When my husband and I first started dating, I didn’t notice anything amiss about his parents and sisters, or his relationship with them. He told me they were a very close family. Within months, I discovered that appearances can be deceiving.

From the outside, it might appear strange that my husband ended up a sex addict. He was never sexually abused. His parents would not be considered physically or verbally abusive in a court of law.

But growing up in his family, my husband was forced to emotionally parent his own mother. For example, she frequently ran sobbing from a room, because an opinion expressed by one of her children had hurt her feelings. My mother-in-law is a narcissist, and everything was always about her and her feelings, which were “hurt” quite often, requiring her children to rush to her comfort and protection. Guilt-trips were (are) her primary tool in any relationship.

My husband’s father is a tense person, easily irritated. He started spanking his kids when they were as young as one year old, babies just budding into toddlers. He yelled frequently, lashing out if his kids were too noisy while he tried to drive the car or watch television, the latter being his primary activity while at home.

My husband’s sisters tattled often, and as the only boy and the oldest child, my husband was blamed whenever they were upset. The sisters continued this behavior into adulthood, calling mommy whenever brother was not doing as they thought he should.

And of course, my husband was also bullied in middle school.

This all sounds less than ideal, but you’re probably wondering: Is this really enough to cause someone to grow up to become a sex addict?

Yes, it is enough to cause someone to become a sex addict. But no one “grows up to become” a sex addict. Sex addiction is already firmly rooted long before adulthood. Usually, sex addiction has already begun as the child transitions through puberty and discovers that the new sensations of arousal are a respite from personal unhappiness. Arousal and orgasm are pleasurable. While any adolescent may experiment with his or her body and discover sexual pleasure, for some children and teens, the pleasure of sexual activity — whether with self or others, or both — is the only safe, or comforting, or pleasant part of their lives — or perhaps, the only part of their lives where they feel free to do what they want, instead of having their choices and thoughts dictated for them by an overbearing parent.

Neural pathways forge in the brain at the young age of eleven or twelve, in most cases, as the brain determines that this, this sexual pleasure, is reliable and comforting. Nurturing, even. Life might suck. Maybe no one in the family has cared for this child as he or she deserved. But, the sex addict’s developing brain decides, “sex will always be there for me, to make me feel better.”

Experts have written far more eloquently about the causes of sex addiction than I can. I would like to point you in the direction of some excellent articles.

Linda Hatch, a renowned sex addiction therapist, wrote “The Myth of the ‘Normal Childhood:’ Why are you a Sex Addict?”  Dr. Hatch discusses relational trauma, disengaged family systems, narcissism, enmeshment, role reversal, and emotional dysregulation in parents.

“The bottom line is that childhood trauma of one sort or another is evident in the lives of most sex addicts if we look carefully enough.  Often the addict needs to cut through the fog of childhood and look at their early experiences with new eyes.  Re-interpreting the formative events becomes the key to understanding their power.”

— Dr. Linda Hatch

In her article, “More Underpinnings of Sex Addiction,” licensed clinical social worker Dorothy Hayden asserts that a dysfunctional family or traumatizing experiences with one’s peers can cause sex addiction. In my husband’s childhood, of course, both were present.

 

“…they may use sexual behaviors to achieve a sense of adequacy, competence, safety and power. Consequently, they feel an (illusory) sense of admiration and recognition that was missing from his childhood.”            — Dorothy Hayden

In another article, “Sex Addiction as an Intimacy Disorder,” Dorothy Hayden again goes into detail to explain why a person might become addicted to sex.

“If the child’s need for attention, soothing, stimulation, affection, touch, discipline, validation, and so on goes unmet, or is met with feedback that is punishing, invalidating or rejecting, the consequences are woven into the structure of the developing personality. Such children may turn into themselves and disconnect from others, regulating their emotions through the use of substances or process addiction, like sex.” — Dorothy Hayden

You can find all of Dorothy Hayden’s articles here for further reading.

5 thoughts on “Sex addiction is rooted in family dysfunction

  1. I have an abusive and mentally ill mother who is an alcoholic and would regularly mentally and physically abuse me (and still does to this day), but I’m not an addict of any sort. I partially agree with Dorothy and Linda, however I think we could ALL have childhood trauma based on perception because after all, it’s our perception that allows us to choose our reaction to life’s circumstances. Sex addicts (and all addicts really), have a different perception and internal verbiage than others.

    I believe sex addiction is more likely a childhood attachment issue, which leads to intimacy disorders later in life, so I agree that this is a family dysfunction rooted issue (which could be perceived as trauma).

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    1. Failure to develop a secure attachment as a child is indeed traumatic, since love is a child’s (and any human’s) primary need. Dr. Hatch and Ms. Hayden address the issue of childhood attachment trauma in the articles I’ve linked to, and in several of their other pieces.

      In his shame, my husband has said to me: “Why am I a sex addict, and you’re totally healthy? You had an abusive dad, and a mother who lacked empathy. You were sexually assaulted as a young woman! And yet, you turned out fine! What is wrong with me? I’m pathetic!” etc.

      But I never internalized the abuse that surrounded me, or did so to a much lesser degree, whereas my husband grew up thinking, not that his family was messed up, but that he was intrinsically flawed. Worthless, even. That’s a huge, key difference. Sex addiction is shame-based.

      Another important piece of the puzzle is genetics, of course. Scientists seem rather close to pinpointing the several genes that contribute to a tendency to addiction. My husband’s father was a recovered alcoholic. It isn’t reckless to assume that he carries a genetic predisposition to addiction. Sex addiction has been described (though I forget by whom) as the easiest addiction for a white, middle-class American to “fall into,” as it is easiest in terms of availability and relatively low in risk.

      I disagree that we all have childhood trauma or that we could all perceive our lives that way. I feel this implies that addicts are morally weaker or more prone to self-pity. Addiction is not a choice, and addiction is not a moral issue. Addiction is a biological condition in the physical brain and its development is completely outside the control of the addict.

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      1. Agree to disagree on the last point, I’m not totally sold that “sex addiction is a disease”, they had to make a choice the first time do to what they did. Maybe if/when I accept that the first choice was not in their control I’ll get a better grip on the disease word, but for now I’m just not there.

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