Most people who struggle with sex addiction appear outwardly as normal in vocation and lifestyle as anyone else. For instance, many sex addicts are doctors, lawyers, writers, pastors, priests, teachers, and successful business people. They occupy trustworthy vocational roles all over the world. Sex addicts can also be very committed husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, and friends. They often also have very high levels of spirituality and concern for others. So, why do many sex addicts cause so much damage in their sexual and relational acting out? That is a really good question that can only be answered as each addict processes and works through their own life story and discovers what helps them to be safe and caring towards themselves and others throughout their life.
Sex Addiction and Issues of Intimacy
Most individuals with addiction issues generally struggle with intimacy, and with building and maintaining a healthy relational attachment or connection to someone significant in their life. It, therefore, comes as no surprise that the key struggle of the sex addict is concerned with healing, establishing, and maintaining intimacy, and with healthy attachment or connection. This is where most of the therapeutic work is focused. Many people who struggle with addictions around sex have grown up in families with physical, emotional, psychological, and/or sexual abuse. Most of the families that sex addicts come from also contain some sort of addiction. For example, Mom was a closet alcoholic, Uncle was a heroin addict, Grandpa was a mean drunk, Dad worked all the time, etc. These families are typically either rather rigid and dogmatic or else lax and uncaring. As a result, children from such families are not at all forthcoming with their feelings and/or thoughts. When children grow up in such families, they learn to survive by living a separate or secret life of sorts. They usually have problems with trust, or with sharing certain things with others, especially with others who are close enough to really hurt them, whether emotionally or otherwise.
Building Trusting Relationships
Much of the healing work done in sex addiction treatment involves growing trusting relationships of honesty and authenticity. These healing relationships may include the individual’s primary relationship (spouse or partner), individual therapist, group therapy relationships, and the Twelve Step process and relationships. The individual learns over time what building healthy relationships in their life is all about. They come to share their deep and dark thoughts, feelings, secrets, and shame with others who care, are safe, and want the best for them. This provides the unconditional acceptance that they need now and may have missed from their primary caregiver as a child. The process of participating in individual therapy and group therapy, and possibly couples therapy and Twelve Step groups, helps them to build new ways of feeling, thinking, and being in the world that are more concerned with sharing their life with others through honesty, truthfulness, and caring. The repeated but new patterns of sharing their deep and sometimes dark and shameful side with others enables them to gain and give acceptance and care. In this way, the addiction to sex and its compulsion to isolate, hide, and push away difficult thoughts or feelings is turned around. The hope is that they begin to understand how to live in reality and in true relationship with others. They develop more of an alignment, becoming relatively the same on the inside as they are on the outside, rather than living two separate lives (one in their addiction and the other that everyone sees them as, i.e., pastor, doctor, teacher, etc.).
More specifically, those who struggle with a sex addiction learn more about how they were broken or harmed in the past, and what they can do with that hurt now. They identify those situations, people, and environments that trigger feelings of unworthiness, isolation, and wanting to escape. They do this in the hope that they will eventually be able to head off such feelings before acting in a way that is against their better selves, judgment, and care. Most importantly, they begin to learn about a healthy and life-giving sexuality that speaks to their holistic need for intimacy but is also an intimacy that goes beyond their sexuality.
The Role of Shame in Sex Addiction
Another aspect of the treatment of and recovery from sex addiction concerns shame and particularly public shame. Often sex addiction becomes known as a result of some sort of relationship or behavior that is revealed, either in a public way or else to a spouse or partner. In the public eye and the message of most media, sex addiction is synonymous with a peeping Tom, a pervert of some sort, or worse yet, a pedophile. Although these are forms of sex addiction and are or can be illegal, the vast majority of those suffering from sex addiction are not breaking laws or preying on innocent people. Whether illegal or not, sex addiction is an addiction. It is no different in treatment to that of diabetes in the sense that once someone is identified with it they will always have it in one shape or another. However, it does not have to rule their lives or relationships. We now know that much of the addiction can be managed and even reversed because it involves a brain development issue and that, through therapy, the brain can be retrained to work differently. The treatment for such intrusive behavior is to learn how to manage it. Treatment for sex addiction works on building trust and safety, rather than hiding it or lying. It also works by developing a healthy sexuality and understanding the development of the individual addict’s background, which may contribute to their compulsive behavior around the sexualization of people and things.
