Subtle Signs of Self Hate: Recovering Sex Addicts Find New Outlets

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.


Is Your Relationship Addictive? Take the Self-Test

Relationships should feel good.  They should be happy and loving most of the time.  Addicts, recovering addicts and partners of addicts often have relationships that are the opposite.

As Patrick Carnes has pointed out in his writing, both sex addicts and their partners often have many similarities in their psychological makeup.  Both addicts and partners of addicts often come from families in which relationships were dysfunctional and appropriate nurturing was unreliable.

This early relational trauma leads to both fear of intimacy and fear of abandonment.  And these can lead couples into patterns of relating where each feeds the other’s unhealthy dynamics such as avoidance, manipulation, lack of openness, fear, and over-control.  See also my post “When Love Addicts Fall for Sex Addicts.

Mistakes addicts and partners make

  • Mistaking sex for intimacy

Most sex addicts and many partners of sex addicts place an undue emphasis on sex as the most important aspect of the relationship or as the proof of whether the relationship is loving and devoted.  Sex addicts have little experience of healthy intimacy and place an undue emphasis on having their sexual needs met, either inside or outside the relationship.  Partners may allow themselves to see their addict’s powerful sexual attraction as the only or most important aspect of love and intimacy.

  • Lack of Courtship Skills

Addictive relationships often begin with sex.  By building a relationship on sex and romantic passion, addicts and their partners may ignore the process of getting to know each other in a healthy way.  There is nothing wrong with enjoying feeling swept away, but it shouldn’t prevent you from learning about one another as part of a process leading to healthy commitment.  In a more normal courtship, people take it slower and ask more questions about the other person’s situation, their relationship history, their feelings about relationships etc.  And they also do not approach the situation with any ideas about what they might need or want in another person (aside form feeling swept away).

  • Mistaking Intensity for devotion

Many addictive couples have patterns of high intensity and high drama in their relationships.  They may have frequent and even violent conflicts and they make often break up and get back together.  Their interaction may be characterized by jealousy, threat, competition, and fear, all of which are mistakenly interpreted as signs that the relationship is the most important and most deeply committed one in their life.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

  • Mistaking power for trust

People who feel inadequate to the demands of an intimate relationship or who are overly fearful of abandonment may have an excessive need for control in their relationships.  Instead of feeling safe and secure in the knowledge that they can deal with problems that arise, they are closed off and mistrustful.  This leads to a vigilance about what the other person is doing and a lack of openness in communication.  The excessive need for control is based in the person’s own insecurity about their ability to sustain a relationship, their worth as a partner and their partner’s reliability.

An addictive relationship self-test*

The items in the test below are informally compiled based on my clinical experience and reading on this topic.  These problems are not unique to addicts and may be experienced by anyone with impaired intimacy and relationship abilities.  But they are very characteristic of addicts and often of the partners of addicts as well.

  1. Growing up I didn’t see my parents as consistently loving, and contented with each other.
  1. My relationships typically start with an intense sexual attraction and rapid involvement.
  1. I find it easy to start relationships but they always get complicated.
  1. I find it hard to know how to get out of a bad relationship.
  1. I sometimes think I stay in a relationship because I am afraid of being on my own.
  1. I am afraid of my partner’s anger.
  1. I sometimes placate or manipulate my partner to avoid confronting things.
  1. I find it easy to get into thinking that my partner is to blame.
  1. My partner and I don’t talk about our feelings about the relationship.
  1. In my relationships one person is always less devoted than the other.
  1. Either I feel superior to my partner or I feel my partner is superior to me.
  1. I am dishonest with my partner at times to avoid upsetting him/her.
  1. When I am in a relationship my partner and I don’t socialize with friends as a couple very much.
  1. Either I or my partner is always trying to get us into some kind of therapy.
  1. I feel that having a good relationship is hopeless.

*Taken from my book Relationships in Recovery: a Guide for Sex Addicts who are Starting Over

When you look at this list of statements, it should be clear that what I am calling addictive relationships are characterized by things like negativity, turmoil and alienation.  A person who has the emotional development required for healthy intimacy would avoid or even run from such a relationship.  Without a level of openness, security and contentment it is impossible for relationships to succeed and for the partners to flourish.

Find Dr. Hatch on Facebook at Sex Addictions Counseling or Twitter @SAResource

Dating a Recovering Sex Addict? Bring This Checklist

If you are dating someone who has admitted to a past history of addictive sexual behavior you will need to know what to expect going forward.  If the person you are dating has been in sex addiction treatment for upwards of a year or more, then the chances are that he (or she) will not relapse into the prior behavior.  Or at least will not take up the full-blown version of the compulsive behavior such as cybersex, prostitutes, pornography, anonymous sex, and so on.

Positive signs to look for

You should feel encouraged by signs that the addict is in “good” recovery.  Here are some of the indicators that the person has done the necessary work on himself and is ready for a healthy relationship.

