Monthly Archives: April 2022

Isolation: treatment of an impacted partner

What about the spouse or partner of a so-called sex addict? Well, what about them, said sex addiction treatment programs for many years. That’s the narrative of advocates for impacted or betrayed partners—that their clients have been ignored by sex addiction specialists who privilege attention to the acting out party, focusing upon their needs while impacted others are told to back off, not intrude upon the afflicted party’s “recovery”. Well, this is a complicated issue so the pros and cons of partner isolation, or “backing off”, as I put it, bear exploration. Firstly, as someone who has worked privately, as in individually, and as part of a collaborative team for over twenty years, I’ll admit that I have supported the segregation of a partner’s program from that of an acting out figure on many occasions. The reason: there’s too much of a rush to “do something” when you treat sex addiction with a directly systemic approach from the outset of a treatment episode. Now, a possible point of confusion: problems relating to sex addiction may be systemic—meaning, that sexually acting out behavior aside, a couple shares responsibility for relational problems.

But the problem is that since impacted partners have been integrated into sex addiction treatment as part of a “systemic” approach, the field has more recently adopted a perpetrator/victim model that addresses angry women (mostly), promising them “accountability” (as often as not a euphemism for punishment, used to disguise aggression and therefore lessen guilt), and enabling splitting defenses that lead to binary conceptions, scapegoating sexually acting out figures while their partners are given a pass on most relational conflicts because they are “betrayed”. In this model most impacted partners are treated as victimized figures, repeatedly lied to or otherwise emotionally and perhaps physically abused—basically not responsible for most if not all problems between the couple. Now, there may be some who will retort that this take is unfair; that the model in fact expresses that perpetrator/victim roles are “fluid”, implying that impacted partners become abusive and traumatizing themselves. Yes. In plain speak, this means that impacted/betrayed partners exact revenge, feel righteous when they apply “boundaries” post-discovery of sexual acting out, but don’t generally, in my opinion, accept that mutuality contributes to a pattern of acting out. That violates the “his behavior is not about you” ethos, which is then generalized, so any abuse between the sexually acting out figure and the impacted partner is presumed to be unilateral. Interestingly, this tacit heurism doesn’t apply if the acting out figure is female in a heterosexual context. Only in that scenario will you hear sex addiction or betrayal trauma specialists speculate that the impacted partner (if male) is as much the perennially “abusive” figure in the relationship, if not more so. This is probably due to what I have dubbed a feminist tautology: feminine victimization is a redundancy; unless proven otherwise, it is treated as a given—one of the tacit rules within the intersectionality ethic.

If you’re an impacted partner (especially a female one) reading this you likely won’t like the ironic tone of what I just wrote, but the non-ironic, problematic thing is this: I’ve sat with a lot of couples over a lot years (in other words, not just people like you, Heather) and—quite simply—I’ve observed or else heard about the above-described narrative many more times than I care to enumerate. Regardless, this opinion will likely be the most controversial aspect of Getting Real About Sex Addiction because it flies in the face of current political correctness. The treatment of addiction intersects with social mores, but in our progressive zeitgeist only social underdogs get to be cast as scapegoats, not heterosexual men. This is why sex addiction treatment, which is primarily aimed at heterosexual men, more recently eschews the paradigms of codependency or systemic roles like “scapegoat”, which imply that addicted individuals carry the pathology of a system and are therefore not exclusively responsible for relational disputes. Now, to complicate matters, progressive SA specialists will argue that the opposite has been long-true: that the field’s bias has actually been to employ the codependency and scapegoat concepts so as to dilute responsibility and cast unfair responsibility on impacted and betrayed partners. If this was, say, 1989, I’d say they were probably correct, but my sense is that biases have been tilted in favor of impacted partners for some time now, likely because women now represent a majority of practitioners within the field of mental health care.

