DEAR DR. JENN,
My partner says he is a sex addict. Isn’t this just an excuse for bad behavior? Is sex addiction a real thing? Now that I know this about him, what do I need to know if I am going to stay with him? Should I leave? — Can’t Stop
DEAR CAN’T STOP,
People who struggle with sex addiction, or as I prefer to call it sexually compulsive behavior, can violate their own morals, go against their values and risk the people and things that are important to them in order to get their sexual fix. Much like other addictions, people who suffer from this have a pathological relationship to their drug of choice — which, you guessed it, is sex. Sex is a mood-altering experience, and those who are compulsive, whether with a substance or a behavior, tend to not be very good at tolerating feelings or regulating emotions.
They often have poor self-esteem. Their inability to stop their compulsive behavior ultimately makes them feel worse about themselves and the shame and secrecy they carry creates tremendous isolation. The hook for sexually compulsive person is the mood altering experience of sex, not the person they are having sex with, who, in many cases, can be seen as just a means to an end. So, yes. This is very real. And it can be a huge hurdle for your relationship. Does it mean the end of your marriage? If you’re willing to support your partner and come to terms with how their addiction may impact your sex life, it doesn’t have to.
How Sex Addiction Is Defined
While not an official diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the guide that therapists use to assess and diagnose their patients, the struggle is real. The American Psychological Association rejected “sex addiction” as well as the proposed “hypersexual disorder” in the newest version of the DSM. The editors didn’t believe there was enough evidence to support hypersexuality as an addiction. That said, there is a diagnosis referred to as Sexual Disorder - Not Otherwise Specified which includes “distress about a pattern of repeated sexual relationships involving a succession of lovers who are experienced by the individual only as things to be used," which covers similar ground.
Signs of Sex Addiction
The hallmarks of any addiction or compulsive behavior are shame, lies, denial and rationalization. The actively sexually compulsive person will tell lies, rationalize the hurtful acts they have committed, or be in denial about the serious nature of their actions. The shame they feel about their behavior and inability to stop fuels that dishonesty.
According to Patrick Carnes, Ph.D., author of Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction, there is a four-step cycle that people who struggle with this issue go through. Those steps are:
1. Preoccupation: During this stage, a compulsive person is obsessing about thoughts of sex and their search for sexual stimulation.
2. Ritualization: They create routines that intensify the preoccupation and add to the excitement of the experience.
3. Compulsive sexual behavior: This is when they are performing the actual sex act.
4. Despair: Afterward, they feel ashamed, at the mercy of their compulsivity, and powerless over their inability to stop.
After acting out, people with sex addiction typically beat themselves up. It is common to go into a spiral of despair. Perhaps you’ve experienced this with your partner — a cycle that often ends in a rock-bottom feeling. The shame and embarrassment of the behavior, because it is sexual in nature, can make it take longer for someone to reach out for help. But once they do, there are many options.
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How Sex Addiction Is Treated
The best treatment is a combination of psychotherapy and working a 12 step program. It is ideal to work with a therapist who has a deep understanding of the issue. You can find a certified sex addiction therapist in your area though Sex Help. Programs like Sex Addicts Anonymous and Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous follow a 12 step model similar to Alcoholics Anonymous but instead address sexual addiction. There are even in-patient programs with specialties in sex addiction. There are many resources available for those who are ready for help; as the partner, the best thing you can do is lead the person in your life toward these resources.
If Your Partner Is a Sex Addict
Whether you find out because, like with your partner, the person discloses it or you discover evidence of a sexual problem, most people respond with shock and fear. It is difficult to wrap your head around this kind of problem since it so directly affects your intimate life. When you do not know the severity or how well managed a person's sex addiction is, it is difficult to make a decision about whether to stay in a relationship with them or not. Knowing what kind of active steps your boyfriend is taking to address the problem is key. Is he in therapy? Is he in a 12 step program? Does he have a behavioral plan to avoid acting out? How has this impacted his past relationships? Most 12 step programs recommend that new members abstain from dating at all during the first year — has he talked to you about pulling back for a period of time? What is his support system like outside your relationship? Does he have a sponsor?
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Deciding whether or not you were going to stay in the relationship involves assessing many factors. How long you've been together, whether you have children, and how you feel about the relationship in general are big ones. But also consider how this new information is impacting you. Some other questions to ask yourself include: How is his behavior affecting the relationship? What is your sex life together like? Do you feel you can trust him?
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Meanwhile, I would recommend you spend some time in therapy as well, or check out Alanon, which is a 12 step program for people who have a loved one who is an addict, alcoholic, or is compulsive in their behavior in some way. It's free, and can really help you navigate the murky waters of having a partner who struggles with this kind of behavior. As with so many of life's particular difficulties, having the support of people who can relate to what you're going through is paramount.
Without the willingness to address the underlying issues and work a good program, this kind of compulsive issue can continue to resurface. That said, there are many sexually compulsive people who address it in therapy, work a strong 12 step program, and go on to have healthy, connected, and satisfying relationships with their intimate partners. I hope it turns out this way for you.