For those of us who have trouble managing love, sex, and relationships, it can be challenging to accept that we may struggle more than we think. As we have learned, we didn’t get here overnight. The mechanisms for how we see ourselves and how our beliefs are shaped were created at an early age. Over the years, through experience, we have developed strategies to push down and ignore the painful feelings that contribute to our negative self-perception. What we believe about ourselves—the negative roadblocks in our thought processes—creates feelings of fear and shame.
As we uncover the hidden elements of our past and raise awareness to where we find ourselves repeating negative behaviors, we can break out of our addictive cycle. It is not enough to simply stop harmful behaviors. That’s a good place to start, but if we want to experience true healing, we have to identify the core belief that is driving our unhealthy behaviors, eroding our self-perception. We need to develop new strategies for living in health. Understanding the cycle of addiction helps us recognize our own patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that keep us stuck in our addiction.
The following stages are not indicative of a single model, but a collaborative representation of the cycle of addiction experienced by those of us who struggle with managing love, sex, and relationships.
In this stage, everything is going well. We are enjoying new friendships, attending a self-improvement class, or maintaining consistent physical self-care. This season of “everything seems to be going well” creates a sense of well-being and confidence. However, beneath the surface, we have a nagging sense that something is not right. We ignore this feeling because things really are not bad.
There is no fixed duration in this “time” stage. On the outside, things are okay. We are not overly anxious about finding a relationship or maintaining connection in relationship. This stage may seem like the place to live, but as we have experienced, it is not a lasting stage in this cycle. Inevitably, someone catches our attention or if we are in a relationship, we sense they are pulling away, having interests outside the relationship that don’t include us. Either of these scenarios raises our level of fear—fear that is created by what we believe about ourselves: are we valued, are we worth it, are we loved? This triggered fear leads to the next stage in the cycle.
To defend against the fear we’re feeling—fear of abandonment or rejection—we may engage in a number of various thought processes.
In this stage, we are vulnerable to seeking out the “perfect” relationship. Faulty thinking takes us out of reality, creating a disconnect from our painful reality: deep inside there is a hurt little girl in need of love, belonging, and nurturing. We want to separate from this emotional pain, so we adopt unhealthy behaviors such as eating, denial, and avoidance. When the pain of our reality becomes too much, we create an altered state or fantasy, which leads to the next stage in the cycle.
During this stage, we take our faulty thoughts and put images to them. We create an alternate reality where we are loved, enjoyed, and pursued. Perhaps we imagine that the new guy at work is “the one.” We fantasize about him asking us out, going on dates, romantic walks on the beach, and then he is on bended knee. We snap out of our fantasy only to realize that 30 minutes has passed and we’re still stuck in the same painful life we’ve always had. We feel depressed.
It is easy to get stuck in this stage. We tell ourselves, “I really need to stop,” only to find ourselves lost again in our fantasy world. When we build up enough pain without relief, the next stage becomes an appealing way to alleviate the pain.
This is the planning stage. We begin to pursue connection to live out the fantasy. We will seek out someone or something to help us—to rescue us from the pain and loneliness. We plan out ways to get noticed. We find ways to gain attention, which can become obsessive. This creates anxiety, unrealized expectation, and the emotional pain of rejection and loneliness.
The thoughts and emotions that generate our fantasies will activate arousal—a heightened physiological response. This heightened response will cause us to implement our rituals. For those of us who struggle with love addiction, we may excessively flirt, intentionally be “in the right place, at the right time” to catch someone’s eye, or dress in a sexually provocative way, with the goal of pursuing a relationship with the object of our obsession. For those of us who struggle with sex addiction, we might plan to entice someone for sex or engage in masturbation. Pornography use or fantasy could also be part of the ritual.
Rituals are not time-sensitive. The time frame can last several minutes to several years. It is important to recognize what we do—our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors—that take us from fantasy to acting out.
There are two distinct ways that we medicate our pain: externalizing or acting out and internalizing or acting in.
Externalizing or acting out: Internet sexual activity—chatting with someone or viewing images while masturbating, hookups, having an affair, masturbation, flirting, or having sex with someone we just met. This would also include following someone to their home, “stalking” a person online, or bumping into someone to get their attention.
Internalizing or acting in: shutting down all sexual desire and sexual awareness. Sexual anorexia. We socially isolate as a means to control our feelings. We reason, “Since I’m not having sex, then I’m not a sex addict.” The truth is, we are medicating the pain by not allowing ourselves to feel. We are numb.
Feelings of hopelessness, depression, and shame often follow acting out. We make vows to ourselves (and others) that we will stop. We promise ourselves we will never do it again and at the same time feel hopeless—questioning whether we will keep our promise this time or not. Shame conceals our secret: “If others knew, they would reject me. My behavior is too shameful to tell anyone.” Once our feeling of shame dissipates, “time” follows as we start the cycle again.