Anyway, Getting Real actually begins with an exchange between myself and an agitated partner of an identified sex addict. In that illustration, I observe the frantic efforts of the angry, scared discoverer of an unacceptable pattern of behavior. Amid demands for decisive and implicitly sooner rather than later change, I outline an approach that will point her in the direction of support groups, her own self-exploration, with lesser emphasis upon what she’d prefer: an auxiliary role in the oversight of her wayward husband. In a later chapter, I devote many pages to this woman, who had attended a partners’ support group but soon dropped out, dissatisfied; she then sought a “full disclosure” in couples therapy via a sex addiction specialist (CSAT), but found that dissatisfying also, her husband merely compliant, not sufficiently earnest or candid within that exercise’s largely structured protocols. For a year she languished alone, not leaving her marriage in a practical or physical sense, but nonetheless feeling more isolated than she ever had before. In her efforts to get closer to her husband, even rebuild the shaky foundation of their twenty-year old bond, she’d tried everything she could think of—everything except looking at her anger. That she did in individual psychoanalytic therapy, or so I chronicle in the book. It played out throughout our relationship, from the tense, testy consultation we’d once had over a phone, to a later, intensive episode in which her frustration emerged in the transference of our sessions*. We met twice a week at first, then three times per week at the height of our arrangement. I know. If you don’t know much about psychoanalytic treatments then you’ll likely think that excessive, or you might not know what transference is. Think of it this way: if you want to get to know yourself with the help of a professional, it’s best they see you as often as possible, for as long as possible. You see, that way a person’s real self has less chance to hide. It simply increases the pressure to do what we call the work.

             This woman—Anne is her pseudonym—thought that the work of therapy would be “supportive”:  she supposed, largely from her prior experiences in therapy that she’d be validated in her complaints about her husband; that she’d be encouraged towards various ways to “self-care”, accompanied by the half-presumption that she didn’t do this very well. She’d be introduced to legitimate if weaponized rhetoric: terms like “perpetrator”, “victim”, “survivor”, “narcissist”, and of course “addict” were all invoked by group peers, her former providers, mostly in reference to her husband. Headlining the psychoeducation were terms like “betrayal” and “trauma”—again, legitimate constructs but often employed in a manner that externalizes problems and circumscribes meaning, blunting efforts at self-exploration. Why look at yourself if someone else is really the problem? And please, I’ve heard the expressions that feign responsibility, from the offhand, generalized, “I know I’m not perfect”, to the backhanded self-blame of “I didn’t want to believe he was an addict” or the quasi, glib self-exploration of “why am I so attracted to abusive men? I know. I know…I have low self-esteem”. At first, Anne did indeed feel validated and supported by the treatment aimed at her. But soon enough she felt patronized, and was secretly aware that the story of her marriage wasn’t as simple as some were reflecting back to her. In her meetings with me, I validated one thing: her feelings of betrayal specifically relating to the acting out of her husband. Besides that, I offered precious little of what she ultimately found precious and unconvincing. That didn’t mean she would declare herself singly at fault for a broken marriage; she wouldn’t victim-blame or otherwise split so explicitly in her thinking.

             In part due to the frequency of our meetings, she couldn’t hide the angry side of herself, even though she tried, by masking her frustration in subtle gestures of devaluation, and later—upon my interpretations of these moments—by overt expressions of complaint; her paradoxical need for an understanding beneath attempts to push me away. Part of her frustration in life was sexual. Like many impacted or betrayed partners, she hadn’t wanted a cessation or diminishing of her sex life, the semi-inevitable result of having discovered her partner’s cheating and porn-binging. Unlike some who invert the “excuse” phenomenon so often assigned to self-identified sex addicts, she wasn’t citing the sex addiction discovery as a pretext for refusing sex when loss of sexual interest was an underlying truism**. Nor was she a hypocritical monogamist, claiming betrayal while holding post-modern values that cast skepticism on the exclusivist, women-subordinating institution of marriage but still extolling the values of the white dress. Indeed, one of the feelings she wanted to explore in our treatment was her lifelong struggle with jealousy, and just as Esther Perel writes in her book State of Affairs, Anne felt that overwrought support for her betrayed experience had served to obscure this recently valid yet historically neurotic trait.

