Understanding the Relationship Between Sex Addiction and Depression

Drew Dorr was a cheater. A serial one, in fact. The first time he was discovered, his fiancé, Jessica, smashed a potted plant on their driveway and drove off after finding “the illicit phone records and receipts and a hard-drive history chockfull of indiscretions.” The next time, the confrontation ended with her hanging up the phone and Dorr making an unsuccessful suicide attempt. But it wasn’t until later, after spending a day at the beach with Jessica that the realized he had a real problem. Back at home, he opened up three screens on his computer, one to tell Jessica he loved her, one to look at porn, and another to confirm a date with a woman on Match.com. Only then did he first begin to suspect his own sex addiction.

“My compulsions had fallen below the radar,” Dorr writes in an article for Men’s Health. “In my eyes and in the eyes of those from whom I’d kept this hidden, things appeared to be going swimmingly. And for many years I worked hard to justify my behavior; I was simply ‘being a man.’” But despite outer appearances, in reality his addiction to sex was devastating him emotionally, physically, and professionally. “I was spending hours a day on porn sites, forgoing exercise, work, and relationships.” Even as he spent hours on dating sites, meeting up with strangers for sex, and having phone sex with women he’d never met in the weeks leading up to his wedding, he still believed he was in control. “In reality, my world had begun to crease and fray. Hollow-eyed, I was losing sleep … and ground.” Eventually, he could no longer hide it, either from himself or his fiancé, and while the relationship didn’t survive, Dorr did.

After working with a therapist who specializes in sex addiction, he now believes that his behavior was driven by a self-destructive desire to cope with unbearable emotions, much in the same way that other addictions tend to be. “Regardless of the poison we choose, all junkies are looking for the same fix: to fill a void, often left by long-standing insecurities, fears, and an inability to create and sustain healthy, meaningful relationships,”  he writes. For many, those insecurities, fears, and interpersonal distress arise from depression.

The Connection Between Sex Addiction and Depression

Sex can be a way of connecting with a partner and experiencing pleasure on both physical and emotional levels. Neurobiologically speaking, sex creates a high that is similar to many illicit drugs, giving people suffering from emotional distress a temporary relief from their struggle, while simultaneously deepening human bonds. This makes sex uniquely appealing to many people struggling with depression, and a healthy sex life can indeed be a kind of self-care. Depressed people who are addicted to sex, however, are driven by a compulsion to have sex that precludes healthy sexual functioning; rather than being a normal and positive part of life, sex is “the addict’s only source of safety, pleasure, soothing, and acceptance.” Sex becomes a place to hide, an escape route, and a form of self-medication for the overwhelming feelings of despair, alienation, loneliness, or numbness that accompany the illness. If depression has led to social isolation, sex offers a temporary way out, a connection with someone outside of yourself, however superficial. A 2004 study by researchers at the Kinsey Institute supports the idea that depression predicts sexual acting out by sex addicts, finding that an “increased sexual interest in states of depression or anxiety” was “strongly characteristic” of people with sex addiction.

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Fuelling the Cycle of Sex Addiction and Depression

However, sex addicts aren’t just looking for love in all the wrong places, they are preventing the establishment of satisfying and honest interpersonal relationships by engaging in behavior that is antithetical to the development of authentic, loving bonds. In fact, this is often the whole point; rather than using sex as a way to forge real connections, the sex addict consciously or unconsciously dodges engagement in real relationships by either avoiding them altogether or creating a separate sexual life that runs parallel to their ostensibly committed relationship. As Brigette Lank, founder of the Lank Institute for Sexual Addiction and Recovery, says, “This is an intimacy disorder as well as an addiction.” By operating outside of the bounds of healthy relationships, you are able to avoid the vulnerability such relationships entail and can, in some cases, lead people with sex addiction to feel in control. Ultimately, however, you also deny yourself the ability to benefit from the true connections that nourish our spirits and can offer real protection against emotional distress.

Sex addiction can also further fuel depression in more direct ways. Dorr writes, “There’s […] a sense of great shame because often their behaviors go against their personal beliefs and values. This can lead to severe depression.” Marnie Ferree, a recovering sex addict, knows this all too well. “I was wracked with shame and tried time and time again to stop,” she says:

At the time there is an incredible adrenaline rush. But immediately after that experience is over, I mean driving back home, there is this incredible let down and you’re just in a wash of shame. It’s about feeling rotten. I want to feel better. What way am I going through a ritual to feel better? I’m connecting with someone, I’m going to act out sexually. I feel horrible after that and the whole cycle starts over again.

For Ferree, who is married and a mother, the pain was all-consuming. “I had really strong suicidal thoughts.” Eventually she reached out to a friend and started going to therapy; with the right treatment, she has been able to find recovery and now runs workshops for women who are struggling with sex addiction. She was also able to preserve her marriage.

The Value of Concurrent Treatment

When depression and sex addiction co-exist, it is imperative that both be treated simultaneously to address the full scope of your needs and understand the complex and overlapping relationship between the two. For many sex addicts, this includes learning how to differentiate between healthy and self-destructive behaviors. “The real problem for most sex addicts, they would say to you, I wouldn’t know healthy sexuality if it hit me over the head,” says Dr. Patrick Carnes, “So how do I know when I am in my craziness and when what I’m doing is a normal healthy reaction to have. And that’s part of what recovery teaches.”

Comprehensive dual diagnosis treatment at Bridges to Recovery gives you a full array of therapeutic experiences that seek to resolve both your depression and your sex addiction via a tailored curriculum of therapies designed specifically for your situation. Through individual psychotherapy, therapy groups, and holistic therapies, you can explore and resolve the roots of your emotional distress while gaining the skills to create real, meaningful relationships and the ability to experience true intimacy. Here, you can come to understand what healthy bonds look like and how to forge them while also enhancing your ability to cope with distress without resorting to self-destruction. Within our warm, welcoming residential environment, you can begin to discover your authentic self, find relief from the pain of depression and addiction, and learn how to live without fear.

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive residential treatment for people suffering from depression and co-occurring sex addiction, as well as other process addictions. Contact us to learn more about how our innovative program can help you or your loved one start the journey toward healing.