This cycle of addiction can be repeated over and over until we realize the unmanageability of our life.76 We may experience job loss, a crushing low self-esteem, the loss of relationship, and health consequences. There comes a time when we recognize that the way we’re living—unable to manage love, sex, and relationship—needs to change, but we may feel powerless to change.
We may feel as though we are living life on autopilot: unable to navigate relationships, resulting in out-of-control behaviors. The consequences of our emotional and physical health may become compromised, allowing the feelings of hopelessness and a loss of control to take their toll.
At this stage, we feel powerless to control our behaviors. This is reflected in our behaviors, thought processes, and emotional health.
• My self-esteem is at its lowest
• I am obsessed with social media
• I use a fake persona online to create relationship
• I masturbate at work
• I have lost all self-respect
• I have lost connection with healthy relationships
• I have accepted money for sex
• I lost my job
• I have lost my reputation and integrity with family and friends
• I hooked up with people whose names I can’t remember
• I feel so numb on the inside, I cut myself to feel pain on the outside
• I had an abortion
• I obsessively daydream about the perfect relationship
As we take an honest look at how our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors have disrupted our ability to navigate healthy relationships, we may resist and tell ourselves, “I’m not an addict!” This may be true, but we have to ask ourselves, “Why do I have a string of broken relationships in my past?”
Here are a few indicators that might help us gain a new perspective and raise awareness to the reality of our behaviors.77 We may struggle more than we think if we:
• have tried to stop a behavior, but can’t.
• obsess romantically about one person, excluding other interests.
• use sexual seduction to gain power over others.
• use sex as a means to find love.
• think that sex is love.
• fall “in love” repeatedly.
• think the next time will be different.
Unraveling our personal cycle of addiction will be the first step we take toward sobriety and freedom.
We all want to feel safe: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. However, when we have experienced trauma in our lives—times when our safety was threatened—it causes us to create behaviors that we feel decrease our fear, pain, and anxiety. Consider the following examples:
As a child, my life was filled with unsafe places and unsafe people. My mom was an addict and often traded sex for drugs. My parents were divorced and my mom didn’t want to leave the four of us girls home alone, so she took us with her to the hotels where she met men. I vividly remember being forced into a car at gunpoint and watching as a man hurt my mom. This was one of many similar experiences.
Despite these horrible experiences, I’m an addict too. Not drugs so much, but addicted to romantic relationships. I can’t be without a guy. Even when I’m in a relationship, I’m always looking for the next one. Although, I worry about STDs—my mom told me a lot about STDs—in the moment, I can’t refuse the affection of a new lover. I try to practice safe sex and tell myself that next time it’s going to different, I’m going to be different, but who am I kidding? I’m my own worst enemy.
I was raised in a military family, where feelings were not learned or expressed. These things didn’t matter. My life was all about following rules and conformity. I didn’t really have an opinion about things in my life—the friends I had, who I dated or didn’t date, and even where I would go to college. Because of our lifestyle, my parents controlled everything I did and I always did what my parents wanted me to do. I was told this would keep me safe.
Since my parents seemed to insert themselves into all my relationships—with friends and romantic interests alike—I began to seek out relationships online through various chat rooms. This was safe from my parents’ prying eyes and finally gave me the freedom to choose for myself. What started as innocent curiosity turned into something I had never before experienced. Initially, I only talked about sexually explicit things, but that quickly turned into fantasy-fueled masturbation. Although I feared my parents would find out, this became a daily pattern.
I ’m divorced. In my previous marriage, everything looked great on the outside: we were the perfect Christian family. It was all a lie. After I discovered my husband’s ongoing affair, he left and I initiated a divorce. I never remarried. I read romance novels and watch romantic movies, but nothing with sex in it. I have a strong aversion to anything sexual and feel repulsed by the thought of it. I do fantasize about the perfect husband—one who showers me will love and adoration, but who doesn’t want sex. I’m certain this type of man does not exist. Since my divorce, I am cautious about developing any form of relationship with men. Even at church, I avoid all contact with the men, except the pastor, who is truly a man of God and would never cheat on his wife. I think it’s safer to only have relationships with women. I would rather spend my life alone than risk being hurt again.
In the above examples, each woman created behaviors that supported her feeling of safety, when ultimately, it made matters worse. In each case, the safety behaviors moved the women away from relationship, not toward relationship.
Complete the FASTER Scale, Group Check-in, Self-Care lesson, Thoughts/Feelings
Awareness Log, and Change & Growth Analysis in your Unraveled: Weekly Tools before
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