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The lost hour

I remember the first time Nadja and I talked about loss. Actually, I think it’s fair to say we talked around that aspect. I mean, she talked around it. I let her talk around it in so far as I did not call her out on talking around the matter. The matter, as I call it, was her drinking, plus the fact that it brought negative consequences, like loss. Nadja thought the Board of Behavioral Science was being unfair in denying her an intern registration because of a DUI she’d picked up a year before. That was the event that had led her to me originally, though she didn’t come clean, so to speak, about that until six months into treatment. Anyway, the matter of loss was initially—perhaps originally and perennially—swamped under a defense of rage whose pedigree felt primal. See, the board was like her mother: an aloof, terse and judgmental object, denying validation, withholding approval, love. Why can’t she/they forgive, she might as well have been saying. Why can’t she look past imperfection, say that everything—that she—is okay.

The elephant in the room was her expectation that I’d be the same. After all, why else would she wait six months to stop burying the lede. It’s a good job that I’m nothing like aloof, terse, and judgmental such that projections like these would stick to me. I sort of recall the first time she coped with loss in the transference by dissociating, which in plainspeak meant that she’d go quiet, sport a look of dazed intoxication, and then begin swaying ever so slightly. “I can’t hear you right now”, she’d say, alerting me to a phenomenon that I’d simultaneously observe. At least, I think I recognized it on about the 3rd or 4th occasion, mostly because it looked roughly the same each time. Ah, you’re doing that thing, I will have thought—that thing you do when I’ve constructed an insight that hits on something, speaks some truth. What a waste of time it will have seemed as she tuned me out, making me feel what it’s like to be not listened to.

Over time I learned more about Nadja’s loss experiences: about her numerous losses in the realm of romantic love—oh how I paid the price for being a heterosexual male during those sessions; about the near loss of her toddler child in a swimming misadventure ten years ago. That incident brought accusations of parental neglect against her. Mortifying. Then there was the dual loss of her parents: first, her dad, to a medical misadventure, a botched cancer surgery. Then her mother: suicide. A year later. Nadja has reason to be mad. She’s known loss, I guess I’d say. Three years ago, I invited her to lay on the couch, be my first analytic case, though I never called it—her—that. She’d cut down on the dissociative gazing, I thought, was ready to deepen upon tolerating the critical transference in our sessions. Eventually, she took responsibility for her drinking, stopped blaming the board for holding her back. At some point, they stopped holding her back: they gave her a registration; more recently—finally—her therapist license. A big achievement, of course. I’d had her back all the way, she declared gratefully. I’d believed in her, implicitly. Good job, she thought. But she never became a control case. My loss, I think, and hers. I tried. She tried, sort of, but wouldn’t commit to coming more than two times per week. Now we’re terminating. Now that she doesn’t dissociate as much as she used to, she wants to replace me with a somatic therapist, a woman—not me. Only it’s taking a long time. I don’t know. Is nine months a long time to say goodbye? Seems this thing about losing, especially losing that which has been good and truthful, is really hard.

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The Fog

The fog. A roadblock. The boat—as in don’t rock it. The can of worms—as in don’t open it. These are some of my—well, not my favorite metaphors, necessarily. Metaphors can be tritely employed, become unnoticed parts of verbal furniture. Don’t forget ships: they sail, and by doing so they suggest something else that’s slipped away, a calamity not prevented. Oh, and that reminds me of boulders. They block. Or they roll and crush. Don’t overthink them, said a friend once. He meant metaphors in general, not just boulders. Don’t overthink them? Don’t read into them, he clarified, forgetting himself. His favorite book was Catcher in the Rye. His second favorite was One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

I suppose I started with fog because it’s the freshest metaphor I can bring to mind. It’s an oldie but goodie, but it showed up in my office the other day, reminding me first of a patient’s depression, then shortly thereafter of a writing assignment I hadn’t gotten to yet. J. was describing his state of mind the week he first heard of his now late-wife’s cancer. These days, he may have other apt metaphors for the stuck place he’s been in since her death, but fog is what came to mind as a signifier of confusion and comfort. The wife had been in a fog also: “I feel fine,” she said, following the appointment that first spoke of the tumor. Neither of them really took in the words. A year later she wasn’t fine at all. She was in another kind of fog, having lost a third of her body weight; roughly a third of her memory, by my patient’s estimation. Almost the entirety of her will in her last days. In the end the bond between had been foggy also—the apparent result of an affair the wife had been caught having a year before the illness was discovered. J. was stuck between resentment, guilt, and a layered coming together of loss.

