Tag Archives: esther perel

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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So you’re angry…and guilty

So you’re angry. You feel entitled. You’re like Richard III with the deformity, or so wrote Freud. The world, or the microcosm in which you live, has dealt you a blow, an unfair disadvantage. You’re gonna take what you can get, not expecting anyone to do anything for you. And you extend this attitude to your sexuality, with which you play like it’s a toy; actually, like it’s a modern toy, as in some electronic goodie that merits an upgrade like, every other week or something. Meanwhile, you’re down on the old toys, and especially one toy in particular. And this toy is a she, typically (yes, I’ll be ironically sexist for a moment). She’s your wife, or your long-term partner, whatever. Long-suffering, some will opine. Deeply impacted, traumatized, abused, others will say, including her, though some of the words are borrowed. The thing is you agree. It’s not like you don’t feel bad after you’ve done your thing after the Xth time. It’s not like you don’t feel guilty. And in feeling guilty you will feel penitent, at least until resentment returns and you sort of remember why you felt the things that made it okay to act upon your fantasies which then led you to feel guilty.

Validation. See, it’s not just about sex for you. It’s about the package of emotion that you wrap around sex, which includes murky yet happy experiences of freedom, relief, the pull of seduction, of play. That sinful other offers a conflict-free experience: she’ll admire you, or at least not intrude with her own troublesome wishes. With her you’ll escape the vague feeling that you are used up, have been used up, studded and then dispatched to some figurative pasture wherein you perform tasks that are drudgery, or acts that border on the heroic but which yield little in the way of thanks. Can’t she—meaning the old toy—make a bit more effort? Lose weight, put on some make-up…ya know, act like she did before you put a ring on it. Those days are gone, it seems. Now you’re trapped, or you feel trapped, subject to daily criticisms that now far outnumber the once-upon-a-time compliments. You know what to do. It’s 2021 still (yeah, I know, wrote this a month ago), hanging on by a thread, and something that’s trending aint gonna stop anytime soon. It’s never been easier to have affairs, writes Esther Perel, a modern author on the subjects of sex and relationships. It’s also never been harder to not get caught. If you get caught you might come see someone like me. I’m paid to take your confession, and then, as far as you’re concerned, tell you what to do about the old toy that you want to keep, apparently.

You want me to validate you? Tell you what to do? Affirm that you were entitled (whenever that attitude emerges) to all the toys on the shelf because of all that you do, all that you have tried, that merits the reward of intimacy. You tried everything, didn’t you? Did you? If you’re like the average (or even the not so average) obsessive, or “addict”, then you tried everything except actually asking for what you want, regularly, in the relationships that you chose. You think you asked for it, meaning the things you want. Well, maybe you did…once or twice. Yeah, okay. She said no. Then she said no again. Then you gave up and sought out that or who that says yes.

So you’re angry. You feel entitled. You discovered that text from that someone else and it blew a fuse. You walked in while he was looking at those images with his hands down his pants and you wondered, in part because he’s usually better at hiding, how much is this going on? The first time you found evidence of this you brushed it off, thinking it was normal, for men that is. Your girlfriends said the same thing, waving their hands, moving the air, declaring it was no big deal. A dissenter is your one friend who is bisexual, or maybe she’s more gay than before, you can’t tell. Anyway, she’s woke and she tells you you shouldn’t put up with this shit. Well, you’re not gonna put up with this shit. Not anymore. Plus, this getting caught thing: it means he’s losing control, doesn’t it? It must mean he has an addiction, unless he wants to get caught. Does he? Maybe he doesn’t love you anymore and this is just his way of saying it? An avoidantly attached personality, your therapist friend said. But you’re confused on that point because he says he’s sorry, wants to work stuff out, get some help. For himself? So he says, though he keeps implying that you’re to blame for the thing that he is doing a lot—so much so that he’s calling it an addiction.

