The Cruelest Irony: Dating a Sex Addict

Let me tell you a story…

Once upon a time, there was a man who tried to get a woman’s attention. He sent her a poem, which she decided to ignore (because it was weird) and he was six years younger than her. Six months later he tried again and this time, she responded. Grudgingly, she decided to give him a chance and they made a plan to meet for dinner. However, she was pleasantly surprised by his intelligence and depth. It was fun, intense and she felt the undeniable stirring of a strong attraction. Still, she knew he was probably all wrong for her. He was younger than she wanted and had a lot of issues from his past still looming over him. Even though she set a second date, she mentally put a quick expiration on the experience. When the second date came, the attraction was stronger. Intrigued, she found herself saying yes to another date as he kissed her repeatedly in the parking lot. By the third date, she was completely lost and found herself simply saying “yes”; it left her breathless, rapt and thinking maybe she’d been too quick to judge. For the next couple of weeks she felt drugged, incandescent, alight with the sort of giddy joy that deep infatuation can bring. He made her feel things she didn’t think she’d ever really felt; she couldn’t stop herself from smiling and coworkers and friends commented on her “glow”. Each time with him felt more intense than the last, until her heart trembled and she wondered if maybe…maybe…there could be love between them. She was still afraid, because of his issues, even as her heart wanted her to simply let go. She was afraid to hope; she didn’t want to be hurt again. Still, hope bloomed and the caution she had attempted to place around her feelings for him weakened.

Then, one day during a date he said: “We need to talk.” Hearing those words made everything in her go sick, in remembrance of the last time someone had uttered them. Indeed, aren’t those four words the most terrifying ever said by a lover? Yet, his words were different. They were: “I’m a sex addict and I need you to know and understand what that means.”

Well…as I would learn, it meant my new dating partner had, time and again, pursued meaningless sexual encounters as a way to avoid emotional intimacy. He didn’t want to elaborate, but the implication was he had expended a lot of effort, sometimes even putting hours into driving to an encounter that was a long distance away. He had placed himself in risky situations. He spent an extraordinary portion of his time in sexual fantasies and trying to find ways to act them out. Out-of-control and trapped in a cycle of shame and guilt he wanted to end, he’d entered therapy for this addiction. The launching point of serious therapy was 90 days of total celibacy. He apologized for beginning our dating relationship, but wanted to one day be capable of true intimacy. He said several times he saw real potential between us and he wanted to continue from a place of honesty and integrity, but he had to fully embrace treatment.

Irony is something that is not always understood. However, having the man I’ve been the most attracted to in my entire life and with whom sex felt natural and right and healthy stand before me and tell me he’s a sex addict who can’t have sex with me…well…it’s the sort of cruel irony that makes you chuckle even while you would like to immediately sedate yourself.

I was reeling. What do I say to this? With no time to process, I agree to try to continue our relationship while adhering to the 90 day celibacy period. Yet…I was unsettled. Perhaps it was the talk of the boundaries we needed to establish so as to remain chaste, which thrust me back into the memory of my fundamentalist Christian dating years; memories which I never really wanted to repeat. After all, this wouldn’t be a choice to abstain from intimacy because we wanted to wait and explore other areas of our relationship. This would be abstinence prompted by a pattern of shame and guilt surrounding sex and a quest for him to get healthy. Maybe it was also having him pull away after kissing me because it was “too tempting”. Or maybe it was the foreshadowing of the fears and questions that would come later, after my brain caught up to the conversation. Yet even that date was suffused with an unfettered joy that made me willing to try. It was one of the most beautiful and free days I’ve experienced with a partner, perhaps ever. As he held my hand in the sunlight, I wanted to believe that we could make this work.

Yet…the more I read about sex addiction over the next few days, the more concerned I became. Would he be capable of intimacy with me? What were his actual chances of going cold turkey (because even masturbation is against the rules)? Now that he’d told me about the addiction, didn’t it make sense that if he gave in it would be with someone who didn’t know and with whom he’d experience less immediate guilt? Would he cheat on me? Was he going to be trapped in a cycle of shame and guilt about sex forever? Plus, the methods used to treat sex addiction vary–some say celibacy is the wrong approach and some say it’s the only approach to beginning a healthy reintroduction of sex. I discuss my questions with him and send him some information, to which I receive back an email stating that he was committed to the celibacy and would combat his sexual deviance with prayer. Which perhaps left me more terrified than the thought of the sexual deviance as I envision us kneeling together in prayer to try and combat a facet of life which should be a healthy part of a romantic relationship. Because where did I stand in all this? If he became tempted by me and gave in, was I then an enabler, standing in the way of his recovery? If he erred, did he have to start the 90 days over? IF (and this is a big if) he was able to overcome his pattern of running from emotional intimacy and have a relationship with me, what possible ramifications did this have for future stressors and how he would act out when he experienced them? My reading intoned very grimly that sexual addiction is never really cured and has a low rate of success for recovery.

