Sexual addiction can be hard to understand, especially when we’ve been hurt by it or we have emotional or moral reactions to it. Our immediate reaction to sexual addiction is often, “Let’s make it go away”. However, that might not be the first thing needed. What I am proposing is, that we need to understand it before we tell it to go away because the addiction itself, while destructive, houses many healthy things that are important not to lose (you actually risk making the addiction worse by not understanding it first).
Sexual acting out is the house but inside the house is a web of healthy emotional needs. If we demand that the house go away without taking the time to carefully and non-judgmentally identify and understand the needs from the house we’re telling both the house and the healthy needs inside to go away. When that happens the sexual acting out doesn’t go away, it just goes deeper into hiding in an attempt to keep from losing the relationship or marriage at stake. Meaning, even though it goes out of site, and that might feel like things are better, the house of sexual acting out will likely come roaring back the next time there is a major stress situation. This is why behavior modification or judging healing by how long someone has gone with out acting out does not work.
The first thing to know is that you can’t know if someone is doing better (when not using behavior as the measuring stick) without being in relationship with them. This because empathy is the biggest tool we have for knowing how someone is. Empathy (not compassion, not kindness, not sympathy, but taking another’s perspective in a non-judgmental way) is how we can know what’s going on. When we respond to a person from those perspectives a person can feel understood not for their behavior but for their hidden needs and intentions. This is the first step to healing.
From inside of a relationship you might ask yourself these kinds of evaluative questions:
How much does this person know themselves?
How strong does their self-esteem stand in the storm of a fight or conflict?
How well can they assert themselves and have ambition about things?
Do they seem to get drowned in emotion during conflict and either shut down or rage?
Do they seem to show almost zero emotion during conflict?
Have they begun to be able to remain rather balanced emotionally in conflict?
Do they seem to share more openly and trustingly than they used to?
What do these things have to do with sexual acting out? Well, the acting out is the house but the needs inside the house have to do with a person’s self. When the self is healthy and strong a person can get through the bumps of life without needing to go to sexual acting out to keep from falling apart. The sexual acting out is compensating for not getting the loving relationship early on they needed in order to develop a full healthy self (it’s kind of like skin to keep their bones and muscles from falling all over the place). It’s why the eyes of a woman or man in pornography are the most concentrated on thing. A person is looking for what they didn’t get in the first place (something normal and healthy). The sex part is exciting but it’s not what keeps a person coming back (Gottman’s research on affairs might be connection here, his research shows that most affairs are not about the sex, they are about seeking things like acceptance, appreciation, safety, comfort, etc.) it’s the hope that they can get what they’ve been needing, without having to feel the pain of shame or rejection (what they believe they’ll get if they went to a real-life person like their partner or spouse. In short, the person struggling with addiction is not a problem. They are a normal human in need. And their healing can’t come in isolation because what they’re longing for is to feel real and whole (a product that only comes from sustained empathic relationship).
If the answers to above questions are more “no” than “yes”, it’s important not to rush to the conclusion that work is not being done. This is a slow and messy work and one that is not a 1+1=2 either. Sometimes it’s a one step forward, two steps back, one step forward kind of a thing (or as a couple I work with have said, “It’s not so much stepping backwards as it is a spiraling effect”). The two biggest helps a partner/spouse/friend can offer with this is: grace and courage.
Grace – to not see their behavior as an attack or dismissal of your needs but as an invitation to what hurts in them (to be able to hold this empathic posture means you will need a lot of your own support and possibility your own therapy).
Courage – treatment that’s not behavioral based can look murky. It can be scary to trust healing is actually happening and to take on the emotional pain that can be connected to a loved one digging deep, a process which often ends up requiring connected loved ones do their own work in tandem.