Sex addiction, at base, is an intimacy disorder. And “intimacy,” according to Linda Hatch, Ph.D., sex addiction expert and therapist, “is the ability to be real with another person.” This might seem like a simple thing, but any addict, not just those who experience sexual compulsion, is a person who struggles with being real, (i.e., honest, available and truly vulnerable) with another person. According to Hatch, these intimacy disorders develop in addicts as a result of “early experiences in their [families] of origin that failed to produce a secure attachment to their caregivers. These may take the form of neglect, abuse, abandonment or the absence of an appropriately nurturing caregiver.” Addictive behaviors show up, sometimes early in life, according to Hatch, as a coping strategy in the form of self-medication to emotional pain. Sex addiction, in particular, creates a sense of excitement and pleasure, while simultaneously ensuring emotional distance and avoidance of true connection—the kind of intimacy that can leave one open to being hurt.
Putting in the Work in Sex Addiction Recovery
The process of recovery for sex addicts involves identifying those behaviors—such as obsessive masturbation, pornography use, anonymous sex, exhibitionism, etc.—that take you out of yourself and away from those around you, acknowledging the behaviors as a problem and finding sobriety by eliminating those behaviors before they show up. But it’s much more than that. Recovery is also very much about recognizing that much of who we’ve presented ourselves to be to others, and many of the ways we’ve chosen to do it, have been based on dishonesty. It is in learning how to have real closeness with others—authentic intimacy—that we begin to heal. To do that, we’ll need to spend a bit of time understanding the early wounds that created our intimacy disordered behavior (addictions).
So sex addiction recovery is about far more than one-day-at-a-time abstinence; it’s real work we do on who we are, how we were formed and how we communicate with others. When the work has begun in earnest, and after real time has been put in, only then can healthy relationships stand a chance of developing for addicts.
Readiness Indicators for Relationship in Recovery
Through the process of recovery, addicts begin developing greater self-awareness, deeper empathy and understanding for themselves and others, greater honesty and integrity and a desire to be accountable. They begin healing their intimacy disorder by coming to understand their own worthiness—a sense of self-worth and confidence that allows them to risk feeling vulnerable with others, the key to true intimacy and communication. They develop the ability to share their truths, including feelings of pain, sadness or ambiguity. And they learn that a relationship is something to value but not something they need to survive or to feel good about themselves.
A recovering addict who has accomplished these things and desires a healthy relationship may consider some factors for further readiness. Consider the following checklist:
- Is in active, engaged recovery and maintains a support group of friends, recovery partner(s) and sponsor
- Has grown more aware of his or her feelings and is able and willing to talk about them to others
- Has learned how to reach out to others when difficult feelings or cravings emerge, or when issues arise in close relationships
- Has acknowledged any co-occurring or crossover addictions and is working on them in recovery
- Has acknowledged any co-occurring mental illnesses that may be present and has sought help. If medications have been prescribed, manages their use safely and consistently and attends doctor and therapy appointments regularly
- Has been screened for STIs and treated when necessary. Is willing to be forthright about STI history and willing to speak openly about a potential partner’s STI history before sex
- Desires a relationship not out of need or desperation, but as a reasoned decision to add value to his or her life
As the SLAA 12 Promises state: “Love will be a committed, thoughtful decision, rather than a feeling by which we are overwhelmed.” The nature of relationships is frequently emotional, however, and there will be ups and downs. Active recovery provides the tools to help addicts navigate those waves, and offers the gift of continuing support and insight so that finally, emotional intimacy—the heart of real relationship—is not something to fear, but something to embrace.