Is it Possible to Recover from Sexual Addiction?

The concept of “recovery”

I have seen many sex addicts recover from an unhappy, lonely, self-destructive pattern of behavior in their sexual addiction and go on to not only rebuild their lives but to reach greater heights than they ever imagined.

Yet there is a tradition in the addiction field of viewing addictions as in some ways similar to “chronic” mental illness and chronic medical conditions like diabetes; conditions that require ongoing care and can be managed successfully over time.  This implies that there is no “cure,” that there may be periods of relapse and that there is no end point to recovery.

Current thinking about sexual addiction has moved beyond the earlier more limited concepts.  See a recent review of the history of the concept of recovery in mental health and addiction.

Recovery from sex addiction

Recovery from sex addiction is considered today to involve much more than abstinence from the sexually addictive behavior.  It involves a long term process of years rather than weeks or months in which the addict will make many positive changes in his/her life and functioning and in which abstinence is merely a first step along the way.

Sex addiction is viewed in the larger context of a problem with intimacy in general, usually relating back to a relational trauma of some sort during childhood.  Treatment involves resolving the underlying trauma issues and building up the life competencies that have been compromised.

Sex life in sexual addiction

The sex life of the practicing sex addict looks very different from that of the addict in recovery.  The sex life characteristic of sexual addiction is:

  • Compulsive in that it involves preoccupations, cravings and urges that defy control
  • Compartmentalized in that a chunk of the sexual life of the addict is separate from the addict’s intimate life i.e. the addict leads a double life
  • Secret in that the behavior characteristic of the addicts sexual addiction does not square with the rest of the addict’s life and the face he presents to the world, and
  • Used as a drug in that the hyper-arousal characteristic of the addictive behavior serves to distract, numb or otherwise escape from negative feelings
  • Does not usually involve a real relationship although the addict may fantasize a relationship with a stripper, a masseuse etc.

Sex life in recovery

In recovery the sex addict will be able to integrate his sex life and his “regular” life instead of keeping them separate.  This implies that the recovering addict will be:

  • Less narrow and rigid in sexual preferences and fantasy scenarios
  • Less compulsive about sex, meaning less preoccupied with seeking sex and less obsessed with sexual cravings
  • More relational and less isolated in sexual activity (e.g. sex with a person vs. porn only)
  • Less selfish, in that he will be less focused on himself and his gratification and more able to focus on a partner and
  • Able to give up the “hyper-arousal” of addictive sex in which sexual excitation is used as a drug

Long term benefits in recovery from sex addiction

Not only can the recovering sex addict have a richer, less destructive sex life, but he or she will throughout the time of recovery make many other changes as well.  If recovery continues to be a process of overcoming past fears and insecurities through active participation in treatment, therapy, support groups or a combination of these, the addict can grow in many ways over a period of 3 to 5 years and beyond.

Some of these areas of improved functioning are internal, and some have to do with relationships and general levels of functioning.  The addict in good recovery will show improvement in

  • Empathy for others
  • Less narcissistic attitudes
  • Greater feelings of overall comfort
  • Improved self-care
  • A commitment to honesty
  • Greater ability to be responsible and nurturing as a partner and parent

Addicts in recovery can expect to learn many life skills they never had before, such as the ability to set appropriate limits and boundaries, to stick up for themselves, and to set life goals and achieve them.

So where does it end?

These are pretty hefty promises but I have seen them fulfilled.  You might ask “So why do we keep on talking about ‘recovering’ addicts instead of ‘recovered’ addicts?”  Perhaps addicts feel the need to be vigilant about habits that may still be deeply buried in their “lizard” brains.  Perhaps it is just a leftover tradition from the founders of AA.  For the time being we could just think of it as a way to stay connected to a fellowship and a reminder to us to give back.

The One Essential Key to Porn and Sex Addiction Recovery

Some people start recovery for sex addiction at a full gallop and never look back.  But for people who struggle with sex and porn addiction and who have multiple slips or periodic relapses there is one key thing they may be missing.

I’m not talking here about the spiritual enlightenment side of it, the so called “white light moment” or even just the daily spiritual practice.  Those are important elements but there is something much more mundane than that.

A simple idea with big ramifications

It sounds deceptively simple but the thing you need to get your head around in recovery is that your recovery comes first.  Deceptively simple because it is very hard to put this idea into practice.  For one thing although addicts may be selfish and narcissistic, that does not mean that they are any good at getting their priorities straight.

The idea that  recovery literally comes before anything else. 

You might say well what if I am having a heart attack?  Should I go to a Sex Addicts Anonymous meeting or to the emergency room?  Well of course you need to deal with really life threatening situations first.  But in day-to-day life it is important to take the commandment to put recovery first quite literally.

Why is this so important?  Because addicts find excuses to avoid getting sober.  The need for the “drug” leads to rationalizations for putting other things ahead of the addict’s own need to recover.  This is faulty logic.  And it is part of the “cunning baffling and insidious” nature of the addiction talked about in the 12-step literature.

Isn’t spending time with your kids more important than your own recovery?  My addict clients are surprised when I challenge this idea.  Off the top it seems selfish and harmful to their children to disappoint them and undermine the closeness.  But dropping the ball on your recovery work is more harmful in the long run to everyone concerned.

There is a saying in 12-step circles that “Anything you put ahead of your recovery you will lose”.

This is profound  The reason recovery comes first is that addiction is so destructive.  Over time, the un-sober addict will forfeit everything that ever mattered to him.  He will destroy relationships, jobs, money, health, and lose any chance to fulfill his potential in life.

Many addicts get stuck in a pattern of continual relapse even though they are quite diligent about going to treatment, going to meetings and so on.  Making recovery the center of your life, at least until you are well on your way (usually at least a year or two and often longer) means more than just going through the motions of getting help.

Recovering addicts may enter treatment for any number of reasons other than wanting to get over their addiction.  In fact few actually want to stop using porn or sexually addictive behaviors in the beginning.  Most likely they have come to get help because their spouse or partner threatened to leave them, because they lost their job, because they got in trouble with the law, or some other crisis situation.

The crisis motivates the addict to get into recovery in order to hold onto something else: the wife, the career, their freedom.  And yet in the long run the motivation needs to shift, the addict needs to put those things after his recovery or he will stay an addict.  He will lose the very things he came into recovery to keep.

Putting recovery first is very hard.  As if the siren song of sex addiction weren’t enough, life throws numerous other challenges our way.  We get temporarily derailed from what we need to do to stay sober.  But eventually the basic principle applies: be ruthless in your pursuit of your own need to recover.  If you think in this way nothing and no one can stop you.  Find Dr. Hatch on Facebook at Sex Addictions Counseling or Twitter @SAResource