Sex Addiction: A Family Disease
by Dr. Robin Barnett, EdD, LCSW, LCADC, CSAT
The mainstream psychotherapy world is still getting its arms around sex addiction, yet the behaviors that comprise it are nothing new to those who engage in them and their families.
Like any addiction, it’s characterized by uncontrollable compulsions toward harmful behaviors, even after experiencing negative consequences, such as losing a relationship or going to jail.
It’s estimated that about 3% to 6% of Americans have a sexual addiction, and its effects are usually devastating to families. Destroyed trust, sexually transmitted diseases, or financial ruin all leave families reeling in its wake. Drug or alcohol use is also very common in people with sex addictions, creating further chaos and heartbreak for those closest to them.
For those families in which someone is addicted to sex, that becomes all the family focuses on—even if they aren’t talking about it. Everyone steps in and plays a role that they think will help manage or minimize the impact of the addiction in an attempt to regain balance in their family system.
Someone enables the addicted person by covering for them when they don’t come home one night or miss their son’s baseball game. Another one does everything right, overachieving to counteract the constant disappointment the addicted person brings. Maybe one kid “acts out” and temporarily refocuses the attention on their infraction as an almost-welcome relief from the daily heartbreak of a family affected by sex addiction.
No matter the role they play, every family member takes part in trying to manage the addiction in their home. And everyone suffers as a result.
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On the flip side is the family that the addicted person came from. Sex addiction almost never develops in a vacuum, which means that dysfunction existed long before a person ever pays for sex or habitually moves from one sexual partner to the next. Sex addiction usually has its origins in childhood. During sexual identity development, development is askew. The faulty sexuality evolves over time, creating a cycle of sexual addiction. In many cases this includes self-punishment or recreating a traumatic incident.
Substance abuse is common in families that people with sex addiction came from—as much as 40% of those in one survey. About 36% came from families in which one or both parents were sex addicts, and the vast majority (as many as 82%) were sexually abused as children. They may also have been exposed to sexually explicit material at a young age or lacked proper limits of privacy in the bathroom or bedroom.
All of these things created an atmosphere of confusion and distortion about what healthy sex is and healthy sexual relationships looks like. Anger and shame are often pervasive among their relationships, and healthy intimate interactions can be practically non-existent.
Helping the sex addicted person relearn what is healthy and what is not—in sex and in interpersonal relationships—is one of the key goals of therapy, as is dealing with deep-seated shame, fear, and anger.
And it’s equally important to work with the addicted person’s family members who often develop the same emotional profile, having been drawn into the dysfunctional web that sex addiction weaves. Realigning healthy family roles, emphasizing the importance of the addicted person taking responsibility for themselves, and individual counseling for everyone can help a family make much-needed strides toward healing.