Dissociation can be simply thought of as a psychological defense mechanism, but for people struggling with sex addiction, it might be more accurately described as a shortcut to relapse. Rather than pay attention to everything that’s going on, dissociation is when we separate ourselves from what we’re experiencing or observing, as if becoming “numb” to what’s right in front of us in order to avoid confronting an uncomfortable reality. For sex addiction, it’s closely tied to a sort of dualistic personality: on one side, the individual really wants to get better, but on the other side, the dissociated self continues down the same destructive path. Understanding this issue and the ways to overcome it is central to truly overcoming sex addiction for many people.
Trauma Repetition and Dissociation
Dissociation in sex addiction frequently occurs when the problem is related to an early trauma, often childhood sexual abuse. Dissociation inherently makes sense during childhood trauma; its core function is a way of “switching off” something unpleasant, a way to get through the situation without dwelling on the details. This is effectively the same as not wanting to focus on the sensation of having a tooth pulled; it’s much better to try to ignore it as best you can.
Later, when the individual is engaging in his or her sexual behavior of choice (often closely tied to those early traumatic experiences), he or she will “zone out” in the same way, almost acting in a trance and possibly not even experiencing pleasure. In those who use sexual behaviors to drown out negative feelings, it may feel as though he or she is acting outside of conscious choice, like the behavior is written in a script the individual has no power to change. It’s an automatic, automaton-like reliance on sexual “acting out” to overcome negative feelings.
Dissociation and Sex Addiction Relapse
Dissociation plays a key role in relapse, not through switching off during times of sexual “slip-ups,” but rather through the individual dissociating with the part of himself that still wants to act out. During counseling sessions and most of day-to-day life, he will genuinely feel dedicated to recovery, but there is a lurking element to the psyche—being wholly ignored—that still has the same desires. This doesn’t appear to be a problem until temptation arises, and the hidden self comes to the forefront and starts driving behavior. He may be completely honest with other people about any indiscretions, but the lack of honesty with himself lets the “other” part take the reins and cause a slip-up. When you see somebody dedicated to recovery who continually relapses, there’s a good chance this type of dissociation has a role to play.
Helping People Overcome Dissociation in Sex Addiction
For treatment providers and those in treatment, the core issue is what can be done to help with this self-deceptive dissociation. The crucial step is helping the individual recognize that the self that acts out is also part of her, just like the surface self who appears dedicated to recovery. Sex Addictions Counseling’s Dr. Linda Hatch refers to this as “making the introduction,” literally pushing one self to “meet” the other. The “addict” part of the personality needs to be acknowledged in order to be accepted and controlled.
One way to overcome the disorder is by having the individual call someone else in recovery during potentially risky times — although oftentimes she won’t make that call when she needs to. Instead, it’s typically more effective to have somebody call the individual at the times she’s most likely to act out. Of course, this can be hard to determine, but once a pattern is established, a well-timed phone call can help ground her in reality.
A related technique is to contaminate the fantasy of acting out. Someone struggling with sex addiction likely plays fantasy situations out in his mind, but will leave out all of the real-world consequences that originally drove him to seek help. In treatment, this can be counteracted by asking him to convey the fantasies and then helping him reflect on what the consequences would be. Next time the fantasies come into his head, the well will have been poisoned; it won’t be so easy to imagine the illicit liaison as being all reward and no consequence.
Finally, it helps to ensure his or her definition of what constitutes “acting out” or a “slip” is consistent. Somebody may understand that having sex with somebody else constitutes a relapse, but convinces herself that flirtatious online chats or cybersex are not. They are due to the same issue, however, and helping her realize this serves to shine the light on the dissociated, addicted part of the self. Similarly, a pornography addict may convince himself that “soft” porn is different from more extreme or graphic porn, but in terms of the underlying issue, this distinction is meaningless.
Dissociation is a complex issue, but the solutions all come down to helping the individual realize that while there may be an illusion of control, it will all come crashing down with a relapse when the opportunity presents itself. Both the individual struggling with sex addiction and treatment providers need to remain aware of this problem, and understanding it a little better gives loved ones a deeper insight into what is often a confusing issue. To really get better, you have to accept your true self—the desirable and the undesirable parts alike.