Recovery history: The addict has had some combination of appropriate treatment and self help support programs such as therapy with a certified sex addiction therapist, treatment in a residential or intensive outpatient program if needed, group therapy, 12-step group participation.

Commitment to growth: The addict makes his own recovery a high priority in his life.  He continues to work on himself and to be engaged with other people in recovery.  You feel in your “gut” that you can trust him to be aware of and take responsibility for his own continued growth.

Insight: The addict is aware of what went wrong in his past relationships and understands how he retreated into his addiction, avoided intimacy, and hurt his partner.  He understands that the relationship dynamics of the past are no longer what he wants.

Healthy communication: The addict is open and honest about what he feels and communicates his needs.  He doesn’t heap blame on his past partners or project blame onto you.  He takes responsibility when he is wrong.

Problems to expect

Sex addicts can be expected to have residual intimacy issues.  They come out of the initial stage of recovery vastly changed in many ways, but they will still be fearful of relationships will have imperfect relationship skills.

Bonding problems: Addicts often have had early attachment issues with parents or grown up without ever having any appropriate models of healthy bonding.  They may fear abandonment and feel that commitment is dangerous.  If this is a problem they need to work on it in therapy.

Other addictions: Addicts seldom have just one addiction.  Researchers have found that 83% of sex addicts interviewed had at least one other addictive behavior.

Subtle acting out behaviors: It is not unusual for subtle mini-behaviors to creep in such as contacting an old girlfriend “to catch up,” or looking at “harmless” videos on facebook or ads on craigslist.  These things may not mean anything but sometimes they can be driven by the addiction in unconscious ways.  They may seem eminently “deniable.”

Issues around sex:  The recovering sex addict will often have had little or no experience with healthy sexual relationships.  He may be ambivalent or avoidant about sex.  Sometimes the addict will try to bring addictive behaviors into the relationship in some way.  This may or may not be OK with you.

What to do?

Ask a lot of questions:  Don’t be afraid to pry.  Make sure you get the details of the addicts sexual acting out behavior.  Many times addicts will give people a “sanitized” version of what their lives were like before.  Often they will leave out a whole set of behaviors that they are to embarrassed to talk about.  You need to know these things even if you don’t think you want to.

Don’t be placated:  Addicts have spent many years not talking about things and just saying whatever they think someone wants to hear.  This means they haven’t ever gotten used to talking about their feelings and needs with anyone.  Let your addict know when he is not being open and when he seems to be putting you off.  He needs to practice asking for what he wants.

Be clear about what you want:  Set appropriate boundaries for yourself including what you are OK with sexually.  Protect yourself and decide what your limits are. Likewise be clear about what you want in a relationship and make sure you ask your addict what he is looking for in a relationship.  This is not being pushy, it’s important.

Get connected: Talk to other people or go to one of the many websites that deal with partners of sex addicts and get as much support and information as you can.  Educate yourself about sex addiction, and if the relationship gets serious, feel free to make an appointment wit a certified sex addiction therapist to discuss things.  Getting therapy together at some point is never a bad idea.

Nothing is for sure when it comes to relationships but dating someone in good recovery, particularly if you have done some work on yourself, can be very rewarding.  You may end up in the best relationship ever.  But if so that will be because you too are committed to learning and growing.  One thing is for sure: relationships are to learn from.

Intimacy After Sex Addiction Treatment: 5 Frequently Asked Questions

If you are in a relationship with someone who has been in sex addiction treatment you will have a lot of legitimate confusion and uncertainty.   Here are some of the questions I have heard most frequently.

Has he told me everything?

There is a serious chance that a sex addict who is in pretty good recovery may be holding back, some big or little fact about his sex addiction history.  As much as we would like for sex addicts in treatment to disclose everything that is relevant, there may be some information that they feel they simply cannot reveal, or at least not yet.  There is bound to be some residual shame about their addictive behavior and some fear that a particular fact would be a “deal breaker” for you.  If you can be non-judgmental and supportive, the addict will eventually feel safer telling everything.  But if you want to know it all, you should let the addict know that the whole truth is important to you.

Can I trust him not to cheat on me?

If having extra-curricular affairs was one of the addict’s sexually addictive behaviors, and assuming he has committed to avoiding this behavior then you probably can assume that he will not go out and start another affair.  But there is a caveat.  Addicts in recovery often find miniature ways of acting out their old behaviors.  He may flirt excessively, he may contact an old girlfriend online or he may have work relationships with women that are “just friends.”  These are things that are not a good idea for a recovering addict as they are ways of sneaking around the rules to get a “hit,” not to mention they will drive you crazy.  Someone he trusts needs to point this out to the sex addict when it happens because he will be unlikely to see it on his own.

Will he enjoy sex with me?

