Most people first hear about sexual addictions in celebrity news, and these reports typically treat the issue either as a joke at the celebrity’s expense or as an excuse from the celebrity attempting to justify the behavior and avoid taking responsibility. As an unfortunate result, those interacting with real, everyday sex addicts often react in similar ways, so that approaching and handling the condition becomes even more difficult.
Sex or pornography addictions are difficult to address under the best of circumstances, even with close and trusted friends, family members, or partners; talking about it can be even more daunting when someone trying to admit to a problem only hears something like “There’s no such thing; stop making excuses for being a pervert!” or “Haha, that’s funny; I wish I had that. Whoo-hoo!” These are not informed or helpful responses.
If your partner has just been diagnosed with a sexual addiction or has just admitted to you that he or she is an addict, you may be skeptical, confused, or unsure what to think or feel. You may be wondering several things:
- Is sex addiction really legitimate?
- How can you be addicted to doing something instead of to a drug or substance?
- Is my partner just making excuses or look for sympathy?
- How am I supposed to handle this? Does it mean I don’t get to be angry or hurt?
In reality, sex and pornography addictions, like other forms of addictions such as alcoholism, are real mental illnesses with a physical basis in the anatomy and chemistry of the human brain. Addiction is just as much a medical condition as diabetes, heart disease, or ulcers; it is simply less well understood and less accepted by the public. There is an ever-growing body of peer-reviewed scientific literature to validate this. Regardless of how you choose to approach your relationship with your addicted partner, you need to realize that he or she has a real, legitimate disease.
The chemistry involved is complicated and not fully understood even by neuroscientists, but a simple summary centers on a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a chemical in the brain that stimulates an action when it comes into contact with a structure in the brain called a synapse. In the case of dopamine, that action is the creation of a feeling of pleasure, enjoyment, or happiness.
From an evolutionary standpoint, that feeling of pleasure exists to draw attention to experiences, actions, and events which are in some way good for us, and to encourage us to repeat those experiences. Receiving praise, for example, triggers a dopamine release which produces a pleasant feeling; all we perceive is that praise makes us feel good, so we want to do things which will cause us to receive more praise. The brain’s chemistry and structure are essentially programmed to encourage the seeking of pleasure, but the brain also has built-in systems to regulate chemical balances- including the supply and release of dopamine.
In very simple terms, addiction occurs when that balance gets disrupted and the brain tries to correct it by seeking more dopamine and thus more stimulation of its reward centers. This is why addiction so often co-occurs with other mental disorders such as depression or bipolar disorder. In depression patients, dopamine uptake is sometimes inhibited, which means that these individuals are more likely to develop addictions as the brain tries to seek more dopamine release to compensate for the imbalance.
Understanding and accepting that sex or pornography addictions are actual medical disorders may make you feel guilty for feeling angry, betrayed, or hurt about your partner’s behavior or actions; you may feel trapped into accepting the behavior.
It is true that addiction decreases a person’s ability to resist certain urges, since those urges are coming not from the person’s own conscious desire but from the brain seeking to correct an imbalance in its own chemistry. However, the fact that self-control is more difficult for an addict does not take away the addict’s ultimate responsibility for his or her own actions. If your partner suffers from a sexual or other addiction, he or she faces an incredible challenge in resisting those urges- but it is possible and it is still his or her responsibility to do so.
As this person’s spouse, you have every right to be angry, hurt, or disappointed when your partner loses control, and you have a right and a need to express these feelings (preferably in a constructive way and preferably with the help of a professional counselor). Since you love this person and want to help him or her, you also have a responsibility to hold your spouse accountable for his or her actions. It is best to speak with a trained professional counselor to find ways to do so lovingly and productively.