Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Living With a Sex Addict

One's company, two's a crowd, and three's a party. But when is too many partners too much?
You can't turn on the TV lately without hearing the newest shocker about what sex addiction has done to famous people. It becomes a bad joke that, whenever someone famous trips over him or herself, the answer is "rehab."   So if you're partner is in trouble with his (or her) sexual behavior, you're right in style. Of course, knowing that your problem is "trending" doesn't really help. Let's look at what does.
I recently heard a well-respected professional claim that sex addiction is not really an addiction. This was "proven" by a brain-scan study which lit up one way for drug addicts and alcoholics, but not for "sex addicts." I firmly believe that what they observed was the difference between a substance addiction and a behavioral, or process, addiction.
An addiction is a pattern of pleasure-seeking behavior that becomes repetitive and obsessive, to the point that the subject will take unreasonable and dangerous risks in order to continue it. It's also characterized by tenacious denial, both in the addict and in the people closest to him. Some addictions are physical and some are emotional (with body chemistry contributing a physical piece).
There's a particular configuration of an addict's daily life, which we call the "cycle of addiction." It's a bi-polar image, without a bi-polar diagnosis. I always picture the silhouette an egg. The larger part, the "bottom," is daily life, including all its slings and arrows. There are many reasons why an addict finds this unbearable. For a professional who is not familiar with addictions, it is easy to dig up "reasons" for the addict's behavior. But for the active addict, knowing those reasons simply provides another excuse to stay in the cycle. The addict wants to get up to the top of the egg, where he’s above the fray, feeling "on top of the world." When the high wears off, he starts to slip down again, is filled with remorse and may truly believe he'll never do that again. But the high has cost him. Now the low is not just the low of daily life, it's made worse by guilt and remorse, so the impulse to get up there, to the high place, where the world is wonderful, becomes stronger. So up he goes, then down again, deeper than ever. (The highs don't get higher, but the lows do get lower).
"Recovery" is about interrupting the cycle. At first, it's about learning to live without the high. That's why people usually don't get straight as soon as they recognize they might be in trouble. The high has become the only source of pleasure in life, for them. A life with no pleasure is no life at all.
In a way, alcoholics and drug addicts in recovery have it "easy," because they can put down their substance and never use it again. (This is not to minimize the terrible ordeal substance abusers must go through to stop using the drug of choice).
Process addictions like food , relationship, money , and sex, require even more attention in recovery because we can't live without food, relationship, money, or sex. (Sex is part of life, even for someone who is celibate). A sex addict in recovery has to learn how to live a "sober" life while still living a sexual life. (A sex addict who opts for celibacy as a "cure" is a little like an alcoholic who "white knuckles" his recovery).
Okay, this sounds like your partner. What can you do?
First, a caveat: I'm going to write this next part as if the sex addict were a man and the partner were a woman. These dynamics work both ways, but the pronouns can confuse the important issues.
When you first realize that your partner is engaged in addictive sex, you will be faced with your own natural reaction, which is to take it personally. If you were more beautiful, if you were a better lover, if you never said no, he wouldn't be out there doing that stuff! You assume that your relationship, if not your own physical nature or your own personality, is the "problem." Then, when he is filled with shame and remorse and promises never to do that again, you experience enormous relief. Maybe he really does mean it; maybe he'll mend his ways. If he loves you enough, surely he will!
But it happens again. And again. And again. (A recent New Yorker cartoon shows a bride and groom at the altar and the minister is saying, "Will you stand by him through humiliating revelation after humiliating revelation and then, once you're sure it couldn't possibly get any worse, when even more humiliating revelations come to light?")
This is the nature of addiction. Your first task is to recognize this and to know that his addiction truly is not about you.
But if you want to be in this relationship for the long haul, there’s something in here that is about you. You are experiencing the bi-polar nature of the addictive cycle, yourself. You feel the "high" when he comes home with a bouquet of flowers, promising "never to do that again." You feel the anxiety that builds as you see him become more complacent, as you start to wonder where he is at odd hours, as you try to reassure yourself that "he promised." And you feel the hopeless "bottom," when you realize he's done it once again. In other words, you have your own addictive cycle. While he searches for the euphoria of his particular release, you search for the euphoria of feeling "everything is going to be all right with us."
You are locked with him in a two-person dynamic, which grows the feast/famine, good/bad cycle. If you reproach him, his self-loathing increases and his low gets lower. If you berate him, he can justify his behavior. If you are "nice" to him, he can feel he's "dodged a bullet." You just can't win!
You are not the problem, but you can choose to be part of the solution.
To do this, you have to take your focus away from him and his behavior and look at yourself. Look at your own needs and wishes. Focus on your own decisions and your own pleasure. In this way, you begin to interrupt the cycle in yourself. You begin to develop the kind of healthy emotional separateness that lays the groundwork for a healthier relationship. You replace his dominance in your life with your own. You come to understand that you never have to feel shame for something someone else does. You become the "star" of your own life.
If you change yourself, he has to change. We like the metaphor of the hanging mobile: it is still, until you touch one piece of it, at which time, the entire system moves.

