Monday, July 02, 2007

Sexual Addiction Revisited

Those of you who have read the background material on this blog know that the relationship between my wife and me was damaged early on by clandestine, compulsive sexual behavior. I spent several years in therapy and in twelve step fellowships to recover from this behavior.

Although I have refrained from this for about ten years, my wife still has issues with it. It has become much clearer now in the wake of one of my disclosures from the first joint session.
I no longer considered my sexuality to be pathological, and I began to reassert my right to pleasure myself sexually.

My wife raised her objections during the second session, and she continued to express skepticism over the weekend. She has trouble believing me, she says, and I have a feeling that unless I address this issue head on, it will be the only thing that we talk about during today's session at noon.

With that in mind, here is an attempt to put my assertion on a more rigorous footing.

Let me make something clear from the outset: my clandestine, compulsive use of phone sex services and pornography, were not healthy. They damaged the trust between my wife and me. They set us back financially for years. I wasted way too much time on them. They impeded my emotional growth.

The last nine months of therapy have led me to revisit the diagnosis of these behaviors as an addiction. While the time I spent in therapy and twelve step groups in the early years did help me to stop the behavior, it left me with a negative view of my sexuality because every sexual thought or deed of mine now had to be viewed through the prism of being chronically diseased.

Moreover, as time passed and I ceased these behaviors, I realized that the sexual relationship with my wife worsened. Even as we moved past the two choice dilemma of children, sex became less frequent and increasingly disengaged.

In 2002, over four years since my last slip, she said wanted me to stop initiating sex because she said she felt pressured to have sex. With the ball in her court, a monthly activity degenerated into a quarterly activity that was just an offer of a "quickie". We went through an 18 month period where she was so absent from the activity that I couldn't maintain arousal.

At the beginning of 2006, I tried engaging her on a more emotional level. After years of resisting, I signed us up for dance lessons. While this seemed to boost her willingness to initiate sex, it was still mostly "quickies". By the summer of 2006, I was losing my patience and started to push back against what she was willing to offer. She resisted foreplay, and when I asked for an explanation, she couldn't offer one.

By the fall of 2006, I was beginning to realize that forcing the issue with her wasn't doing any good. No amount of communication exercises with a marriage counselor was going to make any progress because my wife didn't want to talk about it. She's become very effective at shutting down uncomfortable discussions with guilt and shame. If you take a look at some of her statements from prior sessions:

  • You just want a whore in bed.

  • You just want to snuggle with me naked all the time.

and some things she's said in private discussion:

  • I felt like having sex last night, but because I didn't feel emotionally close to you, I wasn't going to do it.

  • You just want me to give you sex five times a week.

it's easy to see that she uses negative characterizations and exaggeration to put me on the defensive, inducing either guilt or shame in me.

It's worked fairly well over the years because my sense of validity was tightly coupled to her expressions of approval and disapproval. Bowenian family systems therapy would describe this dependency as a poor differentiation of self. Therapist David Schnarch calls it emotional fusion.

No amount of communication exercises can overcome this barrier because one side can always shut down the other by manipulating the image of self that is reflected back. Statements of the form:
If you were just a better person in some aspect of our relationship, I'd have more desire for you.

are really effective at making the other person feel bad about one's self.

The latest round of individual therapy has been about raising my level of differentiation so that I am no longer stymied by this.

Differentiation is the balance between individuality and togetherness, and the imbalance between them is driven by anxiety. Movement towards individuality is driven by a fear of engulfment, and togetherness is driven by a fear of abandonment.

From this standpoint, it becomes clear that I have based a lot of decisions on fears of abandonment. Neither of my parents were deeply engaged in my life. My grandparents stepped in to fill the void, but they had a poor sense of boundaries and used emotional cutoff to punish noncompliance. My mother left the marriage and moved away in my early adolescent years.

Throughout my childhood and teen years, my mother had a low tolerance for the expression of anxiety and fear. She dismissed my anxieties as invalid, offering only glib reassurances that a better future awaited if I only did the right things (study hard, have a successful career). Approval seemed to only come when I did those things.

I never developed good coping skills to deal with anxiety, and it certainly wasn't safe to make them known. Things only worked if I kept up the facade of perfection. I felt like an impostor who was going to get uncovered someday.