             Among the standard maxims within our profession and culture is the belief that jealousy, a derivate of hate, isolates. And we think this whether we are speaking of racism, toxic masculinity, misogyny, or its lesser observed analogue, misandry. Hate, or the perception of it, leaves us cold and distant; we lose empathy, othering the people we don’t know, or we forget the people we once knew and loved, or felt dependent on. I was reminded of this watching an old film recently in a state of unwitting jadedness. Ostensibly, I was looking for escapist fare as I selected Casablanca, one of the great romantic flicks of the WWII era, but also a story with hate and jadedness at its center. Rick, Humphrey Bogart’s character, is a cynical American expatriate wounded by, among other things, a lost love in the form of Else, played by Ingrid Bergman. When she returns to Casablanca with another love (for another man) but a lingering regret for having ditched Rick years earlier, she attempts reconciliation, only to find him bitter and drunk. In the aftermath of their tense reunion Rick asks, in effect, what did you expect? See, he felt entitled to his anger. No arguments from her—just a blank, wayward gaze. Ultimately, Else checks out, looks away, says she can’t feel anything for him in the face of his hate, even though she accepts his right to feel that way. Hate. Betrayal. Compulsion. Jealousy. Whatever it was, it had isolated them physically, emotionally. Psychologically, they were correspondingly split.

*Transference refers to feelings and unconscious thoughts that emerge in the therapeutic relationship that are based upon past relationships, especially those with primary caregivers

** I’m aware that this observation, paraphrased from one similar in the book, will be offensive to some readers. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that such ulterior wishes describe all or even most partners of sex addicts who enter treatment for themselves. But I am suggesting that this phenomenon exists, that it presents often enough, and that those who think this isn’t a thing are in another kind of denial.

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D has been reacting

D has been reacting to difficult situations with moral outrage for years. A thirty something married white man with one child, he holds a prominent position in a city government, and has been tasked with the management of a financial crisis amidst the Coronavirus outbreak—a crisis now largely traversed, he exclaims. Our exchanges are marked by venting outbursts: diatribes about workplace associates, political rivals and once allies, most of whom are turning their backs on him, blaming him for the budget cuts that they said were unfair and discriminatory, but which he says were necessary. D is a tall man with broad shoulders, the beginnings of a middle-age paunch, but the square jaw of a one-time high school football star. With a brittle, barely-holding-his composure tone in his voice, he decries the selfishness, the dishonesty, the immaturity of his peers. Sounding further like an indignant father of a spoilt pack of children, he speaks to an imagined audience, saying “wake up, people!” and “you’re lucky you even have a job”, half aware that his listener of the moment—me—is waiting to deliver a matter of fact observation. I’ll paraphrase:

“You chose this. You’ve come across this before”

I was referring to feelings stirred by previous, albeit lesser known public crises; by previous workplaces with hard authority figures as well as underperforming subordinates; by a detached, reportedly passive aggressive spouse; by an alcoholic and still difficult father. In each of these contexts, D’s discontent is not constant, but the pattern of reaction to stressors is consistent. When he feels betrayed or devalued, he responds in kind, whether he is acting upon frustrations with others or else suppressing his words and then releasing them upon me. Though he is not psychotic in his functioning overall, there are moments when he shares, and further holds eye contact with me, when it seems he might lose track of who is who in his life and in such moments, and therefore who merits the emotional deposit he wishes to make. At these times I feel pressure to respond. A hint of indignation rises up in me as I think of D’s entitlement (just as he is speaking of the entitlement of others) and pose to myself a provocative question: What did he expect?

“You feel turned upon”, I say, biding my time with a comment that seems benignly empathetic.

