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The Presents of Presence in Sex Addiction Recovery

Recovery wisdom advises: Never allow yourself to get too hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, (HALT).  On this morning’s 6-mile run, with my run partner out of town and running on less sleep than normal, I was hitting 2 out of 4 of the precautionary directives.  If I let my mind wander to “I have to do 6 miles today” the run seemed like an impossible task.  I wanted to walk.  I wanted to slow down.  My thoughts entered the realm of “stinking thinking” and the dreaded “I can’t do this”.  Ughhh.  I was tired.  I was alone.  I didn’t have my music.  I was becoming bored.  All the tell-tale signs of the wheels falling off the bus were at-risk for coming into play. 

I began to change my focus.  First, I HAVE to do this.  This 6-mile run today is part of a bigger plan to reach my goals for a 15k race in January.  I do not want to let this long run slip by today.  One step at a time I have to keep my focus.  One step at a time I have to keep going.  I began to look just slightly ahead.  I looked at a leaf a few steps ahead – and made it to there.   I looked at a crack in the asphalt just ahead.  I thought to myself, you can make it to “there”!  I looked at my watch.  I could make it another 40 seconds.  See how it feels.  With each successive small goal and re-focusing my mind to just stay present to the small task at-hand, I made it the whole 6-miles. 

Recovery is like that.  If one focuses on the whole plan of sobriety and recovery, it can feel hugely overwhelming. If one says to oneself:   I can’t drink for the rest of my life again, ever.  I have to stay sober and not act out.  I am not sure I can do this.  I have all these meetings to attend.  I have to work steps.  I have to get a sponsor.   I have to make phone calls to peers.  I have to…on and on and on…we’d stop before we ever start.  If you are employed and thought about all you would have to do day-in and day-out for your employment, you might not want to show up!  Heck, if you are married, who would stand at the alter thinking ALL that one has to do to stay joined in a committed relationship for the rest of your life?

Just as I began to focus on the present moment at hand, one increment at a time, recovery needs an adjustment in the same measure. “Half-measures avail us nothing.”  Just as I have a vision of my race in January and a weekly plan to get there, recovery vision is necessary, too.  In the paradoxes of recovery, one must focus one step at a time but be guided by an overall vision and goal. 

In the marriage impacted by sex addiction, sometimes one is not sure how they can continue.  How can the betrayed partner trust again?  How can they stay in if they are so unsure?  One might not know if they can do the “whole run”, but changing the focus to smaller short term goals can help break it down and give information that feeds an overall plan one day at a time.

I finished my run this morning.  Bringing my mind to the present gave me presence of mind.  Just for this week I am on task.  Just until the leaf and the crack in the asphalt, I can do this.  What a gift!

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Sex Addiction Creates Rough Seas in a Marriage – SOS! May Day!

On my visit to San Diego, while attending the SASH conference, I took some time to be a tourist when the conference ended.  My husband had a meeting at the same time close by so we made a rendezvous to enjoy some outdoor activities in the area.  My wish for outdoor activities included cycling and sea lion watching.  My husband was up for sea lions, but preferred to add ocean kayaking to the list of fun.  With limited time we compromised by deciding on ocean kayaking that would include a trip by a peninsula that sea lions were known to inhabit. 

This excursion was my first ocean kayaking experience.  My husband has a passion for the water.  While I grew up on the Atlantic Ocean, I am more comfortable on land, but I do love the sea from the distance (or on a fast speed boat!).  We began our trek in the kayak out towards the sea lions off in the distance.  As we ventured out, the Pacific Ocean was quite calm.  The stillness of the water was a real selling point for me to agree to this activity.  I am not the strongest of swimmers and have a healthy fear of water.   After a while my anxious feelings began to settle.  It was even becoming quite enjoyable as we approached the sea lion area.  We were in an alcove of limestone cliffs but were warned not to get close to the shore in that area as the ocean could carry us in pretty quickly and possibly slam us into the rocks.  Occasionally a few swells would come along that would serve to gently rock our kayak in a bobbing fashion.  All of a sudden, seemingly out of nowhere appeared a guide which cautioned us that some large swells were coming in and to get prepared!  Oh my, this was not in the plan!  I turned to see that I could no longer see the horizon and could only see what felt like a wall of water coming towards us!  We knew that we had to face into the direction of the swell to keep from being toppled.  Thankfully we were able to maneuver properly.  Along came another large swell that prevented us from seeing the horizon. It was so tall if felt as if it would break over top of us.  For me, this was very frightening.  I didn’t panic, but I found myself going through a protocol of water safety “what if” scenarios in my head.  A third very large swell came along.  I thought my husband would better know how to take care of himself than I would if we toppled, but I am sure I could make it, but there was a lot of trepidation!