Your sex life may be perfectly fine.  However, for some addicts it is difficult to adjust to sex with a partner once they have stopped using sex as a “drug”.  The addict may even become sexually avoidant to some degree.  Sex with a partner can initially seem uninteresting to an addict who is used to the adrenaline rush of acting out.  And the addict may have insecurities about whether he or she will be sexually adequate, insecurities which were always there but which were submerged in the addiction.  The addict may be tempted to bring some addictive fantasies into your sex life, familiar thoughts and behaviors and role-playing that the addict found arousing in the past. This can be totally OK (if it’s comfortable for you both) but it can also be slippery territory for the addict; it is a judgment call and it’s important to talk about it together.

What are the signs of relapse?

The signs of possible relapse are many, but one of the most obvious is the addict’s letting go of his or her commitment to their recovery and continued growth.  Lessening of the total devotion to sex addiction treatment may be expected, but if the addict becomes too cavalier about being “cured” he may be at risk.  Another problem area is that of other addictions, which may surface and lead back to the sexual addiction.  Addicts may drink more, get too wrapped up in work or engage in other activities addictively.   If the addict begins using another substance or behavior as a drug this can lead back to sexual acting out.

Will we be able to feel intimate?

Regaining trust and intimacy is a long process.  It is necessary to be very patient and supportive with one another and not to panic.  Sex addiction is often called an “intimacy disorder” and this means that sex addicts have to gradually learn how to express things like nurturance and devotion.  Over the long haul, sex addiction treatment involves learning  how to be honest with a partner and how to feel safe being who you are, with all your imperfections and fears.  This level of honesty will ultimately lead to a closer, safer bond for both of you.  The addict (and you) will come to feel that you are going to be OK even if the relationship should end and that it is necessary to stop hiding and lying even if it means you risk everything.  I like the saying that your love should be unconditional, meaning you don’t have to sit in judgment, but that whether you choose to stay in the relationship is conditional.

Why Sex Addiction is an “Intimacy Disorder”

What is an Intimacy Disorder?

Intimacy is the ability to be real with another person.  In its essence, intimacy is the connection between two people who are equals and are genuine and open about what they are feeling in the moment.  In other words the capacity to be intimate involves the ability to take the risk of being known for who you really are.  It is necessarily a willingness to take the risk of getting hurt or rejected.

Addiction and intimacy

Addicts of all kinds, including sex addicts have difficulty being real in their relating to people including a significant other.  They typically have early experiences in their family of origin that failed to produce a secure attachment to their caregivers.  These may take the form of neglect, abuse, abandonment or the absence of an appropriately nurturing caregiver.  Addictions are an adaptation or coping mechanism usually beginning early in life as a way to handle stress and regulate emotion.

Addictive behaviors are a way to adapt that does not depend on another person for comfort or support.  If other people are involved in the addictive behavior, it is because they facilitate or support the addict using a drug or behavior with which to distract, stimulate or soothe themselves.

Addiction is intimacy avoidance

Because of their early life experiences, addicts are afraid of intimacy.  Depending on their early experiences with their caregivers addicts will predictably approach the prospect of being intimate with:

Fear of abandonment

The addict tends to do and say what the other person wants rather than what they really think and feel

Fear of rejection

The addict feels that rejection will be devastating and will reinforce an already insecure self-concept

Fear of engulfment

The addict fears losing their separate identity and becoming totally absorbed into another person

Fear of conflict

The addict fears the other person’s anger and the sense that they cannot stick up for themselves or set boundaries

Addicts prefer to avoid getting close beyond a certain point.  Patrick Carnes states that intimacy is the point in a relationship when there is a deeper attachment and that this requires “profound vulnerability.”  He calls this “the ‘being known fully and staying anyway’ part of relationships.”

Addicts view intimacy as potentially painful.

Addicts often view intimacy as an inherently painful experience.  This may be all they know from experience and all they have ever observed growing up. Many addicts would much prefer physical pain to the emotional pain they might experience in an intimate relationship.  Often they learned early to be careful and self conscious around people.  Addicts will often avoid even close friendships or social situations because they anticipate having to play a role.  And playing a role is much more strenuous than being yourself.

Intimacy requires strength

The strength required for intimacy is a strong sense of self and self worth.  I prefer to use the concept of “self-efficacy” over that of “self-esteem.”  Being intimacy “abled” is not so much having a positive view of yourself as it is having a sense that you should and can act in effective ways to protect yourself and enhance your own life.

This is the strength that neutralizes all the fears that make the addict run from intimacy.  It is not a question of being tough; on the contrary, it is knowing that you may get hurt but that you will not get devastated.

Gaining these skills involves a combination of not only addiction treatment and therapy but assertion training, which involves de-conditioning what is essentially a phobic reaction to being emotionally honest and practice with basic relationship and communication skills.

Learning to be stronger is what allows us to be vulnerable in relationships.  And this vulnerability is a sign of strength.