The three primary elements for a diagnosis of sexual addiction are as follows:
- Preoccupation to the point of obsession with sexual fantasies and behaviors
- Loss of control over sexual fantasies and behaviors, typically evidenced by multiple failed attempts to either quit, alter, or curtail these activities
- Negative life consequences directly related to out-of-control sexual fantasies and behaviors – relationship woes, trouble at work or in school, financial issues, legal problems, declining physical and/or emotional health, loss of interest in intimate sexuality, loss of interest in nonsexual activities, etc.
Sex addicts also tend to experience tolerance/escalation and various forms of withdrawal, the latter of which is the subject of this article. (I will cover tolerance/escalation in my next posting to this site.)
For the most part, people can easily understand withdrawal from alcohol or drugs. Nearly everyone has either seen or heard about a substance abuser going “cold turkey” and experiencing physical and mental symptoms as a result – chills, fevers, night sweats, headaches, body aches, high blood pressure, nausea, diarrhea, delirium tremens, insomnia, anxiety, depression, hallucinations, etc.
But what about sexual addiction? Do sex addicts also suffer from withdrawal in the form of DTs, aches, hypertension, and the like? Usually they do not. Nevertheless, a sudden stoppage of addictive sexual behaviors does create withdrawal. The symptoms just tend to be mental/emotional rather than physical. (Substance abusers also experience these mental/emotional symptoms, but their physical anguish can be so overwhelming that their psychological torment is obscured.)
Typically, withdrawal from sexual addiction manifests in one or more of the following ways:
- Irritability, anxiety, agitation, depression, etc.: Newly recovering sex addicts nearly always experience psychological distress in early sobriety. And why wouldn’t they? After all, addictive sexual fantasies and behaviors have been their primary way of coping with emotional discomfort – including feelings as seemingly benign as boredom – for a very long time. When this crutch is taken away, they are no longer able to numb out and escape their feelings. As such, they must face their emotions head-on. For addicts who’ve been trying to “not feel” for years, maybe even decades, this can be an incredibly uncomfortable and unwelcome experience.
- A desire to switch to another addiction: Many recovering sex addicts find themselves replacing (or wanting to replace) their sexual addiction with another potentially addictive substance or activity. For instance, a sex addict who suddenly stops acting out typically experiences a corresponding flood of emotions (as discussed above), and without the usual coping mechanism (sex), he or she may turn to drinking, drugging, gambling, eating, smoking, spending, or any other pleasurable (and therefore escapist) substance or behavior. This is especially true in the early months of sexual recovery.
- Profound loneliness and a longing for connection: For most sex addicts, sexual acting out masks not only day-to-day stress and emotional discomfort, but underlying issues with intimacy – primarily an unfulfilled longing for emotional connection. Often this unfulfilled longing is the direct result of unresolved early-life attachment trauma. Without the constant distraction of sexual fantasy and activity, this longer-term underlying condition rises to the surface, causing intense feelings of loneliness, fear, disconnection, etc. These feelings can make it very difficult to maintain sexual sobriety.
So yes, sex addicts do experience withdrawal, and sometimes it can be quite severe. Without their usual emotional crutch, newly recovering sex addicts have a tendency to blow up at the slightest provocation. For them, even the smallest issue can feel like a major problem. As such, they overreact, they get angry with themselves and others, they cry, they’re afraid, they’re lonely, etc. To be perfectly honest, sex addicts in early recovery are typically not a lot of fun to spend time with. The good news is that in time this abates, as withdrawal always does, provided the addict stays sober.
Interestingly, some recovering sex addicts temporarily experience the opposite of withdrawal – the pink cloud. These lucky individuals have a honeymoon period in the early weeks or months of recovery. When they embark on their personal path toward sobriety and healing, they lose all desire to act out, they are fascinated by the insights that recovery provides, and they are thrilled to know there is a solution to their longstanding problem. Unfortunately, the pink could is a temporary phase. It’s great while it lasts, but it doesn’t last forever. The desire to numb out via sexual fantasy and behavior always returns, and when it does, it usually hits full-force. And when the addict does not act on this desire, the symptoms of sexual withdrawal finally arrive – delayed but still potent.
Recovering sex addicts who experience withdrawal should be advised that the easiest way to ease their pain is to talk about their symptoms with a supportive individual who understands compulsive sexuality and the cycle of sex addiction. Therapists, 12-step sexual recovery sponsors, and friends in sexual recovery are usually the best options, as they are the people most likely to understand the addict’s feelings and struggles. In a pinch, close friends and family members can also be helpful. If the symptoms of withdrawal are extreme – deep depression, severe anxiety, and the like – this should be dealt with quickly and aggressively, preferably in a therapeutic setting, possibly using medication to alleviate symptoms. Otherwise, the recovering addict is at risk not only for relapse, but for other forms of serious self-harm.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of National Clinical Development for Elements Behavioral Health. An internationally acknowledged clinician and author, he has served as a subject expert on the intersection of human intimacy and digital technology for multiple media outlets including The Oprah Winfrey Network, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Daily Beast, and CNN, among many others. He is the author of several highly regarded books, including the forthcoming work, Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Love, and Porn Addiction. For more information please visit website at robertweissmsw.com.
Robert Weiss PhD, MSW, CEO of Seeking Integrity LLC, is a digital-age sex, intimacy, and relationship specialist. Dr. Weiss has spent more than 25 years developing treatment programs, educating clinicians, writing, and providing direct care to those challenged by digital-age infidelity, sexual addiction/compulsivity, and other addictive disorders. He is the author of several highly regarded books on sex and intimacy disorders including Prodependence, Out of the Doghouse, Sex Addiction 101, and Cruise Control, among others. He also podcasts (Sex, Love, & Addiction 101) and hosts a free, weekly interactive sex and intimacy webinar via SexandRelationshipHealing.com. His current projects are: SexandRelationshipHealing.com, an extensive online resource for recovery from sex and intimacy disorders; and Seeking Integrity Los Angeles, an Integrated Intensive Program for Sex and Intimacy Disorders (Opening in Feb, 2019). For more information or to reach Dr. Weiss, please visit his websites, RobertWeissMSW.com and SexandRelationshipHealing.com, or follow him on Twitter (@RobWeissMSW), LinkedIn (Robert Weiss LCSW), and Facebook (Rob Weiss MSW).