Tag Archives: infidelity

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?

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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.

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