This is the second of a three-part series exploring sexual addiction as a complex disorder that requires specialized treatment. We are looking at the specific challenge of addressing boundaries.
A common trait of people who struggle with sexual addiction includes an inability to respond appropriately to another person’s boundaries. They fail to keep their own boundaries. They fail to respect the boundaries of others. They fail to honor the boundaries of their larger community.
Partners experience the chaos and confusion of living with someone who persistently violates boundaries. A common and justifiable response is to pushback. The partner must assert her own identity and right to be respected at all times.
When the partner reasserts her personal boundary she defends her own emotional health. She also sets up a healthy boundary system of what will and will not accept.
It is best when the partner states her ownership of her autonomy and makes a direct request that her right to be treated with respect be honored at all times. She then makes a clear statement of what action she will take (the consequence) if the boundary is not honored.
For example, “You lied to me. This violates my sense of personal dignity. It tells me you do not believe that I am worthy of the truth. I am a mature person. I require that people in relationship with me deal fairly with me at all times. My home needs to be a safe place for me. When you lie to me, I do not feel safe. Therefore, if you lie to me again, I will require you to leave my home. If you do not leave, I will leave and go to a friend’s house where I can feel safe.”
Sometimes a partner attempts to reestablish a boundary through statements of moral judgement. Often it takes the expression of rage. “You are such a jerk! You are a liar! I hate you!” Sometimes it is expressed in terms of simple surrender, “I just can’t take it anymore.”
This brings some measure of relief. It accurately identifies the cause of their pain due to the betrayal of the addicted partner. But while it brings some limited measure of momentary relief, it does little to promote healing.
Internal Boundary Failure
Boundary violators suffer what they inflict on others. They regularly violate boundaries within themselves.
People who struggle with sexual addiction experience a significant split in their Mind/Body experience. Rather than knowing themselves as whole people with healthy Mind/Body integration, they become one person having two parts — a Mind and a Body, one good and one bad posing to family and friends while living a secret life.
This sets up the opportunity for an internal struggle with boundaries that gets projected out externally in relationship to others. Lack of personal integration sets up the conditions that allow the lies and deception to continue all the while acting as if they are exempt from the relational commitments and agreements regarding fidelity and transparency.
A person who struggles with sexual addiction imagines the Mind and the Body as separate things. The imagination constructs a narrative — an image of the self — that is largely fantasy. It creates a person to present to the world that does not honestly reflect the person’s lies, deception, and secret life.
This constructed, imagined person is an idealized vision of “the good guy”, “the loving father”, “the supportive husband”. They do this as a means to hide the reality of their secret life and fantasy. We call this, “posing”.
While they present to the world a picture of perfection, they internally judge, condemn, and abuse themselves with an internal dialogue that makes the reconstitution of an integrated Mind/Body whole-self impossible without therapeutic intervention.
They live in a confusing swirl of internal dialogue. The Imagined Self presents an image of perfection while at the same time criticizing and condemning the Embodied Self that lives in a secret world characterized by shame.
Shame inspires the ritualized behavior that drives the addictive process and that eventually results in the repetition of the addictive cycle and sexual release without real, lasting satisfaction. The behavior only reinforces the fundamental belief that they simply are not lovable, worthy, and that they can trust no one.
This internal violation of boundaries, the degrading and devaluing of the Self, gets played out in the degrading and devaluing of other people, even those they want so much to love.
Social Reinforcement for the Failure Mind of Body Integration
This tragic splitting of Mind and Body is reinforced significantly by our culture. Sexual addiction in some ways is a cultural disorder born of 1) a hyper-sexual society that at the same time 2) condemns sexual expression.
Failed Mind/Body integration has a long history going back 2,500 years. Greek philosopher Plato taught that Mind was as a higher, morally superior quality that existed separate and apart from the material world of the Body.
The Mind is something to be celebrated, while the Body is something to be deplored. In our imaginations we can experience an idyllic world full of idyllic beings doing idyllic things. But the material, concrete world is full of flaws. Imperfect bodies interact together under the burden of imperfect relationships and inconvenient obligations.
Notice how readily we shame simple Body functions. This is not limited to sex-shaming. It includes how we eat, our need to eliminate, our body-image, and even our need for sleep. “Self care” is a challenge for many because it demands attending to the needs of the Body. Addressing the needs of the body carries with it an element of shame.
People who struggle with sexual addiction find cultural reinforcement of the splitting of Mind and Body. But while culture reinforces this failure of integration, it is not its immediate cause. We find this in the experience of trauma.
Many people who struggle with sexual addiction report a history of early childhood emotional, physical, or sexual trauma. They learn long before an addictive process is identified how release from stress can be found in the imagination.
A common psychological defense for victims of abuse is to disassociate. Lacking a safe place in the physical world, the Mind psychologically flees to a safe place in the imagination. Though helpless to prevent harm to the Body, they can at least escape in a flight of fantasy. Disassociated Personality Disorder (“split personality”) is an extreme expression of trauma.
Trauma creates the initial fissure between Mind and Body. The addictive process widens it. The Body becomes an escape pod. Acting out delivers a moment of relief from the Mind-Body split.
Under the influence of an addictive process, the Mind becomes the Real Self, while the Body becomes something other, an appendage. It becomes something to be used by the Mind to escape, relieve stress, or simply seek release from the burdens of day to day living.
The lack of Mind/Body integration sets the stage for self-loathing. The Mind — perceived as existing separate from the Body — takes on the role of the Inner Critic. The Mind-Self condemns the Body-Self in shaming self-talk that results in self-loathing and deepens the split between the Mind and Body that ultimately perpetuates the addictive cycle.
The separation of Mind and Body is an illusion. The shaming criticism of the Body, rebounds back to the Mind. Under the weight of this impossible burden, the Mind-Self seeks release in Body-experience over and over again.
If not addressed, the Mind/Body split continues to grow with compounding trauma to the point that a person is so compartmentalized, they live in a perpetual state of denial about their secret life. They believe if no one knows, it is okay to engage in their secret fantasies and behavior despite their mounting trauma and self-loathing.
A journey that began as trauma from outside, becomes a cycle of faulty core beliefs and denial that gets reinforced by the addiction until discovered. At this point, confronted by the truth, a person will ether seek help or feign remorse but continue the behaviors that perpetuate trauma of runaway negative consequences that are the natural consequence of addiction.
Sexual addiction is an intimacy disorder by which a person manages life’s challenges through escape to sexually-informed fantasies, obsessions, and compulsive sexual behaviors. People who struggle with sexual addiction have not learned to seek the support of others in relationships characterized by honesty, mutuality and respect.
Back to Boundaries
The person who struggles with sexual addiction experiences internal boundary confusion. This leads to challenges in identifying, setting and/or respecting boundaries in oneself and in relationships with others.
The internal separation of Mind and Body makes it difficult to be empathetic to the needs of others. One fails to see how others feel when their boundaries are violated. The attention is so fully oriented to the internal dialogue of denial, minimization, rationalization, and projection, they fail to hear and accept the feedback and experience of others.
Recovery involves the work of re-integrating the Mind and Body while coming out of hiding and stopping the destructive behaviors of sexual addiction. This is challenging work for the therapist that takes extensive training, expertise, and experience.
Image by Hernán Piñera