The Double Life of a Christian Sex Addict
“When I was eight, the imposter, or false self, was born as a defense against pain. The imposter within whispered, ‘Brennan, don’t ever be your real self anymore because nobody likes you as you are. Invent a new self that everybody will admire and nobody will know.’ So I became a good boy—polite, well-mannered, unobtrusive, and deferential. I studied hard, scored excellent grades, won a scholarship in high school, and was stalked every waking moment by the terror of abandonment and the sense that nobody was there for me.”
– Brennan Manning, Abba’s Child
The Christian Addict’s War Within
How do you know if someone is leading the double life of a sex addict?
It’s a good bet that you can’t.
By “double life,” I mean that sex addicts and most people who are grappling with sexual behaviors keep their struggles hidden.
In their searing shame about their sexual behaviors, they keep what they’re doing a secret. They lie to themselves and everyone around them in order to protect their secret life.
Sex addicts are often so good at deceiving others that they can fool everyone in their lives. The result is that they have a private life where they engage in their sexual behaviors and a public “face” they show to everyone around them to keep their shame-filled addictive world a secret.
Christians who struggle with sexual behaviors lead double lives too.
Because their Christian faith and values are so at odds with their compulsive sexual behaviors, they’re constantly terrified of being caught or found out. So they keep secrets, agonizing on the inside and going through the motions on the outside of going to church, reading their Bible, praying, and their other spiritual practices.
Meanwhile, they feel like a hypocrite, deeply divided in their own skin, at war with themselves. Sometimes, in their despair, they ask, “Why can’t I stop doing what I hate? How did it come to this?”
Good questions. Let’s take a look.
All in the Family: A Divided Self
Where did the sex addict learn to keep his most painful truths a secret?
The crucible of his family of origin.
Most people—not all—who struggle with sexual behaviors that are out of control grew up in families that were disengaged and rigid. Let’s look at each of these terms.
“Disengaged” is a term that family therapists use to describe families that aren’t connected with one another. These families don’t spend much time together and they don’t feel close to one another. (With sex addiction, this can occur because one or both parents or grandparents were addicts.)
Imagine growing up in a family like that. You’re 8 years old, for instance, and all you know is that Mom or Dad doesn’t seem to want to spend time with you. Moreover, every time you do try to connect, they’re too busy, depressed, or even physically absent to respond consistently with the warmth and affection you want.
You can’t say it’s not your fault. You’re not old enough to have established that healthy boundary in your relationship. So you conclude that there must be something wrong with you that Mom and Dad don’t seem to love you.
So, in your growing shame, you learn to hide your longings to connect, that part of you that wants love and closeness. You’ve learned that you can’t be close, not to Mom and Dad. Not to anyone.
Eventually, without even realizing it, you banish these longings from your awareness because they’re too painful when they’re not fulfilled.
On top of all of this, your family, disengaged as it is, has got to stay together somehow, so there’s a lot of “rigid” structure. In Christian families, this often means that everyone goes to church religiously (pun intended), and there’s an implicit moral expectation to be a good Christian boy or girl. In these families, there’s a lot of unspoken guilt and shame when family members fail to live up to these moral standards.
Already filled with feelings of shame, the young child learns to hide all the more the thoughts and feelings that aren’t acceptable to his mother and father.
It’s like pouring gas on the fire.
How Sex Addiction Starts
What’s a child in pain about feeling unloved, alone, and unwanted to do? He’s caught between the intensifying fire of his emotional pain—overwhelming feelings of isolation, abandonment, and rejection, and his inability to reveal these feelings, which surely would confirm that there is something deeply flawed about him.
For the sex addict, and even those who aren’t addicts but nevertheless struggle with secret sexual behaviors, the simple solution is to disconnect from the pain.
When he is first exposed to sexual materials (usually pornography these days), his mind is already “primed” for using sexual behaviors to numb, block, or detach from his emotional pain, having been starved for affection for most or all of his life.
That’s what makes pornography so powerful for those who are struggling with shame: Their minds are already vulnerable, quietly searching for someone to love them, and they can only console themselves when they feel no one does.
Pornography, with its powerful ability to release pleasurable chemicals in the brain, becomes a go-to choice for comfort and solace.
With time, his mind gets bored with “vanilla” pornography and seeks out new sexual behaviors to get the same effect: increasingly explicit pornography, fantasizing, acting out with prostitutes, and—well, you get the idea.
Anything to keep the pain at bay.
The Double Life of a Christian Sex Addict
As his sexual behaviors progress and escalate, the addict needs to develop increasingly complex, labyrinthine lies to obscure and hide his behavior.
Eventually, that which the addict turned to to soothe achingly painful, intolerable feelings turns against him: He is completely imprisoned by his insatiable need to act out as his despair and shame tighten their grip upon him.
For the Christian struggling with sexual behaviors, juggling the inner, private world of his acting out and the pressure to keep up pretenses and appearances is overwhelming and exhausting.
Internally, the Christian’s soul is at war with his sexual behaviors as he tries and fails again and again to stop acting in ways that contradict his professed beliefs and values. He constantly prays to God, after every session of watching porn, after every prostitute, every time he lies to his wife, to be delivered from his prison.
On the outside, the addict goes through the motions, trying hard to pretend that nothing is wrong—in fact, he may make more efforts to show that his spiritual life is terrific. The more intense his addiction, the more he uses his faith to defend, protect, and conceal his secret life, and the more lost he becomes to others and himself.
Tragically, the struggling addict is simply doing what he learned to do as a child with his emotional pain. He is scrambling to disconnect from his pain because he knows—knows—that to share the truth of his secret life with others would only end in more shame, abandonment, judgment, and isolation.
Equally tragically, too often in our church communities, he’d be right.
Healing the Shame That Keeps the Double Life Alive
Whether their behaviors have crossed the threshold of addiction or not, those struggling with sexual behaviors need to be healed of the shame that perpetuates their behaviors and keeps them hidden in the darkness.
Healing always involves bringing into awareness those parts of ourselves that we could not stand to experience or feel, that which we had to banish from our consciousness, and integrating those parts into our sense of self.
Just as the father welcomed home his prodigal son with open, loving arms in Luke’s parable, the addict too must reconcile these long-forgotten feelings and needs to himself. He can do so by reaching out to others for help and be willing to risk the vulnerability and intimacy he’s learned is fraught with danger.
Often, this journey of recovery includes transforming his inauthentic, rigid, rule-based spirituality for a radical, genuine spirituality in which he feels more closely connected to God, others, and himself.
By stepping into the light and by reaching out to others for support, which is far harder than it sounds, his shame slowly dies. He learns to connect with others in 12-step groups, in therapy, and in small groups. He learns to tolerate his wife’s pain, and in so doing, his own.
With time and a lot of effort (both are required for personal transformation), the two lives fade away as he emerges as a whole, integrated self.
He is authentic. Real. At peace. Vulnerable.
And he’s no longer ashamed.