Tom and Mary (not their real names) came to me because Mary found Tom’s sent emails to several online “solicitors.”
He had not acted on them but he had admitted to checking out Internet prostitution sites over the last three years. Mary caught him doing porn many times and was angry about how often he seemed to do it and the lack of initiating sex with her. In our first session, he embarrassingly said that he probably looked at porn more than he should. By the end of the session, he was more open and admitted that he was looking at porn and masturbating at least 5 times per week and yet the couple was having sexual interactions less than once a month.
Mary was feeling hurt about his choice of porn over sex with her and was feeling both threatened and repulsed by his reaching out to the prostitutes online.
She believed him that he had not actually met any of them in person. In addition, Mary discovered on his phone that he sent a picture of his penis to an ex-coworker. When Mary probed him, (before the session) he said that that was the only time he had done that. We explored that incident as well in our office and he admitted that he had sent 4 pictures and had successfully deleted three of them before being discovered. He also deleted the naked pictures that the other woman sent back to him in return. (He claims that there were 2 pictures that she sent him).
As you can imagine, this couple was in big trouble…
Will they be able to recover from this? How can Mary ever feel like he will be able to control himself? Will they ever be able to have a healthy sex life?
Also, you can see that in the first session, he stopped minimizing as he described his troublesome behavior. Sex addicts do tend to minimize their behavior due to shame and fear of losing the partner altogether. One of the things I have seen in most cases is that when the addict finally is transparent with his behavior and stops minimizing, the prognosis for the couple goes way up. In order for there to be a chance of positive change and restored trust, hiding behavior has to stop. I explain this to the couple and that could often be motivating for the addict to be more open. There is a risk in exposing the whole truth but I have observed that there is a far bigger risk to continue the hiding.
Tom’s decision to be open was just the beginning…
We looked more deeply into his history and what lead him to make the choices that so jeopardized his relationship with Mary. For example, he came from a family where his role was to take care of his mother and had an absent father. He rarely had the experience of being the dependent child who could experience a nurturing emotionally attentive mother. He grew up being selfless to an extreme and never perceived others including his own wife as people who can be emotionally there for him. He did not ask for what he wanted; he avoided conflict and for sure he did not ask for what he wanted in the bedroom.
He felt powerless most of the time when he was in potentially intimate situations including with Mary.
Some people struggling with sex addiction will attend a 12-step group such as Sexaholics Anonymous and Sex Addicts Anonymous. These groups can be extremely helpful as others struggling with similar issues can be supports as well as inspiration to the sex addict beginning his healing journey. He joined one of these groups and participated on a consistent basis. This group further installed in him the commitment to make changes.
I treated him for some of the trauma he experienced as a young child using a very effective approach that I have written about elsewhere called Eye Movement Desensitizing and Reprocessing (EMDR). We were able to help him successfully process and move on from memories of childhood and adolescence where he felt alone, neglected and inadequate.
Couples work included having them both learn how to communicate more maturely and learn how to listen better. Mary did not come from a family where she felt a lot of listening took place either so this process was very healing for the both of them. In my office with me right there, they had the opportunity to practice healthier styles of communication, replacing defensiveness with being emotionally present for each other. They both started feeling closer. In the communication training, Tom was able to listen to Mary’s deep pain about his secrecy and his lack of initiating sex with her. Mary (especially after Tom did a good job of listening to her) was able to put aside her anger and resentment to listen to him talk about his pain from childhood as well as his anxiety of being more assertive with Mary on their marriage.
I encouraged Tom to ask more from Mary outside the bedroom. For example, he would need to ask himself, “What do I want from Mary?” Then he would ask her for a favor or request going to a restaurant of his choice. In the past, he would let the choice of a restaurant be up to her. This might sound mundane and trivial, but it was very important for him to “take up more space in the relationship.” Mary’s needs were just as important as Tom’s of course, but I knew that he would be in a far better place to meet her needs if he discovered and embraced more of his true self.
Mary saw changes in his behavior towards her.
He initiated communication and gave his opinion more. She liked it and he noticed how much she liked it. He continued going to his Twelve Step Program consistently. Mary’s hope and increasing optimism about the relationship became more apparent to Tom which led to him being clearly more animated.
We started working on their sex life. He realized that looking for prostitutes as well as the other sexual acting out was a way for him to feel his sexuality without risking being a real mature person. It was a regressed way of dealing with that part of himself and in those moments he could escape his feelings of powerlessness and inadequacy. At this stage of therapy, he was better able to directly face his feelings of powerlessness and through that and through increased self-expression he started to feel more “healthily powerful” in the bedroom. He thought about what he wanted and Mary was excited to see him initiating intimate time together. Now that he gave himself permission to be a sexual receiver from Mary, he was feeling more arousal with just the idea of being with her sexually. The impulses to do the more regressed sexual behaviors significantly faded.
As he became a better receiver in the bedroom, he became a far better giver. As Tom grew, so did Mary. Both increased their capacity to receive more love and more pleasure. They have established a new couple lifestyle that includes almost daily time set aside to “slow down together.” They communicate much more openly. They have sex far more frequently and the sex is far more satisfying when they do have sex.
As you can see, I used a ”developmental” approach and helped Tom as well as the couple – replace immature communication and sexual patterns with more mature and ultimately more fulfilling patterns.
His healing from trauma using EMDR (in his case), the couples willingness to work on their communication patterns, Tom’s willingness to attend a 12-step group (I am not saying that it is mandatory to attend a 12-step group to be successful) and the couples courage in the bedroom helped them go from surviving (barely) to thriving.
This whole process took 4 months. They now come for tune-ups as needed which is not very often. They continue to be a happy couple to this day.