Often times, when we hear the phrase “healthy sexuality” we are immediately flooded with idealistic concepts we’ve heard, been taught, or created on our own. These are usually a result of the specific society we live in and our own narrative.
For those of us in sex and love addiction recovery, and personally, as the spouse of a recovering addict, I believe we are at a turning point in our lives to deconstruct and redefine what healthy sexuality means and what it looks like.
Before we get into this, here’s a snapshot of my life:
I was born a PK (pastor’s kid) and eventually became an MK (missionary kid). I grew up in a very loving home, yet inside a bubble full of expectations, demands, and rigid thinking—all within an emotionally absent environment. I am the youngest of three siblings and my existence wasn’t planned, expected, or well received.
This contributed to my very own destructive formula.
For as long as I can remember, sexuality was always a secretive topic. “Keeping it a secret” became the foundation for my lack of healthy sexuality moving forward.
I know many of you can relate.
I became sexually active at 17, and from then on, promiscuity was my go to. I put men and their needs first, not even consciously knowing what my needs were. Eventually, I had what I felt like, at the time, a turning point. Men had been using me for sex, but now I felt empowered to exploit men and use them to fulfill my needs—as misguided as my “needs” were. I was no longer being hunted, but carefully choosing who I would give access to.
After a decade of losing myself to the sexual needs of others and what I thought were mine, I reunited with the man that changed my life.
It’s been a long journey toward healing and, at the age of 40, I’m finally enjoying what healthy sexuality means.
If you haven’t taken the time to look at your own narrative—your own story—start there.
Most of our current behaviors and emotional responses are learned behaviors that were “locked in” at an early age and reinforced through all the experiences we’ve had in our lives until today. We look to the past to understand today and change the future—not to blame others and not to get all weird about philosophical stuff.
Your partner/spouse should also know your story and you should know theirs. This allows you to be seen by the person you’re the closest to—to be known, loved, and accepted. This is the foundation of healthy sexuality.
At the core of my own sexual unhealth was the belief that I wasn’t lovable or worth it. So when I look back at my life story, I can put all the small pieces together which completes the whole picture of my story.
You have to begin looking at your story to understand how you got to where you are today. This way, you can start making the changes and begin the healing you need to achieve the ultimate goal: intimacy.
By this, I mean, emotional intimacy, not sexual intimacy. We are rewarded with sexual intimacy after we’ve worked hard at connecting emotionally with our spouse.
Intimacy is not being comfortably close. It is being uncomfortably close. It is working together to get to the place where you can honestly say: “Into me you see” (aka intimacy).
What a profound truth and reality—to reap the benefits of emotional intimacy through a healthy sexuality.
During or after you invest the time and effort into knowing and understanding yourself, emotionally and mentally—which I’ve found is best done in recovery groups and/or counseling—you should be able to put these steps into place:
If you are married, I highly recommend a period of abstinence (ideally at least 90 days), especially if sex addiction is involved. I recommend this for a few reasons:
1. Our sex life with our addict spouse may not have started off well or healthy.
2. The pain and betrayal felt by the spouse of a recovering sex addict is a serious issue that needs to be addressed by both parties involved.
3. The addict’s brain usually takes about 90 days to clear out the neurochemicals that have kept him/her going back to the addiction.
4. It takes time to reset the ways we have been using sex to “connect” with our spouse.
Many people can’t even begin to comprehend how the heck they will go 90 days (or less) without sex.
You won’t die.
Especially if you realize that your current sex life is not fulfilling, enjoyable, or a reflection of the emotional intimacy you have with your spouse.
What will you do when you’re not having sex? The fear that many spouses have is, “What if he/she acts out because we’re not having sex?” This is even more of a reason to change the sexual patterns you have in your relationship. If sex has become about keeping them “sober,” then sex is being misused.
Remember that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it is connection.
Whether you decide to have a period of abstinence or not, emotional intimacy should be a priority. Having an agreed upon plan of how you will work toward this connection is key.
Sit down and schedule days, times, and activities you will focus on each week. Getting to know each other—enjoying each other—is the perfect segway into reviving your sexuality. This is hard work! But oh, so worth it.
Being intentional about how you want to spend time together is a team effort. Both people need to be on board and follow through with the “plan.” This is how you can be seen and see your partner.
Some examples of things to focus on are:
– One minute non-sexual hugs
– Love Map cards (Gottman Institute)
– Table topic cards
– Playing a board/card game
– Doing a puzzle together
– Going on a walk
– Making dinner together
– Doing things you enjoy together
You could take turns planning the kind of date YOU want. It can be challenging to do something that you want on a date instead of being concerned about what your spouse wants.
If you are intentional about planning these times together, then developing emotional intimacy will take precedence over sex. Once you’ve established a new dynamic of connecting with each other in a non-sexual way, you’ll realize you’re actually communicating more than before and now sex can be a part of this dynamic.
Frequent sex does not necessarily mean good sex. Likewise, frequent sex does not necessarily mean healthy sex. It’s been ground into our brain and beliefs that in order for a couple’s sex life to be good it needs to be frequent. This is so messed up.
I’ve heard famous church leaders talk about how their sex life with their spouse is great. By this they mean frequent. Yet the same person would tell you they don’t spend much time together with their spouse because their schedules are so hectic. So what? They just have regular conjugal visits? This doesn’t seem quite right.
Talk to your spouse about their expectations for frequency. What makes sense for your relationship right now? Do you feel distant from your spouse? Don’t use sex as a way to bridge an emotional gap.
Go back to the previous points and get to know each other again.
If either person feels sex isn’t appropriate for a time because they aren’t emotionally connecting, then don’t have sex. Regain your emotional connection and then sex will be appropriate again.
If you take this approach, you may find that you are having sex less but when you have it, it’s amazing! And most importantly, it’s being built from trust, safety, respect, honesty, and connection.
One of the greatest gifts we have in recovery is the discovery of what healthy looks like.
So remember, whatever is healthy for you, is healthy for you.
Pursue healthy sexuality.
Revive your sexuality.
Rebecca is a Clinician on Pure Desire's Counseling Team. Her life was forever changed through her personal journey of addiction recovery, being the spouse of a sex addict, and the healing she and her husband found through Pure Desire. She works with women who have experienced betrayal and provides support as part of a clinical team, with her husband, working with couples toward marriage restoration. With Spanish as her first language, Rebecca has experience and a heart for working with the Spanish speaking community.