What about recovered addicts to sex? Can sex addicts ever have sexual relations again when they have overcome their dependencies? Answering the question requires understanding what sex addiction is really about.
Addicts in recovery from the addictions to alcohol, drugs, gambling, and smoking are supported and expected never to indulge in their addictions ever again. Addicts to food, obviously, have to be able to continue to eat, although without a compulsion to eat more and more.
But what about recovered addicts to sex? Can sex addicts ever have sexual relations again when they have overcome their dependencies? Answering the question requires understanding what sex addiction is really about.
Pathological love, the new psychiatric disorderSex addiction is about having sex all time or nearly all the time, having sex with strangers, having sex at the cost of family and career, and having sex under dangerous circumstances. However, it is about more than that.
Especially in countries that do not use the American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), sex addiction is increasingly seen as a treatable psychiatric illness that has at its root a search for self-identity, a lack of self-esteem that allows individuals to recognize their identity, anger, emotional distress, and, usually, a history of other kinds of addictions and childhood abuse.
The problem with sex in pathological love is not that it is repeated, but rather that it is repetitive. Sex acts are performed frantically, over and over, but without the emotional investment that creates a broader relationship. Outside the United States, pathological love is considered to be a condition different from erotomania, or having sex over and over again just for the high, or delusional love, having sex as an expression of "super powers" or unrealistic social position. Of course, "entitlements" to sex are defined differently in different cultures. What is seen as pathological love in one country may be seen as social obligation in another.
Love can be based on sex, but it can also be based on friendshipWhat is love? In the dictionary, love is defined as a feeling that propels the person toward the dignified and the grand, to things that are greater than the self. Love can be based on sex, but it can also be based on friendship. Even before love was defined in Christianity and Islam, and about the same time it was being defined in Judaism, Plato wrote of the "banquet of true love" that liberates individuals from suffering, contrasted to the gnawing kind of "love" that sees the other as an "object to devour."
Modern definitions are rather more pragmatic. Any healthy love relationship is seen as involving care and attention. When care and attention are absent, the relationship is unhealthy. Sex addiction is just one expression of unhealthy love.
Sex addiction compared to other mental illnessesPeople who have repetitive sex outside of meaningful relationships are often also diagnosed as having anxiety disorders, depression, or OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), although having any of the previously mentioned psychiatric conditions certainly does not make a person a sex addict! Generally speaking, treating the comorbid (concurrent) mental health issue usually does not resolve sex addiction.
Some neurological researchers believe that is because the sex addict's brain does not have a well-developed way of integrating the hormonal processes that occur during sex with the hormonal processes that occur during love. Sex involves the feel-good chemical dopamine. When people have sex, their brains make more dopamine and brain cells are more sensitive to it, much as is the case with eating comfort foods, running, gambling, skydiving, and certain kinds of drug use, depending on the individual.
In non-addicts, however, the brain also makes oxytocin, the hormone that makes it feel good to bond. Oxytocin levels are especially high in nursing mothers, but they also occur in loving couples. If the brain does not make enough of this chemical at the right time, however, bonding after sex is more likely to be manipulative and mechanical than deeply, if physically, felt.
How sex addicts can recover?
The reality of sex addiction is that most sex addicts do not seek help until they hit bottom, as the very public sex addiction of American golfer Tiger Woods illustrates. After a mysterious late-night car accident resulted in the back window of his SUV being broken out when the front of his SUV struck a neighbor's tree, Woods entered a private, 12-step program in which he was ordered not to have sex with anyone (including himself), and to follow steps to restoration based on Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Dutifully, Woods held a press conference thanking his mother, praising his wife, taking all blame for the results of his actions, and vowing to return to his Buddhist faith.
But there is no set program for helping sex addicts. Some sex addicts get better through 12-step programs. These programs at least support their better treatment of their partners. Some sex addicts get better after individual psychotherapy. But there is no pill to rebalance any underlying endocrine imbalance in the brain that keeps the addict from bonding and loving after having intercourse.
So, can recovering sex addicts still have sex?
The simple fact is, recovering sex addicts almost always do continue to have sex. The real question is whether they learn to treat partners like people, and maybe even find the strength to pour all of their sexual energies into a single relationship.
Marriages of two sex addicts, of course, almost never work out. Very few sex addicts remain married to their previous spouse, if any, after coming to terms with their addictions. Key to living a normal life in recovery is recognizing that others are not to blame for the acts of an addict, and that the addict has hurt family, friends, and loved ones. Vowing not to repeat the acts that hurt others is the indispensable basis of recovery.
And focusing on love also keeps the sex addict out of those situations that lead to trouble. If you are busy earning money to pay the bills, if you volunteer to change the baby's diapers when your spouse is tending to other tasks, if you mow your lawn and keep the mildew out of your shower, if you sit up with a dying friend or parent or you volunteer to build houses for the homeless, you are spending energy on necessary, fundamental life tasks that more or less preclude getting into trouble at that very moment.
The long path of recovery is moment after moment of making life-affirming, loving choices, choosing others over self. Some sex addicts find this path and stay on it. Others stay on it for a while and fall off. The key to recovery, however, is heroically continuing to choose to do the right thing even after you have failed, possibly over and over again.