Last week we began looking at the way in which the sexually compulsive behaviors of sex addicts are driven by the individual’s life story and key events. Whatever behaviors are included in the acting out, they are not random but are instead telling a story about that person and their history, the way they do relationships, how they handle their needs and wants and so much more.
We looked at three different elements that can drive sexually addictive behavior: the sexual template, cross-wiring and trauma repetition. Today we are going to look at three more factors that often underlie the sexually compulsive behaviors: eroticized rage, disowned parts of the self, and unfinished family of origin business.
One of my professors used to say that addiction is about both relief and revenge. For most addicts, the relief is more obvious than revenge. In fact, it is clear to even the most casual of observers that addiction provides relief by medicating feelings and creating emotional escape. However, addiction is also an expression of anger and rage. When anger and sex come together, as they sometimes do with sexual addiction, this is called eroticized rage. Consider John, who was emotionally and physically abused by his father and sexually abused by his mother. His unresolved anger toward his parents was carried forward and acted out in his adult life through violent sex with prostitutes. He was unconsciously channeling his rage into his sexual behavior. For many sex addicts, identifying the ways in which anger is being expressed through sexual behavior and then learning how to release that anger appropriately is a significant task of recovery.
Disowned Parts of the Self
For many sex addicts, acting out behaviors are a way to deal with “unallowable” parts of themselves. Bruce, for instance, grew up in a home where sexuality was never mentioned. It was subtly communicated to him that sex is shameful, and that male sexuality in particular is dangerous and must be tightly contained. As an adult, Bruce feels that he can’t let his wife know who he really is sexually, so he goes outside his marriage to act out the disowned parts of his sexuality. As Bruce explained to me, “There are the women you marry, and you have one kind of sex with them. Then there are the women you cheat with, and you have a different kind of sex with them.” For many sex addicts, recovery involves reclaiming and integrating their whole sexual self and learning to share that self with their partners in a healthy relational manner.
Unfinished Family of Origin Business
In a general way, almost all forms of sexual addiction reflect some form of unfinished business with the family of origin. Consider Colin, the oldest of three children. Colin’s parents’ marriage was deeply troubled, with dad calling mom names and denigrating her in front of the children on a daily basis. Colin felt anger at his dad and pity toward his mom. He worked very hard to make his mom feel better. He felt responsible for helping her deal with her depression and low self-esteem, and he tried to always be the perfect son. As an adult, he’s addicted to porn and unsuccessful in his relationships with women.
As we looked at Colin’s relational pattern in therapy, it became clear that he picks women in need of emotional rescuing. Colin feels good about helping the women he dates, the women are happy to find their knight in shining armor, and they live happily ever after. For a while. Until Colin notices that the women are not very interested in giving back to him when he needs love and support. He picks relational “takers,” and then he inevitably ends up feeling angry and used. This is when his use of pornography and masturbation escalates. Eventually, the relationship ends and Colin moves on to the next damsel in distress.
The dynamics in Colin’s family of origin set him up to repeat the role of “hero” with women. He has unfinished business around his relationship with mom, and because he has not resolved this, he duplicates those dynamics with the women he dates. He is hoping to date a woman who cares for him and knows how to both give and take relationally. But unconsciously he keeps picking “mom” and replaying the role he knows – all in a misguided attempt to resolve his unfinished family business.
Until Colin is able to uncover, acknowledge, and resolve his early-life trauma and family dysfunction, he will continue to engage in his sexually addictive patterns. This is true with any sex addict. Until they uncover and understand their history, that history will reassert itself in their sexual template and acting out via cross-wiring, trauma response, eroticized rage, and disowned parts of the sexual self. Thus, examining one’s history not only uncovers the roots of the addictive behaviors, it opens the door to lasting recovery and a healthier, happier life.