People who struggle with sex addiction face a challenge unlike recovery from drugs or alcohol. With chemical addictions, recovery is hard but at least sobriety is straightforward: recovery means complete abstinence from the substance. Sex addiction is more complicated. We will always be sexual people, and most addicts will engage in sexual activity throughout their lives. The question is what constitutes healthy-as opposed to addictive-sexual activity?
In this sense, the challenge is more like that faced by food addicts. As the saying from Overeaters Anonymous goes, “Trying to eat abstinently is like trying to take a tiger out of a cage three times a day and then coax him back in until the next time.” recovering food addicts have to eat. They can’t just abstain from their “drug”-they have to develop a healthy, ongoing relationship with it. So must sex addicts.
The task can feel overwhelming, but there is hope. Many people around the world are finding recovery from addictive sexual behavior. How? How does recovery from sex addiction happen?
Recovery involves facing issues about our past, present, and future. In my work with men in workshops and support groups I encourage them to adopt what I call a “back to the future” approach: start by getting clear about your vision for healthy sexuality (future), make sure that your environment helps you move toward that vision (present), and do whatever it takes to make peace with your past.
Establish your vision for a sexually healthy life
Pat Carnes, an early pioneer in sex addiction treatment, says that the first tasks of recovery is to “establish sobriety.” With sex addiction, it’s even more elemental: we need to establish what sexual sobriety is.
Until we get clear about this, we are stuck. The chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” But in this case we must first clarify the direction in which to take that step.
In its early stages, recovery from sex addiction involves deciding what behaviors a person wants to include in his or her life, and what behaviors to abstain from. How do you decide this?
Twelve step recovery fellowships disagree about this. One group (Sex Addicts Anonymous, or SAA), encourages recovering addicts to decide for themselves-with guidance from their sponsor and support group-what their bottom lines need to be. People in SAA recognize that this bottom line may change over time, often moving from a broad definition of sobriety to a more narrow view over time. In keeping with the “Harm Reduction Model” of recovery, early recovery may involve identifying only the most problematic, high-risk behaviors (such as unprotected sex, or sex outside of one’s committed relationship). As time goes on, the addict may come to believe that other activities (such as pornography use or compulsive masturbation) are addictive as well.
Another fellowship (Sexaholics Anonymous, or SA) outlines for its members a universal definition of sobriety: “no sex in any form with oneself, or anyone other than the spouse.” Their concern is that leaving the definition of sobriety undefined opens the door to self deception. They believe that addicts will struggle to find sexual health if they persist in compulsive behaviors, even if they have not listed those behaviors as part of their own personal “bottom lines.”
However we go about drawing the line between healthy and addictive behavior, the point here is that recovery can’t happen until we experience sobriety from the addictive behaviors. Until we experience some ongoing sobriety, we live in the mental and emotional fog of addiction. We cycle back and forth from addictive craving, acting out, remorse, and self-hatred for our behavior. When we begin to break that cycle, we can start the work of self-reflection that leads to internal transformation.
Obviously this is easier said than done, especially for addicts who are living in environments filled with temptations to fall back into old sexual habits. Clarity and resolve aren’t enough: we need to make changes to our environment.
Establish an environment around us that is aligned with our vision for sexual health
Environmental change precedes life change. Life-change doesn’t happen with resolutions, promises, and exertions of will-power. Unless we do things to change our environment-making it more conducive to our new commitment-we will inevitably fall back into old behaviors. In the battle between will-power and environment, environment always wins.
Nobody has enough will-power to sustain significant life change if their personal environment undermines those changes with temptations and discouragement. If we don’t change our environment, the only leverage we have is the strength of will, and will-power is a much more limited commodity than we realize.
Imagine someone trying to achieve sobriety from an addiction to alcohol while working as a bartender. Of course it is theoretically possible to abstain from drinking in that context, but to do so would involve facing down powerful and repeated temptations. A human being can only be expected to overcome a limited number of these temptations. To be successful, the recovering alcoholic needs to change the environment so that he or she is not required to fight such a constant battle.
