If you are a clinician working with sex addicts you may be struck by how often the addict is desperate to save their marriage or relationship. Sometimes to the point of being so obsessed with holding onto their relationship that it interferes with their focusing on treatment.
It may not be immediately obvious why this is so. Addicts appear to be focused mainly on themselves. Typically they:
-are sexually compulsive outside of the relationship
-are intimacy avoidant
-use coping skills which create distance
-lead a double life
We typically think of the spouse or partner of the addict on the other hand as the codependent:
-fearful of abandonment
-enmeshed and preoccupied with their partner
-emotionally constricted or volatile
-subject to self-doubt and insecurity.
And yet most married sex addicts entering treatment (more often they are men but by no means always) exhibit exactly these signs of codependency. They may exhibit them more than their supposedly “co-addict” partners.
Origins of codependence
People who exhibit codependence have typically had some kind of stress or inadequacy in their relationship with their care-givers early in life. This is sometimes referred to as “relational trauma.” This early relational trauma causes the child to grow up with mistrust of those close to him and to be insecure and avoidant regarding relationships and sometimes regarding the world in general.
Instead of growing up with a strong internalized sense of self, the codependent survives childhood by using one or another “strategy” by which to adapt to a less than nurturing situation. These strategies, like numbing out, distracting oneself, suppressing feelings, being over compliant, etc. take different forms depending on the kind of relational stress and the nature of the relationship with the parents.
But bottom line, the development of the sense of self is impaired in an attempt to get the caregiver’s approval or love. The codependent’s core belief is “my worth as a person depends on my value to someone else.”
In what way are sex addicts codependent?
Although sex addicts may have a façade, a “narcissistic false self” as it is sometimes called, they have typically grown up with some serious disruptions in their intimate relationships with caregivers. This can take the form of abuse, but not always. Often the parents of addicts are distant, repressed, rigid or disengaged.
Patrick Carnes has pointed out that relational trauma is “a powerful factor in the genesis of addictions and compulsions.” In Carnes’ theory the addict shares the same fears, mistrust and basic sense of unworthiness as a codependent. The lack of a strong sense of self and of self worth underlies the intimacy avoidance of addicts and the tendency to medicate their fears with sex and to split their sex life off from their normal life.
The belief that they are unworthy and that they are only lovable to the extent that they can please someone else, can lead to the addict’s extreme fear of abandonment and rejection by the very partner that they have betrayed.
A passage in the Co-Dependents Anonymous “Big Book” states this point clearly:
“Since the very nature of existence is relationships, and I had a disease that precluded my ability to maintain healthy relationships, I began to see that I was pretty well screwed.
I think of the disease of codependence as a tree.
The roots of the tree are my childhood abuse and neglect. The branches are my acting-out behaviors I developed to cope with life. Both the roots and the branches have to be healed (my italics).
I cannot stop the acting-out without healing the damage that spawned the behavior, and likewise, I cannot work on the roots if I’m still medicating myself with my addictions.”
Understanding and working through these underlying early childhood issues will dismantle the unconsciously held core beliefs and allow for the emergence of a real self and real intimacy with another. Find Dr. Hatch on Facebook at Sex Addictions Counseling or Twitter @SAResource