Compulsive Sexual Behaviors May Reflect Disordered Attachment
If you are experiencing unwanted compulsive sexual behaviors—infidelity, pornography addiction, obsessions, problem masturbation, illegal or high-risk sexual preoccupations, then it will be useful for you to in explore your attachment history. Experience teaches clinicians that our personal attachment style, which is formed in infancy and reflects our relationships with primary caregivers, often helps explain how and why we “act out” sexually in the ways we do.
If we felt secure in our primary relationships as children, then we are likely to seek out and put our trust in primary relationships as adults; we are likely to attract healthier partners and be more equipped to maintain functioning relationships. If we experienced high levels of anxiety in our primary childhood relationships, which can happen as a result of abuse, neglect, and when our caretakers themselves are experiencing trauma or mental health/addiction issues, then we are more likely to be anxious, preoccupied, dismissive or avoidant in our adult relationships.
What does this have to do with sexual compulsivity? Everything! Remember, “acting out” sexually is a coping strategy designed to meet needs we are unequipped to meet in healthier ways. If we lost trust in our caretakers to meet our needs in childhood, then as adults we are going to doubt 1) others will meet our needs, 2) our ability to meet our own needs, and 3) our worthiness to have our needs met. While we may have ample opportunities for loving connection in our lives, our encoded mistrust of others will lead us to pursue fulfillment and satiation of our needs through illusory means: pornographic images, one-night stands, or sexual partners whom we believe we can control (like sex workers or vulnerable others). These “need-fillers” seem more reliable and less risky, though in reality they not only fail to meet our needs, but they make us (and those we love) much less safe.
The solution we are seeking only begins with ending the addictive behaviors. Once we stop “acting out” our fractured attachment stories, we can begin the deeper and more lasting work of repairing our relationship beliefs and intimacy skills. If we don’t learn to again trust and practice healthy attachment, compulsive sexual behaviors will always return to fill the emptiness.
Treatment for sexual compulsivity is, and must always be, a sex-positive intimacy-building process. Too often the emphasis tends towards sexual abstinence as the be all and end all, when in reality abstinence is merely the first step. Reintegrating all aspects of our healthy sexuality, with a renewed emphasis on nurturing the holistic intimacy that truly sustains us—this is the ultimate prize of sexual recovery. Through this reawakening, which includes a joyous sexual rebirth, our attachment wounds will fully heal.
Lincoln Sperry, LMSW, CSAT
Lead Primary Therapist
Lincoln earned his BA in English at University of Pennsylvania, graduating magna cum laude with Phi Beta Kappa honors. He later earned his Master of Social Work at Arizona State University, with a clinical concentration and internships at Sonora Behavioral Health hospital and Arizona Children Association’s Tucson outpatient clinic. Lincoln completed his intensive Certified Sex Addiction Training with Dr. Patrick Carnes in 2010.