For the past week I’ve had a constant anxiety attack. My intuition was knocking, despite my best attempts to keep hope. I text him to confirm details for our weekend plans and get no reply for a couple of hours. Finally, I get a brief text that indicates our date is still on. When I ask if we can talk by phone, he calls me and again, I sense something is off. When prompted, he lets me know that the last few days he’s had to reach out to his sponsors several times because he’s struggling so much. My mind races to try to understand the possibilities–was he struggling to avoid sleeping with other women, watching porn, masturbating? He sounds like he’s having a hard time not crawling out of his skin and it’s only been two weeks.

I finally ask, bluntly: “Do you want to see me this weekend?”

After a few minutes he admits he’s not sure he can handle it during this withdrawal. I feel sick inside, but I can’t ignore the glaringly obvious: If week two is hard and he can’t even handle a date with me for fear of losing his sexual sobriety, how will the next three months be? I have to move us forward, even though part of me would prefer to keep pretending. I know if I just keep my mouth shut, we can keep trying to hold on. I can’t bury my head in the sand.

“Do you want to be dating me at all?” I ask him quietly.

After a long pause, he tells me that he doesn’t think he can deal with it right now. He doesn’t feel he can be a good partner and fully embrace therapy while trying to date me; I’ll test his sexual sobriety too much and he needs to get healthy. He sees potential with me and says that once he gets his head out of his ass, he’d like to try again, but right now the timing won’t work. He apologizes.

We talk for a few more minutes, then after we end the conversation, I sit and cry for a long time.

I know, absolutely, this is the best thing in many ways. He is far from healthy and he’s working on breaking a long entrenched pattern of using sex to run away from himself and emotional intimacy with others. Read the information about sex addicts or the stories from their partners and it is, no pun intended, sobering. Do I want to open myself up to the risk of future betrayal, a partner who can’t truly connect with me and the physical risks of disease? Do I really want to put myself in a situation with someone who can’t handle things after two months? He’s clearly not capable, right now, of being a healthy partner…which is what he’s admitting to. Despite the brilliance and intensity of our relationship, this is hardly the first sign of his trauma and that he’s got a lot of work to do.

So, logically, I think it is for the best. Emotionally, I’m aching from the blow, even though I was bracing for it. I want to stomp my feet and scream that it’s not fair. I want to tell him that his fear of emotional intimacy is what has created the problem, yet he’s running away from the chance to stay and work on the issue; yet do I really want to be his therapy experiment? I recognize part of me wants to be the woman to help him become whole. I want to heal that broken little boy who was abandoned too many times. Shouldn’t that be my first sign that I need to walk away? If I hadn’t pushed the issue, we’d still be dating. Yet, I don’t want to be stuck in an unhealthy place with a partner who can’t really be there for me, because he’s trying to heal his own serious damage.

Still, a lot of the color feels bleached out of my life and immediate future. All the things we’d talked about doing this fall won’t be happening and once again, I’m faced with being alone; the loss of that intense joy feels really hard and I’m very sad, for him and for myself. He said I’m the first woman in years he’s felt the desire to attempt a meaningful relationship with and now, whether out of poor timing or fear, that possibility is gone. Will I be okay? Yes. I’ll give myself a couple of weeks, then face dating again. He said he wants to call me when he’s better; I can’t even face that right now. He has too powerful of an effect on me. My heart is afraid and hopeful at the thought and my head just tells me to let it lie and be glad this ended when it did. I’ll have to make future choices based on future information; there’s no way to plan or respond right now.

I think it’s going to be a bit of time before I get this beautiful, deep, tortured man out of my mind. I definitely don’t regret dating him, despite the goodbye. It’s even occurred to me that the way I felt when with him and the deep ache I’m experiencing at the thought of losing that feeling…well, it’s much like a drug I don’t want to give up. I know to stay on the drug would be to risk losing myself and no matter how good it makes me feel in the moment, the long-term effects could be destructive. This entire week I’ve been so afraid of the knowledge that I didn’t want to give him up, despite this huge red flag draped around his shoulders. Maybe by forcing the conversation yesterday, I was reaching out for sobriety from the intoxication of this man. The irony of that leaves me in a state of rueful resignation and frustrated sadness. I can only try to let go, move on and hope that love and light surround him as he continues his quest to heal wounds from his childhood that were not of his making. I read the following quote the other day: “You do anything long enough to escape the habit of living until the escape becomes the habit.” My deep wish is that even if our paths never cross again, that he’s able to learn to live without escape and able to one day recognize how truly beautiful a person he is.

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