Being out in San Diego for my professional conference I thought of the couple faced with sex addiction and the parallel to this excursion.  Often we enter marriage with the idea that it will be smooth sailing.  Rough seas are a possibility but they remain out of our minds.  The metaphor of us in the kayak is we are in this together, like it or not, and we are two different people with different skillsets!  When sex addiction is revealed in a marriage, it can produce a panic similar to the large swells we encountered out there on the Pacific Ocean.  At that moment, one cannot see anything except the crisis at hand the way we could only see the wall of water.  It is large.  It is ominous.  It feels like one might not live through it.  There are waves of it coming and waves of it passing, seemingly without warning, and rhyme or reason.  One feels an eminent danger. There is a need to find a way from being toppled without the ability to see the horizon.  Couples faced with sex addiction are forced to come up with safety plans for safe passage through deep, murky and dangerous-feeling waters.  Couples need a plan, a set of safety regulations, and a set of skills to guide them to safety.

A CSAT therapist specifically trained in Sex Addiction can be a helpful guide to teach skills and navigate to safe waters in marriages that find themselves in the swells they feel like they might not survive.

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The Big Year – An Allegory Tale of Sex Addiction in Relationships?

Spoiler Alert:  This post is about the recent movie The Big Year starring Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson. If you want to see it, reading further could ruin it for you.  I thought it was a pretty good movie, however, our American viewing audiences might not agree.  This movie does not have copious amounts of violence, sex, or action other than obsessed men on the hunt in competition to view the most species of birds in one year.  Three disparate men, each facing unique personal and relational challenges, try to outdo each other in the ultimate bird-watching competition.

I watched the plot unfold on how each man’s obsession affected their love lives, familial relationships, and their relationships with each other.  I found my mind wandering to the parallels of those I treat with sex addiction.  Three men obsessed, hunting, searching and driven.  Each has a back story which shapes their quest.  Steve Martin’s character is driven, achieved success, but has not quelled the need to continue to search for fulfillment and drive.  Owen Wilson’s character has reached the title once in his life, but can’t let another man beat him this year.  The El Nino winds have made weather patterns hold promise that he could beat his own record!  He can’t resist the temptation to better his own ultimate peak experience. He fails to make good on promises to his wife and the infertility clinic schedule for the bird viewing obsession.  Jack Black’s character hopes to escape his doldrums of 9-5 existence. He is stuck in the rut of discordant family relations.  He has an unsupportive father who has not realized his own life’s potential.  Jack longs for a life of passion in any form.   The disrespecting father is void of his own life’s passion and ridicules his son for these crazy efforts. The big year could be Jack Black’s big break at the chance to heal all his psychic ills.

Sex addiction is a disease that hides.  Many who struggle with the addiction report a feeling of doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I watched the movie with interest as conquest, compulsion, and secrecy affected the characters' family relationships and their relationships with one another.  Each man in competition with the other tries to hide their true motives from one another.  This act of secrecy shapes their relationships, as well.  We watch secrecy shape their relations with one another and their primary relationships. And so it is with sex addiction.

Sex addiction is an intimacy disorder and leads to a life out of balance.  Steve Martin, restless for more achievement, is transparent to his wife about his goals for The Big Year.  His obsession drives him, yet, his wife can support him because she recognizes the importance to him.  She encourages him to follow his dreams.  His corporate staff is frustrated for the inability to reach him through this obsession.  Steve Martin also appears nurturing to Jack Black’s character, yet hides his true motives from him.  Jack Black, endearing himself to this father figure on his journey, is honest about his intentions for The Big Year and feels betrayed when he finds out Steve Martin has hid the truth about his intentions for The Big Year. Owen Wilson promises to meet his wife and her needs of a baby which involves scheduled infertility treatments.  The obsession for the call of the birds is greater than the biologic clock that ticks away within his wife.  Owen and his wife are single-minded and self-obsessed. They ignore, or fail to recognize, what the passion is within one another. They live in parallel focused environments frustrated for the other’s inability to meet their needs.  A similar dynamic often exists in the sex-addicted marriage. 