He doesn’t dwell much upon the elements of fog. In that respect, he’s like my friend, incuriously using words, then moving on. For J., the metaphor of fog denotes a hateful condition that thwarts efficiency or focused energy. It’s something that keeps coming back. It’s unwelcome, something he and I should be working on, or something he should get medication for, not learn something from. Therefore, the reverie on foggy details is mine: I think of creeping white air of the type that hovers about my valley home on wintry days. Where I live fog is a rarity. It appears as if on schedule, heralding the height of a season, and a stilled, ritual presence. Its texture is moist but not sticky; its temperature is cool, which enables feeling cool; one can wade through it, seeing just a few feet ahead, which is all you need really if you move through life carefully, at a slow and sensible pace. You don’t have to get lost in a fog, not if you relax. I got lost in a fog—in the word fog, and with my indulgent conjuring. And as I waded sightless through the hour I lost touch with my patient, who had moved on to other words, but not moved on from his state of mind. But I think he saw me looking away, past his shoulder to some indefinite spot on a wall. His eyes seemed glazed, half registering my distraction but not speaking to it; not really noticing something important, that I was not paying attention. I looked back at him, seeking to recapture something, hide the sin of my disappearance. I’m sorry, I wanted to say. I’m sorry for your loss. I’m sorry I went away, but I’m back now. And I’m not going anywhere.

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Talking to the Big Guy

Okay, lemme see…what do I want to talk about? Uh, not that…maybe…near the end. But I wish…I wish we were on the phone, not that I don’t like to see Mr. D. He’s waiting for me now. He’s looking at me. I think he can see into me sometimes, like he can see my thoughts. I hope he didn’t see what I was thinking just a while ago. Anyway, I’d better say something: “Okay, where to start. Well, business first. I put the check in the mail for this month and next month, so that should have us covered”. That’s what I say. There. That should please him. Big smile. That’s right: give him a big smile, stretch this out. He’s not saying anything. Did he? Maybe he uttered something, but I barely heard it. That didn’t take long—not nearly as long as I thought it would. I guess I gotta come up with something. I don’t think he did say anything; I think he just nodded about the money thing.

“So, Mr. D I don’t…I don’t think I’m doing too good. I know you’re going to think less of me when I say that I let you down. I fell off the wagon, as people say—let you down, let down the big guy. That’s the most important thing, of course”. Also, I could’ve said I let father Larry down, too. I feel bad. I haven’t spoken to him in a while. I’ll confess to him later. Well, right now it’s Mr. D that I’m confessing to. It’s not the same, not as cozy as confessional. Not as spiritual. Mr. D: he’s the mental side of things. He’s looking at me weird again, like he does sometimes. I wish I knew what to say. I wish we could spread these meetings out, not come as often. I think I’d have more to report. Tonight, I feel like I’m spread thin. Ugh! What’s he thinking? He must think I’m a hopeless case, coming here every time, or nearly every time, talking about my sad stories, my slips and other failures.  I’m gonna start talking about….no, I need to tell him about Luce, even though I’m not proud of that. I don’t quite know what he’ll say but I should take that chance. He’ll probably disapprove, though he never really says it like that. I don’t understand all that he says sometimes, like that thing he says about—what was it—something about not wanting to say no to women, about waiting for them to make the first move so that I can think it’s their idea, not mine. I kinda get what he’s saying, something about it not feeling like my fault or responsibility. Anyway, I don’t know but I always feel better after I come here, for a little while anyway—like, until I start my car and drive away. Ha, that’s funny. But now I sound pathetic. It’s the same when I leave father Larry, or when I’m talking to the big guy. I feel good for a while and then…I just have to remember what father Larry says and what Mr. D kinda agrees with: I’m never really alone.

So far, I’m not feeling that kind of good tonight. Mr. D just said something else that sounds familiar and I kinda get it but not really. I blanked out for a moment there, was thinking about Luce again, darn it! My mind is…what? What am I thinking about? Where is my head at? What am I doing here if I can’t even concentrate for just one hour, or even just a few minutes? Who am I doing this for? Wait, that was a weird question. Is that me? Sounded like something Mr. D would ask, making a point about how I don’t do things for me. Okay, he’s talking some more now, the pressure’s off me for a minute. Actually, I think I like what he’s saying now—it’s interesting—but I wish he’d tell me more. I mean, I wish he’d give me some tools for how to use what we’re talking about. I have no idea. Wait, that’s what he’s saying now—that’s super-weird—it’s like one of those times he’s seeing into my head, maybe. He’s saying I have no ideas, and he sounds…I don’t know, is he angry with me? That’s…I don’t know. Hey, I just had a thought: I don’t like this idea about how I don’t have ideas. I should say that. I should say, you know what, I’m not sure this was a good idea after all.

