After 15 years of working with sex addicts, I have concluded that it is not sex – per Se – that is the object of the addictive attachment, but rather it is the state of sexual arousal that most addicts find so compelling. Orgasm is rarely the goal. As a matter of fact, people purposely delay orgasm because the aftermath can involve experiences of disillusionment, emptiness and shame.
The state of sexual arousal, which I have dubbed “The Erotic Haze”, is a cherished state of mind for sex and porn addicts. The spike in neurochemicals, particularly the neurotransmitter dopamine, floods the brain with a “feel good” experience approximating euphoria. This is the real object of addiction. Sexual arousal seems to have charms that soothe the salvage beast. It is the perfect salve for unwanted emotions. It is an elixir for feelings of inadequacy, emptiness, shame and depression. Once you’ve entered “The Erotic Haze”, your ability to control your behavior becomes nil. Acting out becomes an inevitability.
However, there are a number of stages you go through before you arrive at that state. You don’t get “struck” acting out. It doesn’t come out of the blue, compelling you to take immediate action. The purpose of understanding the sex addiction cycle is, with mindful awareness, to know you’re in one of the beginning phases and to apply newly learned coping skills before you drown in the quicksand.
The addictive cycle really shows the progression of a relapse. The more the cycle engages, the harder the relapse is to stop. The obvious place to start is to keep the boulder from starting to roll in the first place. You have to build up a barrier that keeps you from going down the classic “slipper slope”.
Upcoming posts will discuss a variety of coping mechanisms you can use to build that barrier or when you find yourself at any point in the cycle.
There are many points in the cycle when you are still able to make a decision. If the decision is emotion-based, you’ll be driven toward the immediate satisfaction of need-gratification. If you’re able to make a value-based decision, you’ll be more likely to step of the cycle back onto firmer ground where you can consider the consequences of your actions or a discussion of the importance of clarifying your values at the beginning of recovery.)
The Sex Addiction Cycle
1. A triggering event results in a pain state.
2. Sexual Preoccupation
3. Sexual Fantasies
4. Ritualized Behaviors
6. Sexual Acting out
7. The Return of Reality
8. Medicating feelings of shame and remorse through starting the cycle all over again.
A triggering event results in an internal pain state.
Anticipating or perceiving rejection
Other wounds to self-esteem or sense of control
Isolation – desire to hide
Desire to connect
Shame for former acting out
May become flooded with feelings derived from unconscious childhood trauma which you experience as intolerable
You unconsciously determine that being in the state of sexual arousal will alleviate all your discomfort.
Focus becomes highly focused in a trance-like state on sexualized thoughts and memories as a way to mask the unwanted feelings from the triggering event. “Euphoric recall” may occur – you remember all the “glorious” times of your addiction, but forget and deny the reality of the negative consequences. Your only concern is to find just the right source of sexual stimulation.
Preoccupation denies anything that’s not sexual; sexual thoughts become overwhelming and takes a toll on the attention needed for effective day-to-day living. The sex-related obsessions distort your thinking and engrosses your mind. The focus of your attention is not on setting goals or doing meaningful, creative, productive activities. When you’re sexually preoccupied, you can’t assess and solve problems or make sacrifices in the present to achieve a greater gain later, as mature adults are capable of doing.
Obsessive preoccupations serve to bind fear and anxiety to contain fears or to keep you distracted from something troubling within. Obsessive thoughts are highly irrational thoughts, divorced from reality. They lead to irrational rituals and compulsive action as a way to maintain psychological safety.
Individuals in a trance-like sexual preoccupation seek total control of their inner and external environments.
Preoccupation with sexual thoughts, especially if they are deviant, produces guilt, shame and a fear of being discovered. It fosters lack of attention to the sumptuousness of real living and is a barrier to focused attention, loving and living in the NOW. Sexual preoccupation prevents you from feeling, doing, and risking in your life and so is a thief of your self-worth and integrity.
Sexual fantasies are ubiquitous. For the non-sex addict, they float into consciousness, providing some needed experience and then just as quickly float away. The ability to fantasize is what allows us to imagine, to plan and to create. Some people use fantasy to write literature or create art. Others are just more creative and effective in their daily lives.
Not so for the sex addict who lives in a fantasy state for greater amounts of time than the non-sex addict for whom fantasies redress unresolved inner conflicts and who’s fantasies are not in the service of a connection to a particular partner. Fantasy becomes an obsession that serves in some way to avoid life. Used consistently, obsession sets the stage for loss of control.
The script of a sexual fantasy is a signal from the unconscious mind that essential needs, not met in childhood, are pressing to be recognized and met. In fantasy, all dimensions of low self-esteem and shame are ameliorated. They counteract depressive, self-deprecating feelings by providing a pleasurable, albeit temporary, relief from self-loathing.
A person captured by an elaborate sexual fantasy tends not to feel inadequate, shy, to ruminate about mistakes or to feel embarrassed about his weight.
Fantasy enactments, with their very particular situations and people are specifically designed to undo your deepest wounds and to deliver to your your unconscious, split off wants, wishes and needs if you would but try to understand them.
Fantasies of power, desirability, mastery, achievement, novelty and taboo acts are common in this formulation. Some fantasize about being humiliated by a dominant woman, or dressing in his wife’s clothing, or wearing an adult diaper and being treated like an infant.
