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  • Writer's pictureDeclan Fitzpatrick

Sex Addiction and Intimacy Avoidance.

In some respects the label ‘Sex Addiction’ can be misleading. It can be unhelpful to both those struggling with compulsive sexual behaviour and for those trying to understand more about it. We see this misunderstanding expressed often in the media whenever the subject of sexual addiction is being explored. The label suggests that sex addiction is all about the sex act, an excess of libido if you like. Those who understand this addiction know that this is very far from the truth and just like any other compulsive or addictive behaviour, sexual addiction usually masks serious emotional and personal turmoil. Indeed, I find it helpful to see the compulsive sexual behaviour as a symptom of underlying problems rather than the problem itself. This of course may seem strange to anyone affected by these behaviours and the pain and chaos caused by them but the fact is that treating the symptom alone and focusing only on the problematic behaviour, while this may result in some short term relief from the problem, does not bring about lasting and effective change.

Invariably the most pressing problem that exists for someone addicted to sexual behaviour is the issue of intimacy, or to be more exact intimacy avoidance. The label ‘intimacy dysfunction’ is often used to describe this phenomenon but I prefer not to use this term as I believe it can sound harsh and risks stigmatising people. What we are really talking about here is the difficulty that some people have in forming and maintaining intimate and close connections with other people. Often with sex addiction we find that the person struggling with the behaviour can be quite isolated, having very few close personal contacts. Many of these people may be involved in a romantic relationship with a partner and may even be married. However, even in these circumstances, it is often the case that they struggle to be truly intimate.

An old therapist’s trick is to describe intimacy as ‘IN-TO-ME-SEE’….in other words real intimacy involves a deliberate attempt to allow the other person to know us as we really are…..warts and all. It is probably fair to say that this is a challenge for most people but for people who carry a deep sense of shame about themselves this is next to impossible. When we feel ashamed of something we tend not to go around shouting about it from the rooftops. We don’t want people to know and feel vulnerable and exposed if someone does. A person who is toxically shamed about who they are experiences intimacy in the same way. They feel threatened and exposed by it. It is uncomfortable in the extreme and they will avoid it at all costs. It is important to understand too that the shame the person feels does not simply come from the compulsive sex acts that are engaged in, though these acts generally leave them feeling worse, but comes from deep within themselves and has most likely been there for a long time. It is a shame about who they are and not just about what they do. Of course the paradox here is that this would be fine if we weren’t all human.

As humans we are hardwired for intimacy with others. From our earliest moments as infants we seek out and need the closeness, attention and affirmation of those around us. If this works out well and the child gets what they need, when they need it, it is likely they will go on to develop close and intimate relationships with others in their later life. If this doesn’t happen and these early emotional needs are not met the person may form unhelpful and unhealthy beliefs about themselves. These beliefs usually take the form of ideas like ‘I am not good enough’ or ‘I am not loveable’, the belief being founded on the notion that if I were good enough I’d get what I need. It is easy to see how this flawed and punitive belief could lead to intimacy avoidance. If I believe I am not good enough or loveable as I am it is likely that I will do all I can to avoid who I really am being seen or known by another. If they know me they will leave me.

In the real world intimacy with others is a risky business. Not everybody we meet will like us and not everyone who likes us will be interested in forming a close and intimate relationship with us. That’s how life is. For a person with a healthy sense of self-esteem this is a reality that they can cope with quite well. For people with the unhealthy core beliefs described above this reality gets distorted. They experience almost every interaction with others as a test. A test which involves them either being accepted or rejected.

They are hyper-vigilant to criticism or to any indication that someone doesn’t like them and interpret these events as confirmation of their core belief…..’I’m not good enough’. People with these core beliefs operate in relationships with others in one of two ways. Either becoming very subservient and passive so as to not risk the displeasure or disapproval of others or in an aloof and distant manner so as to protect themselves against the rejection of others. It is possible too that some people with adopt one or other of these positions depending on the person they are interacting with. The bottom line is that the persons own authentic self, their thoughts, feelings, opinions are sacrificed on the alter of intimacy avoidance. The payoff for this is that they avoid the pain they believe is inevitable in intimate relationships. The price they pay is to live a life with an ever present sense of loneliness and disconnection. Disconnection from others and from themselves.

