Growing up with a sex addict will leave its mark. These are my thoughts based on my own life experiences and my observations over many decades about the results of having a sex addict for a parent.
As I watched the recently publicized exchange of tweets between Mylie Cyrus and her father I saw a myriad of familiar patterns. I am not saying that Billie Ray Cyrus is in any way a sex addict. And I am no doubt reading into the situation, but it seemed to me that there were key elements in their relationship that rang a bell.
There are many different ways for a young person to experience the sex addiction of a parent that are covert and unconscious both on the part of the addict and the child. My own father was a sex addict (and an actor) and I experienced his addiction indirectly in the subtle objectification of me as well as in his “girlfriend-izing” me and implicitly using me to triangulate with my mother.
Sex addicts place undue emphasis on sex. Thus sex addicts can communicate the over importance of sex to the child in a myriad of ways. Here are some of the dynamics that play out in such families.
- Sexualizing the child or young person by making comments about their body or their sexual desirability or even their prospects for sexual relationships later in life. This can include taking a personal “interest” in the young child’s underwear purchases, “compliments” on their appearance which are sexually toned and so on.
- Giving added importance to sex by making it totally taboo. The hiding of sexuality, the refusal to acknowledge it as something to be talked about at all can convey that sex is not only dangerous but more powerful than it really is or needs to be in the young person’s mind.
- Sexual duplicity is engrained in the child when there is a total denial of whatever is going on sexually and a repressive atmosphere around sex. The message is that one must lead a double life, compartmentalizing sex and keeping it secret. This means that the child and family are engaged in a collective form of denial in which there is a façade of normality and “healthiness” with a whole secret life going on.
- Early exposure to sex either directly or by observation can be traumatic to a child who is not yet developmentally ready to make sense of this information. At least it can be confusing and troubling and takes away a level of safety that the child needs.
- Infidelity, whether it is explicitly seen or just going on behind the scenes can place the growing child and adolescent in a number of binds. The child may be caught in the middle, may be made into a confidante or used as a weapon. All these things violate the child’s generational boundaries. The parents are supposed to be the grown-ups who take care of the child, not the other way around.
When I learned of the idea of Mylie and her father “working on” their relationship it reminded me that although this sounds reasonable, the generational boundaries can become blurred in this kind of set-up and lead to serious confusion for the adult child.
I believe the best things that adult children of sex addicts can do are:
- Realize that your experience growing up was dysfunctional in subtle or overt ways and that this will have an impact on you. Everyone’s childhood has its own problems, nobody’s early life is flawless.
- Learn about sex addiction if you want to but don’t become obsessed with your parent’s problems. If you have insecurities about yourself, your worth, your attractiveness or doubts about ever having a healthy relationship these are things you can work on in your own growth and development.
- Don’t become over-involved with your parent’s treatment or recovery. This is their journey and you have your own life to live. If you get drawn in you are just continuing to re-enact the early inappropriate family patterns.
- Be open to new models of relationship and intimacy. What you observed in your parents as a child may have been a distorted role model built to hide, rationalize or adapt to dysfunctional relating.
Notice that your parents may have grown and changed through therapy and treatment. If your parent seems to have pulled away from you this may just be because they are learning how to play a more appropriate, less enmeshed role with their children. Understanding this allows you to shuffle the deck in your own life and have some faith that things can work out well for you; that healthy, happy relationships are possible.