The addictive relationship dynamic is enormously powerful. Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to turn your entire world inside out. Do not try to do this alone! There are 12 Step programs for partners of sex addicts, like COSA and S-Anon. Seek professional help from a therapist who is knowledgeable about the nature of addiction. Beware the practitioner who urges you to leave without exploring what this relationship means to you. (The only reason to leave a relationship immediately is if there is danger of physical harm to you or your children).
There are powerful personal reasons, both conscious and unconscious, which keep you in this relationship. The right therapist can help you know yourself well enough to make wise decisions about your future. You may go, you may stay, so long as you own your own life.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Should I?

I’m beginning to believe that “should” is the most destructive word in the English language. More often than not, a person’s suffering is nailed down with “should.” Or “shouldn’t,” of course.

I must grant it a place of value, when it comes to teaching small children social behavior, and even, perhaps, in keeping them safe. One shouldn’t run out into traffic. And one should speak courteously to all, no matter what feelings they induce. One should obey the law.

But when we come to emotions, it’s a killer. It creates a deep conflict if you believe you should feel something you don’t:

 “I should always love my mother.” Really? Even when she’s just blamed you for ruining her life by being born? Or maybe she’s just punished you for something your brother did? Should you always love your mother, even if she doesn’t love you? That’s tragic, but all too often true.

“You should forgive your enemies.” That’s probably a good idea, for your own health, and in the long run. But not before you’ve hated them for hurting you. The best way to get stuck in resentment is to “forgive” before you’ve let yourself experience all the feelings brought up by the hurt.

How about just plain old, “you shouldn’t feel that way”? How often does a friend think she’s helping you out, by saying that? Maybe you’ve misunderstood her intent, or maybe you’re feeling something politically incorrect. Maybe you’re even mad at yourself for something beyond your control! But you feel the way you feel, and trying to feel something you don’t -- even something you wish you could feel -- is worse than futile.

Why worse than futile? Because emotions naturally flow. Many of them take under 20 seconds to pass, if I just feel them fully and let go of them. But if I fight them, or decide I should be feeling something else, they get stuck in me. Emotions stuck in me for long enough sour and turn into something much uglier, like resentment. I can hate my husband for disappointing me -- really hate him -- and then remember in the next moment that I love him, too. If I don’t let myself have my hate, I very likely could bring up that disappointment six months from now -- and now it looks more like “You never do anything I want!”

There’s another use of “should” that plays into the effort to live life as we’d like to. This is the gray area between emotions and actions, for example, “I should clean the kitchen.” I can believe that the kitchen needs cleaning, and it may be that you’re not doing any other onerous task at this moment, but if this “should” prevents you from enjoying another activity, a life-enhancing activity, I’m not so sure it will help you get that desired life. 

I all too often see people who whip themselves mercilessly with the things they “should” do, or “should” feel, if they want to be “good.” Too much “should” can make you forget that you’re just another human being, with needs and flaws, who makes mistakes, and who has an amazing, thrilling, delightful ability to enjoy your life.

We all do it, to some extent. It’s built in to the desire to be in charge of ourselves and to control the world around us. I have found that, if you are one of those who over-uses “should,” substituting “could” can help. Then “I should clean the kitchen” becomes “I could clean the kitchen,” and “I shouldn’t be glum” becomes “I could find something to enjoy.”

