Jeremy is a 39-year-old electrician and a married father of three. From a distance, his life looks OK. He’s got a steady job, a nice house, and a family. Yet he’s entered therapy (without telling his wife) for what feels to him like depression and debilitating anxiety. And this is not his first secretive trip to the therapy rodeo. In fact, he’s tried three therapists in the past, each time walking away poorer and not feeling any better. And these therapists were highly recommended – well trained and experienced.
The problem for Jeremy (and his former therapists) is that he’s sexually addicted, compulsively abusing pornography, hookup apps, strip clubs, and prostitutes, but nobody in his life knows anything about this. Even Jeremy is in denial about his underlying problem, excusing his actions with thoughts like, “All guys get horny and do this stuff,” and, “What my wife and kids don’t know can’t hurt them.”
Meanwhile, Jeremy spends more and more of his time focused on sex, and less and less of his time focused on family, work, and other important aspects of life. Sometimes he “loses himself” in porn and other sexual behaviors for five or six hours at a time. And then, when he finally has his orgasm and plummets back to reality, he wonders what happened. He thinks, “I was only going to go online for ten or fifteen minutes, and now it’s 3 a.m.” Plus, he’s looking at images, engaging in behaviors, and hooking up with people that used to disgust him. On a few occasions, in desperation, he’s even had sex with other men in a dirty bookstore, even though he’s 100 percent straight.
Most days, Jeremy wakes up thinking about sex, and he thinks about sex all day long, and then he goes to bed thinking about sex. Increasingly, he feels resentful about “wasting time” with his wife and kids having dinner, helping with homework, and attending Little League games. (He used to help coach, but now he’d rather not go.)
Jeremy’s wife has sensed this emotional distancing. At least once per week she asks him what’s wrong, and why he never seems to be around. He simply tells her that he’s very busy with work, and that things will settle down soon. Sometimes she calls him a liar. Other times, she cries and asks what she’s done to drive him away.
In most respects, Jeremy is a garden variety sex addict. He is preoccupied with sex to the point of obsession. He gets irritable when he can’t act out sexually. And he has tried repeatedly to quit or at least to cut back on his sexual behaviors. Unfortunately, rather than ebbing, his behaviors have escalated in terms of both time and intensity. Even worse, he is experiencing all sorts of negative life consequences as a result – relationship woes, diminished performance at work, depression, anxiety, isolation, loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities, and more.
Like most addicts (of all types), Jeremy has unresolved childhood trauma issues (various forms of abuse and neglect), and he has responded by “numbing out” with an addiction. (Some addicts drink or use drugs to “get high” and escape. Others, like Jeremy, “lose themselves” in the neurochemical rush of sexual fantasy and activity.) This means that for Jeremy sex is no longer tied to pleasure. Instead, he uses sex compulsively as a way to “not feel” emotional discomfort. As such, his goal with sexual acting out is not feeling good, it’s feeling less.
Unfortunately, the more deeply mired in sexual addiction Jeremy becomes, the more deeply mired in shame he becomes. He swears to himself that he will quit, and he’ll be faithful to his wife, but usually he can’t even make it through an entire day without acting out. At this point, he feels like he has no control over his sexual urges, and that his life is coming apart at the seams because of this. Nevertheless, his only solution to this ongoing and ever-increasing emotional discomfort is “escaping” into sexual fantasies and behaviors, which simply creates more shame, more depression, and more anxiety. In many ways, Jeremy is simply feeding the beast – emotional discomfort leads to compulsive sexual fantasies, compulsive sexual fantasies lead to compulsive sexual behaviors, and compulsive sexual behaviors lead to more emotional discomfort. This, of course, is the spin cycle of sexual addiction.
Happily, Jeremy recently told his new therapist that he might have “a minor problem with cheating.” His therapist, tipped off that sexual issues might underlie his depression and anxiety, performed a complete psychiatric assessment, including questions about Jeremy’s sex and relationship history. Even though Jeremy wasn’t completely honest in his responses, he gave enough information that his therapist was able to identify sexual addiction as an issue and initiate treatment – a combination of individual and sex addiction focused group therapy, supplemented by 12-step sexual addiction recovery.
As of now, Jeremy has still not told his wife what he is dealing with. He is deathly afraid that she will react badly, calling him a pervert, tossing him out of the house, filing for divorce, and telling everyone they know what he’s been doing. Nevertheless, he understands that “coming clean” is the next major (and hugely necessary) step forward in his recovery. As such, he has agreed to a couple’s counseling session in the near future, where this coming out process can be healthfully facilitated. He knows that only after this occurs can he stop living his shame-based and incredibly stressful double life.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. A licensed UCLA MSW graduate and personal trainee of Dr. Patrick Carnes, he founded The Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles in 1995. He is author of Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men and Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Porn, and Love Addiction, and co-author with Dr. Jennifer Schneider of both Untangling the Web: Sex, Porn, and Fantasy Obsession in the Internet Age and Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships. For more information you can visit his website, www.robertweissmsw.com.