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Good Sport

There’s nothing I can say in my defense so I won’t bother defending this thing I’m about to write. From the first moment to the last, the video was wretched, just one aural atrocity after another; one rabid sports fan after another spewing bile and gutter witticisms—the most absurd, hateful language anyone should have to endure, all because a team was letting them down. Letting me down also, I should add. I was no different. I was laughing my head off afterwards, thinking the vitriol was inspired. Burning my ears? Not exactly. That center forward: yeah, my grandmother could kick a ball better than he can. As for that goalie, I wouldn’t trust him to sit the right way on a toilet. He’s a disgrace. Has no business putting on the shirt, never mind kissing the badge of the tribe. Actually, now that I look at it—now that I say it out loud—I think I’m a disgrace. Acting like this, really? Barking at a television at six o’clock in the morning, then binging on post-game you tube commentary like a hypnotized adolescent. I don’t feel good about myself. It’s like I’ve sat up too late, slept in until noon, eaten too much sugar, not cleaned my teeth or brushed my hair. I feel all of that, earnestly, unhypocritically, impressively, for almost a minute. I’m into the freaks next, letting them carry my ball. The internet trolls: they’re much worse than me, I figure. They’re shameless, though they feel nothing but shame, have less to live for. They can’t possibly feel shame properly, looking and acting like they do; not as they film themselves frothing at the mouth, purging everything that hurts, contorting their faces, willing to get ugly for theirs and my evacuative pleasure. They’re doin’ it for me with this undressing they do. I’m living vicariously and I can match their deflation, if not their intensity.

And I can’t tear myself away from them. It’s over an hour now since the match finished and still I’m bathing in this aftermath of self-loathing and flagellation, just zoning out on chipped memories, how I wish things were like they used to be. The internet freaks are speaking for me, and not. I’m rolling with their mood swings, gazing back at their broken faces, just voyeuring their loss now. I’m starting to bristle at the unfairness, though. Through them I’m acting out some fantasy of unedited speech, unfettered rage—the license that lives far away from polite company, in an underground space during off hours. But one guy, the funniest one, is getting on my nerves calling out the right winger. Yes, the guy shouldn’t have been chosen to take that penalty. The number 9 should’ve taken it, no doubt. But spitting out that he should be sold the next morning, that we should never have signed him; that we should put him on a boat back to Brazil ASAP—that’s all a bit harsh. I’m glad I don’t play this game anymore. Glad I just watch, not that that’s much less toxic or exhausting. After all, it’s 9am and I’ve already ruined my Saturday with this bilious ritual. Soon I’ll be tired, need to go back to bed, feeling like I did as a kid, when it was time to stop playing and actually wanted to stop but couldn’t, or wouldn’t mostly because someone else wanted me to stop, needed me to stop. These days I can leave my toys on the playground, leave a mess that I can clean up later cuz there’s no one to step up and turn off my TV, that wretched monitor, and point me elsewhere to go do something worthwhile like reading a Bion paper for something like the 50th time. Still, it’s a good thing no one will see me like this. It’s a good job no one will know.

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Freud’s Bar

Okay, not quite. Freud’s Bar is a forum, formerly live, more recently on zoom, sponsored by the San Francisco Center for Psychoanalysis, that brings together members of that body to present and discuss matters relating to contemporary psychoanalysis. This video is a near replicate of a zoom video recorded on 4/28/2022 and subsequently made available for SFCP members but not otherwise made available because of the institute’s policies. Sorry. So, this is an encore, sans the rapturous applause of a 40-deep audience, one or two of which asked questions at the end. The reader may wonder if my oft-indicated co-author, Joe Farley, made an appearance at this event. The answer is yes. Joe appeared, looking fresh and jovial, dressed in a black robe, looking a bit like a Jedi knight, to deliver a superlative take on his case illustration of Dan and Vickie, which he wrote for our book Getting Real About Sex Addiction, which we talked about in the presentation. Sadly, Joe does not feature in this low-tech/budget re-make, but do not despair. Soon we may be podcasting or youtubing our thoughts together, and Joe’s Yeti-like elusiveness will come to an end. In the meantime, give this a listen, perhaps make a mental note or two. Thanks

Graeme Daniels, MFT

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The sex addiction excuse: the main points

