Polyamory and Sex Addiction
What's the difference between healthy polyamory and sex addiction?
Posted Apr 11, 2011
Thelma first sought my advice on informational resources about polyamory because a year or so into their relationship, her boyfriend had come out to her as polyamorous, and she wanted to learn more about it. "I am not polyamorous," she told me. "I have enough difficulty with one relationship at a time, and I would go completely unconscious in a number of simultaneous relationships. But I'm in love with him, and he wants polyamory, so I'm trying to be open minded about it." I suggested a few books and websites, offered to put her on my mailing list, and suggested she let me know if she wanted some coaching in navigating this unfamiliar territory. About two years later, Thelma sought help from a therapist.
Several years after that, Thelma looked me up again, asking what I thought about sex addiction. I responded that I was very disturbed by the presence of sex addiction in the polyamory community, saying that while most polyamorous people are not addicts, it was a significant problem and one that often came up for discussion in my workshops. Although I wish sex addiction was never an issue in polyamory, the truth is that polyamory does provide a convenient cover story for addicts who are generally in denial about having an addiction.
It's easy to justify sexual obsession by calling it polyamory. A handful of sex addicts can wreak havoc in a community, especially when people are still operating out of conditioning that forbids the sharing of "family secrets" out of misguided respect for confidentiality. Polyamory offers a venue in which sex addicts can begin at least to tell the truth about what they're doing instead of carrying on secret affairs. I prefer to put a positive spin on it by seeing that bringing their destructive, addictive behavior out into the open is the first step toward healing, but unfortunately it can get messy and hurtful for those who are hoping for love and instead find callousness.
I'm well aware that some people object to the whole concept of sex addiction, partly because the label is sometimes used inappropriately to condemn people who don't conform to sexually repressive social or cultural norms. However, if the polyamorous community insists on denying that sexual addiction exists, they end up reinforcing the erroneous view that all polyamory involves sex addiction by allowing sex addicts to masquerade as polyamorists.
After hearing my opinions, Thelma decided she'd like to tell me about her own experience. "I can well describe what it is like, how it feels to be the substance that a sex addict uses to engage in his addiction," she told me. For Thelma, the idea that she was attempting a polyamorous relationship that would involve a potentially painful confrontation with her own jealousy but would be well worth it in the end allowed her to be drawn into an abusive relationship. A man with more empathy and integrity would have either told her about his sexual activity with other women before she became so deeply involved or failing that, curtailed his sexual adventures until he had disengaged with her once it became apparent she was suffering so intensely. Here is her story in her own words.
"The relationship began with more hope than I had ever dared. Looking back, I can see now how frightened I really was. In hindsight, I can see scores of warning signs that I ignored, misinterpreted, reimagined to fit my high hopes that covered my desperation for enduring love. The external events and my reactions changed over the six years with this man. At first I reacted quickly; I was indignant, angry, fully expecting him to change his behavior. Surely I could show him these errors, and he would correct them. Right?
"I later changed to defensive behaviors. I lost myself utterly trying to maintain a relationship that was much more in my head than in my life. Every day was so full of hurt and despair and calculated prevention that there was precious little of myself left in everyday life. Finally, I devolved to a conviction that this misery, this unremitting effort with horrific results, was going to be my entire life.
"For years, his compulsive flirtations, the online pornography, the obsessive masturbation in the shower, the dates with other women when he was out of town, the secretive seductions and ongoing attempts to have other lovers, sometimes successful, the "friendships" with coworkers and business associates kept me off balance. I worked with every ounce of ability I possessed (or could borrow from others) to contain this behavior. I was so desperate for help maintaining my relationship, I compromised my friendships, my values, my integrity and ultimately any shreds of respect for myself.
Thelma's story is a story about a woman who knows very clearly that she wants monogamy but is so desperate for love that she tries to tolerate an inconsiderate, nonmonogamous partner, hoping she can somehow change him. Chances are she would not have gotten involved had she known he was unwilling to be monogamous, but by the time she found out, she was hooked.
Some individuals struggling with sex addiction behave more responsibly but still find healthy polyamorous relationships impossible. Alex is a handsome, charismatic man in his late forties who is a professional entertainer. His outgoing personality, sexy voice, and boyish charm make him a magnet for women. When he first heard about polyamory ten years ago, he was newly single and fascinated. But after almost losing his new partner, Dawn, he decided he'd better take another look at his motivations for choosing polyamory. Dawn, like Thelma, tried valiantly to accept Alex's desire for polyamory, but she heeded the red flags and the coaching I gave her to insist that Alex get his addictive behavior under control before agreeing to continue having an open relationship.
