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The Cycle of Addiction

Those struggling with sexual compulsivity have history of unmet needs.

Sexual acting out in an addictive way typically starts with a need for control. When a person has a set of strong feelings he or she usually has a need for something, and those struggling with sexual compulsivity typically have a long history of unmet needs and suffering.

For example, anger produces the need for validation and the need to be understood and heard; sadness can produce the need for soothing or to be held; joy the need for validation and connection. These feelings create dependency needs that are generally needs in relation to other people.

This inability to get needs met often begins in childhood. When a smart child doesn't get his or her needs met, the child learns, "I can handle things myself." The next time he or she has a need, the child figures things out alone, begins to learn not to have needs or learns not to respond to them. This is the perfect environment for the making of an addict.

A behavioral addiction then can be the result of a neurobiological predisposition meeting an inadequate holding environment. A child grows up in a family that doesn't attend to the child's needs. At some point in the sex addict's life, sexual behaviors became a way to feel better. These sexual behaviors become addicts' coping mechanisms because the experience of getting needs met in a consistent, intimate way from the adults around them was missing.

We've established that when sex addicts have feelings they go unmet, they seek control. They try to handle the feelings by making them go away. Sex addicts turn to fantasy and preoccupation, and this "trance-like" state is the beginning of the addictive cycle. The person becomes a hostage of her own thoughts as she tries to escape from pain, negative self-valuation and fear of others' judgments.

Patrick Carnes Ph.D. talks about the "hijacked brain." It's a little like being late for an appointment. All you can focus on is getting where you need to go; there's no other reality. When the sex addict is in this state, others become objects to be judged, sexualized, pursued, hunted, sought, and checked up on. Misperceptions occur: mistaking intensity for intimacy, obsession for caring, and control for security.

The next phase of the cycle is the ritualization phase. This consists of special routines that are created to intensify the preoccupation, which adds arousal, excitement and a sense of control. The rituals include but are not limited to: cruising, choice of clothing and/or music, cleaning the house in order to create the right "vibe" to act out in, etc. The rituals can be a further distraction from feelings of unloveability and worthlessness.

The actual acting-out phase is the shortest in the cycle. The behaviors include but are not limited to: affairs, compulsive masturbation, pornography addiction, cybersex, secrecy, exhibitionism, voyeurism, indecent calls or touch, strip clubs, and anonymous sex.

Finally, sex addicts often report that despair begins shortly after the sexual act has occurred. Despair is utter hopelessness, sadness, desperation and fear over one's powerlessness. It can come in the form of guilt: "I have done something bad," and/or shame: "I am a bad person."

The cycle becomes vicious when the sense of failing oneself and others, and not keeping promises, begins to erode and further damage the person's integrity and self-esteem. This is when hopelessness and helplessness move in, which can be escaped by going back to the preoccupation state, thus repeating the cycle. The reprieve from this despair, which in the worst case can lead to suicidal thoughts, is enough to keep addicts acting compulsively.

And typically, only when someone hits a personal "bottom" does he seek sex addiction treatment.

More from Alexandra Katehakis Ph.D., MFT
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