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It's an intimacy disorder! Please don't call it sex and love addiction

September 16, 2015
by Thomas M. Greaney, MEd, LADC, CCDP, SAP
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Deep inside your soul there’s a hole you don’t want to see

Covering it up like a cut with the likes of me

The Offspring, “(Can’t Get My) Head Around You”

 

Often rooted in childhood trauma or an attachment disorder, or both, intimacy disorders take a variety of forms and are the subject of much discussion and stigmatization. Why? Because the persons with this disease, (and the disorder itself), which can result in sexually transmitted diseases, financial and relationship ruin, and death, are much maligned and widely misunderstood. This disorder is often accompanied by co-occurring mental health disorders.

Robert Weiss, LCSW, CSAT-S, a practitioner and author on the subject of intimacy disorders, puts the source of such a person’s dilemma this way: “Sex addicts typically struggle with underlying emotional or psychological problems often stemming from early life abuse such as physical or sexual trauma or emotional neglect.” He goes on to say that an intimacy disorder “is in essence a symptom of underlying profound adult challenges with intimacy and attachment, stemming from both genetic and environmental sources.”1 I absolutely agree!

If that be the case, just as alcohol dependence is said to be but a symptom of larger problems, then the sexual component of an intimacy disorder would likewise seem to be an indicator of childhood trauma and should be treated as such. Therefore, the first thing we must do as providers of services is change the language used to describe this process addiction. To call it “sex and love addiction” is inflammatory language, inviting and reinforcing discrimination and the exact opposite of what we seek as helping professionals—promotion of understanding and compassion toward those afflicted. As author Wally P. suggests in a 2003 personal correspondence, “We must go from barriers that divide us to building bridges between those barriers over which we can walk,” instead of allowing an unnecessary divide to grow larger.

Secondly, persons attending the several 12-Step groups for this disease would be well served if they stopped stigmatizing themselves by identifying as “sex addicts,” “love addicts,” “porn addicts,” etc. There can be no reasonable expectation that others will cease stigmatizing us if we are incapable of identifying with the solution instead of the problem. As an alternative, I suggest saying, “I’m a member of SLAA, SAA, SA, etc.”

It’s difficult for one to be compassionate toward him or herself when being stigmatized by the language of others. But that also extends to internal dialogue. A female client, morbidly obese, and self-described as frequently self-loathing in her internal dialogue, especially when looking at herself in the mirror, came to an important realization during one of our sessions. “I never thought of myself as a bully, until I listened to how I spoke to myself,” she said.

Practicing compassion

Being a witness to such “a-ha” moments exhibited by clients, along with other symbols and markers of my own personal growth, have been powerful tools in my practice of self-care and compassion. One of my many examples of the influence of a Higher Power in my life has been my daughter, Laura. I affectionately refer to this spirited 26-year-old as my hippie chick. She radiates acceptance, care and love for others, in her smile, her positive nature and overall persona. She inspires me, and we as compassionate healers can instill a sense of peace in our clients by modeling a peaceful ability to cope with the adversity dealt us by life.

Many of those I work with are as seemingly dependent on the drama and chaos in their lives as they were to their substances and behaviors. The drama and rumor mongering become the juice that propels them forward. That’s why persons will substitute one addiction for another, especially the various forms of intimacy disorder.

Alexandra Katehakis, MFT, CSAT, CST, has written extensively about intimacy disorders, including their impact on the partners of persons who are sick and suffering from their various manifestations. In the body of one article, I counted 10 references to “sex addict” while she passionately wrote about the often neglected needs of aggrieved partners.2 While I discern a lack of intent to use discriminatory language in describing the person with an intimacy disorder, that's 10 times where the author could have chosen to use more compassionate language.

While describing the devastation wrought by learning that one’s partner has broken marital vows or violated the expectation of fidelity in committed relationships, Katehakis condemns the discrimination, lack of caring and understanding afforded these partners. She writes about the courage it takes to seek help and the typical reception:

“… (I)nstead of being embraced, nurtured and witnessed, you are told you are a 'coaddict.' You are called 'codependent.' Even though these labels have never described you, they are now thrown your way with regularity, emphasizing the language of personal weakness. This final stage is the ultimate betrayal, for where else can you ever find understanding if not in the arms of the therapeutic community?”2

I passionately propose that the same can be said of the person with the intimacy disorder, who is labeled a “sex addict” and is shackled with all the negative connotations the media have attached to that moniker. The fear of being found out, exposed as a deviant or viewed as a hedonistic monster can have the effect of driving persons further into the abyss of their disease and isolation from the very compassionate help they need from the therapy community, other helping professionals and self-help groups. Surely this is not the type of reception and care with which we want to greet a person who courageously seeks help.

