Susan is wondering what happened to her sex life. She and her husband were so connected in the beginning of their relationship, but now after a couple of years together they only have sex about once every two months and when they do, she is the initiator. She knew that her husband was spending hours in their basement den at his computer. She even knew he was watching porn and masturbating. She thought that was just something that all guys do. Susan likes to think of herself as open-minded and forgiving, not a prude, but last week she looked around at the files on her husband’s computer and was shocked to see the kind of porn he had been accessing. Might he be a sex addict? She assumed that those people in the news who were claiming “sex addiction” must have just been using it as a convenient excuse for bad behavior.
My husband and I receive questions about sex addiction every day. That isn’t as odd as it may at first sound since, my husband, George, is a recovering sex addict who 17 years ago founded a therapeutic center called Compulsion Solutions to assist individuals suffering from sex or porn addiction. We counsel individuals and couples in person and by phone from around the world who are suffering from sex or porn addiction.
You may be wondering about this thing labeled “sex addiction” and if it might be impacting you or your partner. Is it just an excuse for bad behavior or is it something real? Here are a few of the basic questions we frequently hear:
1. Can sex really be addictive? Are you saying that there’s something wrong with enjoying sex?
If your or your partner’s sexual activities (or the lack of sexual contact) are a problem in your relationship, it can be helpful to start by looking at the matter in terms of consequences. Does your or your partner’s sexual expression enhance the intimacy and connection in your relationship or is that sexual expression keeping you from connecting?
The pleasure inherently available in sex can get lost in the obsessive need for it. Sex addiction manifests not in the enjoyment of sex, but rather in the lack of experiencing true pleasure. For someone caught by sexual compulsion, sex has become something other than an intimate expression of loving connectedness. The pleasure present in orgasm or connection with another has been hijacked and is being used as a balm, an escape, a distraction, rather than being enjoyed for what it does offer. You can’t get enough of what won’t satisfy you. This is true of any addictive behavior.
Our healthy instinctive mechanisms quite naturally cause us to try to get away from what feels bad and to get more of what feels good. However, when that mechanism goes awry, when it goes into overdrive, it is possible to fall into a compulsive or addictive cycle. Even a healthy activity like exercising can become harmful if we overdo it in a compulsive way. By this same token, the beauty and pleasure available through sex can turn into a compulsive destructive expression.
2. Don’t all men look at porn? Don’t all men have lust?
Yes, most men look at porn. Many women do, too. Most men and women enjoy connecting sexually. We are not fostering an anti-porn or abstinent anti-sex campaign. The average person is not troubled by his or her interest in sex. He or she enjoys having sex. He or she doesn’t need to keep sexual thoughts, actions, and fantasies a secret from an intimate partner. For example, a healthy individual isn’t compelled to visit online porn day after day just to get through the day. One healthy guy reported to us, “When I look at porn, after about fifteen minutes it just gets kind of boring. I’d much rather have sex with my wife.”
The sexually compulsive individual is caught by the lure of the momentary pleasure of orgasm. He or she may want to connect intimately, but is compelled to go back to repetitive sexual encounters that are ultimately unsatisfying. The secret sex life of the sexually compulsive individual is keeping him from the connection that is possible. He just doesn’t know how to limit (and stop) the sexual behaviors that are getting in the way of intimacy.
3. Is it sex addiction or is he just morally weak or selfish?
In the hurt and anger that naturally arises in experiencing sexual betrayal, it can be difficult to see our partner’s failings as anything but a direct unconscionable sellout of the committed relationship. And sometimes it is exactly that. There are individuals who are not capable of recognizing or feeling the impact of the harm they are doing to someone else. However, a factor that can help us spot an addictive cycle is the presence of remorse and shame.
The addictive, compulsive cycle operates like this:
• a preoccupation with a perceived need, leading to
• a routine that leads up to the compulsive behavior, followed by
• engaging in the compulsive behavior, and finally,
• the discomfort of shame and/or remorse, which leads right back to the avoidant preoccupation with the perceived need that holds the false promise of relief from the discomfort.
4. Is it possible to heal a relationship that has been impacted by sex addiction?
We have found that not only is it possible to heal the relationship, it is possible to develop a new and deeper intimate connection. If the person who has been sexually compulsive has the desire and willingness to stop sexually acting out and to seek support in doing so, and both partners are willing to investigate the dynamics of the partner relationship, the pain and disconnectedness that has manifested as sexual compulsivity can be transformed. As with many difficulties, this problem too can be used to gain deeper understanding, awareness, love, and connectedness.