So now you’re angry. Now you’re angry? Actually, you’ve been angry, or at least tense, for quite some time, because you thought something was going on but you were brushing it off and he was saying it was nothing, and nearly everyone else was saying it was nothing, and now it’s out of the bag and the pants are down by the ankles and suddenly it’s a something. It’s an addiction? Okay, well now it’s time for all the pent up feeling that you didn’t feel justified to vent is coming out, big time—like never before, it seems, which stirs another thought: actually, getting pissed at things has never been easy. You’ve never felt entitled to vent your spleen, even though people say you do so all the time. What they don’t know is how guilty you feel afterwards; how painful it is to get angry. That’s why you do it in secret a lot, which includes speaking to confidants, people who are as secretly angry as you so they vicariously enjoy (sorry, feel) your pain. Thing is, that’s starting to ignite guilt also. These confidantes: they can take so much, or worse, they’re gonna start judging you, thinking you’re too angry. Bitter. Time to pay someone to listen to you. A therapist. Specifically, find someone who specializes in something called betrayal trauma.

Validation. You want to hear someone validate your experience, tell you that you’re entitled to your anger and, by implication, the vengeful actions that will proceed from that anger. Here’s your secret: despite what has happened, you’re not sure you’re entitled to your anger, or to that much anger. So the next bit is unconscious: you want to borrow entitlement from someone else, and specifically, an expert. This is a form of permission seeking, and guilt reduction. And this was Freud’s deliciously amoral point: righteous anger is how we soothe guilt. It’s the bone we look for to justify the diatribe, the melt-down, the action movie climax that we all want to inhabit: the one in which the hero, or heroine, gets payback! Ah, those movies! Those HBO/Netflix binge-worthy gems: don’t they trade masterfully upon our desires? Addictive, you might say. See, if you pay close attention you might notice your internal conflict is not so different from that of the addict. The problem is guilt. Guilt doesn’t quite get extinguished, even in scenarios wherein the righteousness is fever-pitched. Why? Because the capacity for guilt may be inherited. It may be part of character, part of who we are, as opposed to something stirred by circumstance, the strictly external phenomena. You wanna know what a psychodynamic or psychoanalytic treatment would “do” for a patient like this?

Well, if you’re a Winnicottian worker, your marching orders will incline you to validate the anger of the betrayed, and even the underlying disappointments of the acting out figure. You will likely think that many in our patient mist lacked an original strong parent to teach them entitlement. As a result, you’ll think that some of us are simply ill-equipped to ask for what we want, or to protest unfairness, or wrongdoing. As a result, you’ll think it your task to bolster the wounded selves of such patients, give them a hint, at least, that what they secretly or impulsively want is…dare they say…deserved—so deserved that they might integrate that entitlement into their daily lives, which leads, broadly speaking, to the likely therapeutic goal: to be entitled in a way that is honest, non-destructive; at peace with the world. Ah! Doesn’t it sound nice, like a soothing hot tea before a nice hot fire on a cold, damp night? It sounds nice, but sometimes a little condescending, when those who claim to have reached this promised land boast of the achievement.

If you’re not Winnicottian. If you are, say, a Bionian or Kleinian figure, you’ll tread a less popular path. When a patient asks you, “It’s only fair and right for me to ask him to leave, isn’t it?”, you might respond with, “what are you asking me for?” (to be fair, only if you’re prepared to piss off your patient), or—slightly less frustratingly—“well, I think we can see how you’re struggling with the question of what to do. You’re angry and you want to express that. But you’re not quite sure it will feel right, so you ask me what I think, hoping I can make it easier”. You’ll know you have an analytic patient if the person can think upon this answer; if they can, as Bion once proposed, tolerate the frustration of not knowing answers long enough so they can use their minds, think about who they are and how they relate, historically, to anger and guilt.

Whether they perceive the irony or not, the rest of the patient population will seek out that which makes them feel better. Like any addictive habit, that will feel good, for a while.

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Epater Le Patriarchie*

The ontology of addiction has been the central controversy in the sex addiction treatment industry for quite some time, alongside the quieter issue of whether upward interpretations (those that pre-suppose capacity) are appropriately directed at the habitually acting out. But neither of these should be the most controversial topics in this field anymore. What should be? Well, the clues are in the demographics of who presents for treatment; who typically presents as the impacted others, and thirdly, who are the treating professionals holding the protean sexual ethics that gird the treatment process. In communities with a diverse client base, those ethics reflect progressive values that obviate the casual pathologizing of sex, but in my suburban neck of the woods, a curious blend of traditional biases and menu-feminism continues to dominate discussions. More often than not, women presenting as betrayed partners exhibit authority with respect to intimate relationships; they are the standard bearers of what constitutes emotional maturity. This is a real problem in our profession: women who enter individual therapy, or couples therapy, or who direct their hapless male partners into therapy having read pop psychology literature that teaches that they have more empathy; that they have bigger limbic systems or thicker Corpus Callosums connecting their right and left hemispheres, thus enabling greater sensitivity to blah, blah, blah…ya know, that BS. Read feminist author Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender, one of several books profiled in mine and Joe Farley’s forthcoming book, Getting Real About Sex Addiction, plus one or two recent studies we quote, to obtain a proper debunking of such femicentric myths.

