too intimate. They may think this is a fear of commitment, or not the “right person”, when in reality they feel inadequate to the demands of a relationship and/or fear being abandoned by anyone they are close to.
Intimacy avoidance and loneliness
The same addict who is doing everything to avoid intimacy will often feel desperately needy and lonely. Sometimes the addict is aware of a longing for connection; other times the addict lives without intimate relating but doesn’t quite know what is missing or why they push people away. Isolation and loneliness can then become the excuse and the occasion for sexual acting out such as online sex, sexual massage parlors, prostitutes, etc. It is only in recovery that the addict can recognize his or her own lack of intimacy ability and begin to practice new behaviors to overcome their fears of being known and connected.
Basically you can’t get close to a narcissist. A relationship with a narcissist will be a problem, and the more narcissistic they are the more it becomes impossible.
Sex addicts and addicts generally are often described as narcissistic, but many non-addicts are narcissists as well. Trying to have a relationship with a true narcissist can be an extremely tortuous and confusing experience.
The continuum of narcissism
Many psychological disorders are now being talked about as existing on a “spectrum”, that is they are not like other diseases where either you have them or you don’t. With spectrum disorders the set of symptoms can range from very mild to very severe.
As I have discussed previously, narcissists at the mild end may be labeled as having narcissistic personality traits such as self centeredness and vanity; those labeled as having narcissistic personality disorder will be mostly oblivious of the needs of others and will focus on maintaining a false and grandiose sense of a self. At the outer most extreme the narcissist becomes akin to a sociopath, feeling so over-entitled and so lacking in conscience or empathy that they are opportunists and even criminals.
Many sex addicts and other kinds of addicts have what is called a narcissistic defense system, that is they have a façade of self importance which merely covers a deep seated lack of self worth.
What to expect with a narcissist
Narcissists are cut off from others by their underlying insecurity but they nevertheless can become expert at manipulating people in order to draw them in. They can be habitually seductive as a way of finding validation and power in relating to people generally. They are fundamentally impossible to connect with in the following ways.
- The narcissist needs you to be focused on him.
He or she may initially show great interest and appreciation for you. This is gratifying but is skin deep. It is done to get you to focus on them. They may give lavish praise and compare you favorably to others; in this way they manipulate you into trying to keep their good opinion thus becoming more and more focused on what they think about you (and everything else.) And you become unconsciously afraid to displease the narcissist or incur his disapproval.
- The narcissist needs to see anyone they are close to as special.
The idea here is that the narcissist needs to feel he is wonderful and that he wouldn’t be seen associating with anyone who wasn’t wonderful too. He sees you as a reflection of his own specialness. This does not really say anything about how he really feels about you, what is important to the narcissist is how you make him look to others and to himself.
- The narcissist will be controlling and demanding.
You may feel constantly thrown off from what you were doing or thinking about because the narcissist will come at you with their needs and wants. Narcissists will have their own agenda most of the time. They will use their judgmental attitude, their scrutiny of you and their strong opinions to enforce that agenda.
If you have already become involved you may be sacrificing yourself in a million little ways and even feeling that your life has been taken over. This is a far cry from a real relationship in which the partners’ lives together involve mutual decision making and genuine listening.
- Narcissists will be volatile when they are challenged.
Since their façade of superiority is just a façade, the narcissist will be cut to the quick if they feel criticized in any way. Their first line of defense will be to discount and devalue whatever or whoever has pricked their bubble. But they will be deeply affected and may harbor rage or resentments. This makes it impossible to express your true feelings or needs and to have them be heard.
- Narcissists will bail out when you stop feeding their narcissism.
You may be unable to shake the feeling that the relationship is tenuous because it is. It is possible to puncture a narcissist’s false self very easily. And since your worth to him or her lies in your ability to reinforce their self image, you can become a hindrance if and when you stop mirroring their perfection.
Someone who has milder narcissistic traits is probably using their grandiosity as a defense, as is the case with most sex addicts in treatment. In recovery they can gain a stronger sense of self worth and let go of the narcissistic defense system. With treatment, these people may be more able to connect to their insecurities and you may find that they both want and have a genuine capacity for a healthy relationship.