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.