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.
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: