Why Do Sex Addicts Do What They Do? | Betrayal Trauma

As I work with betrayed women, they often ask, “Why do sex addicts do what they do?" This question is often asked out of anger or fear. And so I explore a little more deeply, and what I find is that they are usually struggling with fear, sadness, and overwhelm around the following…

Can My Husband Really Be Addicted To Sex?

The meaning of their partner’s behavior. They may be asking...

  • Can a person really be addicted to sex?
  • Why my partner, why this addiction?
  • Isn't this just an excuse for their bad behavior?

The reality of their relationship.

  • Was any of it real?
  • Does he love me?
  • Is there any hope?

Feelings of self worth.

  • Is this my fault?
  • What does this say about me?
  • Aren't I enough?
  • Can I fix it?

The scope of this article addresses the first of these issues - the questions around their partner’s behavior. I want to address each of these points separately. And in the answers, I hope that I can alleviate some of the pain and hurt that partners experience. 

Sexual Activity Outside Of What Is Supposed To Be A Committed Relationship Is Wrong, & It Has Nothing To Do With You

I want to encourage any reader who has been betrayed by their partner to understand this - addiction or not - sexual activity outside of a what is supposed to be a committed monogamous relationship is wrong. And painful. And not your fault. If you’ve been betrayed, the one who betrayed you is 100% responsible for his actions, his lies, and the damage he has caused, and the presence of an addiction does not change that. There is evidence that sex addiction exists, but betrayal is betrayal. And if you do not want or are not ready to hear about the addiction part yet, stay tuned until next week when I address, Is Sex Addiction Just Another Excuse?

Some partners accept the term sex addiction, but want to understand how it happened. Some don't accept the term and believe that becoming addicted to sex just isn't possible. Let me address this question first.

Sex Addiction Is Real

The current research shows that sex addiction does exist, and we know this by looking at the diagnostic criteria considered to identify addictions in general. Depending on whose research you read or what diagnostic criteria treatment facilities consider, there are anywhere between 7 and 15 criteria used to identify addiction. All seem to include the following 7, (and only 3-5 are needed by some to make a diagnosis)

The seven are are:

  • Concept of “tolerance” which states that the amount of a substance or behavior needed to achieve the same desired effect increases over time (or there is a decrease in the effect of the substance/behavior if if the amount does not increase over time).
  • Withdrawal phenomenon - when the substance or behavior is taken away, definite withdrawal symptoms occur.
  • Time lost to the behavior increases - time spent engaging in the behavior itself, time spent in the cycle of behaviors (time engaged in the behavior, time recovering, and time thinking about the next opportunity) occupies an increasing amount of the person’s day, and spending more time than intended
  • There is a persistent desire or compulsion to engage in the behavior
  • There is a reduction in healthy or socially accepted behaviors, roles etc. (such as time spent engaged in hobbies, household chores, family time, etc).
  • Use continues despite severe negative consequences (loss of job, arrests, physical effects)
  • Repeated unsuccessful efforts to stop

While not everyone who engages in harmful, extra-relational sex is an addict, many men and women who are seeking (or avoiding) treatment, exhibit these characteristics.

Masturbation Creates A Chemical Feedback Loop

Of course, this still leaves the question of how this these characteristics develop in the first place. And the answer to that lies in understanding the feedback loop associated with addiction development. With any addiction, be it to food, sex, gambling, or substances, neuroplastic changes begin to occur in the brain because of repeated use. While sexual activity does not involve ingesting or inhaling a substance, there is a chemical component to pornography exposure and sexual activity that acts like a drug on the brain.

Any time an individual engages in something that feels good, makes us excited, happy or proud, dopamine is released as a reward. The release of dopamine increases the “feel good” experience, and strengthens the neural connections that exist between the behavior and this “feel good” result. This connection causes us to seek out the same dopamine increasing behaviors again in the future, each time reinforcing the positive feelings that come with them, creating a feedback loop that becomes harder and harder to break. Over time, the brain is rewired to seek out these behaviors in a compulsive manner. And while pornography and sex are not “substances,” they can result in a “chemical dependency” because of the dopamine that is released.

A Husband's Pornography Addiction Equals Abuse & Neglect For Wives

Now we are left with the question of why addiction develops. And this has more to do with the environment in which the addict exists (and has existed in the past) than with the physiology of addiction development. Many people go through similar circumstances; yet why does one person develop an addiction and the other does not? And I think what partners want to know is, why this? Why sex addiction? And this really does come from a place of pain, because of all the addictions, this one feels so personal.

And this is completely understandable, because a long-standing sex addiction usually ends in abuse and neglect of the partner, in it’s various forms… This can be in the form of physical abuse, verbal abuse, blame-shifting, gaslighting, manipulation, lies, etc. Trust and intimacy in the primary relationship is virtually destroyed by the presence of ongoing pornography use and sex addiction. 

What Causes Pornography Addiction?

But let me address the question of why sex addiction? Why my partner? And why me?
Doug Weiss states that there are six types of sex addicts. They are:

  • biological
  • trauma
  • psychological
  • intimacy anorexia
  • sex addiction with mood disorder
  • spiritual

Within these types, lies often, the reason addiction takes hold. With trauma and psychological sex addictions, for example, early experiences, family of origin, childhood events, may all play a role in the development of sex addiction. Any addiction is a sign of emotional immaturity, because once sexual behaviors reach the level of addiction, they are then being used as a coping mechanism. The level of emotional maturity that an addict has, is usually no greater than the level that he was at it when the addiction took hold. In other words, if a young boy is exposed to pornography at the age of 10, and at the age of 12 begins to use it as an escape from stressful life circumstances, then that is when he stops developing emotionally. He now has his “go to” coping tool for dealing with life’s problems. Had it been alcohol that had been readily available to him during this period of his life, chances are he would have used that instead. 

Sex Addiction Is At It's Core, Emotional Immaturity

So, in a nutshell, addicts are exposed, typically at a younger age, to whatever their ultimate “drug of choice” is going to be. They may use it infrequently at first, or out of curiosity or boredom, but with prolonged exposure, it becomes their coping tool. And once that occurs they are now caught up in the feedback loop earlier described, and the addiction takes hold. That explains, very simply, why this, why him? But why me?? When answering this question, I always recall a line in one of my favorite movies, The Shawshank Redemption (has nothing to do with addiction…)... “Bad luck, I guess. It floats around. It has to land on somebody. I was in the path of the tornado.”

There are some in this field, I’m sorry to say, that will tell you that you knew on a subconscious level, that your partner was “broken,” and that you’re broken, too. And that the broken you was drawn to the broken him. But when you consider how successful the addict is at hiding his secrets and living a life of duplicity, I find this hard to accept. The characteristics observed in partners that some say are signs of brokenness and codependency, are also known to be symptoms of trauma.

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