And the myths extend to sex addiction treatment, skewing conceptions of male and female sex addiction, leading to diagnoses as well as intervention strategies with essentialist biases. I wouldn’t suggest that practitioners do not hold their male patients in high regard—that they do not sympathize with their lives or wish them well. I don’t mean anything as caviling or facile as that. However, I do suggest that our professional models of care, with their catalogues of nomenclature, jargon and assumptions now privileges feminine perspectives in psychotherapy because A) that’s now the dominant consumer base for psychotherapy in The United States, and B) Women represent the majority of practitioners in mental health care. I know it’s not like this from the female perspective. I’m sure my female colleagues would report that many domineering men enter therapy, including couples therapy, making their wives’ lack of sexual appetite the identified problem of treatment; overbearing fathers who assert that “lack of discipline” is the prevailing problem of all systems. But at least such clients are publicly and professionally decried, whereas the analogous excesses of our feminine client population are not. It’s becoming more common, for example, to read articles or hear of workshops that draw attention to negative patriarchal attitudes, masculine narcissism; the problem of “difficult men”. Do we read about or hear of ways to combat the problem of matriarchal attitudes? Female narcissism? Would our profession’s proletariat tolerate a workshop—especially one taught by a male therapist—entitled, “How to work with difficult women?”

The word is out upon patriarchy: heavyhanded parenting, sexual entitlement, and while many men do bring their passive Stepford wives to female therapists for a corrective talking-to, I think the example of women directing men to a redeemer class of men is more common these days. Thus, the worst offenders on this matter of skewed approaches may be male therapists. I’m speaking of a certain type of male therapist: he’s a rock star type—knows how to patronize feminine needs, advocate for them; be that man who will show other men how to be men in the 21st century. Ugh! I can conjure this hero in a couples’ session: he sits forward, talks straight, emphasizes action over words, patronizing the bias that thinking or the expression of it is overrated, and stares “man-to-man” into the eyes of his adversary, that “narcissistic” guy who won’t show his vulnerability, but instead terrorizes the women in his life, plus his kids, with his bad temper, his selfish entitlement. This rock star therapist will set him straight, and some women will love this guy, privately wishing he could replace the dinosaur that’s the subject of intervention. And can you imagine how this scenario is exacerbated when the context of treatment is that dinosaur’s sexual acting out? His mooted sex addiction?

The skewed approaches are grounded in a plethora of orthodoxy about how men and women are raised and therefore what shapes their development; and though careful women therapists may leave to those rock stars the harder foot work of confronting angry, hypersexualized men, the marching orders they carry out still reflect a feminine hegemony. Even popular figures like Esther Perel, admired perhaps for her paradoxically challenging neutrality, betray bias in how case illustrations are conceptualized. For example, in State of Affairs: rethinking infidelity, she rightly challenges, in my opinion, the common supposition that women’s sex drive is inherently weaker, only to then imply that the feminine drive is imbued with more imagination and relational intensity. Now, in keeping with the spirit of my last entry, I’m not one to pull the science card and say, where is the evidence for that theory? At the same time I think, where’s that opinion coming from? Who decided that it was a given, that it needn’t be substantiated? Next, in comparing (I think anecdotal) accounts of men and women’s regrets upon having affairs, she reports that women say things like, “I lost myself”, while men are more prone to say, “I lost my woman”. In descriptions like these, Perel accentuates the theme of self-determination in the meaning of women’s affairs, and while a traditional interpretation of the “I lost (her)” expression may assign romantic longing to the grief-ridden man, I think Perel is attaching a proprietorial connotation to the male figure’s experience. By doing so she suggests a lesser sympathy for him, instead joining the progressive critique of masculine possessiveness that is so fashionable in contemporary psychotherapy.