Sex addicts use fantasies excessively because they’re unhappy about their self-image; they experience their real selves as shamed, inadequate and unlovable. In fantasy, they can simply assume the identity of someone else. The fantasy provides an experience of an enhanced ego, self confidence and magnified feelings of desirability. Of course, this is the great appeal of chat rooms where people assume alternate identities.
Consequences of Excessive Sexual Fantasy
Ask yourself if your fantasies are “generative”. Do they results in galvanizing you to make the necessary changes in your life? Do they produce activities that are creative and productive? My guess is not.
Excessive involvement in sexual fantasies is destructive. Fantasy impairs your ability to discern to and adapt to reality. Being locked in fantasy disconnects you from yourself. You crate a division within yourself which crates an inner fragmentation. The result is that your mind is in a constant state of chaos and conflict.
Your sexual fantasy life leads you to have certain expectations about people and situations that an unrealistic and create further conflicts and disconnect in your real life. Chronic dissatisfaction with life is the result.
Moreover, the more you build yourself up in fantasy, the greater the crash will be when reality sets in Deflation inevitably follows fantasy and feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy return. Fantasies remove you from reality and keep you from being present in your life. They inhibit you from having a sensitive, alive mind.
Excessive sexual fantasies inhibit personal growth and development. If you fantasize yourself as being successful, you don’t take the necessary steps in reality to become proficient in a craft, art or vocation. If you fantasize yourself in perfect attunement to a perfect person, you won’t motivate yourself to look for a real person with whom some of your needs might be met.
George Vaillant, a famous psychological researcher, did a three-year longitudinal study of recovering addicts. In speaking of the narcissistic traits of people who continually engage in fantasy, he observed that such people didn’t have a lot, or any, close friends.
Rituals special routines that induce trance and further separate oneself from reality. The goal is to reduce the ability to say “stop.” Ritualization helps to put further distance between reality and sexual obsession. They add to sexual arousal, provide a sense of control, and are grounding, pleasurable and comforting in themselves.
Boundaries start to collapse when addicts start to test themselves: Cruising in acting-out neighborhoods. Calling the massage parlor or escort services to “ask for prices” just out of curiosity. Emailing the old lover because you were thinking about him. These test are really at the edge of the old ritualized patterns.
Rituals are a critical part of any kind of deviant arousal template. The ritual itself becomes a fetish, capable of engendering sexual excitement and release it itself.
The exhibitionist walks through certain spots at certain times, cruising for the same type of woman. The transvestite carefully lays out woman’s clothing and lingerie on the bed, looking at them for a period of time before he dons them. The clinical literature talks about “the masochistic script”. To all appearances, the “domme” is in control. In reality, the masochist calls the shots. The room needs to be arranged just so. The type of clothing the dominatrix wears is dictated by the bottom. Often, even verbal and physical humiliation needs to follow his exact script, or he is disappointed in the scene.
Typically, active addicts do not have coping strategies in place to stop ritualized behavior. The purpose of ritual is to alter awareness and go into the “erotic haze”. Once there, reality becomes fully distorted and loss of control is inevitable.
The addict is lost to himself in the “erotic haze.” Every sex addict has a public life and a private life that is hidden, kept secret. In the “erotic haze”, the Mr. Hyde part of the personality is at the helm of your life. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde each have different value systems, different goals, different beliefs. Sex addicts have reported to me that they feel detached from their experience, describing themselves as feeling outside themselves, witnessing their own actions. They are divorced from their feelings, thoughts,values and sense of identity. They feel like they’re running on autopilot.
Dissociation is the state of being disconnected or detached from your sensory experience, sense of self, personal identity and personal history. A state of unreality prevails. The person loses his sense of where they are, who they are, or what they’re doing.
The “erotic haze” is a state of dissociation. Reality is completely blocked out. All focus is on getting where he needs to go. Others
The next phase of the cycle is sexual compulsivity, the “acting out” phase of the cycle. Compulsivity means that addicts irrevocably reach a point where succumbing to the sexual pleasure become inevitable, NO MATTER WHAT the the consequences.
The term “acting out” means that the person uses a behavior to seek relief from discomfort, rather than talking about the issues with a trusted other. It implies the inability to contain an impulse which is then expressed in action. Sexual behaviors are a self-defeating strategy that communicates feelings for which you have no language. Acting out is a substitute for feeling, sharing and working things through.
With orgasm there is a cascade of neurotransmitters released, providing pleasure and instantly eradicating any feelings of guilt, shame, or anxiety. The addict feels relief for the moment, but it is a fleeting, transitory relief. Thus, some very smart and competent people end up doing things others would see as immoral, foolish, or, at the very least, immature.
Reality Sets In
Sex addicts for a moment will see the significance of their behavior and feel shame. This point of the cycle is a painful place where they have been many times. Usually the cycle has probably promised themselves they would never do it again.
Yet once again, they act out, and that leads to despair. For many addicts, this dark emotion brings on depression or a chronic feeling of hopelessness. For a while, sex may become the enemy—until the next time. One sure way to relieve these feelings of despair is to start obsessive preoccupation again.
The cycle perpetuates itself.
Until you engage in sexual recovery treatment which provides skills and strategies for breaking free from this seemingly unbreakable chain.