“It makes me question my path,” D eventually says, suggesting he’ll soon focus upon himself, observe something beyond the present moment of frustration. “I should get out,” he adds predictably. I think this set of words defensive: an escapist fantasy coming to the surface versus an understanding of what’s happening inside him. But D’s been talking like this to me for two years, which is likely sufficient for him to predict what I might think and then say. I know the backstory, of course. I’ll recall, he’ll expect, that he’s often described himself as selfish, immature, and—well, not dishonest. D asserts that with rare exception he’s always been honest. Integrity. With a crispness in his voice that he seems to reserve for that word alone, he’ll insist that integrity is the most important quality in a person. It’s a non-negotiable standard that he expects of himself and nearly everyone around him, save perhaps his three year old daughter. He might chuckle after that kind of righteous expression/whimsy. Again, though he likely won’t inventory the stories, he knows that I know the backstory: the teenage mischief; the locker room bullying, both received and dealt out; the college-era alcoholism and blackout sexuality; the sporadic thirty-something affair that preceded the birth of his child. These bullet-points don’t represent my judgements, but rather his.

What did he expect? The question didn’t leave the session. What had he hoped for, I nuance? I was softening the task with my wondering. I asked something like, “What vulnerability had you shown?” after he’d used that word—vulnerability—alongside trailing externalizations, words like “fairness” that further suggested what he’d expected, or what he’d hoped for. “I was warned not to make friends,” he states ambiguously, heralding another pattern that I’d noticed at least a year before. When D starts speaking of himself and his inner experience versus others plus his guesses about them he becomes vague with his language. The structure of his phrases becomes passive. Often, antecedents of pronouns are difficult to locate. All in all, there’s a sense that he wants to say something but wouldn’t mind if his listener becomes confused. Still, I gather his meaning, which has to do, ultimately, with his desire to bond with others: peers, subordinates, and authority. The reality of crises, of hard work and hard decisions disrupts the harmony of a happy family, a good team, friends, lovers, etc. He thought people loved him, cared about him, and would therefore “be supportive”, be understanding. Forgiving? And does D feel guilty?

What does he expect of me? Well, perhaps the same list of qualities and/or gestures, but he seems to expect a reality-check from me, like some manner of kick up the butt, which I don’t give. He gives it to himself. “Sure”, he utters offhandedly, not quite dismissively, after I’d given him the interpretation that I’d more or less summarized in the previous paragraph. I say, “You say ‘sure’ like the feelings are something else to shrug off, as if you shouldn’t really be feeling what you agree is there”

He chuckles. Is he laughing at my awkward turn of phrase, I wonder? Think I’m being playful? “It’s my way of swallowing it,” he replies by way of explanation. Tiredly, he then references his co-workers and the earlier diatribe, which now seems a spent force. “I’m a hypocrite”, he says, kicking his own butt again.

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The Sex Addiction Personality

Talk about isolation. Aren’t they all in the closet, these so-called sex addicts? What else are we calling them, by the way? Ya know, what’s the underlying sh….stuff? What’s the personality upon which this pattern of miscreant behavior lies? Well, you know what to do. Make a few calls, talk to some people who say they’re trained in sex addiction (SA) because they’ve taken a handful of weekend courses. In one of their certificate-earning workshops an instructor may have covered the topic of personality pathology, or disorder. At this point, a few stats will have been brought out. About 65% of sex addicts will have also met criteria for narcissistic personality disorder, and another 20% will have narcissistic traits if not meeting full diagnostic criteria. And those subjects will likely be male, for the most part. I don’t know if the numbers will be that high—I’m making them up, of course. Anyway, although not studied very well (we must ever be reminded of this point!), female sex addicts are more likely diagnosed in greater numbers with borderline personality disorder, which is increasingly synonymous with PTSD because a lot or most of the former have the latter syndrome also. This means that while men in SA treatment are considered self-centered, objectifying, exploitative, and suffering from much concealed personal and especially sexual inadequacy, women are treated as having abandonment issues, having likely suffered sexual abuse and general societal disregard, and in their addictions they just can’t stop “loving” people to make themselves feel better.