There are other subtle examples of bias in Perel’s largely admirable text, but the most egregious case of epater le patriarchie lies in her equally subtle adherence to an Oedipal Complex-derived theory of male infidelity, plus a diatribe about how female adulterers are treated worse by society than male infidels. Intrigued by a commonly-observed figure that is a decent, genteel man who nonetheless engages in affair-seeking or compulsive porn use, she paraphrases collegial psychologists who profile for such men a background of abuse at the hands of alcoholic fathers. The result is a hapless, codependent figure caught in the middle between a castrating patriarch and a downtrodden wife and mother. Subsequently, these boys become men who protect vulnerable women who are blurred in their minds with their mothers; hence, they deny their own feelings, including their libidinal impulses, which they believe are intrinsically harmful to these women—such is the distorted identification with the bad father. Sex with the mother/partner blur becomes a taboo—incest, even. The affair-seeking behavior is therefore a splitting defense: the man must keep separate his libidinal self, protecting the good, as in his image and her delicate feelings. Now, on the one hand, this is a fair interpretation of an Oedipal triangle, but one that relies upon the conscious memory of the abusive father and a bias towards blaming pathology upon that phenomenon. Robert Bly, in his then-zeitgeist writing of the nineties, observed a similar triangle between “nice” men and their enmeshed mothers and distant, angry fathers. But while also observing that such men fear their own feelings, Bly’s men’s movement slant afforded more sympathy to the exiled father, and more blame, I think, to the emotionally incestuous mother.

For the most part, Perel is not hamstrung by the need to appear “evidence-based”. Her book is riddled with pronouncements that she doesn’t feel compelled to substantiate, alongside an arbitrary few that she does feel obliged to support. For example, when asserting that infidelity is the worst thing that can happen to a marriage, according to Americans—even worse than incest of domestic violence—she cites Gallup polls indicating that people condemn cheating more than they do reckless gambling, divorce, or even suicide. Strangely, in a passage that’s only a few sentences long, she fails to give numbers supporting the claim that infidelity is deemed worse than incest or DV. That’s because that claim is unlikely, I say. Next, there’s a passage claiming that society judges more harshly “other women” than it does cheating husbands. Honestly, this complaint makes me laugh. It never seems to occur to plaintive women, whether they are feminist in sensibility or traditionalist, that this bias, which I agree does exist, is actually grounded in feminine chauvinist beliefs. This is like men complaining that they are “expected” to make more money than women. Yes, you’re expected to make more money because you do make more money. Correspondingly, the flip side of women’s relative lack of sexual freedom is an assertion of either moral superiority, superior self-control as it relates to sexual urges, or in general, a belief that women are the more mature gender, both emotionally and sexually. There. That’s my unsubstantiated, non-evidence-based pronouncement. After all, it’s women who covet and lay claim to the white dress, as there is nothing in a groom’s sartorial splendor that affords him a virtuous, as in virginal air. So yeah, I guess Beyonce was more pissed at that “other woman” than she was at her “errant” husband, as Perel asserts. But that’s a result of traditionalist assumptions. The woman lapsed to the man’s standard. That Jay-Z is a dirty dog is deemed a given. Duh!

Most subtle, however, and likely unintended, except on an unconscious level maybe, is the echo of the ancient feminine voice in the lament, “I lost myself”, that Perel attributes to women who have sought affairs. Yes, I know that thought—mine or hers—may sound a little precious, but my thought pertains to a series of passages in Getting Real About Sex Addiction that cite feminist historians’ theories of prehistorical societies. One such theory asserts that society was once matriarchal in its power structure and only became the opposite when men discovered the significance of their role in procreation and proceeded thereafter to usurp social authority. After this, the story goes that women were subjugated, their mythical images consigned to the sea, hence the ubiquity of metaphors that link womankind with water, and man with the later emerging dry land. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, said biologists in the nineteenth century, to indicate that an embryo’s development mirrors that of a species. Freud subscribed to this principle, also. So, for each individual man, one woman, the mother, was once in charge of everything. For man as a collective, women were once in charge of everything. Then came the battle. Women lost. The battle continues, and man’s love/hate of woman manifests partially in his sexual liberty, taken to excess says one of several polemical movements taking aim at masculine privilege: sex addiction treatment.

