Relationships should feel good. They should be happy and loving most of the time. Addicts, recovering addicts and partners of addicts often have relationships that are the opposite.
As Patrick Carnes has pointed out in his writing, both sex addicts and their partners often have many similarities in their psychological makeup. Both addicts and partners of addicts often come from families in which relationships were dysfunctional and appropriate nurturing was unreliable.
This early relational trauma leads to both fear of intimacy and fear of abandonment. And these can lead couples into patterns of relating where each feeds the other’s unhealthy dynamics such as avoidance, manipulation, lack of openness, fear, and over-control. See also my post “When Love Addicts Fall for Sex Addicts.”
Mistakes addicts and partners make
- Mistaking sex for intimacy
Most sex addicts and many partners of sex addicts place an undue emphasis on sex as the most important aspect of the relationship or as the proof of whether the relationship is loving and devoted. Sex addicts have little experience of healthy intimacy and place an undue emphasis on having their sexual needs met, either inside or outside the relationship. Partners may allow themselves to see their addict’s powerful sexual attraction as the only or most important aspect of love and intimacy.
- Lack of Courtship Skills
Addictive relationships often begin with sex. By building a relationship on sex and romantic passion, addicts and their partners may ignore the process of getting to know each other in a healthy way. There is nothing wrong with enjoying feeling swept away, but it shouldn’t prevent you from learning about one another as part of a process leading to healthy commitment. In a more normal courtship, people take it slower and ask more questions about the other person’s situation, their relationship history, their feelings about relationships etc. And they also do not approach the situation with any ideas about what they might need or want in another person (aside form feeling swept away).
- Mistaking Intensity for devotion
Many addictive couples have patterns of high intensity and high drama in their relationships. They may have frequent and even violent conflicts and they make often break up and get back together. Their interaction may be characterized by jealousy, threat, competition, and fear, all of which are mistakenly interpreted as signs that the relationship is the most important and most deeply committed one in their life. Nothing could be further from the truth.
- Mistaking power for trust
People who feel inadequate to the demands of an intimate relationship or who are overly fearful of abandonment may have an excessive need for control in their relationships. Instead of feeling safe and secure in the knowledge that they can deal with problems that arise, they are closed off and mistrustful. This leads to a vigilance about what the other person is doing and a lack of openness in communication. The excessive need for control is based in the person’s own insecurity about their ability to sustain a relationship, their worth as a partner and their partner’s reliability.
An addictive relationship self-test*
The items in the test below are informally compiled based on my clinical experience and reading on this topic. These problems are not unique to addicts and may be experienced by anyone with impaired intimacy and relationship abilities. But they are very characteristic of addicts and often of the partners of addicts as well.
- Growing up I didn’t see my parents as consistently loving, and contented with each other.
- My relationships typically start with an intense sexual attraction and rapid involvement.
- I find it easy to start relationships but they always get complicated.
- I find it hard to know how to get out of a bad relationship.
- I sometimes think I stay in a relationship because I am afraid of being on my own.
- I am afraid of my partner’s anger.
- I sometimes placate or manipulate my partner to avoid confronting things.
- I find it easy to get into thinking that my partner is to blame.
- My partner and I don’t talk about our feelings about the relationship.
- In my relationships one person is always less devoted than the other.
- Either I feel superior to my partner or I feel my partner is superior to me.
- I am dishonest with my partner at times to avoid upsetting him/her.
- When I am in a relationship my partner and I don’t socialize with friends as a couple very much.
- Either I or my partner is always trying to get us into some kind of therapy.
- I feel that having a good relationship is hopeless.
*Taken from my book Relationships in Recovery: a Guide for Sex Addicts who are Starting Over
When you look at this list of statements, it should be clear that what I am calling addictive relationships are characterized by things like negativity, turmoil and alienation. A person who has the emotional development required for healthy intimacy would avoid or even run from such a relationship. Without a level of openness, security and contentment it is impossible for relationships to succeed and for the partners to flourish.