Our environment is multi-dimensional. It includes family, friendships, work, the places we spend our time (physical environment), and the media we consume. Three arenas are especially important:
For addicts to find recovery, they need to be careful about the sexual triggers in their environment. They need to get rid of stashes of pornography, open relationships with affair partners, secret e-mail accounts, unfiltered access to pornography, etc. Without making these changes, they will relapse into old behaviors during weak moments.
Getting into support groups
Recovering sex addicts need meetings with other recovering addicts for many reasons. They need to learn from other people who’ve gone down the path of recovery. They need to have the message of recovery, and the vision of a healthy sexual life, reinforced on a regular basis. They need places where they can experience camaraderie and emotional support, to counteract the anxieties and insecurities they wrestle with.
Sex addiction is an especially isolating disorder. Most people who struggle with addictive behavior have no one who knows what is happening in their lives. They keep behaviors-or at least the extent of them-hidden from friends, family, and especially spouses. This isolation feeds the shame that they feel.
Developing emotional awareness
Finally, recovering addicts need to develop a heightened emotional awareness. Many have used addictive sexual behavior as a way of coping with feelings of sadness, resentment, anxiety, or boredom. Recovery will involve developing a new respect for and willingness to attend to their emotional needs. With the help of their sponsor and others in their group, they must learn to understand when they are feeling lonely, sad, anxious, or restless. Instead of ignoring those feelings (and acting out later), they must learn to accept them and find healthy ways of meeting the emotional needs they point to.
Many addicts find that just making these changes—(1) clarifying and committing to sexual sobriety, and (2) establishing an environment that supports that vision–they experience profound life-change. Working through the Twelve Steps gives them the opportunity to look at their internal life, make a spiritual connection, and take steps to reconcile broken relationships.
But even after doing this hard and important work, some people still struggle to maintain sexual sobriety. Almost always, this happens because the third challenge of recovery has not been dealt with.
Making peace with your past
Sex addicts have become dependent on sexual behavior as a way of dealing with the stress, grief, and hurt they faced in their past. Most sex addicts found sexual behaviors early in life to be a solution to medicate pain that was overwhelming to them. Very often these addicts find themselves being triggered into these same feelings of shame, loss, and stress as adults, and find themselves reaching for the same solutions. As the saying goes, “old wounds, old solutions.” Until they learn to deal with these feelings and hurts in ways that are healthy, they will continue to struggle with addiction.
When kids grow up suffering from traumas related to various kinds of abuse or abandonment, they are likely to turn to various coping behaviors–including compulsive sexual behavior. What are children to think about themselves when they are being mistreated or not receiving the attention and love that they need? They arrive at what seems to them a logical conclusion: “If this is happening to me, I must be bad, because bad people are punished.” Or, “If no one loves me, it must be because I am bad. Good people are loved.”
Sex addicts came to believe that sexual activity is the only way to meet their needs for love and nurturing. For many of them, sex was the only way they received attention and physical touch. They learned to make the connection between love, nurture, touch, and sex. Sex became their most important need because it was the only association they had between having needs and having them met.
When these childhood wounds-and the associated strategies of medicating with sexual behavior-are not processed, the patterns continue into adulthood. When stress, boredom, or other negative feelings are encountered, they are prone to go back to old behaviors.
My colleague Mark Laaser and I conduct workshops each month with men wanting to recover from sex addiction. We work through exercises that help men to see destructive patterns from early life, and how their addiction emerged as a way of dealing with those hurts. It’s amazing to see the light bulbs go on for people who are willing to face their past with honesty and courage. Many people who have been struggling with repeated relapse make huge breakthroughs in their recovery when they understand these patterns.
Like many things in life, recovery may appear simple on paper, but in practice it’s not easy. It requires the willingness to be honest, to end isolation, and to invest in recovery materials, therapy, and groups. But the rewards are tremendous.
It might seem that the result of recovery is simply the termination of destructive behaviors, but it goes much deeper than that. Recovery results in the opening of one’s heart. Recovery makes it possible to live with a new freedom and self respect. Recovery-especially from sex addiction-opens the door to honesty and genuine intimacy in relationships. Going “back to the future” with this recovery approach opens up a whole new life.
Mark Brouwer is the director of Recovery Remixed, and editor of the blog “sexual-sanity.com.” He leads workshops with Mark Laase of Faithful and True Ministries, and is co-author with Laaser of “Sexual Addiction and Internet Pornography.”