The Hollowing Out of Relationship

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Thus begins T.S. Elliot’s poem of empty, quiet despair. Elliot’s intent was not to evoke the emotional cry of Sexual Addiction, but this is what he most certainly accomplishes.

Social interaction serves as the foundation of human flourishing. That joy multiplies in a group is evident from anyone’s experience in a comedy club. Even if the comedian is not that funny, you laugh because everyone else is laughing.

Similarly, grief is easier to bear when borne in community. The traditional boisterous wake that follows a funeral in some cultures eases the pain of loss. But silently holding the hand of a grieving widow does the same. Human connection makes the difference.

Sexual Addiction undermines one’s ability to connect with others. The result is a hollowing out of one’s own identity, of one’s one experience of oneself. The image Elliot evokes is scarecrows in a dry, empty field. A person who struggles with sexual addiction is with others, without being with others. It is a “leaning together” with “headpiece filled with straw”.

People who are able to connect with others experience deep and rich personal satisfaction. But not only do they experience greater personal satisfaction, but have greater physical health as well. Conversely, people in isolation are not just lonely. Overtime they deteriorate. They wilt. They degrade. They become less than. They do not become less than someone else. They become less than who they would be if they could be in a healthy relationship with others.

Sexual Addiction, like all addictions, undermines any possibility of a healthy relationship. This in turn undermines general health.

A series of research studies in the 1990s showed that people who have conflicted or unsatisfying close relationships have higher mortality rates, more accidents, and higher risks for developing illness. They demonstrate poor self-efficacy, and have higher rates of psychological symptomatology,  depression, and physical complaints. (Berman & Margolin, 1992, Coyne & Smith, 1991, Rhodes, Ebert, & Myers, 1994, Keitner & Miller, 1990.)

The positive effects of healthy intimacy have also been well documented. A 10-year study found that those with stronger friendship networks lived longer than those with fewer friends. (Giles, Glonek, Luszcz, and Andrews, 2005)

Perhaps more impressive is a study of 10,000 men that found those who felt “loved and supported” by their spouse had a reduced risk of angina. This was the case even if they had other risk factors, such as being older or having raised blood pressure. (Medalie and Goldbourt,1976)

In an article on the health consequences of solitary confinement in New Yorker Magazine, (

“Human beings are social creatures,” wrote Harvard professor, physician, and healthy and social policy advocate Atal Gawanda. “We are social not just in the trivial sense that we like company, and not just in the obvious sense that we each depend on others. We are social in a more elemental way: simply to exist as a normal human being requires interaction with other people.”

To illustrate Dr. Ganda relates the experience of isolation at sea.

“Long-distance solo sailors, for instance, commit themselves to months at sea. They face all manner of physical terrors: thrashing storms, fifty-foot waves, leaks, illness. Yet, for many, the single most overwhelming difficulty they report is the ‘soul-destroying loneliness.’”

Sexual Addiction is being increasingly accepted by clinicians and researchers as an “intimacy disorder”.  At the heart of the disability is difficulty connecting with others. This often due to childhood trauma. The trauma may have been  of an active or passive kin, a abuse or neglect.

In either case the result is a person struggles in relationship. Pain in oneself is traslated to pain in the relationship. This  reinforces the mistaken notion that “other people simply cannot be trusted to meet my needs.”

As we have seen, life in isolation is a profoundly painful experience. In a necessary effort to self-sooth, to overcome the irresistible suffering of borne by the lonely, a person finds in sexual release — not so much pleasure, as relief.


Image by John Carlin

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