Sex addiction is a family of origin disorder.  Jack Black lives in a home enmeshed with his mother and a father who fails to recognize either his wife’s or his son’s emotional processes, let alone his own!  The mom overextends herself to her son’s wishes almost to make up for her husband’s criticism and disengagement. 

Obsession kills relationships.  As Terry Real presented at the recent SASH conference I attended, “The ‘cure’ for addiction and emotional problems is emotional connection. We hide our true selves in addiction fearing we would be unlovable. Intimacy (into-me-you-see intimacy) is the fix for addiction.  Steve Martin, supported in understanding, comes to understand what his obsession is costing him as his first grandchild is born.  He realizes the obsession is keeping him from the ones he loves.  Jack Black’s father meets an-end-of-life-health crisis head on.  Faced with his immortality, the crisis wakes him up to the importance of life.  In this crisis he and his son begin to learn caring and a shared intimacy.  He even goes out with his son on his quest for the elusive Great Gray Owl.  Jack Black in his obsession, but feeling cared for, realizes he neglected to care for his ailing father.  He panics thinking his father might have a heart attack and circles back to find him- a brilliant metaphor.  Not only does he find his father, but he finds his father has found the elusive thing that he seeks – the Great Gray Owl.  Intimacy is created over time by shared experiences.

In the end, Jack Black healed with his dad’s love and respect, is freed up to be truly intimate with others in his life.  His opportunity for love, previously elusive, appears and he is ready to take it. Owen Wilson misses the chance to meet the need of his wife one more time.  She can no longer endure the rejection and they both cannot turn off their respective obsessions or resentments for each other.  Steve Martin and Jack Black, feeling healed in their life and relationships, hope that Owen Wilson can live with the choices he makes and the consequences of his actions.

I sat with a man recently who attempted to reach his father his whole life.  When all was revealed about this father’s obsession and addiction, the father said to his son I do not want to give up what I am doing.  It is a painful realization when one knows they are picked over for the addiction.  Some people choose to remain isolated and die “in their disease”.  Some realize what is important. Some choose the hard work of intimacy and connection.  Steve Martin and Jack Black demonstrated the rewards of a connected life with the decision to live consciously and it was heartwarming. 

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The Two D-Day’s of Sex Addiction

"To do anything in this world worth doing, we must not stand back shivering and thinking of the cold and danger, but jump in, and scramble through as well as we can." 
– Sydney Smith

D-Day.  The mention of D-Day usually conjures up the invasion of the Normandy Beaches on June 6, 1944, bloody battles that ensued, and ultimately liberation from German occupation during World War II.  In Sex Addiction treatment with addicts, spouses, and couples that I sit with, we sometimes refer to two D-days.  The first D-Day we refer to as “Discovery Day”.  The second D-Day is “Disclosure Day”.

The Discovery Day, in my mind parallels the initial invasion. The D-Day invasion in 1944 involved 5,000 ships carrying men and vehicles across the English Channel, 800 planes that dropped over 13,000 men in parachutes, and 300 planes that dropped bombs on German troops that defended the beaches.  The result was 100,000 Allied troops made it to shore that day.   I wish no disrespect to  those who physically endured the battle of WW II, but in my mind of sitting with couples in sex addiction, there is a metaphorical parallel.  Can you imagine the power of this assault?  When discovery happens for the spouse there is an invasion.  Life, as they knew or thought it to be, changes in an instant.  PTSD from the trauma continues as they lose so much in the transaction of the discovery invasion.  The spouse of the addict loses their way, their orientation to life, and the things they thought that were, aren’t.  They lose the feelings of specialness to their spouse that was felt in the marriage.  It is a betrayal like no other.  For the addict there are casualties, as well.  The addict is often caught by a surprise attack.  They are left to defend the territory of addiction.  They are lost in a world of disorientation from the occupation of the addiction and the shame of being discovered.  It is a difficult labyrinth for both sides of the war at this point.  I have both spouses and addicts contact me in the aftermath of discovery.  I can assure you it is painful and the wounds are severe for both soldiers in the opposing armies.

Scholars of WWII note that D-Day probably referred to Decision Day.  The success of the campaign of 1944 involved pushing the front of the occupied forces back after the initial invasion. The Second D-Day of sex addiction is Disclosure Day.  Disclosure Day has the possibility of the same purpose.   The success in sex addiction treatment also involves pushing the front of addiction back so the occupation of addiction no longer continues.  Disclosure has the potential to create liberation for the addict and possibly the relationship.  It certainly helps to begin pushing the fronts of addiction back so that freedom from living in the occupation of addiction can begin.  Disclosure helps the addict begin to reduce shame, shed long-held secrets which feed a shame spiral that feed addiction, and liberate one to a life of living transparently.  For the spouse, disclosure helps them understand what has been long-held in secret behind the front.  They can decide if they wish to work on the relationship after they hear what the addict has had to say.  Disclosure can lay the foundation for a new foundation of intimacy in a relationship.

Disclosure is not for everyone, but it is highly recommended for most treatment plans. Disclosure is not recommended until sobriety is established to give the addict a chance to gain his bearings, develop a supportive network to deal with shame, and give a full account of acting out from a sober mind.   Disclosure is not just coming clean in confession after the discovery.  Disclosure must be planned and executed as carefully as the Normandy Invasion was planned for.  To haphazardly just rush in could be disastrous for the campaign of winning the war.  Disclosure should be done purposefully with the skill of trained therapists with experience of how to structure disclosure for the maximum chance of success.  Certified Sex Addiction Therapists (CSAT’s) are uniquely trained in facilitating disclosure processes. 

Wars rage on when both sides fight for an impossible ideal.  Sometimes when one retreats from an ideal it gives the opposing army a chance to re-evaluate.  For healing with couples and sex addiction treatment, we have to arrest the addiction first.  Everyone must look at how they engaged in the battle previous to discovery.  Addiction has raged for a variety of reasons that must be addressed. Couples need to be helped with how to put down their weapons.   They need help to assess  their wounds, and evaluate the ideals that are worth fighting for.  They need to negotiate openly post-disclosure rather than be on the attack.  Recovery is a process of new skills, new boundaries on the frontier, and new ways of empowering oneself.  It can be very liberating for all.

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The Partner’s Fear of Letting Go in Sex Addiction

Recently I wrote a post on the experience of teaching my daughter to ride her two-wheel bike for the first time.  From my experience of being a road cyclist and watching her gain skills for balance on the bike, I noticed the parallels of cycling and recovery.  In this post I want to look at the perspective of the person running behind the bike.  The experience of being a parent and running behind the bike supporting my daughter with the need to let go, I am reminded of the spouse’s process necessary in the recovery process of sex addiction.   Have you experienced the feeling of running behind a child, supporting the child on the bike, yet, knowing you need to let go?  Do you remember the feeling the panic of the moment you knew you needed to let them go so they will find their own skill, power, and strength to continue?   How can a parent let go running behind the bike knowing full well there might be hurt involved?  How can a spouse stop being vigilant knowing there might be more unconscionable collateral damage?  Often, the spouse has been broadsided with the discovery of the addiction and it would seem counter-intuitive to let go of vigilance now!

 As a parent teaching skills, or as a spouse in the relationship affected by sex addiction, we know we NEED to let go. Working through the fear of letting go and actually letting go are quite another story.  Any parent who has taught their child to ride a bike knows the difficulty in letting go and similarly, any partner who has felt the absolute power of betrayal from sex addiction knows the fear of letting go.  Once it is time to transition to two-wheel riding, it is a time for the parent to prepare to let go and allow the child to gain necessary skills of safety.  Once the sex addiction is surfaced, often previously hidden in secret, the spouse must learn to let go. Addict and spouse alike need new skills to master safety in life and in the relationship.  This is quite a paradox to let go and trust in the face of fear.