             There. A bit simplistic, perhaps, but then I’m taking my aim at a field that is guilty of a whole lotta simplifying in my opinion so I’m mirroring them, to use a term employed to treat narcissists, actually. But don’t listen to me. Make your calls. Read the books that represent the “gold standard” of sex addiction treatment; the blurbs on the specialist websites; the bullet points within instructive blog essays that are nothing like mine. Tell me after you’ve done all your research that the above impression doesn’t stand as the orthodoxy of this field. It shouldn’t stand, you know, and not just because the orthodoxy relies upon stereotyped profiles borne of rote personality testing, inane questions like, “do you identify with the following: if I ruled the world it would be a better place (?)”, rather than clinical impressions formed over time in intensive relationship with and by someone educated and trained in what, after all, was originally (not mythically) a psychoanalytic concept. I’m referring to narcissism and borderline personality on this point, and the concept of Transference. However, there’s another reason why the typical personality narratives of sex addiction treatment should be challenged: they’re leaving out one important category.

             In Getting Read About Sex Addiction, I actually give this matter short-shrift, this being a secondary area of interest in mine and Joe Farley’s book—personality disorder, that is. If it weren’t for the offhand assignment of narcissism to so many addicts I might not have bothered, and one view I don’t venture is that high-profile, expensive, short-term treatment programs likely do serve a lot of narcissistic men, perhaps because they have money, lots of free time, and no doubt their powerful selves have rendered them attractive to affair-available women whom we should not profile as being drawn to narcissistic, powerful men because that is a.) not de rigeur, and b.) not very nice, whether it’s true or not. But there’s a lot of people out there, men and some women I figure, who are more porn-addicted than affair-seeking; more privately fantasy-seeking in the digital age; more in the cuts of 21st century society; exhibiting less bravado, if perhaps a similar, if more intellectualized disregard of using people for sex. There’s a word for this lesser spotted bird, this unicorn in the personality mix. It is a schizoid, not to be confused with a schizophrenic, and he (or she) is a thing, believe it or not. He (I guess I’ll go with another stereotype) has been written about for years, though it’s hard to say who was first to scribe on the matter.

             The first to make a labeling stab was Melanie Klein, who offered the term paranoid-schizoid to denote a “position” of development that entailed the defense of splitting (first termed by Freud), which in turn meant the keeping separate of good and bad internal objects (internalized caregivers, or parents), resulting in split object relations, the tendency to employ “mechanisms” that projected parts of self (unwanted) onto others so as to protect the ego and the idealized object. Klein was in fact influenced by W.R.D Fairbairn, an independently-thinking Scotsman whose conceptualizing wrought an “endopsychic structure” comprised of split objects allied to a split ego, yielding a fragile personality that seeks security in an inner world. It’s likely Fairbairn, not Klein, who gives us the idea of a schizoid that is nuanced from a paranoid (Klein), who is fundamentally withdrawn socially, prone to regression and especially isolation. Following Fairbairn, the likes of Wilfried Bion, while focusing upon psychotic processes, also observed the paradoxical contact-seeking need within this isolationist figure, and indeed regarded that such needs are intensified in tension with an aggressive withdrawal. Also, figures like Harry Guntrip in the sixties and beyond supplied clinical vignettes to help us understand the dilemmas of those who experience what Fairbairn termed a “futility” that manifests as apathy yet lies beyond the affective presentations of what we term depressive.

