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Pornography addiction or sex addiction involve incredibly challenging issues that individuals and couples battle. Many counseling approaches are simply not effective with sexual addiction, and some approaches can even make things worse.
It is not uncommon for individuals or couples to share with me that their past efforts to intervene on the problems only served to keep them stuck in their patterns. This is why it is so important to get help from someone who specializes in treating pornography addiction.
There are various crucial elements to pornography addiction treatment that must be present in order for real change to occur. This process is not just about abstinence or stopping certain behaviors. This is about real change that affects every area of life. I am interested in helping people transform.
Key Elements of Recovery from Addiction
Recovery starts with a recognition of the problems. Pornography and sexual acting out are problems, but they are also symptoms of underlying, unresolved issues. These underlying issues may include:
An inability to healthily self-soothe. Poor emotional coping is a hallmark of people who struggle with addiction. This lack of learning healthy coping usually started much earlier in life.
Trauma, abuse, neglect, or abandonment in childhood. Research confirms that childhood trauma has a direct affect on the development of all sorts of addictions later in life.
Those who struggle with addiction may also notice that they do not have the type of empathy for others that they would expect to have. Being wrapped up in your own pain (and pain management through the addiction) can dull people’s sense of empathy, or understanding of others’ pain.
Poor impulse control, symptoms of depression or anxiety, as well as loneliness or isolation can be issues that predict whether a person gets sucked into compulsive pornography use and can’t figure out how to stop.
Finally, troubled family relationships can also be underlying issues that drive a person’s flight back into addictive patterns for coping.
Too often, when addictions are discovered or even disclosed, the addict shares only sanitized pieces of the addiction “story.” He or she might think, “The whole truth is too painful for my spouse (or others) to hear. I have to protect others from the discomfort my story will create.” This approach leaves the addict feeling ashamed about keeping secrets and leaves partners feeling that there are missing pieces to the story.
A full disclosure is best presented in a therapy setting after ample preparation on the part of the addict as well as the affected partner. Partners need time to emotionally prepare for the whole story. They also need an opportunity to ask all of the healthy questions they want answered in order to know how to proceed with the relationship.
Addicts need time to confront denial, carefully write an accurate and honest representation of the history of the addiction, and thoughtfully answer questions that the partner prepares.
Rushed or poorly prepared disclosures can actually do more damage than good, which is why full disclosure is one of the key elements of full recovery and is a primary focus in early recovery therapy sessions.
Confrontation of Denial
Denial in addiction generally constitutes “permission giving” thoughts. It may take many forms, but at its core, denial allows a person to violate his or her own morals or values and sexual bottom lines. It may also allow a person to violate trust in his or her marriage, despite the potential or existing consequences. Confrontation of denial involves recognizing these often hidden self-statements or beliefs. Denial statements might include:
“This is the last time, I promise.”
“It’s only pornography. I’m not hurting anyone.”
“If I don’t get a sexual release, I’m going to die.”
“No one will take care of me, so I have to take care of myself.”
“My spouse doesn’t treat me well. They are always mean to me. No one gets to tell me what to do.”
Overcoming denial involves a level of honesty with self that can be very difficult to address alone. Therapeutic dialogue can help confront these beliefs.
There is no recovery without accountability. Addiction happens in isolation and in secret. Recovery is open and honest, and shared. Accountability is about being honest about slips and relapses during the recovery process, but it is about much more than that as well. Accountability means recognizing the pain and shame triggers that lead back into old habits of sexual acting out behaviors. Real accountability involves being honest long before the trigger or thought to act out transforms into behavior. Regular, daily accountability with trusted others is one of the key predictors of successful recovery.
So much of addiction to pornography is a misguided attempt to feel connected, valued, cared about, or loved. Real relationships can be scary. They involve risk of rejection and emotional pain. Pornography’s false intimacy allows people to avoid the risks of relationships while imaging what real human connection is like. Not surprisingly, pornography does not provide any of the benefits of real relationships, so people are left feeling flat. In recovery, we work toward learning how to have real, intimate relationships that are fulfilling. This includes emotional intimacy, physical intimacy, and spiritual intimacy. This type of real connection makes the false intimacy of pornography irrelevant.
