Stop right there, you might be thinking. Aren’t sex addicts like narcissists—the ones who always manage to get involved with codependents? Surely they aren’t codependent themselves. How could a sex addict be codependent, you ask yourself, when he or she manages to repeatedly leave relationships—either by cheating, or by being unavailable through compulsive pornography use, obsessive voyeurism, etc.? It’s as if he or she doesn’t care at all, or is intentionally trying to hurt his or her partner, you might be thinking.
How Do Sex Addicts Become Codependent?
Aren’t codependents the ones who find themselves hopelessly wed to sex addicts, wishing and praying their partners will give up their compulsion to sex and return to the relationship, or the ones who know full well the relationship is toxic, but never quite manage to let go? Yes … and no.
While many partners of sex addicts experience codependence, it is also believed that sex addicts frequently experience codependence as well, which, just like addictive tendencies, may have been embedded in their personality templates in childhood.
Like many addicts, many codependents experienced a painful or traumatic childhood, particularly involving relationships with caregivers that were enmeshing, emotionally or physically neglectful, or even abusive. The way in which we were treated as children is inextricably linked to our mental health in adulthood—and to the way we relate to others.
The Sex Addict And The Narcissist
Every active sex addict lives with shame and loneliness, and according to Ross Rosenberg, an expert in the fields of trauma recovery and sex addiction, these are the qualities that often lead them into codependent relationships. Many sex addicts, according to Rosenberg, seek relationships with more controlling or punitive personalities—and many times with narcissistic personalities—in an unconscious effort to retraumatize themselves with old patterns from childhood where they felt judged, unloved and unwanted. And because they’ve established such relationships, a part of them feels the chronic cheating or addiction to other forms of sex is excusable; their partner doesn’t want or love them enough anyway.
This is not to say that every woman or man with sex addiction unwittingly enters into relationships with narcissistic personality types, but that many do. An examination of the underpinning in these dynamics can be enlightening. Sex addicts likely feel drawn to controlling, punitive and narcissistic personalities because these personality traits put a spotlight on the deep shame that undergirds their problem of addiction and has been present since childhood. The shame, of course, is toxic, but it is an established pattern of relating; it is all the addict knows.
Sex Addiction As Self-Medication
In the meantime, the addict’s sexual acting-out behaviors serve as a way to self-medicate anxiety and tension and to help the addict feel temporarily wanted, lovable, desirable or desiring. Each of these emotions engages dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter associated with motivation, found in the reward center in the brain. Acting out or preparing to act out provides a dopamine rush, which is the feeling the addict seeks again and again, despite the shame and negative life consequences.
Treatments For Sex Addicts Who Also Experience Codependence
Mental health professionals agree; when encountering a person with addiction who may also experience codependence, it is best to begin addressing the addiction right away, but recovery from codependence can become an integrated part of treatment, and always should. If a newly recovering sex addict goes back into his or her life with the same set of relationship tools that helped to create dysfunction before, nothing will have been solved, and the addict is likely to relapse.
Many of the steps to recovery from codependency are similar to the steps to recovery for sexual addiction. Awareness and full acknowledgment of the problem is, naturally, the first step, and a period of abstinence may be required—a time in which codependents return their “locus of control” to the self instead of the other in a relationship, and a time for sex addicts to resist the compulsive behaviors they have been unable to manage until further clarity and sobriety is achieved. Successful recovery often involves the support of loved ones, family and friends or others who are going through similar issues. If admitting the problem is the first step, reaching out is the next.
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