Alex recalls that "I immediately resonated with the concept of open, free sexual relationships that could foster deeper communication and intimacy. I felt so at home in the poly community, and for the first time, I didn't feel shame about desiring to love more than one. What I didn't realize at the time was that I had a huge need for the romantic intrigue associated with new relationships. It wasn't so much the sex, although that part was great, but the high of being newly in love that just took me over. I was able to hide behind polyamory when what I was mostly looking for was escape from feeling I wasn't enough. Once I started paying closer attention to what was going on inside me, I found out that as soon as I'd start feeling bad about myself, I'd drown my low self-esteem in a new infatuation.
"For me, the idea of polyamory makes sense and feels right since I'd rather face my jealousy than force my partner to be monogamous. Plus, I like the idea of sharing my love and sexuality with more than one lover. I have a lot to give, and giving it just feels good. Dawn feels the same way about sharing love but not about facing her jealousy. For her, sharing love is a choice, but for me there seems to more of an uncontrollable drive for the excitement and emotional and sexual juice. I realized that for me it was not a simple choice only after destroying over a dozen beautiful love relationships, a business partnership, and a teen ministry largely because of my ‘need' for poly freedom.
"When Dawn and I got together in 2000, we began to explore healthier, more conscious ways for me to get my poly desires met and not be addictive, inconsiderate, and compulsive. After over six years of emotional roller coasting, we both finally realized that I was not able to do poly in a healthy way since my addictive behaviors and emotional wounds always seemed to prevail. At that point, after an ultimatum from Dawn, I chose sobriety from poly life. Since then, the dramas have all but ceased along with all the shame that was associated with feeling out of control and hurting others. In addition, my relationship with Dawn has deepened and recently gotten even more sexual and passionate. I do crave new sexual experiences from time to time, and all I have to do is think of the pain, chaos, and drama, and I'm back to happy sobriety."
For Alex, polyamory did provide a context in which he was able to see that it was not so much the jealousy and possessiveness of his partner who was willing to selectively and responsibly include others into their intimacy, nor was it the judgments of society, which were essentially reversed in the polyamory community, that stood between him and his sexual freedom. Rather, he became aware for the first time that nonmonogamy was workable only if he could heal the childhood wounds that led him to compulsively lose control when he indulged in his "drug." When he wasn't "high" on "new relationship energy," Alex was an empathic and attentive partner. "It wasn't like I could just be satisfied with two or three women and settle down. There was never enough, and I was always tempted by the next one."
Alex's high-level communication skills, team spirit, and playful creativity made him a natural for polyamory, but his addictive behavior sabotaged him every time. Alex, like Thelma, finally joined Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA). Similarly to its sister Twelve Step groups, Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, SLAA preaches abstinence (which in this case means monogamy rather than celibacy).
At one point, when Alex was having difficulty staying on the wagon, I suggested that it might be easier if he stayed out of "bars," but he and Dawn so enjoyed the relaxed openness of poly friendly venues and the deep friendships they'd established that they continued to gravitate toward this community and eventually succeeded in establishing better boundaries.
While I've seen too much evidence that sexual addiction is as real as any other addiction to deny its existence, I've also observed that those who are the quickest to point the finger at others often have a tendency toward sex addiction themselves. I usually tell people that if they must have an addiction, sex, along with meditation, hatha yoga, and jogging, are relatively healthy ones in which to indulge. Sex itself is good for you, and great sex is very good for you, but the more euphoric and ecstatic the experience, the more temptation there can be to sell one's soul to the devil.
For Tanya, the allure of mind-blowing sex capable of transporting her to other realms kept her involved in a polyamorous relationship in which she resented being "a secondary" with none of the privileges, power, or status of a "primary partner." Tanya is a mature, introspective woman in her early sixties. Her lover, Jerry, was in an open marriage when they met, and Tanya accepted this but objected to his spending every weekend with his wife, Sheila, because she "requires a sex partner every weekend, all weekend."
Tanya was in a quandary because "Jerry has a loving affectionate heart, is highly sexed, and is totally present for me when I'm with him. What happens between us in the bedroom is profound. He calls me often, tells me he loves me, brings me gifts, and is generally very accepting and easy to talk to, although certain subjects make him bristle. This is hands down the best relationship I've ever had. I'm really happy to have him in my life, but I guess I'm getting jealous."
Some months later, Tanya was devastated when Jerry began neglecting her for a new woman. "Is it really a reflection on my self-worth, value, and dignity if he jumps into bed with so many other women while professing so much love for me?" she wondered. "I can open my heart to loads of men, quite deeply, and yes, that often makes me drawn to them sexually, but I don't have to sleep with them all. Maybe I shouldn't be so fast to cast the first stone here; if the right person came along, I might want to do the same thing, but this is hurting me. He just left me in the dust when a new woman came along. He gave her more time than he ever gave me; he was thoughtless, almost cruel. And when she dumped him, he came back to me. I took a breather and then opened the door again. He has never apologized
Excerpted from Polyamory in the 21st Century, by Deborah Anapol, published by Rowman & Littlefield, July 2010, appears by permission of the publisher. This material is protected by copyright. All rights reserved. Please contact the publisher for permission to copy, distribute or reprint.