Well, I just told myself I should go do an errand. I don’t think I’m going to stop using that word anytime soon. I could have said to myself, “this would be a good time to…” But habit is habit, and training is training, and I’m not going to “should” on myself for telling myself I “should.”

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Why do we Fight?

Why do we fight with each other? Once an argument is past, when we look at it with clear eyes, it's seldom worth the effort. But in that moment, I'm ready to wipe you out, and you're ready to annihilate me. We've gone into out most primitive parts, where the law of the jungle applies: kill or be killed.

How does this happen? You're saying something about the news, perhaps, and I suddenly feel attacked. I come back with my own attack. And we're off to the races.

Truth is, I probably don't care all that much about your comment, but for some reason I took it personally. 

We're never, ever, ever, ever going to agree on everything. That never happens. But much of the time, we can agree to disagree -- you say po-tay-to and I say po-tah-to. Our differences make life interesting, otherwise it would be all vanilla (or chocolate, or pistachio). How is it, that we can accept each other's differences so often with equanimity, and then somebody says something… and BOOM! We're out to kill each other?

The answer is one of those simple but incredibly difficult things to manage: one or both of us have taken something personally. Suddenly, I feel as though you've said I can never again have "my" vanilla, but have to give in to your preference, and have "your" pistachio. Not only have it, but LIKE IT BEST. So I'm ready to fight.

There are also those times when criticism is more direct: "I wish you'd clean up," for example. Worse, "this house is filthy, you never clean!" Now it's even harder NOT to take it personally, as the finger is being pointed at you. Interestingly, even those accusations are not truly about you. They come out of my bad mood. Or my anxiety. Or even my fear that you don't really care about how I would like to live. If you take my misbehavior personally, we're off to war. 

If you don't take my behavior personally, you have more choices. This means that you take a step back, and realize I'm not speaking "objective truth," but rather acting out some feeling I'm trying not to own. You can choose not to respond at all. You can choose to say something like, "I'm sorry you feel that way." or "I really can't hear you when you speak to me that way." I may, or may not, back off, but you haven't gone postal. And I'm likely to simmer down.

So next time your hackles rise, and you want to bite someone's head off for what they just said, check in with yourself: is this a matter of me making something personal? If the answer is yes, take a step back and give yourself choices. I will if you will.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015


Depression has been plaguing people probably from the point of ejection from the mythical garden. (Eve probably felt guilty and depressed for starting the whole thing!) In the last couple of centuries, we’ve developed the hope that we can do something about it. We’ve studied it, tried to explain it, medicated it, but we can’t really fix it.

What is it, then? Before there were so many anti-depressant medications available, the psychoanalysts worked with talk therapy. There was considerable evidence that what was involved had something to do with what we do with our aggression. We developed the idea “depression is anger turned inward.” So it would make sense to think that rerouting those feelings would make a difference -- and it often does. When a person stops beating up on himself, and realizes that he’s really enraged at Mom, but is too afraid of her to say so, he does feel better. 

With the advent of medication, there are many depressions that actually get resolved, although I personally wonder if they might not recur down the line. There are also, sadly, those that get a little better -- perhaps suicide goes from the top of the option list to near the bottom -- but too often the suffering remains.

Those people who don’t get a “cure” are left with the need to find ways to live better, feel happier. They can purposely make choices that lead to pleasant thoughts rather than unpleasant ones (maybe watch a comedy instead of a tragedy). Staying active is important, as is having a solid group of friends. It is even possible to learn to make snap choices about what thoughts to think. And everyone swears by exercise. 

So where would music come in? 

There’s a famous study that demonstrated that simply changing one’s facial muscles from a frown to a smile lightened mood. 

Breathing well, so that the brain is well charged with oxygen, increases both a sense of safety and a sense of energy.

Acting “as-if” really works. A funny example: My dog grew up with cats, and got a little identify-befuddled. He often tried to purr when he was feeling good. But he couldn’t make that exact sound, so he would rumble in his throat. Now, what does a throat-rumble mean to a dog? It means he’s growling. The next thing we knew, he’d be upset and angry. He made the noise, and the response followed.

