“But Where Was I?”: Dissociation in Sex Addiction

During a recent couples therapy session, a betrayed spouse asked her husband, newly in recovery from sex addiction, “How did you not think of me or the kids when you acted out?” The confusion, pain and hurt she expressed was immensely palpable. His response: “I was so cut off from myself I wasn’t thinking, I just felt compelled to do what I did.”

For many partners one of the most painful aspects of learning of their loved ones’ sexually compulsive behavior is how utterly disconnected the addict was from them in their acting out.
Partners of sex addicts reasonably struggle with understanding how their partner could lose all thought of them. How did they not hold them in their mind?

In most cases when sex addicts behave compulsively, they enter into “trances” or self-induced hypnotic states. These trances may replicate elements of original dissociative reactions to past trauma. All sex addicts are survivors of the traumas inflicted upon them. In experiencing these traumas many coped by dissociating. Dissociation protected them from painful emotional experiences. If a child grew up and was abused, exposed to abuse, neglected, or abandoned emotionally or physically, he may have employed a defense mechanism of “checking out” of his reality. Dissociation as a child may have looked like daydreaming, watching too much TV or compulsively gaming. These are some of the ways a child could disconnect from the trauma, neglect, and chaos around them. As he grew into adolescence, he may have discovered sex, porn, alcohol, or drugs to escape. All potent ways to numb and “check-out” of his reality.

It’s important to note that when acting out these individuals are not thinking, they are feeling. Literally, the left-side or “thinking-side” of the brain goes off-line. While the right-side or “feeling side” of the brain is activated in full force. In this process, the addict is not thinking or in full awareness of his partner, his children, or the other important aspects of his life. This helps to explain the disinhibition to take risks. If the thinking part of the brain is off-line, they are not fully able to recognize the dangers and consequence of their actions. In no way does this condone or excuse their behavior, but it helps to explain a key element of the addictive process.

Disassociation also explains why many of these individuals are not fully “present” in their own lives. The addict may be very preoccupied with the fantasies and thoughts of acting out. This often leaves them detached from the relationships in their lives. As people embark upon and commit to their recovery journey, they become more present, connected, and attached to their loved ones. This is a true marker of healthy recovery and sobriety.

Trauma survivors can never be cured of the trauma they experienced, but therapy can help them recovery from it and stop the harmful behaviors they inflict on themselves and others. One key part of trauma recovery work is to help the addict stay in full awareness and connection to themselves and to others.