A Journey Through The Cycles of a Sex Addict
The National Council on Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity has defined sexual addiction as “engaging in persistent and escalating patterns of sexual behavior acted out despite increasing negative consequences to self and others.” In other words, a sex addict will continue to engage in certain sexual behaviors despite facing potential health risks, financial problems, shattered relationships, or even arrest.
Trauma and attachment wounds are often the catalyst to sex addiction. Sex addiction becomes a way to cope. Addiction starts with pre-occupation, which is what the brain craves as the creative outlet to take their mind off pain. The ritualistic behavior is a way to induce a trance state. Addicts use drugs and/or alcohol to get into an altered state of mind. Sex produces the same altered state as drugs due to the rush of dopamine that floods through the brain through each stage. The actual compulsive behavior is a small part of the cycle. When there are feelings of despair, an individual looks for an easy way to get out of those feelings by pre-occupying their mind with the behavior again. The cycle repeats because the brain longs for the trance state as a means of blocking pain.
One thing we know is that individuals “acting out” via sexual behavior in an addictive way have a need for comfort and control inter own lives. Individuals struggling with sexual compulsivity or addiction often have a history of unmet needs, pain, and trauma.
An example of this is that pain can create the desire for comforting or to be held; happiness can create the need for recognition and bonding. These feelings often create a desire for closeness, and usually, this is achieved by the individual being attuned to by someone else creating an attachment bond. If these attachment needs are not met an individual does not learn how to develop secure attachment.
Usually, the inability to have our needs met begins at any early age, often in childhood. When a child who has needs that aren’t being met, they begin to figure things out for themselves rather than through healthy attachment with another being. The next time the child recognizes that he or she has an unmet need, they may attempt to meet the need by some form of self soothing behavior, force themselves to stop having needs, or ignore any twinges of need they do feel. They seek to suppress those needs and feelings. The suppression of feelings through a numbing state is where addiction stems from.
An addiction that is classified as behavioral can also be the result of a neurobiological predilection colliding with an insufficient environment. An example of this is when a child grows up in a family who doesn’t meet, acknowledge, or attend to that child’s needs there is a breach in attachment. As that child enters adulthood, their sexual behaviors become a way to feel better and soothe themselves, something they learned to do at an early age due to their needs being unmet. They find relief in seeking out and acting on sexual “needs” because as children, they did not have their needs met in a consistent or healthy way.
We know that when sex addicts have feelings or desires that go unmet, they seek control, and find that by acting out sexually. Sex addicts often turn to fantasy and become completely preoccupied, and this is the beginning of the addictive cycle. The individual is often “locked” inside their own head, and seeks ways to escape pain, depression, anxiety, low self esteem, and fear of judgement from peers, family, and co-workers.
Dr. Patrick J. Carnes is a nationally known speaker on sex addiction and recovery issues, and is a best-selling author on sex addiction and the havoc it can wreak on both the addict and their families. He often talks about the "hijacked brain." Think of it as being stuck in bumper to bumper traffic when you are late to a big meeting at work. When a sex addict is in this state, the people around them are objects to be sexualized, hunted, wanted, and checked up on. Misunderstandings follow: confusing intensity for intimacy, obsession for caring, and control for safety.
The next phase in the behavior of a sex addict is the ritualization phase. This comprises of distinct routines that are formed to deepen the preoccupation, which adds arousal, exhilaration and most importantly, a sense of control. The rituals include but are not restricted to: driving around looking for potential sexual partners, wearing specific clothing or playing special music, cleaning the house in order to create an environment worthy of acting out in. These rituals also distract the addict from focusing on feelings like being unloved, worthless, etc.
The last phase is when the addict acts out sexually, and is often the shortest phase. Behaviors in this phase include, but are not limited to: compulsive masturbation, excessive use of pornography, risky or unsafe sex, excessive dating, cybersex, voyeurism, strip clubs, and anonymous sex.
Generally, sex addicts feel a crash after the sexual act has taken place. They often feel despair, which is desperation, fear, hopelessness, or sadness over their inability to stop their sexual behaviors. The guilt and shame can be devastating.
When the addict feels as though he is letting himself and the people around him down, the cycle can become vicious. Missing appointments, birthdays, and not keeping promises are examples of how the cycle can become vicious and cause further damage to the addict’s self-esteem. When hopelessness sets in, along with the feeling that the addict is powerless to help themselves, they often escape their feelings by reverting back to the preoccupation phase, consequently repeating the cycle. The reprieve from despair, which can cause depression, anxiety and self-doubt, can also lead to suicidal thoughts. Usually these feels are what cause the addict to keep acting out sexually.
Often, people struggling with the pain of sex addiction do not seek help due to fear of being stigmatized or shamed.
The Kraft Group, located in Florham Park, New Jersey, is a compassionate and non-judgmental group practice with therapists who are specially trained to help those suffering from sex addiction and partners of sex addicts. We offer individual therapy, psychiatric care, group, and family therapy for sex addicts and their loved ones.