The Biology of Addiction
Over the years, an individual’s brain and behavior, driven by neurochemical reactions, learn ways of dealing with tough, difficult, and stressful situations and feelings by giving oneself relief in certain ways. This is often how someone becomes involved in addictions. It just so happens that some people find that acting out in sexual ways relieves that neurochemical need, while others find that drugs, alcohol, food, work, or adrenaline, provides such relief. Many people use more than one way of gaining that relief, which means that an individual does not just struggle with sex addiction alone. Such an addiction is often also associated with a drug, drinking alcohol, working too much, or getting high from scoring at a big game or taking a risky jump off of a nicely powdered ski slope. Any number of things can be used to numb the pain of their emotional life and how they feel about themselves internally.
What God Says about Sex Addiction
As a Christian, one can’t pretend to know exactly what God would actually say. But one can glean some essential and basic truths that scripture offers us concerning how we live. When we are working on or looking into our shortcomings, shame, and/or sin, it is important to keep in mind that we are made in the image of God. Genesis 1:27 reminds us that, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Being created in the image of God gives us a worth that is beyond the value of bricks of gold or pure diamonds, as a therapist friend of mine so eloquently puts it. In fact, our lives are significant in a way that far exceeds bricks of gold or diamonds.
However, the negative voices of others, and even more so, the voices one has internalized from one’s parents, caregivers, coaches, or the bully at school or work, can continue to bring one down. That down state of feeling often leads an individual to a place of wanting to escape. They want to feel good, and they have learned to sexualize people through pornography or fantasy, or else they fill their days and nights with activities, busyness, or workaholism. Alternatively, they ingest some drug, chemical, or other substance in order to escape and cope. But these aren’t the voices that remind us of God who created us in his image. One may, however, associate such an inner critic with God’s voice, for many of people have been taught that God’s voice is a critical and/or at times condemning voice.
God Calls Us Back to Our True Selves
Nevertheless, God continues to draw near to us, even in our shame. What did God say in the creation story after Adam and Eve had partaken of the tree of knowledge? While God obviously knew that they had eaten of the tree, he still came into the garden and called to the man, asking in Genesis 3:9, “Where are you?” “Where are you?” Is that not always how my parent called to me when they knew that I had done something that was against their will for me? Is “Where are you?” not a call to us from God? God is calling us again and again back into relationship with the presence that God offers. Even in the midst of this seemingly disappointing act, after Adam and Eve had done what they had been asked not to do, God continues to call them back into relationship and presence. Overwhelmingly, that is what recovery is about. It is a calling you back into right relationship with God and yourself. For, it is only in your true self that you can truly know and accept God’s care and love for you, and not in the self of addiction, anxiety, depression, and hiding.
In recovery, one learns many things that are for the most part geared towards a new way of living, and for most addicts, it is a new way of living that involves taking care of oneself. Do you remember that last commercial flight you were on? Think of how the flight attendant reminded you to always put your oxygen mask on before assisting someone else. If you cannot breathe, then you cannot help the other person. Most addicts, especially sex addicts, have little to no understanding of what it means to take care of oneself. While they may display a lot of selfish behavior, an addiction is not really about taking care of oneself. Rather, taking care of oneself involves slowing down, living life with a mindful or prayerful intent, setting appropriate boundaries with regard to work, food, activity, family, friends, and/or other distracting or addictive things. Taking care of oneself is also about hobbies, play, fun, and learning about what you might enjoy in life outside of work and obligation. Christ calls taking care of oneself one of the great commandments. Jesus is asked in Matthew 22: 36-39, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment … the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law of the Prophets.”
Learning to Love Ourselves
The whole of that passage is essential to our faith, yet as people of faith we tend to forget or miss the part that says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This assumes a commandment that says that I need love myself. Besides, if God loves me no matter what, why would I be any better if I negate God’s love by denigrating myself? The point is that we are commanded to love ourselves. This does not mean that we have a license to be selfish fools who care nothing for the other. While selfishness is to some extent part of being human, it is not the same as loving ourselves, just as saying that one is a narcissist does not make one full of love for oneself. A narcissist actually has nothing but fear and contempt for themselves, and narcissism is in a certain sense synonymous with selfishness.
Christian Counseling for Sex Addiction
As a Christian counselor, I have learned that faith, shame, biology, and trusting relationships are all integral parts of healing and recovery from sex addiction. The components of this healing process involve varying levels of work, concern, and attention depending on the individual’s treatment. But they all play a significant role in the process of building and developing a more healthy life. If any of this resonates with you, I would encourage you to find help, preferably from a therapist in training or trained in treating sex addiction, i.e., a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist (CSAT).
“Pondering,” courtesy of David Meier, Picography.co, CC0 License; “Sunset Couple,” courtesy of David Meier, picography.co CC0 License; “At the Airport,” courtesy of Thong Vo, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Mobile in My Hands,” courtesy of Jan Vasek, jeshoots.com , CreativeCommons public domain CC0 License