Magic fills the air when the holidays come around. Nostalgic movies paint pictures of the family gathered around the Christmas tree singing carols or couples snuggled up by the fire, while holiday songs ring out with peace, joy and the spirit of giving. For some blessed families, these images may be a reality, but for many people, day-to-day life is slightly shy of perfect. It is important to set goals and make plans for a happy holiday season, but having exceedingly high expectations can be a set-up for disappointment. While disappointment is never fun, for men and women struggling with love, relationship and sex addictions, it can be disastrous. Faced with the feelings of loneliness and disappointment that sometimes accompany the holidays, men and women with love and sex addictions may find that their harmful behaviors escalate further out of control. Setting realistic expectations for the holidays can minimize the damage and help recovering addicts maintain their sexual sobriety. Here are a few comparisons of fantasy and reality to help keep your expectations in check. The Fantasy: This holiday, I will be surrounded by family and friends who love and support me. Everyone will set aside their differences so that we can truly enjoy our time together. The Reality: Not everyone is fortunate enough to have family they can visit for the holidays. Some may be alone with no plans at all; some may have family nearby whom they don’t want to be around. Others may be surrounded by loved ones, some of whom may be struggling with their own addictions and mental health disorders, yet still feel unloved and unsupported. After yearning to be part of the family celebration, the sex or love addict may leave and go straight to a bar, strip club, Grindr or Craigslist. “The holidays can bring up unforeseen emotions that leave people feeling ‘less than,’” says Robert Weiss, LCSW, CSAT-S, an internationally known author, addiction specialist and educator who founded the Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles and developed relationship and sex addiction programs at The Ranch in Tennessee. “As a result, those with addictions or emotional challenges may seek out a person or experience that makes them feel special, important and valued.” The sense of shame that many sex and love addicts feel can be heightened around the holidays. Family members who don’t spend much time with the addict may be seeing worrisome behaviors for the first time and may express their concern or disapproval. Or perhaps the spiritual nature of the holidays is a signal to the addict that they aren’t living in accordance with their moral or religious principles. The Fantasy: Mr. or Mrs. Right is going to knock on my door just in time to sweep me off my feet for the holidays. The Reality: During this time of year, individuals with sex and love addictions may feel a particularly strong longing to be connected with others or to be in a relationship, not necessarily for love but to avoid being alone. Romanticized visions of a kiss to ring in the New Year or receiving the perfect holiday gift from a love interest – which often are not played out in reality – can prompt reckless and harmful behaviors. The Fantasy: Holiday vacation is going to be the break I’ve needed all year. I’ll have time off work/school to finish projects and visit with family and friends and finally just relax a little. The Reality: For sex and love addicts, unstructured time, particularly when spent alone, can be a trigger of its own. Rather than using the extra time constructively, sex and love addicts may become increasingly anxious and consumed with finding ways to squeeze in addictive sexual/relationship behaviors around family time. In a misguided effort to get their emotional needs met, they may waste the highly anticipated week off on drugs and sex. “Around this time of year, some sex and love addicts are faced with a dangerous combination of an urge to escape and more opportunities to engage in risky behaviors,” Weiss explains. “Heightened emotions, family dynamics and other factors make it a stressful time, which can be further complicated by an increase in unstructured free time.” The Fantasy: This year, I’m not going to overdo it. I’ve learned my lesson and am committed to a healthy lifestyle. When the urge to have sex with a stranger or spend the day cruising for partners online arises, I will call on my support network to get me through. The Reality. In addition to being a season for giving, the holidays are a season for receiving. Diets, budgets and rules get set aside just long enough to indulge in decadent treats, drinking and gift-buying. Holiday parties and social events normalize excessive alcohol and drug use, which can impel people to shed their inhibitions and put themselves in high-risk situations. “Normal reality is suspended during the holidays,” says Weiss. “While most people use this time to indulge on food, spending and parties, sex and love addicts may feel entitled to indulge on a different type of partying – one that includes sexual experiences, affairs, online hookups and other risky behaviors.” The Fantasy: I’ll make all of my family and friends’ dreams come true by purchasing the exact gift they had their eye on all year. As they tear open their perfectly wrapped presents, their faces will gleam with joy and they’ll praise my fine tastes and unabashed generosity. The Reality: In a troubled economy, few people have the means to buy the lavish gifts they’d like to bestow upon the people they love. Financial hardship can lead to feelings of inadequacy, and can also prompt people to ignore reality and rack up debt they can’t pay off. The “lucky” ones who receive a big holiday bonus may find themselves squandering what should’ve been spent on gifts or saved for the family’s summer vacation on prostitutes, affairs or serial dating. The Fantasy: The risk of relapse is greater around the holidays. I know this, and have taken precautions to guard against slip-ups. With a few S meetings and my strong willpower, I’ll have no problem sticking to my sexual sobriety plan. The Reality: The holidays can be a difficult time for men and women in recovery from love or sex addiction. According to Weiss, two of the biggest triggers for relapse are travel and unstructured time alone, both of which are extremely common during the holidays. Heightened emotions and added stress make it essential to maintain a healthy lifestyle and structured self-care routine. Addiction is a chronic, progressive disease, not a matter of willpower. Strong people who are firmly grounded in their recovery can fall back into old patterns if they stop attending regular 12-Step meetings, reaching out to supportive friends and family, and working their program of recovery. The Fantasy: I know my sexual/relationship behavior isn’t normal, but I can stop any time I want. Even if I agree to get help, why not wait until things calm down after the holidays? The Reality: In many ways, the holidays are the best time to get help for sex and love addiction. Rather than allowing loneliness, isolation and disappointment to compound unhealthy behaviors, treatment grants a reprieve from holiday stresses so that sex and love addicts can focus on getting well. “We know the holidays are a time when addictive and compulsive behaviors escalate. When reflecting on the past year, many people realize that they have wanted and needed to get help for some time,” says Weiss. “There is no better time to begin sex or love addiction treatment and no better gift than to be in a safe place receiving help and support.” A Holiday Check-In for Your Mental and Emotional Health The holidays are just a few weeks away. How are you feeling? How do you want to spend your holidays? Worrying that your spouse will discover your affairs? Wondering if you’ve contracted an STD? Take some time and check in with yourself:
- Do you feel isolated, lonely, sad or angry?
- Are you keeping your thoughts, ideas and plans a secret?
- Have you contacted old hookup partners, ex-lovers, drug-using friends or drug dealers?
- Are you planning to attend a holiday celebration where you will come into contact with past sexual partners or potential partners?
This year, put an end to all of the worrying, lying and sneaking around. Make this the year that you learn how to cope with loneliness and disappointment, and stop unhealthy relationship and sexual behaviors, so that future holidays can be filled with genuine intimacy and joy.