In today’s world, the mainstream understanding of healthy sexuality or healthy sexual relationships often points to the sexual act itself as the beginning and the end of what a good intimate relationship is.
In the media, there are all kinds of ideas for people to searching for more intimacy. It is not uncommon for some “experts” in the field to even advise the use various “sexual aids” including pornography to “stimulate” things in the bedroom. Yes, visual stimulation is important for many people, but it is only one part of healthy sexual and love relationships.
Anything that can make us feel really good or that gives us an intense feeling or “high” can become in a sense addictive or compulsive. This means that in a rather short period of time, we will need more or a more exaggerated dose to have the same feeling. One of the most common signs of compulsive behaviours and addictions is the fact that people find themselves in a vicious cycle where they need more and more of whatever the substance or behaviour might be, not only in the pursuit of that desired effect or feeling but simply to feel normal. When sex is isolated from the relationship and emotional connection, people often find themselves in a very similar vicious cycle where the more they try to find satisfaction the more compulsive (out of control and risky) the behaviour.
Couples often find themselves in a very painful yet hidden or secret battle in the pursuit of having a more satisfying sexual relationship, or often wonder what happened to that intense love of the early years and complain that they just don’t feel “that connected” to their spouse anymore. When the SOLE focus then turns on making the ACT of sex more “creative” things can often get even worse. It is true that some couples need to explore and learn more about the act of sex, their own bodies and how to pleasure each other. This will potentially help them find more physical satisfaction. But over time, if the focus remains only on physical satisfaction, couples can quickly reach an apex or peak, a place where things are slowly starting to get “boring” or “not like it used to be” and frustration starts to set in.
When humans get frustrated with life, they use coping mechanisms to deal with frustrations or pain. Fantasy is one of the most common and natural ways for us to deal with disappointment. People dream of a bigger house, a better job and a nicer car. They talk about the “good old days” and wish things were different in the midst of a difficult time. When it comes to unsatisfying sexual relationships, fantasies about attractive people at work or elsewhere, pornography or visiting strip clubs and even reading romantic/erotic novels can provide a way to escape the current reality of a struggling relationship. Unsatisfying love relationships often take on a more deceptive path where people step into the trap of starting to share personal and emotionally loaded aspects of themselves with “just a friend” which also turns out to be an escape from a painful situation that is now (temporarily) replaced by feeling so cared for and understood.
So emotional and/or sexual affairs are most of the time an escape from current reality. People in affairs create in their mind’s perception of how they want their “new lover” to be, and act in ways they want this lover to perceive them. Whether in a relationship or single, people who chase the romantic “high” by pursuing sexual but mostly short term romantic encounters with several people over time is often referred to as love addiction. This phenomenon is similar to the honeymoon phase in relationships, but obviously does not ever move to the commitment phase and comes with painful consequences in most cases.
In addition to love addiction, the common problem with sexual compulsivity is that the person tends to OBJECTIFY the real or perceived partner where the focus is not on a person and love, but obsessions around what looks and feels good or perfect. It is like a “wild goose chase” in trying to satisfy a primal urge disconnected from the partner or self. The satisfaction of this erotic “high” is short-lived, and soon people feel compelled to increase the intensity. For example, looking at strange or more high-risk pornography or the frequency of looking at porn or visiting strip clubs increase rapidly to get the same effect. Secret romantic relationships follow the same pattern and the risk of getting caught often only increases the compulsivity around the romantic and physical aspect of this new powerful relationship. In fact, fear can actually increase sexual arousal or the need to bond – it is part of our survival instincts. And so the vicious cycle begins. After every romantic and/or sexual encounter, or after another attempt to satisfy a deep longing via the use of pornography, more and more despair sets in which only leads to more and more out of control behaviour. Acting out becomes the only way to cope with the ever-increasing shame and disconnection from reality. No relationship can reach true intimacy when caught up in this vicious cycle.
Healthy sexuality satisfies the individual and the relationship at a deeper level and healthy love relationships satisfy well beyond just the romance. Couples experience a truly satisfying connection and peace that will also protect them from compulsions that can only promise, but never deliver. It starts with true intimacy, where both partners can be “naked” (physically and emotionally) yet unashamed of who they are. Where no secrets are kept and partners do not have to pretend to be someone they are not. Where needs can be expressed and discussed without the fear of rejection. Here is a chart that compares addictive or unhealthy sexuality with a healthy sexuality and must be applied to not just the sexual but also to the relationship itself. In the end, each person must take responsibility to identify what a healthy intimate relationship means to him or her.
|Unhealthy Sexuality||Healthy Sexuality|
|Feels shameful||Adds to self-esteem|
|Is illicit, stolen, or exploitive||Has no victims|
|Compromises values||Deepens meaning|
|Draws on fear for excitement||Uses vulnerability for excitement|
|Re-enacts childhood abuses||Cultivates a sense of being adult|
|Disconnects one from oneself||Furthers sense of self|
|Creates a world of unreality||Expands reality|
|Is self-destructive and dangerous||Relies on safety|
|Uses conquest or power||Is mutual and intimate|
|Is seductive||Takes responsibility for needs|
|Serves to medicate and kill the pain||May bring legitimate suffering|
|Is dishonest||Originates in integrity|
|Requires double life||Integrates most authentic parts of self|
|Demands and obsesses about perfection||Accepts the imperfect|
Source: Carnes, Patrick. Don’t’ Call it Love. New York: Bantam Books, 1991