So if we make a noise, why wouldn’t that work the same? There are “laughing groups”  in which people purposely laugh -- for an hour. They actually do laughing exercises. And they are much happier at the end of the hour -- so they keep coming back.

Singing combines (1) the open mouth of a big smile, (2) the depth of breath needed to charge the brain with oxygen, (3) the production of sounds that we associate with joy. Add to that the expression of emotion and the benefits of exercise (anyone who thinks singing isn’t exercise hasn’t done very much of it!). How can one be depressed with all that going on?

Short of a cure, I can’t think of a better treatment for depression.

Friday, March 29, 2013


You discover your partner has had an affair. Everything in your being screams, “DO SOMETHING!!!” Do you:
  1. Scream at him, and tell him what a terrible person he is
  2. Tell your friends, to relieve yourself of the pressure of the hurt
  3. Regularly check his phone and email and browser history
  4. Put your rage into your collection of resentments

You’re single, and your best friend has just met the “man of her dreams.” Do you:
  1. Listen to her enthuse, while sobbing inside?
  2. Warn her that “love can be blind”
  3. Talk about the freedoms of being single
  4. Say something critical of her, or of him

If you said, “None of the above,” I’m not sure I believe you. Jealousy and envy are painful emotions, and when we act them out, we’re trying to get some relief. Of course, none of these behaviors actually provide that relief.

We use the two words pretty much interchangeably. They are in fact two distinct emotions, each with their own spectrum of usefulness to destruction. Simply put, jealousy refers to feelings of impending loss of something you have (your partner’s love, perhaps), and envy refers to the desire for something someone else has. They are both aspects, and sometimes dysfunctions, of desire.


We’re taught that jealousy is “bad.” The idea that it might have a positive function is often overlooked.  
St. Augustine says, “He that is not jealous is not in love.” When in love, you have a proprietary interest in your partner. And when you’re fairly certain in your relationship, you can confidently say to a rival: You can’t have her; she’s mine! Mine, mine, mine! I remember the pleasure and warmth I felt towards a young man standing up to his rival in just that way.
His desire for his partner was vibrantly alive in that moment. 

When you and your spouse have been married for a period of time, and your original desire has waned (as Esther Perel likes to say, “You can’t desire what you have.”), sometimes a drop of jealousy can remind you that you’re NOT completely safe. There can be a threat -- and in that moment desire is once again alight. Jealousy can remind us of the value of what we have.

But… at the other end of the spectrum, jealousy is dangerous, and can kill a relationship. When jealousy turns into a real fear of losing the attachment, it’s like being too hungry for too long. Desire turns to malignant jealousy, and one can become seriously destructive. The literary example of this is the story of Othello and Desdemona: He believed she had betrayed him, and he was overcome with jealous rage. Murderous rage. Powerful stuff for grand opera, but not the way you or I want to live.

It’s important to know that the first pang of jealousy is a warning signal: look to your marriage! Something may not be right between you and your lover! Slacking off not recommended!
Then it’s tempting to look outside for the danger. Outside ourselves, or outside our relationship. The Other Woman might be the problem. Or our partner is untrustworthy, faithless,  has wrecked our lives. When relationship is threatened, our self-worth is threatened right along with it. “He is bad, cheating on me, but I must be worthless, or he wouldn’t do it.” 
Sadly, the more suspicious you become of your partner, the worse you feel about yourself. Very, very sticky.

When a person, or a relationship, is stuck, and all the energy is burnt up within the dynamic, help has to come from an unexpected direction.
Imagine if you took that initial signal and used it to remember how wonderful your beloved really is? Let yourself evoke how wonderful your desire for her feels? What if, instead of attacking, you told him how much he means to you? Undoubtably, that would feel better to him; think about how it would feel to you. 
Calm yourself and let yourself remember the ways you enjoy one another. You do have a choice where you put your focus; If you focus on “wrong,” you will get misery, and if you focus on “right,” you’re most likely to be reassured.
Alongside this, reassure yourself of your own worth. Evoke memories of feeling valuable. 

Your feelings of jealousy are the “right” feelings. They’re put there to remind you to come back to consciousness of the value of your relationship and the two people in it.


