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Is it Sex Addiction or Not? The Lines Can Be Confusing, but When Does it Matter to You?
Since I have been in the fields of sexuality and even mental health, there has always been controversy surrounding the existence, or non-existence of sex addiction. One side will argue that there is an addictive process that exists in compulsive sexual behavior, while the other side will argue that these are misunderstandings and misrepresentations of the behavior patterns. I have found that these discussions are often quite confusing for those who are looking for help. If you're in a relationship with someone who has cheated, or even offended, do you stay and work through an addiction? Or do you leave, because the person isn't dealing with an addiction at all? Do you call your own behavior an addiction?
Media attention surrounding affairs, offensive sexual behavior, and sexual compulsivity can make this even more confusing. It feels like every time there is a scandal discovered about a celebrity or politician, a whole list of experts come out to share their various opinions about sex addiction. Many of them will share their opinions about what you need to do to move through this. Some of those perspectives will be right for you, and others won't fit for you at all.
If you're in a relationship with someone who has sexual behavior that steps outside of the agreement in your relationship, it can be extremely confusing what to do. You have to balance several things, including taking care of yourself and deciding what to do next. Many feel like they can be more generous with a partner who is dealing with an addiction, while this doesn't matter at all to others. This can thrust people directly into facing boundaries that they haven't had to face before.
For those who are engaging in such behavior, and who have risked careers and relationships, the controversies surrounding sex addiction can make it confusing as well. What kind of help do you need? Do you need help at all? First, it is important to say that if you're dealing with an addiction, it's important to know that it's not an excuse. Taking responsibility is a long, uncomfortable road. If sex addiction is what you're dealing with, sex addiction therapy will not take that pathway away from you. However, it can offer a way to help you navigate through some of the challenges.
So is it an addiction or not? I have to disclose a bias that I have as a therapist. I focus less on labels and diagnoses. It doesn't mean that I would never diagnose my clients with anything. In general, I have found that clients identify with or don't identify with specific labels and diagnoses. Rather than focus on labels, I focus on the process of personal growth, mindfulness and experience.
That being said, the label of addiction really does help some. They find a community of support, an explanation, etc. As a therapist, it has been my experience that I have never seen any label benefit a client, when the client didn't take this on for themselves. Whether it's a diagnosis, an issue of substance abuse, or a process addiction, I don't believe that "giving" a client a label benefits the client at all, unless the client identifies with it. This is why I will usually ask the client about personal identification, rather than tell them what the problem is. Even in screening and assessment, the goal that we always have is processing and gaining personal understanding.
Although some identify with the label of addiction, others benefit most from focusing solely on the behavior, and their own personal perceptions. Therefore, rather than listening to the "experts" on how you should identify, and what you need to do, I encourage you to first identify what you need. If you need help, what kind of help do you need. If you need a therapist, what kind of a therapist do you need.
The definitions on addiction can vary a bit, but I would say that typically a true addiction includes a pervasive, compulsive behavior pattern, along with an impact on your life, health, and relationships. When we see celebrities come out as a "sex addict" after their behavior has been discovered, it can make all of this very confusing. It's important for us as observers to remember we don't have all of the information. I don't say this as a justification. Instead, it's just a fact that we don't know what is really in the intentions and backstory of the person who is seeking treatment.
Where there is less spotlight and media attention, there are everyday people who are trying to figure this out for themselves. If you're in a relationship with someone who has cheated or done even worse, it can feel like there is a part of that person you don't even know. In time, you'll have to decide if you are able to be with that person now that you know about betrayal. If you are able to be with this person, you'll also want to make decisions of what types of deal breakers you have have. These can help to keep you grounded as to when you would leave.
It might not sound that reassuring to disclose that sex addiction is this complicated to identify and define. It might even be less reassuring to hear how much the field doesn't know. The thing that I do want you to find some reassurance in yourself. There is a lot that you already know about yourself. However, there could be a lot more that you can learn about yourself. If you can step back away from the debate itself, you'll see a clearer path for yourself that can help you heal and grow.
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