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The Coping Mechanisms Learned in Childhood Don’t Help Anymore

Something interesting we find when working with sex addicts is how coping mechanisms they learned in their family systems, which helped for some time, do not help them like before. For example, one person might have grown up in a family system where there was abuse or profound neglect, which leaves a cold empty state in the child. As humans we are driven by nurture, and we need to be soothed. If there are no adults present to nurture and soothe, the 5 year old will create his own way of trying to get those needs met. This might mean delving into reading or watching TV, etc. as an escape. In some cases, a desperate, lonely child might find a stash of pornography. Staring at a nude image that is staring back at him has a soothing effect on the child, and suddenly the child feels better. This becomes a secret, which no one can know about. Hence, the creation of a secret sexual world.

Now we fast forward 25 years. The child is grown, but he still has the emptiness from his childhood, and does not know what to do to help himself. He becomes an over-achiever to get the attention of others, but still the emptiness remains. He has a wife, a young child, and a successful career. He loves his wife and child, and he is achieving his vision of a stable family, which he himself never had. However, that cold empty state discussed above is still there, and so is his secret sexual world. When he gets lonely or scared or angry, he does not know how to discuss or deal with those feelings. He only knows how to self-soothe those feelings as he did in his childhood. When he gets stressed about everyday events – taxes, promotions, etc. – it triggers the abandonment and loneliness, which leads to coping by sexual acting out, such as compulsively viewing pornography.

If we fast forward 10 more years, he is now 40 years old. His secret world is still alive. He is viewing pornography at work and at home, which has increased his stress and has caused him to miss deadlines and obligations, which in turn leads him to more and more sexual acting-out. He has shunned and neglected his wife for the last 5 or so years, and this has caused her to withdraw from him. He interprets this as abandonment, not seeing his own role in causing the discord. This feeling of abandonment further triggers the need to self-soothe, and he has begun an affair with someone at work. His sex addiction has now taken on a life of its own. However, the emptiness is still not filled, which leads to even further escalation of the behavior in order to try to soothe the feelings.

And so it goes . . .