Boundaries and Sexual Addiction Part 1: Violation

Sexual Addiction is a complex disorder that requires specialized training to treat. In this series of posts we are exploring one element that makes this disorder so challenging.

People who struggle with sexual addiction also struggle with boundaries. A boundary defines personal space. When we recognize and honor boundaries we accept the simple fact that the other person is worthy of respect.

A violation of a personal boundary comes as an emotional or physical assault. It communicates, “I am better than you.” It says, “You exist to meet my needs.”

Boundary violations degrade emotional health. To remain in relationship with a boundary violator is to lose one’s sense of worth and of one’s appropriate sense of personal power.

We commonly see this in domestic abuse, but it is common also with partners of people who struggle with compulsive sexual behaviors.

Boundary violation is a fundamental trait of sexual addiction. People who struggle with sexual addiction violate boundaries in two basic ways.

First, in their behavior. They look past the humanity of a person to use them as a means to satisfy the demands of their addictive process. This may be direct (massage parlor, escort, or prostitute), or an indirect (pornography).

The second way boundaries are violated is in the cover-up: People who struggle with sexual addiction seek to hide their behavior from others. This shame-driven behavior involves a willful distortion of the partner’s sense of reality. It takes both direct and indirect forms. It includes active misrepresentation — a direct lie. It also includes manipulation — an indirect lie expressed as an intentional half-truth or omission.

People who struggle with sexual addiction are not fundamentally “bad people”. Even though it is true they cause harm to others and profound relational trauma, sexual addiction is only a symptom of a complex maladaptive coping system. It is easy to assign moral judgment.

By seeing the person as “bad”, moral judgment provides only limited, and very short-sighted relief for the people harmed. It does not contribute to the healing process. On the contrary, moral judgment only reinforces the maladaptive and negative core beliefs of the person who struggles with sexual addiction: “I am bad, unworthy, unlovable, etc.”

An alternative to moral judgment is to identify and treat the problem as a couple with a qualified specialist who knows the road map to recovery and healing.

Sexual addiction is as an intimacy and attachment disorder.  Insofar as the addictive process drives action in which boundaries are regularly violated, it undermines the person’s ability to experience healthy intimacy with others.

Partner’s commonly express this as a failure of trust. “I just can’t trust him anymore.” This translates to: “I can’t rely on him to respect appropriate boundaries in relation to myself and others.”

Repeated failures of healthy boundary systems leads to increased secrecy and isolation which only reinforces the addictive process. That is, through the violation of one’s own integrity and another person’s boundaries, boundary violators become victims of their own behavior.

A therapist trained in the treatment of sexual addiction must become skilled at not only understanding healthy boundary systems, but also at helping a person with a sexual addiction to repair the maladaptive thoughts, feelings and behavior that reinforce the disorder.

The challenge for therapists are complex. The therapist must remain vigilant in modeling healthy boundaries with the client. Beyond the obvious professional boundary that must be observed, the therapist must identify and monitor innumerable other boundary challenges that are typically present in early stage recovery.

The list of possible boundary violations is limitless. For purpose of illustration consider:

The violation of emotional boundaries. When does therapeutic attunement and empathetic listening cross the line into colluding with the client? The therapist risks enabling the client to stay stuck in their denial systems.

The violation of therapeutic competence. A client may challenge the therapist’s skill, treatment plan, or professional judgment as way to to avoid confronting denial and being willing to face the underlying pain.

The violation of professional responsibility. Work with a well-trained therapist is not cheap. The client may fail to pay his or her bill, complain about an insurance company, or challenge the cost of treatment as a way to avoid the treatment that is necessary for repair and recovery.

These examples of boundary violations are part and parcel of the challenge of treating sexual addiction. An untrained therapist may not only fail to serve the needs of the client, but do actual harm if not mindful and skilled in how boundary violations need to be skillfully addressed.

In the next two posts, we explore how internal boundary violations within the client lead to external boundary violations in relationship with others. We then consider the fundamental psychodynamic brain processes the therapist must understand to facilitate a successful recovery.

Image by Nate Merrill