Okay, I couldn’t pass up the headline from the last couple of days about Representative Anthony Weiner. What is interesting to me about this story is that Rep. Weiner stated that his wife knew about his online behavior before they were married but was under the assumption that he stopped once they got married. However, the whole world knows now that he did NOT stop the behavior.
As a counselor I hear about this a lot. Students or former clients of mine have admitted that they went on porn sites or sent and received naked pictures of themselves to people when they were single. They also admit to thinking they would be able to stop the behavior once they were in a committed relationship, but find they can’t stop. Some come into counseling because they are worried their partner will find out. Some people come into counseling because their partner did find out, and in an attempt to save their relationship they agree to see me.
A lot of people I see are surprised that they weren’t able to control their urges to go into sex chat rooms, look at porn, or send naked pictures of themselves. They almost always admit that they love their current partner and don’t want the relationship to end. They almost all admit as well that they wouldn’t be happy if they found out their partner was going into chat rooms, sending naked pictures or going on porn sites behind their back. They realize they can stop for a while but at some point the urge comes back to continue the old behavior. I explain to them that this usually happens because of a couple different reasons.
One, it is a stress reliever. Flirting online with someone creates a fantasy world. It is an escape that helps a lot of people deal with stress. When you are single it isn’t hurting anyone else and it is a good way to unwind without using alcohol or drugs. It also helps single people feel less lonely. This is why it is hard for people to understand why someone would continue this once they are in a good relationship. They shouldn’t feel as lonely or sexually frustrated, and most of the time they don’t, but the escape is still a stress reliever. Talking to your partner can be helpful, but sometimes a relationship adds stress. Sometimes people avoid talking to their partner about their stress and pretend everything is fine. When this happens it is then easy to turn to sex on the internet as a form of relaxation like you did in the past.
Second, it is an adrenaline rush. Taking a risk and sending a naked picture to someone can get the blood pumping. It can be a turn-on to send a naked picture to your boyfriend or girlfriend, but you lose some of the risk and excitement involved. In yesterday’s post I talked about it being very tempting to be able to get away with something. I think it is even more of an adrenaline rush to send naked pictures, sneak into chat rooms or porn sites while hiding it from your partner. This can become very addicting in the sense of the rush you feel when you get away with something you shouldn’t. Something that was exciting when you were single is even more exciting now that you are in a relationship. Some people avoid taking risks, but others can easily become addicted to it.
So, what do I tell the people who come in to see me that are going through what Representative Weiner is going through? I reinforce to them that at first it is going to be easy to resist. If you watched Rep. Weiner on television you know that he is horribly embarrassed at this moment and feeling deeply regretful. Those feelings will carry people going through the same thing a few months and they won’t be tempted at all to send any naked pictures. At some point though, the feelings of embarrassment and regret will fade. Most people in this position will be tempted again when their partner’s guard is down and their stress is back up. It could be months or a year down the road, but at some point they will be tempted again. Having awareness about the patterns of behavior is a huge step to avoid future temptations.
When temptation does arises, I encourage people in this position to have other ways to reduce stress. If you are a natural risk taker, find ways to take risks that don’t put your relationship in jeopardy. You have to replace the behavior with something else or your brain will betray you to get what it needs. I also recommend finding ways to connect to your partner and being able to communicate to them when you are feeling stressed. If you have been tempted to hide problems from your partner in the past, I recommend being more open in the relationship. Both partners need to be aware that this problem won’t just disappear. It will get easier in time, but there may be times when it is hard to resist. If your partner is willing to forgive you and stay in the relationship it is very helpful if they understand that it is easier to resist temptation if you can talk through those rough moments with them. Working through it together can help you get through them without falling back into old habits. Some people have had their partner keep them accountable by checking the history on their computer or opening up their phone and phone bill to them if needed. Admitting that you can’t always control your urges is so helpful. When you think you can handle everything on your own is when most people get into trouble.
As a disclaimer, I am not stating the Representative Anthony Weiner has a sex addiction. I am not diagnosing him. I also haven’t diagnosed many of my former clients with a sex addiction just because they struggled with sex online. Just like some people don’t have an eating disorder, but they definitely have issues with eating, I believe it is the same way with sex. You can have sexual behaviors that definitely harm your health or relationship, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have an addiction. I only want to make a point that a lot of people who start something when it seemed harmless as a single person have a hard time stopping later when they thought it would be easy. I think awareness is the key so I’m using Representative Weiner’s story as an example of why this behavior happens even if a person is in a great relationship.