Weiss seems to support my assertion:

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Comments

Hello all. I hope you benefited from reading my article, "It's an intimacy disorder! Please don't call it sex and love addiction," but the silence has been deafening. Selfishly from both a professional and personal level, I was hoping my article would generate a lively on-line discussion. I did receive a very interesting email from a relative. They wrote..."it seems that the professionals you cite use the term sex addict. The impression I get is that this is the norm. I realize that you believe this to be a serious mistake, but are there any professionals you can cite who agree with you and also reject the term?"

Sadly there does not seem to be others calling for a challenge in language and terminology. My response included, "As you rightly discern, I am passionate about ending the stigmatization against persons active in any sort of addiction or those in early or sustained recovery.

The net effect (of the continued use of discriminatory, pejorative language) is we are very likely preventing individuals who need treatment for an intimacy disorder from stepping forward for treatment for fear of being branded with the scarlet letters S & L A.

Just as I railed against a local newspaper's use of the term to describe t-shirt worn by men because it's flat out wrong, I strongly believe we need to change the language used in describing various addictions, including the process addiction of the intimacy disorder. That's why I wrote the article.

To do otherwise, I would be negligent in trying to advance more compassionate care of those in our midst who are suffering."

Be blessed,

TOM

Dear Tom,
I came across this post whilst researching intimacy disorder and sex and love addiction, in a quest to try to figure out if this is a condition that effects me. As you identify in this article the vocabulary embedded into discussions about love and sex discussions is quite strong and quite stigmatising, and focusing on symptoms (?) rather than underlying causes. The term love and sex addiction tends to repel me from engaging with it further to be honest, I don't think I would feel comfortable discussing that with most of my friends (isn't the whole point that sufferers should work on being more open with friends and intimates?), whereas framing the discussion under "intimacy disorder" feels like it makes it more acceptable, and makes more sense to me too. So thank you for the article discussing this.

I'm still a bit confused as to whether all intimacy disorders fall under sex and love addiction, or if there are other strains of intimacy disorder, and this is why sex and love addiction is used to differentiate a particular strain of intimacy disorder... and so my Google quest continues.

K

Sorry to have missed your post, K, and not respond until now. Thank you for affirming my concern that we in the treatment field may be preventing persons with an intimacy disorder because of the incendiary language we often use. I believe what our profession and society often refer to as sex and love addiction are rooted in an intimacy disorder but it may take some time before we get around to using the appropriate language. Leaving it to the individual to discuss in detail the particular issues they are looking to contend with takes specific references to sex and love addiction out of the equation, in my opinion. I wish you the best as you go forward.
TOM

One of the very first things that I remember hearing in an SAA meeting (25 years ago) was spoken by member who said " this is not about sex, it is about intimacy" My personal journey now also includes SLAA, and that means talking a lot about intimacy, and emotional and sexual anorexia , porn, and all the components... As I have "peeled the onion" (12 step jargon) I discovered that co-dependence is the root of all troublesome behaviors, attitudes and compulsions. I agree with the author that most professionals choose to avoid discussing this at all, preferring some sort of distancing which only leads to a deeper disconnection from the roots of whatever you choose to call this constellation... I know that may be fatal for some, especially my patients who place themselves in very dangerous situations while pursuing acting out ... not to mention the absolute ruination of their relationships, including their children, and all family members due to the heavy stigma... if only more people in the addictions field would start discussions like this, in a safe professional venue like this... Really People, what is up with your silence?? Oh by the way, I am a person in long term recovery and my sober date is 2/20/85 , in my experience in personal recovery and as a professional , relationships and intimacy issues, have led more recovering people to relapse than any other issue... the cost is high, maybe we can begin to talk about this from that perspective? no matter what we decide to use as a name...

Thank you for your perspective. My experience has also been that unhealthy relationships fuel much dysfunction and relapse. We in the treatment field and in the rooms of recovery have a responsibility to acknowledge the elephant in the room. Drinking and drugging is but a symptom of larger problems.
Be well.
TOM

So many labels are tossed around to define this problem and no matter what terms we use, the issue remains that this is a very serious problem. Sex addiction is a disease like any other creating barriers to intimacy and connections. I explain more on my blog onsexaddiction.net

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