Envy is also based in desire. When it’s not one of the Seven Deadly Sins, it can be a wonderfully motivating force. Simply wanting what someone else has is the basis for the success of many people and businesses.  Van de Ven, Zeelenberg and Pieters of Tilurg University, the Netherlands, did some fascinating studies on “benign envy,” contrasting it with admiration. 
Benign envy (“Hero Envy”) is the desire for what someone else has. Many successful people talk about being influenced by successful individuals before them. Like benign jealousy, it sparks attention. If you see something your neighbor has, it’s fine to want to get some for yourself. 
Of course, there’s a “but” here. Impatience and/or grandiosity can create too much frustration. If you take Albert Einstein or Mother Teresa as your Hero, it’s likely you won’t be able to live up to their obvious accomplishments. If you must have that thing, or that trait, tomorrow, you’re likely to be disappointed. Disappointment can lead to a feeling of despair, and all that is left is to give up. You may fall into the passive position of “Hero Worship” and/or admonish yourself to be “realistic.” Neither one is particularly inspiring.

When Envy becomes malignant, it says “If I can’t have it, no one should be able to have or enjoy it.” This leads to destruction, perhaps of the desired thing, perhaps of the person who has it, or both. 
We’ve just gone through a process, as a country, that simply reeks of malignant envy. I’m talking about so-called “negative campaigning,” which not only hurts the opponent but also devalues the goal. We end up with the sense that there are few, if any, responsive, high-minded leaders. And even our sense of their positions is tainted. Being President doesn’t feel like such a dream. 

“There is perhaps no phenomenon which contains so much destructive feeling as moral indignation, which permits envy to be acted out under the guise of virtue.” --Erich Fromm
As an aside, I became “sold” on a local candidate, who spent none of her budget maligning her opponent, but simply ran on her own record. She used her desire for the office to fuel her contact with her constituency, and pave the way for future success. (She won the election.)

As with jealousy, the focus on the value of both the desired object and the self relieves the malignant pressure.


Jealousy and envy are part of human nature. It’s pointless to try not to feel them; you may as well try not to think of an elephant. At base, they’re signals to action. The primary choice is what KIND of action.
Malignant jealousy and envy are behaviors, things that people do when they can’t contain the feelings. As feelings, even malignant jealousy and envy are simply desire that is too threatened, or has gone on too long without release. Desire contaminated with fear or rage. The pain of malignant jealousy or envy is the pain of fear and rage.

All this sounds very good, but there’s another important piece. Much of what I describe goes on “under the radar.” After all, fear and rage live in our “lizard brain” (the most primitive part of the brain, where the “fight/flight” reaction originates). Most people who describe their experience of malignant envy or jealousy feel “taken over” by them.
It can happen to anyone; we all have that lizard brain. (All children have temper tantrums.) The difference between a person who is overcome and a person who can contain and use her feelings to advantage is a combination of training and awareness. A meditation practice trains the primitive brain to become more centered and contained. Psychotherapy, especially with a practitioner who doesn’t seek “quick fixes,” can be invaluable. A therapist who does not fear her own jealousy and envy can serve as a support for the client’s growing self-containment. 

Previously published in Complete Wellbeing 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Why Relationship Counseling?

There are many good reasons to seek help for a relationship, and no bad ones. If the ways you are with your partner are beginning to feel too much like Mom and Dad... If your arguments go around and around and around, and never seem to get anywhere ... If you're thinking about getting married, and want to know what you're getting into... 

The important thing to remember is that going to counseling highlights the importance of your partnership. If your relationship didn't matter a great deal to both of you, you wouldn't be doing this.

So, here are some common questions and thoughts about relationship therapy:

Is it important to seek premarital counseling?
People tend to think of counseling as something to do when something’s “wrong.” In the excitement and euphoria of talking about getting married, no one wants to think there’s anything wrong!
But let’s look at it from a different angle: When you get married, you make some pretty heavy commitments. Wouldn’t it make sense at least to look at what you might be signing up for? People who form business partnerships usually engage counsel before signing agreements. In fact, marriage used to be much more a business arrangement than a love match. Think of Golde and Tevye’s song in Fiddler on the Roof: “Do you love me?” After 25 years.
Surely marriage is as important as any business.
I hope you understand that I like the freedom we have, nowadays, and there is nothing like that first glow of love. The trick is not to be blinded by it. The kind of love that makes a good, lasting marriage is much deeper, and certainly able to withstand “problems.”
What are other essential steps that should be taken during an engagement period?
With or without a counselor, it’s important to know as much as possible about the person you’re marrying. I know it’s tempting to pretend that neither of you has ever had a relationship before, but unless you’re very, very young (10, perhaps?) or grew up in an unusually religious community, this is pretty unlikely.
So what does this mean? It means talking about the difficult things: What have your other relationships been like? How did they end? What kind of family do each of you come from? (Sorry, folks, but it is true that people whose parents stayed married are more likely to stay married, themselves. It’s in the unconscious programming.) It also means: how do you each handle finances? Is it important to have a pre-nup? And what about children? Do you both want them? If not, why not? If so, why? How do envision bringing them up?
Remember, you’re talking about a lifetime commitment. I know it may not be fun, but no real relationship is all fun. Your relationship will grow and become more satisfying, more rewarding, more beautiful, depending on how the two of you address the difficult issues together.
What is the number one issue that brings a wedge into healthy relationships?
Well, there are two big ones. Sex and money.  The only way neither of them becomes truly divisive is to accept that they’re going to be sources of conflict. You are two separate people, with necessarily different attitudes toward these vital subjects. Each of you must find a way to survive, whole.
Here, the important thing is to reframe what you’re looking at. Learn to approach your differences as opportunities to learn more about one another, maybe even opportunities to rethink old ideas. Two heads really are better than one, so long as you can make room for them.
Are there any problems that you feel are absolutely irreconcilable?
You’re asking again about “problems” rather than looking at the dynamics of relationship. It’s amazing what “problems” people can actually navigate, when they’re both willing to address them.
A relationship between two committed adults is a very resilient thing. A problem only becomes irreconcilable when one of them decides to withdraw that commitment. I’ve seen people stay together through abuse, addiction, physical disability, psychosis, dementia…  At the same time, I respect those people who say, “This is just too hard for me. I can’t live with this and be myself.”
I do believe that each of us is responsible for only one life: our own. I strongly recommend that a person pay careful attention to what is happening to his or her own experience of life, in order to decide if a relationship is truly worth fighting for.
Are there any warning signs that a couple should watch out for, that shows they may need a neutral third party to assist?
I’d like to call them “indicators,” rather than “warning signs” – just because the latter sounds so scary. I think there’s one phrase, above all the others, that’s an indicator that a couple could use outside help: “Here we go again!” As soon as a person can recognize, “I’ve been here before,” there’s an opportunity to find a more functional resolution.
Throughout our lives, we naturally repeat the parts of our lives that feel unfinished or unsatisfied. One of the beauties of long-term relationship is that within such a pairing, each has the opportunity to play out those repetitions, and hopefully work them through. But couples do get stuck repeating the same interaction, over and over and over… And that’s when they need someone else to look at what they’re doing, from a new perspective.
What does it take to make counseling effective?
A real answer to this question would be a little like the physicist’s TOE – theory of everything. Basically, though, what you need is the combination of a client or clients who are curious about what’s going on in their lives, willing and able to tolerate a certain amount of discomfort, and a counselor who is empathic and practiced. We’ve all experienced therapeutic results from talking with a good friend. Add on a counselor who is well-trained and experienced.
One reason a well-trained professional is important is that in our practice we can learn how to relate with different kinds of people – you wouldn’t want someone who, say, can really identify with one person in a relationship, but not the other! To be of use to you, I need to understand both sides of your issue – as well as have some theoretical ideas about what might be going on behind the scene.
Do you feel that even after divorce counseling can be effective?
Counseling can be effective at any time. The problem with post-divorce counseling is that you usually don’t have that necessary element: two people who are curious about one another, and willing to tolerate some discomfort. Usually the discomfort of being in the same room with each other makes it impossible to look at things dispassionately.
That being said, when children are involved, I really do recommend having a referee to help with any heated discussion. This is the sort of thing that should never go on in front of the kids, and is definitely better handled in a neutral, safe space with a calm, reasonable, neutral third party.