Often, addiction revolves a struggle to deal with painful emotions or relationships. Addiction becomes the go-to method of coping when uncomfortable feelings set in. Because of this, people struggling with pornography are often unaware of their own emotional state most of the time. They become accustomed to ignoring their own feelings. Learning to recognize, name, and share painful emotional experiences has a powerful effect on recovery.
Because pornography objectifies human beings, people who have a history of compulsive pornography use may have become numb to their partner’s pain — physical, emotional, sexual, or otherwise. Many people who act out with pornography have a distorted sense of their partner’s experience and may struggle to really empathize with how others feel or how others see the world. Learning to empathize allows addicts in recovery to help their partners heal and learn to trust again.
Because addiction spreads to all areas of life, recovery is not just about stopping certain behaviors. Recovery is about re-thinking the way one manages relationships, work, time, emotion, and every important area of life. Significant life changes can help reinforce the idea that recovery is a whole self change, not just avoiding sexual acting-out behaviors.
Key Elements of Partner or Spouse Recovery
Boundaries in recovery can be difficult to understand, but they are incredibly important. In short, boundaries define the following:
The limitations of your relationship with the addicted partner. How you will respond to your own emotional triggers in recovery. How you will respond to the addicted partner’s unhealthy relational behavior. How you will respond to your partner’s slips and relapses. How you will protect yourself from future harm or betrayal.
My article on defining and enforcing boundaries in sexual addiction recovery can help you understand more.
Self-Awareness and Self-Trust
Many partners of addicts become emotionally numb as a way of coping with the immense pain of being in a relationship with an addict. Sometimes addicts have a way of making their partners or spouses feel “crazy.” When your gut tells you that something is wrong, but your partner promises that everything is “just fine” it’s easy to start to question your sanity. Learning to reconnect with your own emotion and trust your instincts is a crucial part of recovery and healthy living for the partner of a sex addict. Partners of addicts need to learn to trust their own instincts again and find their healthy voice in the relationship. Becoming healthy again is about being able to express needs, concerns, fears, and boundaries and expect to be heard.
Isolation can be very destructive. Many partners of pornography addicts become isolated and disconnected from friends and family. This may happen for several reasons. These words, from the partner of a pornography addict, help illustrate how this happens:
I was angry at myself for not seeing the signs that something was wrong. I feel foolish and I thought that others would not understand why I was staying with my husband, even though he betrayed my trust many times. Sometimes I was angry at myself for not leaving him. I thought it meant I was weak. At the same time, I wanted to protect him from how others would perceive him if they knew his secret. I didn’t want my parents to judge him. I didn’t want them to judge me. So I kept it to myself, even though I was dying inside.
Learning to reach out to people who are stable, available, safe, and committed to your recovery is important to your own healing. We are all wired for human connection, and being isolated from others makes healing difficult, if not impossible.
Many partners of pornography addicts experience significant trauma (often called “betrayal trauma”). Trauma symptoms may include
Nightmares, anxiety or panic, inability to trust, recurrent thoughts or rumination. Other PTSD symptoms can include intense anger or sadness, and reliving events from the past repeatedly.
Trauma recovery is almost always a part of a partner’s healing and typically involves working through a trauma narrative in a therapeutic environment. The addicted partner will typically need to hear and empathize with the trauma story as well. Trauma work also typically involves learning about trauma triggers and learning how to manage the physical and emotional responses in new, healthier ways.
Trust is built over time and is always earned. Trust is not automatic. When couples are affected by one partner’s sexual addiction, there is often dishonesty and hiding involved. These types of behaviors, coupled with the pornography use, destroy trust in many relationships. In therapy, trust is rebuilt as the recovering addict works to proactively create a visible, predictable change process that allows the partner, over time, to believe that the change is real. Here you can find a booklet called, “How Do I Know if He is In Recovery?” to help understand this process better.
My clients are from all over Utah. My office is located in Utah County in Provo. Clients consistently indicate that their experience with me in counseling is productive, motivating, focused, and safe. If you or your loved one is struggling, please call today and we can discuss how I can help you overcome addiction and the accompanying betrayal for partners and spouses.
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