There is a common saying among sex addiction therapists that “sex addiction is not about sex, it’s about pain.” Sex addicts use one or more sexually addictive behaviors such as internet pornography, frequent visits to prostitutes or sexual massage parlors, compulsive sexual hook-ups or serial affairs and so on as a drug of choice to escape stressful or unpleasant feelings.
Sex addicts, like most other kinds of addicts have long-standing doubts about their worth as people. They have early life histories that have left them fearful of intimate relating. They are afraid to be open or vulnerable. They protect themselves from situations in which they feel insecure by retreating into their addictive behavior, their fantasy life of sexual acting out in which they are soothed, gratified and safe.
Addicts may continue to experience low self worth even as they are becoming stronger in their recovery. It takes a long time to understand and work through the feelings of low self worth and even longer to become confident and comfortable in their own skin.
Substitute ways of acting out in recovery
Recovering sex addicts who are reliably free of their sexual acting out behavior may exhibit certain behaviors which get in the way of their work, their ability to relate to other people and their intimate relationships. They are finding new ways to “act out” their feelings and fears now that they can no longer use their drug of choice.
In their work life and social life addicts often exhibit their need to escape their deep self doubt in one or more predictable ways, such a
Conflicts at work. Addicts may have trouble getting along with others and may be irritable in ways that they never were before. This is due to the absence of their ability to soothe themselves with their sexual behavior.
Compulsive overwork or workaholism. Addicts may pour themselves into their work as a way to escape having to deal with people or relationships. Work can take up all the space that is left over in which the recovering addict feels ill at ease.
Comparing, competing and contempt. These are the narcissistic behaviors. They are an attempt to avoid self doubt and self hate by constantly judging others and trying to be one up.
Need to please. In the absence of an inner sense of worth and validity, many sex addicts become pleasers. They feel safe and soothed when they have the approval of others. This takes the place of a skill they have not yet mastered, that of speaking their truth and being clear about their needs and feelings.
In close relationships addicts will engage in behaviors that tend to put distance between them and their intimate partner. In this way they escape the demands of intimacy which they feel inadequate to meet. They do this even as they exhibit codependent behaviors like the need to fix and control. They will
Subtle or passive aggressive hostility. This can take many forms such as sarcasm, contempt, sighing, groaning, and eye rolling. This behavior expresses feelings indirectly which the addict feels incapable of expressing directly.
Provoke conflict. Recovering addicts often feel dissatisfied and irritable. They may project blame onto their partner for this and they may escape intimacy by creating a rift. This can come in cycles, almost like an abuse cycle of lashing out, remorse, reconciliation and repeat.
Flirt or engage in other mini-sexual behaviors. As discussed in my previous post about subtle forms of betrayal, sex addicts in recovery may use behaviors like flirting, ogling or talking about other people sexually, or reaching out to old girlfriends or boyfriends online as a substitute for their earlier sexually addictive behavior. This is a way to give themselves a small bit of their drug, a mini “fix.”
Avoid sex. Sex addicts may take a long time to get comfortable with a sex life with their partner. Even if they enjoy it, their whole inner sexual landscape has been revamped in recovery and they may have new fears about sexual intimacy such as sudden attacks of performance anxiety or other fearfulness such as jealousy.
Overcoming all of these insecurities and learning to feel and express feelings takes time and patience for both the addict and those around them. Sex addicts in recovery are building a sense of self and acquiring a set of interpersonal skills that they never had before. They will get there if they and their spouse or partner or trusted friends are honest about what is going on.