It’s funny, but I’ve known a lot of people, clients mostly, who identify as addicts. Wait, that’s not the funny bit. What’s funny, as in strange, is that most of the addicts I’ve known will lie, blame, deflect, self-pity, act out, lie, blame, deflect, self-pity, all in a perpetual cycle, over and over again, until they die in some cases. Some of them stop. Seriously, in a manner that only addicts seem to manifest, some stop their behaviors and become hardcore acolytes of a “recovery” lifestyle: assiduous participants in treatment, therapy, 12-step meetings and general fellowship; dogmatic proselytizers of religiously inflected principles; somewhat closed-minded yet reliable stalwarts of rectified living, complete with rigorous diet plans, exercise regimes and otherwise clean habits that would put the average person to shame. In the aftermath of their active days of excess, the lying, blaming, deflecting and self-pity are not so much extinguished as muted—a stoical nod of acknowledgement and regret hides a repressed hatred of something, subdued under a remainder-of-life gag order. Of the heterosexual male sex addicts I’ve known, some betray residual resentment towards the officious women in their lives—wives and girlfriends, mostly (there’s that phrase again). Others, those “decent” men that Esther Perel writes about, have picked up the narrative of abusive fathers, sinister uncles, cousins and violating mentors, implying with ambiguous, half-formulated though not wholly misguided logic that such abuses are the root causes of both low self-esteem and the addictive behaviors that soothe. The one thing they won’t do is blame mothers. The one thing men will rarely do—not with words, because it breaks the world—is blame mothers for the bad that comes from sex.

*a play on the term epater le bourgeoisie, a rallying cry of the French decadent poets of the 19th century. The term epater means “to shock”.

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The Shadow of Esther Perel

One of the peripheral yet significant influences upon Getting Real About Sex Addiction has been the writing of Esther Perel. Actually, to be honest, though I have been aware of her work for years, I didn’t get around to reading her latest, State Of Affairs: rethinking infidelity, until the period wherein I was writing my own book. Reading Perel’s now best-selling non-fiction was not central to my preparation because my research focused less on social commentary than on resources more directly relevant to our title and subject: the body of literature under the heading of sex addiction or sex addiction treatment, and because of mine and Joe Farley’s interest in psychodynamic approaches, the wider body of psychoanalytic literature that is the true antecedent of that sex addiction literature anyway. Nonetheless, I picked up Perel’s book alongside my own writing, thinking it would stir supplementary ideas (which it did) about sex and society, which I decided I wanted to comment upon after all, and still further because I’d once listened to a TED talk of Perel’s. Though I don’t quote her particularly in my chapters, much less borrow from her impressive range of commentary, I was surprised by my reactions when reading her work. I was surprised at the level of envy that her writing evoked in me—envy of a certain freedom from orthodoxy with which she practices, and that I imagine has made her writing so compelling for so many.

For a therapist who has worked with many self-identified sex addicts, practicing within a non-conformist nook aside the treatment field’s contrived standards, this has meant the following: Perel seems to exist on the periphery of sex addiction treatment, and she responds to broader range of sexual contexts than are covered via mine and my co-author’s heteronormative client base. Though a variety of sexual acting out behaviors, some habitual, are profiled in her book, the concept of addiction barely gets mentioned in it. In one passage, she lists a number of diagnoses that might possibly be assigned to someone repeatedly engaged in affair-seeking behavior, only to lightly dismiss them in favor of more sympathetic assessment language. In another, she cheekily refers to sex addiction as the “malady du jour”, implying a distrust of the term’s reductionistic meaning. How very French, or Belgian, her turn of phrase. In her view, firstly, prose is duller than poetry, and more pertinently, what may otherwise be called sexual acting out or sexually addictive behavior is more often cast as acts of self-discovery (for women especially), with betrayal serving as a secondary phenomenon, more relevant to a non-acting out but committed partner, of course. A multi-lingual practitioner with a cross-cultural perspective, Perel explores the dialectic between human needs for closeness and freedom, and how that conflict unfolds within a public debate about monogamy; she argues that western society looks upon affairs with a “no fault” attitude—indeed, this position is codified into divorce law, though she does not comment upon that angle per se. However, she observes that this is rarely the case when an infidelity is discussed in her therapy office, and in my experience, this certainly is not the case when the pretext of mental health treatment is sex addiction. In fact, in mine and Joe Farley’s book, I argue that part of the point of the addiction framework, from a non-acting out partner’s perspective—actually, what may even be attractive to non-acting out partners—is that this framework strips away the “no fault” narrative by placing singular blame for infidelities at the acting out person’s feet.