All of this is important in helping us to understand why someone might develop an addiction to pornography, prostitution or cyber-sex. These activities demand nothing of the person’s emotional self. There is no risk involved, no danger of rejection or humiliation. Pornography is always available and prostitutes never say no. For people who are intimacy avoidant these behaviours can be very attractive and seductive. A way of getting legitimate needs for connection and closeness and sex met and in a way that involves little or no risk to them being exposed or hurt. Of course, the problem is that what is on offer is illusory. It is not real and all that is achieved ifs the illusion of connection. For this reason many people who engage in these behaviours will report feeling worse afterwards, more ashamed, guilty and full of self-loathing – a sure sign that the legitimate emotional need has not been met in a healthy way.

Think of it this way……

Imagine you are driving home from a long, hard day of work. You haven’t had a chance to get a proper meal and it is hours since you had that coffee and biscuit. You are hungry, famished and you can’t wait to get home, unwind and cook something to eat. But it’s going to be at least an hour before you get home and cook the meal and anyway you’re shattered and just want to crash out. You start to feel irritable and agitated. Bloody hell, why did Mary have to keep going on about that bloody account…..I could have been out of there ages ago if she’d just shut up……where’s all this traffic come from….nightmare. And then you see it……those bright yellow arches rising up at the side of the road like two open arms waiting to give you a big hug. McDonalds!!!!! Oh……a big mac, fries and coke….I am hungry….but I shouldn’t….I felt awful after the last time…..but it has been months since I had one….Oh go on, you deserve it….Bloody Mary’s fault anyway, keeping you stuck there….Sod it…I’ll do it……

And you do. The excitement building as you inch your car along the drive-in lane. The smells of salty, fatty, fried food filling your nostrils. Your mouth watering with each nudge of the accelerator pedal. And then you have it. You get stuck in, forgetting all about Mary and the traffic and that bothersome account that’s been giving you hell for weeks. Aaaaaahhhhh the taste, the feeling……bliss. Mmmmm, munch, munch……munch…….munc……mun….mu…..m…Oh no……

You’re fumbling around in the bottom of the bag for more fries….surely they couldn’t be all gone already….They tasted so good….you lick the excess salt from your fingers and consider getting some more. No, you shouldn’t. Anyway, you’re not hungry and there’s that feeling in your tummy….full, bloated and uncomfortable….and something else too… don’t feel great…..Damn….why did I do that? I could be nearly home by now and could have had something healthy. The aftertaste of salty, fatty, fried food lingers in your mouth and the back of your throat. You don’t feel good. The more you think about it the more you curse yourself for being stupid, impulsive, greedy and now the bloody seatbelt feels too tight and you’re tempted to open the top button of your pants. And bloody Mary went on and on and kept you longer than you needed to be and now the traffic seems even heavier than before and now you feel sick. Sick, angry, ashamed and unfulfilled. You went about meeting the legitimate need for hunger in an unhealthy way.

For people who are intimacy avoidant the analogy with junk food works well. They forego the roast beef dinner, the meat and two veg, for the junk – avoiding close, intimate and rewarding relationships for the meaningless, superficial and illusory encounters experienced through sexual addiction. They forego it not because they want to. They crave close connections with others but simultaneously fear them. They are not faulty or defective but fearful and afraid.

Effective therapy can help those struggling with intimacy avoidant issues to re-connect and bond with others in their life. Slowly the person learns to take little steps, risky and challenging but nevertheless necessary and worthwhile. It is the therapist’s job to encourage, explain and to support the client in their efforts to meet these challenges and risks. Over time, the client will come to see compulsive sexual behaviour for what it is – meaningless, shallow, and illusory and shame inducing and will experience the real and deep rewards available from connecting in a deeply personal way and hopefully come to appreciate this. Who would choose McDonalds over roast beef?

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