             Why this schizoid personality develops is unknown, or at least unclear. D.W. Winnicott, not talking about schizoid personality, wrote encouragingly of the capacity to be alone, deeming it a kind of developmental achievement. Winnie thought the analytic situation a recreation of this bond, at least potentially so. It is something to learn to tolerate, this being alone thing, and he thought that mothers who weren’t “good enough” (cheesy phrase, much attributed to him whether he liked it or not) impinged upon their children with their own needs. Beatrice Beebe, a contemporary attachment researcher, called something similar the “maternal loom”, referring to mothers who get in their babies faces too much, overstimulating them (hello, future sex addict, maybe?) causing them to avert their gazes, look at…something else. Lacan’s followers, following Freud’s premises regarding infantile sexuality, and speaking of what Lacan termed the imaginary register, called this tense, overexcited state a jouissance. Bowlby’s acolytes, those who assigned attachment styles like the resistant/ambivalent category, will have known what Winnicott was on about and thought less of infantile sexuality. Meanwhile, those observing avoidant styles of attachment might have glanced at the schizoid phenomenon, or else they might have brushed up on their Meier’s Briggs material, thinking it all reminded of introversion or, if neurological tests were called for, perhaps autism. These are some of the analogue ideas. Point being, schizoid personality is something of a unicorn: a rarely seen, oft-dismissed category of human being, preferably called something else.

             And yet, the internal conflicts that the schizoid faces (or doesn’t) are not rare at all. Indeed, it might be that average human travails mirror what psychologists James Masterson and Ralph Klein termed the schizoid dilemma and the schizoid compromise. To explain these terms: the schizoid dilemma is to seek closeness with others while maintaining autonomy, bearing in mind that schizoid personalities tend to privilege the latter over the former, rendering them strange and detached. Their “compromise” is to find that which achieves human connection but doesn’t surrender autonomy, hence fantasy plus a unique affinity for the digital age. Now, there are many in our midst who would argue that species do not evolve or even survive if they don’t confront such dilemmas and discover compromises. Our growth depends upon our capacity and longing for community. At the same time, our sense of humanity, which includes a craving for uniqueness, decrees that fitting in, absorption, dilution of the one by the group leads to another kind of death.

There’s a slight hint amid theoretical thinkers that a schizoid isn’t really sexual. Perhaps they’d had too much of the maternal loom once upon a time—like, around the time that giraffes start walking in their corresponding development. Later, they (babies, not giraffes) gazed back, but only on their terms, voyeuristically we think. It’s that gaze…you know, that one. But regarding this diagnostic question, you might wonder who will care. Really, will it matter whether porn or sex addicts are secondarily tagged as narcissistic versus schizoid, or even the largely feminized category of borderline? They’re all pathologies, aren’t they? So, while I wind down my commentary on Getting Real About Sex Addiction in the dawn of its publication, I’m aware of stirring the pot on a lesser controversy.  Seriously, the parts of the book that will truly ruffle feathers are those that diss short-term treatment solutions versus psychoanalytic method; or, it’ll be the thread of dog whistling commentary about the sex addiction field’s anti-male bias. Some won’t care if the text actually contains even-handed commentary on both sexes, plus a tinge upon sexual minorities. For them, if sex addiction treatment is to be pathologizing, then it must only be so in reference to heterosexual men. Anything else is to disobey the latest memos about moral equivalence.

Not that an attention to schizoid process (or cultural messages that simulate the attention) isn’t encoded in the semi-public dialogue anyway. Consider the rhetoric that accompanies identity politics: when a person is talked about as a victim or survivor, at least in part because they belong to a marginalized group, their advocates might still reference a schizoid process by referring to denied aspects of self. These will be the split-off aspects of self, which in the case of a sympathetic figure, will be his or her denied positive or resilient qualities that have been insufficiently nurtured and are therefore insufficiently recognized by the subject, hence what they need is building up, empowerment, etc. Meanwhile, those who are cast as addicts or perpetrators or some other disparagement may be described as having a similar intrapsychic process, only their denied qualities will fall under the umbrellas of guilt and inadequacy, hence what they need is bringing down, deflation, and so on. You could call this justice if you like but you might also notice the employment of psychoanalytic thought to support whatever cause you choose. Anyway, I’ll sign off for now on a relatively benign point of interest. Sex addicts: more schizoid than narcissistic, don’t you think?

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