Perel goes on to espouse other ideas that sex addiction specialists would likely bristle at but which speak to ever changing mores governing ever altering configurations of intimate relationships. Among others things, she suggests that sexual ethics have been profoundly impacted by rates of divorce over recent generations, and that social media and protean technology have revolutionized dating norms. Contrary to prostitution, affair-seeking has never before seemed so widespread, so easy, and perhaps, she dares to suggest, so acceptable. Amid this backdrop and regarding the secrets that affair-seekers keep, she doesn’t necessarily recommend honest disclosure, full or not, to impacted partners, thinking that such confessionals, while potentially healing for those partners, invariably shift and even constrict dialogues between couples. Discussions of betrayal take over from those of meaning—what was the meaning of the affairs, for example. I agree with Perel’s critique. Breaking from ethical standards that influence the practice of couples therapy, at least in The United States, Perel also suggests that therapists might keep secrets of individual partners within couples therapy, as long as a couple agrees ahead of time to this prospect. Perel argues that this can allow a therapist to hear of a secret from one partner and explore its meaning with that person separately, while simultaneously working with the other partner, and possibly hearing secrets from that person also. This is a compelling divergence from American psychotherapeutic orthodoxy even though I am not quite persuaded to abandon my own adherent practice in this area. Finally, and perhaps most controversially, Perel further suggests that the currently popular focus upon impacted partners’ trauma with respect to infidelity obscures an older and more salient (her view) discussion of good old-fashioned jealousy.

Perel’s avoidance of the addiction paradigm in favor of the old infidelity model may signal a reactionary trend. Has sex addiction had its day as a concept? Has the zeitgeist past, at least? Perhaps too many people look at pornography on a regular basis these days, or “hook-up” with multiple partners on a regular basis, or have so-called emotional affairs or clandestine connections via social media with old girl or boyfriends. Maybe they want and can effect threesomes or foursomes with their neighbors; want to engage in “kink” behaviors, or more plainly, want aggression in their sex lives as long as it’s consensual, however that’s arranged. If this abundance of options coupled with altered rules is the new norm then addiction—a concept meant to denote that which is out of the norm—won’t apply to those who are habituated to these norms and not inclined to self-criticism. Novelty-seeking and excess are in the eyes of beholders who don’t expect novelty; who think limits, and even sacrifice of pleasure-seeking, are normal by-products of a healthy and mature life. So Esther Perel may be right to avoid labels that represent standards that are out-of-date for many—however scary that may seem to some. She has the privilege, it seems, of not being bound by a sex addiction paradigm: to not practice, say, amongst strident peers or unctuous pundits who assert protocols of intervention, or who proclaim standards of assessment upon which subsequent interventions are predicated. She has no doubt earned her voice of independence, but imagine what would be different were she a relative novice training at a sex addiction treatment clinic. She might be tight-lipped with words like “reductionist”, which critiques diagnostic thinking, but find traction with the term “agency”, which indicates empowerment. Or, she might absorb words or terms like “paradigm” or “paradigm shift”, which are popular with those who like to think they’re starting revolutions in care standards. She’d likely adhere to an approach that posits addiction as a behavioral disorder whose deeper or subtler meaning is of secondary importance to managing crises that tend to be cyclic, and perpetual. When treating partners, she’d likely be schooled into an understanding of their trauma or induced trauma, and be cautioned against pathology-insinuating or “victim-blaming” suggestions of jealousy. Lastly—and this is a viewpoint I shall privilege in my next entry—in a field that has hitherto dominantly aimed its labels of addiction and narcissism at heterosexual men, she might further adopt the condescending, anti-male bias that sex addiction treatment quite pervasively represents.

Graeme Daniels, MFT

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Sex gone sitcom

 

So, like I wrote before, I’m writing about sex. Or rather, I just got done writing about sex, only there keeps being more to say about it, kinda like there will ever be more sex to be had not long after sex is done. Sex never stops. It never really goes away.

