Addictions are ways to avoid experiencing deep unresolved feelings and issues associated with not experiencing consistent unconditional love and nurturing during the co-dependent and counter-dependent stages of development; and unskilled attempts to meet these bonding and separation needs as adults. Addictions are also an indicator of unhealed developmental trauma.
Addictions & Trauma During the Bonding Stage of Development
Sex- and love-related addictions, including pornography addiction, have become a big social and relational issue. We believe this is because most of the adult population in the American culture experienced severe early-developmental trauma during the bonding stage of development. This early trauma leaves people with a deep need for connection, touch, nurturing and emotional intimacy that is visible in addictive behaviors that help them relax.
When people lack the necessary relational experiences needed for creating nonsexual intimacy and bonding, they use sexual behaviors as substitutes for meet those nurturing and bonding needs. What they actually want or need is the nonsexual touch, nurturing and emotional intimacy. This is difficult, because most men and women in our culture cannot separate sexual touch from nurturing touch.
Women who have borne children may have learned how to discriminate between sexuality and nurturing during the intimate bonding experiences of breastfeeding, holding, touching, and caring for young children. Most men, however, don’t spend as much time in this kind of close contact and are less likely to develop this important discrimination.
One of our clients was a classic example of this. He grew up in a family in which there was no nurturing touch. He described his mother as cold and unavailable. When he married, his wife too was cold and unavailable. After the birth of their first child, he felt his wife was even less available to him. His need for nurturing touch became more desperate. Because he could not sort out nurturing touch and sexual touch, he ended up sexually molesting his daughter when she was six. After a couple of weeks, he realized the inappropriateness of his behavior and stopped it. Then he was overcome with tremendous feelings of guilt and shame, which he began covering with addictions to alcohol, sex, and work. He finally entered therapy, thinking he was a despicable sex addict and child molester. Through therapy, he discovered that he had a touch deprivation because of severe bonding deficits in childhood, and that he did not know how to meet his needs in nonsexual ways. Over time, he learned to discriminate between sexual touch and nurturing touch and began rebuilding his life.
Men and women who have not learned the difference between sexual touch and nurturing touch often seek physical closeness and touch in the only way they know, through sex. Our developmental perspective looks at what is right about the phenomenon of sex and love addiction instead of labeling it as a disease. It may involve looking for love in all the wrong places, and it usually does not satisfy the need for nurturing and bonding, but it seems to the only option for many people. Sadly, many people in Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLA) groups are cautioned against entering a relationship, and told that doing so is like an alcoholic taking another drink. Meetings are often filled with confessions from people who had the urge to get into a relationship, but who called a group member instead or attended an extra group meeting.
Those who experienced developmental trauma during the separation stage of development often have an aversion to touch, nurturing and emotional intimacy. Perhaps they were shamed, controlled or abused physically and/or emotionally. These experiences leave relational scars that make intimacy difficult and lead to counter-dependent behaviors.
Addictions & Trauma During the Separation Stage
Addictive behaviors to “upper” substances such as cocaine and activities such as shopping, exercising, traveling and working help people with counter-dependency issues avoid situations that trigger relational trauma from the separation stage. Rather than clinging and seeking out relational intimacy, people with these addictions prefer shallow relationships and situations in which they are able to “look good.”
Breaking Free of Addictions
The most direct way people can address such problems is by healing their developmental trauma. For those with co-dependent behaviors, this involves meeting their unmet bonding needs in their current relationships. For those with counter-dependency issues, this involves clearing the anger and resentment from developmental trauma that interfere with their ability to experience emotional intimacy. We support people in using all their relationships (work, social, romantic, friend, family, spousal) as sources for meeting these important developmental needs in healthy ways. In this perspective, relationships become an important supportive environment for changing counter-dependent and co-dependent behaviors, rather than the cause of the problem.