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Healthy versus unhealthy sexual relationships: Do you know the difference?

August 2, 2015
by Megan Combs, Associate Editor
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Do you know the difference between a healthy and unhealthy sexual relationship? You better learn it before you start counseling addicts on their relationships, said two speakers on Sunday at the National Conference on Addiction Disorders (NCAD) in St. Louis. 
 
Stephanie Billingsley is a mental health and drug and alcohol counselor at Community Behavioral Health in Hamilton, Ohio. Speaker Daniel Cochran is a research assistant at Ohio University. Together they talked about the ways therapists can assist clients with having successful sexual relationships while in recovery.
 
But, they said, the key is knowing, as a therapist, the difference between a good sexual relationship and a bad sexual relationship. And do you practice what you preach?
 
"As a therapist, you have to make sure you're good with any trauma you've had in your past, either sexually or with drugs or both, before you can help someone else," Billingsley said. "Therapists see therapists. There's nothing wrong with that."
 
Oftentimes clients replace a drug with sex, Billingsley said. "It's more socially acceptable to admit you have a drug addiction, but there's so much shame and stigma associated with sex addiction. So when clients come into recovery, immediately we're the enemy because we're trying to get them to tell us their deepest, most shameful secrets."
 
Helping these clients recover and develop healthy sexual relationships requires strengthening their communication skills, examining past trauma, teaching them how to set boundaries, and taking a hard look at their sense of self and previous sexual behaviors. Are they a narcissist? Do they objectify men/women? Do they shy away from intimacy because of fear of rejection? Did they have a dysfunctional family upbringing?
 
You also have to instill a sense of trust with your client, Cochran said. After only knowing a therapist for a day or maybe only an hour can be very discomforting when a client has to share all their secrets. Billingsley said it's best to lay it on the line and tell them you know it's uncomfortable, but that you're here to help and bring hope back to their lives.
 
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