 I mentioned Soren Kierkegaard’s writings on the “leap of faith” in my previous post.    Addicts need to make a leap of faith to trust the recovery process.  In my mind there is no greater leap to make than the spouse who has felt the betrayal of sex addiction in their relationship.  As the parent who runs behind the bike, if they don’t let go once the child is gaining the skills to begin, they can undermine the child’s ability to learn from natural consequences.  A spouse who stays vigilant over their spouses recovery runs risk of not only enabling or undermining their spouses recovery, but their own growth process by learning the ability to self-soothe and gain new skills for healthy safe relationships.  Easier said than done and one of the paradoxes of recovery.

Soren Kierkegaard’s leap of faith is the concept of independence is gained in interdependence.  The mother who believes her child can take those first steps or pedals and actually cheers them on creates a better environment of skill building and the child’s belief in self-mastery than the parent who might knowingly, or unknowingly, tell or imply to their child they can’t.  Often I hear partners of sex addicts say:  “My partner was the one acting out and has the problem!  Why do I have to work on things?”  In addiction there is an interplay of dynamics in the family and /or couple’s  relationship system.  The parent running behind the bike doesn’t have to master the same exact skills as the person on the bike, but both have to learn skills to make growth a successful endeavor.   So it is in the repair process of the couple.  There is an interplay of a dynamic relationship and equally the need for new skills for all involved in the addictive process.

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Sex Addiction, the Partner’s Mistrust and Recovery

"To know what people really think, pay regard to what they do, rather than what they say."  
– Rene Descartes

The betrayal and discovery of sex addiction in a relationship is a betrayal like no other.  As a CSAT, I sit with people who have felt that very unique betrayal.  Sex addicts are great at hiding and living very compartmentalized lives.  Rare is the sex addict that comes forward to proclaim that they have a problem and need to seek help or treatment.  Once the addiction is discovered, there is a dynamic in the relationship that ensues.  Trust is blown.  The partner feels like the only way to be sure that offending behaviors are arrested is to keep tabs on the offending partner.  In shock they feel if they had not discovered, or happened upon evidence of sorts, then they would have never known.  Continuing to seek the evidence results in what is commonly referred to “pain shopping” in recovery circles.  Pain shopping keeps one stirred up internally and as agitated or “crazy” as the addict is with their addiction. Pain shopping is a straight pipeline to enacting the codependency dynamic in the couple impacted by sex addiction.

I teach spouses and partners of sex addicts that one of their duties of recovery is to stop pain shopping for the addict’s behaviors and to focus on themselves. The fine tuning of their radar that starts from the inside out, rather than looking for the evidence on the outside, to inform within.  If one thinks back really did they know something was amiss in their gut, but couldn’t put their finger on it? Often “No, you don’t understand I had NO IDEA this was going on” is the initial first answer. Upon working through the issues in a way that allows an autopsy of life in active addiction, spouses can begin to recognize there was chaos, tensions, unexplained agitations, that didn’t quite fit the situation. The addict threw out a smokescreen to get the partner off the trail of suspicion. Conflict was often high. They didn’t know WHAT was going on, but often they can now look back and see that the relationship was not right.

Once the addiction is discovered it is an opportunity for recovery. Addicts and partners of addicts MUST both enter into fixing their parts of the broken relationship.  If the addict does start a strong program, one will begin to adopt a transparent lifestyle that results in much less chaos and conflict.  Addicts will begin to act with humility rather than avoid relationships for fear of shame and being found out.  They will be engaged in healthy endeavors that support their care like 12-step groups, therapy, and be accountable to others in their recovery circle.

I advocate betrayed partners begin to use that information gleaned.  I teach partners what recovery truly looks like, for the addict as well as themselves.  I teach betrayed partners to look for those things that give information and wisdom without pain shopping. Pain shopping results in a parent-child marital dynamic.  A parent-child dynamic does not work for any marital relationship and is particularly problematic to the relationship impacted by sex addiction.

A person in recovery acts with humility and kindness.  The addict and the partner in recovery take responsibility for how they contribute to the chaos.  Not only do they apologize or acknowledge mistakes, but they DO things differently to not continue the same mistakes.  I teach the offended partner to sit with their gut. Their gut, their body, their sense of impression knows even if they don’t have the hard evidence.  This gives new meaning to “actions speak louder than words”.