Mistaking Sex for Love: Sex Addiction Symptoms and Relationships

Evaluating people in sexual terms is becoming a more common cultural phenomenon as opposed to just one of the sex addiction symptoms. There are increasingly sexualized imagery appearing across all media.  Cocktail waitresses and centerfolds have always looked sexy, but now our TV news anchor seems to look more and more like a former beauty queen at a singles party. At some point most people can begin to separate love from mere physical lust.  But for sex and love addicts this can be a difficult distinction.  One of the sex addiction symptoms is the avoidance of real intimacy with a partner and the seeking out of an intense “experience” with a fantasy object of some sort. The real relationship in the sex addict’s life, if there is one, is likely to be somewhat alienated, even when there is an apparent feeling of attachment.  This is not universally true of course but often the same addict who says he loves his wife will avidly seek out online encounters with people he barely knows, or build elaborate fantasies around his “relationship” with a sexual masseuse or believe that he will be able to date his favorite stripper.  Many addicts in and out of relationships feel a strong and seemingly delusional pull to connect with people they relate to only sexually and sometimes only in their minds. Sex addiction symptoms and behaviors impact a relationship in that the addict is partly “gone,” and this is what often gives partners and spouses the feeling that something is wrong even when they can’t prove it and the addict denies it. Mistaking sex for love can spread in families Children The culture at large tends to encourage young people to view others (and themselves) increasingly in sexual terms.  Children are exposed to sexually explicit material at younger and younger ages not only in online pornography but also in print media, music videos, movies, TV and gaming.  Hopefully most will grow up to be relatively normal in sexual and relationship terms. What happens to children of sex addicts is that they may be given covert messages about sex that cause confusion.  It does not matter whether the addict is an outwardly puritanical while secretly leading a double life, or whether he is more overtly sexual in his talk and attitudes toward people.  The result is the same for the children.  The message gets through that sex is crucial. In the puritanical message sex is given extreme importance through being seen as too dangerous even to talk openly about. And as Patrick Carnes has pointed out the puritanical façade promotes sexual duplicity as the norm. In the overtly sexual parent there may be much discussion of other people’s looks or sexual attributes or even inappropriate focus on the sexual features or attractiveness of the child or their friends.  This conveys to the growing child or adolescent that they are and will be evaluated and found worthy or not in terms of their sexual appeal. Partners Partners and spouses of sex addicts tend to be lead down the same path in various ways.  If the partner or spouse is a woman she will have experienced the cultural pressure to be sexually “hot” from a very early age.  If a core belief of the addict is that “sex is my most important need” then the woman who is the partner of the addict may internalize the corresponding belief that “sex is the most important sign of love.” Long before discovering the sex addiction, partners of addicts may be conditioned to believe that their value as a woman or spouse is largely in their sexual desirability.   This can be reinforced in many subtle ways by a sex addict. I had a voyeuristic sex and porn addict tell me that he knowingly pointed out attractive men to his wife in order to clear the way for him to fixate on other women.  In this way the addict can normalize his preoccupation with sex both for himself and in his wife’s eyes. Another addict in his 60’s that I worked with fixated on and ogled young girls.  He made frequent comments to his wife about women being old or “long in the tooth,” etc. Sometimes women will begin to be more overt in making sexual comments about other men as a way to restore parity, to get back at the partner, and to defend against her own fear of being sexually evaluated. A word about sexual betrayal Most of the literature on partners of sex addicts emphasizes the fact that of all the sex addiction symptoms the deception, secrecy and breach of trust are seen by partners as the most traumatic aspects of the discovery of betrayal.  But the fact that the betrayal is a seen as a sexual rejection (even if some would say that logically it isn’t) is likely to be experienced as a rejection of the whole relationship. It can and does feel like the end of what is most essential to them and to their bond of love. Find Dr. Hatch on Facebook at Sex Addictions Counseling or Twitter @SAResource

How to Survive Sexual Betrayal

Why do most spouses and partners react to the discovery of sexual addiction with such a sense of total devastation?  Sexual betrayal is an emotional blow that can be harder to deal with than anything, even death.

Most therapists who deal with partners of sex addicts now see the partner as experiencing severe trauma and PTSD symptoms, at least in the initial period post-discovery.  This suggests a theoretical framework that can help us understand the partner’s recovery  process as it proceeds.

The usual tools for dealing with hardship seem to fail us

Our usual arsenal of tools for transcending heartbreak and loss seems to break down in the face of the discovery of sexually addictive behavior in a loved one. For example:

We try:

Practicing detachment by reminding ourselves that the betrayal is not about us, and going to support groups and 12-step meetings, letting go of comparing ourselves to the addict’s other sexual interest.  But detachment seems to keep slipping through our fingers and we feel a mix of strong emotions.

We try:

Educating ourselves about the disease by reading and learning about the roots of sex addiction in the early childhood attachment issues, by learning that sexual addiction is not a deliberate attempt to hurt us.  But still feelings of anger and blame seem to hang around forever.

We try:

Meditation, prayer or other spiritual practice to help us realize that we did not cause the problem and we cannot cure it, and to let go of outcomes.  This will work perfectly for some things; the job we didn’t get, the flooding in the basement, but in sex addiction disclosure there is something so totally unacceptable that we want to tighten our grip.

All of the above tools are very important in a partner’s recovery  and should be practiced even when their efficacy seems limited. But why is sexual addiction so much harder to deal with?

Some reasons why sexual betrayal is different

Here are some factors that “up the ante” in sexual betrayal.

  • The personal closeness you have to the person who has been deceiving you, the person you saw as your support system
  • The abandonment  by the most important person in your life (death is easier to accept because it is something that can’t be helped)
  • The blow to your sense of reality

The last of these, the way sexual betrayal messes with your reality, is one of the most powerful factors.  Sexual addiction is often so extreme and so out of character that it calls into question all your assumptions about “normal” life.

Surviving sexual betrayal as a grief process

I tend to think of surviving sexual betrayal as a grief process because I think it is the most useful way to look at it.  I believe that seeing it this way will give you permission to take better care of yourself and to make allowances for your own healing.

  • Grief is a process that follows its own course.  It is also a process that is very different for different people depending on your own personal make up.
  • Sexual betrayal is a loss and therefore must be grieved.  It is a loss of the relationship that you thought you had and produces the same pain and abandonment as other losses.
  • Recovery from sexual betrayal seems to follow the familiar stages of grief.

The initial stage of denial often takes the form of believing the addict’s false promises or trying to set up a quick cure.  In other words, the belief that things could be patched up and go back to “normal” is a form of denial.

The bargaining, anger and depression stages of grief are also clearly identifiable.  For example, self blame, feeling that you somehow failed, is a form of bargaining.  It allows you to hold onto a feeling that you can control the situation.

The grief process is one that must be allowed to occur.  Feelings must be experienced and emotions expelled in order to move through the process.  There is no way to make it pleasant, but it will eventually lead to acceptance and a new and better relationship life.