Okay, I’ll make this entry relatively short lest ideas get lost in the mix, which is naturally a problem when issues are complex, as sex addiction is. There are many sides or aspects to the “is sex addiction an excuse” question, some of which I’ve referenced in other blogs so I’ll not repeat myself here. But so far the “excuse” question has not been the focal point of any particular essay so I’ve inadvertently buried the lede on this matter. Not any longer. Today I’ll express the point that gets some print in our book, even center stage in a later chapter that is about impacted partners. The book? Yes, you know, the one you’d know about if you had read any of the other essays on this blog. There’s only just over three hundred of them, after all. Take your time. What? Just write it again so you don’t have to read all of that. Well, you can get the title on any other entry of the last six months pretty much, but on the question at hand, here’s the deal as our current president would say: the sex addiction field is divided; that is split between forces that treat or advocate for sex addicts and those who more or less do the same for impacted or betrayed partners of sex addicts. I’m somewhere in the middle, having not gone to graduate school in order to change the world—meaning, I don’t consider myself an activist because my psychoanalytic stance, contrary to my writing, is not polemical in nature, though I do hold opinions activists tend to not like so they’d stick me in camps opposite to theirs anyway.

Here’s an example: I think that the “excuse” argument/position serves the defenses of both addicts and impacted partners, though because the excuse narrative is generally deemed a protection of the sex addict figure, my positing of an analogous excuse for partners will more likely annoy them as well as their activists. See, once again, the most strident among them think that sex addiction treatment is meant to be a unilateral challenge to the behaviors, attitudes, and underlying pathology of the addict, coupled with a dominantly supportive (meaning sympathetic) hand-holding exercise for the impacted-partner. This fosters splitting, a term that means something to psychoanalytic thinkers and less so to the public at large, much of which practices splitting on a daily basis. What is splitting? It’s binary thinking. It’s good/bad, perpetrator/victim; it is simplicity. It’s popular with those who covet simplicity because they haven’t the bandwidth for thinking when they are stressed. And they are frequently stressed so that creates a circular problem. Anyway, as I’ve suggested elsewhere, the first narrative is well known, and often true I might add: a person who calls himself an addict may do so to elicit sympathy, clemency from rightful consequences of their deceitful, disloyal behaviors (Judgy? No, I think that’s fair). Again, I think this “excuse” profile is a correct call out, but only for those who truly are dodging consequences, whether they are legalistic or not, and only pretending to take seriously their problems.

Now, to that other and much lesser spotted employment of the sex addiction “excuse”: How is sex addiction an excuse for an impacted partner of a sex addict? Well, firstly, consider and compare treatment feedback that addresses affair-seeking behavior versus sexually addictive behavior. Especially when the affair seeker is female, you would hear of a space yielded for a conflict resolution that recognizes a mutuality of relationship disorder; for a therapeutic process to touch upon relational issues, which by implication, both partners are equally responsible for. For evidence of this, read authors like Esther Perel or Alicia Walker who, in the shadow of a sex addiction field that aims treatment at men, assert ironies like “women are judged more harshly for their sexuality”. When the context is infidelity instead of addiction, one hears the so-called wayward partner saying things like, “I was lonely” or “I wasn’t getting my needs met”, and don’t be surprised if such positions appear legitimized by the neutral or activist authority that is the mental health intermediary. But if the affair-seeking is cast as a feature of sex addiction then all bets are off and the question of mutuality dissolves. Then responsibility falls squarely upon the addict while the impacted partner hears admonishments like, “his behavior is not about you”. This is why the label of sex addiction might (emphasis on “might”) be attractive to impacted partners, not just the would-be targets (sorry—subjects) of clinical intervention. What? You’re telling me that betrayed figures might choose a concept the ethos of which absolves them of any mooted “part” in the development of a problem? And lastly, might this potential secondary gain be one of the reasons why sex addiction has for many bumped the concept of infidelity to the curb as a condition of clinical concern?

Graeme Daniels, MFT

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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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Not a good thing, we’re told, especially in the context of addiction. Isolation: has a negative connotation, don’t you think? Not like the word “alone”. In Getting Read About Sex Addiction, Joe Farley and I make several references to aloneness, isolation, or else we spin polemics about the pros and cons of doing things by oneself. Sex addiction seems like a loner’s pastime. Porn addicts do it alone, then keep what they do secret, which furthers the aloneness. Affair-seekers probably boast more about sexual conquests, just as they always have, but they’re even more secretive, or glib about their habits, for they have even more trouble to avert; more to lose, it often seems. Isolation. More than most addictions (excepting that of food, maybe), sex addiction happens in isolation, and is talked about in peer circles the least, hence the solution of groups, and of disparaging isolation, if not quite aloneness, within the milieus that treat this still-mooted condition.