The teen years were awkward for me. Girls saw me as someone who was "safe", someone whom they could talk to, but not real dating material. I felt fundamentally unattractive. With hormones raging, and an aversion to consumable vices, I found masturbation to be a good way of escaping anxiety for a while.

As I moved from the teens into the adult years I continued to enjoy academic success. Anxiety is inevitable in such a situation, and deep down I had a nagging feeling that I really wasn't "good enough".

In this skewed view, I had escaped detection one more time. For each time I didn't get exposed, I feared that the fall from grace was going to be that much more painful. I never could quite come to terms with the notion that I might be truly capable of living up to my perceived potential.

Once in graduate school, I started to call phone sex services. In retrospect, I realize that my gravitation toward them wasn't due to some addiction to the sexual activity. One of the reasons that the bills got so expensive was because I would talk to the women for a long time, the majority of it wasn't about the act of sex. It was about trying to get to know the person. I got the benefit of approving interaction without the fear of rejection and embarrassment.

The reliance on sexual gratification for subduing anxiety continued even after I entered into an intimate relationship. Someone with a higher level of differentiation would have learned to deal with the axiety by developing better self soothing skills or maybe even avoiding a sexual relationship until he could truly keep the commitment.

With a sense of self that was shaped largely through the approval of others, rather than a solid core, I relied on deception to continue a contradictory lifestyle. I needed (my wife)'s approval and I wanted to avoid dealing with the anxiety of life.

When (my wife) finally became aware of the behavior, I soon entered a recovery program. Instead of developing the solid sense of self that I needed to become more emotionally mature, I got caught up in the twelve-step literature, taking it on as doctrine.

Working the program helped me refrain from the compulsive behavior in the short run, but I believe that a big part of the motivation was a fear that (my wife) would leave. After about seven months, I went into relapse because I was not addressing the really big issue, which was how to better manage the anxiety.

More therapy and some more 12-step work helped some, but real growth started to take root as I made some progress up the career ladder at my (ex-employer), moving from tech support into software development. Overcoming the fear of being a father and the lessons of parenthood have helped, too.

Still, I had a lot of doubts about my professional adequacy and my attractiveness. My wife's lack of desire didn't help much in this area. I was depending too much on the approval of others to develop my sense of well being.

I learned about Schnarch last summer after seeing him featured on a Dateline NBC episode about sexless marriages. I read his book Passionate Marriage, and another book No More Mr. Nice Guy by therapist Robert Glover.

Schnarch's work helped me see our relationship in a different light. It helped me to understand better the paradox a dead sex life in the face of increased sexual health. Glover helped me to understand the impact of early experiences on my anxiety and how my ways of coping with it were ineffective.

I started to confront my fears of professional inadequacy as a developmental task. I was becoming increasingly aware that my current employer was on shaky financial footing, so I had ample motivation.

My resume started to attract the attention of companies that I didn't expect, places farther away. I took a chance and started interviewing with them. It was a perfect opportunity to work on self-soothing skills. I managed to do fairly well, and I landed an offer with one of them. I was learning to self-validate and raising my level of differentiation.

Over the same period of time, I began to believe that it was okay to have sexual desires. I started to question the lack of sexual activity in my life. I realized that my wife had issues with sexuality that had nothing to do with me. They probably were present even before she entered into the relationship, and she managed to dodge them effectively by redirecting the attention to my sexuality, which was considered "pathological". Moreover, I haven't seen a sincere willingness from her to deal with them.

Over the weekend, my wife said that she thought I was just finding a way to dismiss my addiction as something that wasn't real. That's not true. Addiction or not, what I did back then was wrong.

The problem is that the viewpoint of sexuality as a disease doesn't help me to grow into a more differentiated person. Learning to tolerate and act in the face of anxiety does.

That same process that helps me to get through difficult interviews and land better jobs helps me to refrain from using pornography or even having affairs. I do it because I want to be a person who values both himself and his commitments.

The flipside of this is that having a solid inner sense self worth means that I am less willing to tolerate sexual laziness and emotional abuse from my wife. I can transcend the fear of abandonment and leave, if I believe that staying would compromise my integrity.
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