Many of us have made bad choices when it comes to sex. We’ve slept with someone simply because we were lonely, or wanted validation. We’ve had a fling when we’re supposed to be in a monogamous relationship. We’ve wasted hours looking at Internet porn when we should be getting work done. As problematic as all these behaviors are, however, none of them automatically makes someone a sex addict. So what are the signs that bad choices have crossed the line into actual addiction?
Shame Doesn’t Make You Stop
When non-addicts feel remorse for their behaviors, they change them. Yet the same sense of shame that spurs non-addicts into positive change has the opposite effect on addicts, for whom shame is the hub of the addiction wheel. The addict feels shame for his sexual behavior, which makes him act out even more in an attempt to cover up his belief that he is damaged beyond repair. The more shame, the more acting-out; the more acting-out, the more shame.
Although bad sexual choices cause problems in the life of a non-addict, they wreak far greater havoc for the addict. As the addiction progresses, the addict’s life becomes a trail of disasters. Marriages are destroyed. Jobs, even careers, are lost. Bank accounts are depleted. Friends fall away. The damage slowly consumes the addict as he struggles to keep his behaviors in check and reassemble what’s left of his life.
Sex Stops Feeling Good, But You Do It Anyway
Like a heroin addict chasing that first high, sex addicts indulge in compulsive sex acts to recreate the euphoria they felt in the beginning of their addiction. But the novelty-seeking and risk-taking behaviors make the addict feel worse, not better. Sex becomes ritualistic, consumes more and more time, and leaves the addict feeling empty afterwards. Despite the diminishing returns and increasing shame, the addict continues to do the same things hoping for different results.
You promise your partner, and yourself, that you’ll stop. No more affairs, no more hookers, no more cyber-porn. Maybe you mean it, maybe you don’t. But as resolute as you may feel, you are unable to stop doing things that hurt you and other people. Because your behavior never changes, your word eventually means nothing. The ill will and distrust you engender may make it impossible to repair relationships. Your sense of personal failure then creates more shame, which leads to more addictive behavior.
Addicts Won’t Get Help
When non-addicts recognize they need to change, they take efforts to act in integrity. They might see a therapist, or speak to a clergy person, read a self-help book, or look inward to take an honest accounting of their wrong-doing with the intention to change it. And change they do. But the addict either resists treatment altogether, or starts and stops. He may tell himself that the therapist wasn’t any good, or the 12-step program was hokey, or self-help books are for losers, or “what’s the big deal, all men cheat/see hookers/watch porn.” The damage to an addict’s life may have to get severe before he will break through denial and admit his life has become unmanageable.
An Addict’s Life Is Built Around Addiction
Non-addicts who have made some poor sexual choices don’t depend on the pursuit of sex to help them get up in the morning. Sex is just one aspect of their lives, not the only game in town. But for addicts, sex is the most important thing. They depend on it to ward against the hollowness they feel inside — and the empty pockets in their lives where jobs and relationships used to be. This dependence leads them to orient their waking hours around sex: when they’re going to have it, who they’ll have it with, what lies they’ll need to tell to cover their tracks. Anyone can make bad choices when it comes to sex. But when a person is unable to stop making destructive decisions, he has crossed the line from occasional recklessness into full-blown addiction. By Virginia Gilbert, MFT Follow Virginia on Twitter at @VGilbertMFT