             The ways to be alone, let us count the ways: well, first of all, those who wear labels like sex addiction absorb the pathology of a system. Within a family, and especially a dyad, as in a couple, the addict holds the “badness” of a relational problem. He or she is the problem, which is isolating. Our book critiques the habit of splitting as it manifests in many forms, and offers that sex addiction, while useful as a signifier of phenomena, ought to be carefully, not impulsively assigned. Furthermore, we cast doubt on terms like “perpetrator” and “victim”, which split matters into good and bad, right and wrong, which renders problems facile; histories reduced to recent events, not dense, developmental histories.  Otherwise, we refer to isolation in several other contexts, applying nuanced meanings: referring to the “incipient shame” of the addict, suggesting an early development dimension to their affective leanings; that an addict or “acting out person” isolates his or her affect, which means directing feelings towards action, not thought or feeling, which cues the therapeutic solution: let’s talk. The associated institution of 12 step recovery echoes the ethos that self-expression within a nurturing environment is an antidote to an isolationist pattern.

             Not everything that happens alone is pathologized in our writing. To be that rigid in our thinking would exhibit splitting; it would suggest a paucity of thinking. Thinking. We tend to think it happens alone, away from the noise of a crowd, but we extol its practice in collaboration. Collaboration: now there’s a loaded word, another term that casts a shadow upon aloneness. Be a team player. Don’t go it alone. Well, okay, but this paragraph is meant to represent another view, the virtues of being alone. In our first chapter, I refer to the “mischief” of breaking rules, of testing boundaries that represent authority, the group, society—all because…well, because there’s something good, something irresistible and actually worthy about going it alone. So, we thumb our noses, do our own thing at times, practice what I term (not unique to me) anodyne sexuality, like flirting, which hangs perilously close to an abyss of verboten sex, depending upon who is doing the flirting and in what context. We might agree about the new rules, or as society extols paradoxically, we might think for ourselves, do our thinking alone.

             The habit of going alone while stepping on others’ toes (Freudians take note) has been given another pathologizing label: narcissism. In sex addiction treatment, this aged construct has been co-opted by practitioners and lay observers alike, and now has the status of corollary to a sex addiction assessment. Pity, for its another saturated concept that has been reduced in the service of splitting arguments, the outrage of the betrayed or the plainly envious. It’s not that the condition doesn’t exist. Yes, narcissism is a thing. But its offhand attribution, the shoot-from-the-hip assignment to patients in sex addiction treatment bristles against conscience. I suppose Freud pathologized the condition also, by implication. Originally, as in 1914, he wrote that infants exhibit primary narcissism, a state of auto-erotic being before cathecting their sexuality to caregivers (dubbed objects, hence object relations theory), and upon resolution of Oedipal taboos, towards genital sexuality and the selection of post-pubertal partners. From this notion of auto-eroticism, many presume immaturity and pathology to the alone state, thinking it a slippery slope towards inflatedness, arrogance, and lack of empathy for others—the familiar catalogue of narcissistic traits.

             While Heinz Kohut gets much credit for having carved out a space for so-called “healthy” narcissism since the 1970s, the term has hardly left the closet of weaponized terms, thus narcissist and sex addict have become virtual synonyms in the 21st century. And remember, in the sex addiction lexicon you’re a narcissist whether you’re a habitual masturbator (being alone) or exploiting others, using others’ bodies as masturbation tools instead of practicing sexuality with an air of presence, consideration for the other, with generous attention to foreplay, emotional nurturing, passionate interplay, play of a sexual kind—all the virtues that someone has decided represents non-addictive, non-isolationist, sexual health. In this model, masturbation generally gets a bad rap, being the pastime of the anti-social if, perhaps, the socially undesirable. But not all famous theorists have denigrated the masturbatory, go-it-alone tradition. By implication, at least, psychoanalytic hero D.W. Winnicott was perhaps a champion of what he won’t have called self-abuse. Read “The capacity to be alone” from 1958. Yes, that’s right: the fifties. Not exactly the era of sexual revolution. In this paper, Winnicott writes of the capacity be alone as a developmental triumph, not a pathology. It is a signal of maturity, of what others might term secure attachment, to accept being alone, even in the presence of the other. And he was writing of a child’s experience. What’s a later version? Think for yourself while listening to others. That’s one example. Do some things by yourself. Have fantasies, even those of the so-called primal scene, by yourself, because to share on that is TMI. Even do it by yourself.

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