So I invited a friend of mine, Joe Farley, a fellow therapist and “Mastersonian” (more on that…I don’t know, sometime), to write a book with me, about sex addiction (SA). I’d written about this subject before, allusively, in a novel entitled Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole. Not many read it so it won’t matter too much if I repeat myself, though now the context will be non-fiction, and the very non-fictional context that is my private practice work. I asked Joe to join me on this project because a year ago, as I was finishing up the Tommy book that would later win the hearts of Kirkus reviewers, he seemed to be thinking and talking a lot about how couples in his practice weren’t getting along—I mean, really not getting along: about how women were too angry and men were too detached and wounded or something. Much of this comment was tangential to the subject of sex addiction treatment, which Joe and I have a foot in the door of, sort of, and which I had been planning to write more about for some time. Neither of us are specialists in this area, which doesn’t mean we don’t know much about sex addiction, or even that we don’t know as much as anyone else in the field of psychotherapy, necessarily. It means that we don’t have the certificate one gets if taking a few CEUs pertaining to the concept of SA, which means learning some facts about widespread the problem is, plus a few strategies on how to address the matter with afflicted individuals and the loved ones that are impacted by it all—basically, how to be nicer than society generally is about the matter of sex addiction but still not nice enough so as to inform would be sex addicts how their behaviors are actually not very nice in a destructive way, and especially not nice for their long-suffering partners.

Please excuse my flippancy. Know that I’m at least sincerely flippant. My year-long toil on this project has left me feeling a bit like Stanley Kubrick as he prepared to film Dr. Strangelove: as seriously as I take this subject, I can’t stop laughing. Joe and I bring our respective attitudes to our writing, which included thinking that most of the literature we’d read over the last decade about sex addiction was dull, officiously directive, and simple-minded. Moved to draw upon our not inconsiderable experience and to offer a perspective from the psychodynamic road less traveled (at least, when addiction is being talked about, anyway), we set about the task of assembling vignettes, explications of theory that were actually represented in typical sex addiction treatment models, only they weren’t being properly credited in our view. As the sex addiction concept and label is quite controversial, we’d write from within its framework and around it, describing people who didn’t necessarily identify as sex addicts, and situations that weren’t plainly circumscribed by the sex addiction idea. I further found that the more I researched, reviewed cases, and wrote, the more I thought that the issues to be confronted were polarized around gender.

The following is a stereotypical presentation immortalized in popular culture, and after twenty years, roughly, of treating couples, I think I understand its infamy.

In this scenario we have on the one hand what I think is a woman preoccupied in her attachment style: she is clinging, fretful in relationships, and sometimes distancing in bursts. She is prone to sudden break-ups with men, dramatized by diatribes that are embroidered by quasi-feminist cant: she is “empowered” as she gets rid of the jerk who keeps hurting her feelings, whether he intends to or not. Along with him, she evacuates her feelings with the dirty bathwater, and announces an end to an affair. Only it’s not an end. It’s a time-out. Or, it’s a rupture that the unwitting partner is meant to repair. Either way, it’s simply an event within continuity, and the relationship, which hasn’t really ended as a result of this turmoil, is the thing.

The ever shrugging, baffled male partner will soon be making his stolid counter-point, re-enacting an iconic sit-com moment with the line, “We were on a break!” or the expanded incredulity of “She broke with me!” To explain away an alleged infidelity, he is uber rationalist, committed to logic and order—the common sense of his sense, that relationships end and therefore people move on. *Cue the bit where the woman responds by casting this aloof, freedom-privileging stance as that of a trauma-inducing, Gaslighting partner—a rebuke coached by her sex addiction specialist therapist. As for the man, all his commander Spock-like affectation might seem real if it wasn’t punctuated with impulsive or pleasure-seeking behaviors: clandestine hook-ups carelessly referenced on social media; altered states of intoxication, and destructive displays of temper. Ordinarily, as in by the light of day, his inner experience—his uncertainty—is concealed beneath his affectless front. It is suggested by the likelihood that aspects of his pleasure seeking, like flirting or engaging sexually with women other than his preoccupied mate began sometime before the “break up” that subsequently justified that same behavior.

In our forthcoming book, Getting Real About Sex Addiction, scenarios like these are mostly discussed in the context of addiction, and not so much the broader, protean world of sexual mores that authors like Esther Perel are commenting upon and thus stirring the modern pot. But there are passages in our text where the space opens in the treatment plan, and the conversation drifts from orthodoxy to what’s happening between people who are in intimate relationships but do not understand one another. In our view, the sex addiction concept complicates but sometimes narrows the discussion around sexual conflict, framing an issue so that sides are chosen rather than problems understood.

 

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