Understanding Addictive Behavior Patterns

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Anyone struggling with addictive behavior patterns knows how perplexing and self-defeating they can be. But they also know what it’s like to be held firmly in their grip.

These days, we know a lot more than we used to about the physiology of all addiction. We know that the pleasure centers of our brains and powerful neurotransmitters are involved and that once a pattern of stimulation has developed and tolerance to that stimulation ensues, it takes more frequent or more intense activity to achieve the same effect. So, in a very real sense, the physiology of addiction is the same whether we’re addicted to a substance, an activity, or even to a person.

Understanding addiction at an emotional and psychological level is more complex. All of us have needs, wants, and desires. We all also struggle with various emotional conflicts. And when we’re lacking in the skills necessary to self-regulate our emotions, effectively mediate our inner conflicts, and satisfy our legitimate needs in mature, healthy ways, we’re at increased risk for addiction of one type or another.

Perhaps no addictive behavior pattern is as strong and devastating to intimate relationships as sexual addiction. Sex is a powerful tension reliever. It’s also an innately strong drive. As powerfully pleasurable as it is, it can also make a train wreck out of a person’s life, especially when that person has become truly dependent on it as the be all and end all solution to inner emptiness and unhappiness. I can think of one example that illustrates the point very well (as always, all potentially identifying information and various details have been altered so as to ensure anonymity):

Jane was now beside herself. Earlier, her 16-year-old son had noticed she’d left her cell phone on the kitchen counter when she dashed out of the house and thought she might need it. Knowing she had gone just down the street to get her nails done, he thought he’d do her the courtesy of bringing it to her. But that’s when he got the shock of all shocks. The first text message from a man he knew from church was shocking enough. Within minutes there was another message, and from a completely different guy. At first he thought he must be dreaming, it all seemed so unreal. He waited outside the nail salon, not wanting to make a scene, but barely containing his tears. When Jane exited, she noticed the tears in his eyes, and before he’d even handed her the phone she knew her well-guarded secret life was about to be exposed and that the family life she valued more than anything was about to unravel. The jig was up, and she was devastated. How could she face her loyal husband? How could her children possibly understand? For a moment, she thought herself better off dead. But in a strange way, she actually felt some relief. And that’s when she decided to get some help.

Jane’s story turned out to be like so many other stories. Things had started out so innocently. She was feeling so conflicted in her relationship with her husband Bill. They’d grown apart. It wasn’t that she didn’t have desire for him. In fact, she really wanted closeness. But for some reason, the mere thought of it evoked anxiety, too. A former therapist once told her that that conundrum had a lot to do with her childhood sexual abuse. But she quit that therapy because it made her too uncomfortable. So she never found out if the notion had any validity. Somehow, though, the attention she got from the other men in her life felt not only safe but also immensely satisfying. So did the physical closeness. As for the affirmation, well, it felt overwhelming. The problem was she just couldn’t get enough of it, and while at first she felt in control of it all (which is one of the main reasons it felt so safe), lately she was feeling out of control. After all, she was getting more and more careless. That’s how her son found out. Now, her life was a mess and she had only herself to blame for it. Oddly, however, she still felt cravings.

Jane came from a family of addicts that spanned generations on both sides. Most family members struggled with alcoholism. Some had problems with both illegal and prescription drug abuse, and almost everyone smoked, having tried in vain many times to quit. She had somehow escaped these problems. But when it came to getting that “high” which only new, tender, exciting, physical encounters could provide, she simply couldn’t resist. She knew what it meant to feel empty, too: every encounter satisfied for a minute, but then the emptiness set in. Still, she got enough of what she craved to keep her coming back. It was never enough. Sometimes she wondered whether anything would ever be enough. That’s in part what kept her constantly looking, but it also kept her feeling empty. She had to face it: she was as much an addict as her parents and siblings — just of a different kind.

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Addictions like Jane’s can exist even within a relationship. I’ve had many a married partner complain to me how their spouse’s seemingly insatiable appetite for variety, novelty, and salaciousness has completely ruined the sexual experience for them. What they’ve suffer the most is the loss of the depth and intimacy they crave but can’t seem to find, and that of course also engenders those all-too-familiar feelings of emptiness.

Wresting free from addictive behavior is in itself inherently painful. Depriving oneself of what has become a powerful albeit increasingly ineffective self-medication naturally invites a great deal of pain. But learning how to manage one’s pain is perhaps the most essential aspect of long-term recovery. As any recovering addict who’s managed to maintain long term sobriety will tell you, the benefits of learning to better deal with uncomfortable feelings and better self-regulate behavior are well worth the painful price.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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