Is she just another sandbag?

Dr. Daley on Sex and Relationships

Dear Dr. Daley: I’m a 30-year-old man and a recovered sex addict. At my worst, a few years ago, I had about 300 partners during the course of a year. Since then, I’ve gotten therapy, joined a support group, and found a great girlfriend. We’re very different in our sexual backgrounds since she’s a born-again virgin. Moreover, she only had two partners before she decided to wait until marriage to have sex again. Though I’ve abstained completely for about a year since I started getting a grip and dating my girlfriend, I’m not sure if I share her philosophy. I’d like to have a normal sex life with one committed partner, but to me “normal” doesn’t necessarily mean waiting until marriage. Although we’re at two polar ends of the sexual experience spectrum, we have a lot in common and get along very well. More and more often, I’ve been thinking she could be the one for me. However, I still have a nagging feeling that on some level I might be using her as a crutch to keep me on track, and I might be a “project” for her. She shares some of my concerns and we’ve talked about this, but I think both of us are slightly uneasy about being a long-term couple or getting married. Do you think our backgrounds would eventually drive us apart?

photo / M. B. 

Yeah, this makes sense. You’ve met a woman, a great girlfriend with whom you have a lot in common; she knows about your struggles with sexual addiction; you have a relationship that may be lasting; and you’re thinking you ought to dump her because she doesn’t want to fuck you unless you get married. Which of the twelve steps are you working on, exactly?

No, wait. Let me take this one again.

With a sexual addiction, as with any addiction, there’s more to it than the profound attachment to that delightful drug of choice, whatever your drug may be. Alcohol, smokables, injectibles, gambling, shopping, hoarding, video games, Internet porn, etc. – the dynamics are much the same. You try a mood-altering substance, it feels good, then somewhere along the way you figure out it makes all kinds of bad feelings disappear – however temporarily – and before you know it you have a full-fledged compulsion going on. No matter what good intentions you wake up with, by nightfall you’re slipping into your own personal barstool and trying not to look at yourself in the mirror behind the prettily lit bottles. Before you know it, it’s tomorrow morning and you’ve woken up with a stranger again. Resolving to turn over a new leaf. Etc.

One definition of an addiction is “anything that makes you feel good while you are engaged in it, and bad when you aren’t.” I also think compulsive behaviors are like sandbags we use to hold back a terrifying flood of fear, rage, emptiness, guilt, sorrow, etc. When we give up our drug, we must deal with the emotions or return to our addiction. Or maybe find another drug. It’s probably a wise thing to ask yourself whether you are falling in love with a woman or just another sandbag.

This conflict between you and your girl is about “sexual intercourse,” and it’s about a whole lot of other stuff too. I hope the two of you will have a few conversations about this, even if you need to hire a third party to help you untangle all this stuff. Let’s start with the sex part and see if we can expand your thinking about the rest of it, too.

Sex therapist Anne Hooper has a few books on the market that provide helpful guidelines and really sexy illustrations. We’re looking for a safe, intimate setting for the two of you to understand each other’s sexual histories, sexual identities, and hopes for the sexual future. There are plenty of similar tomes; choose one by a sex therapist, since their job is to help people talk about one of the two most difficult things we must talk about. (Suze Orman writes about the other one.) At the very least, the process should help you decide whether a long-term committed relationship with sex is the way to go.

So. Light a few candles, turn off all electronics, keep the red wine consumption to a minimum, and take turns with the following questions. It is important that neither of you interrupts, argues, mocks, or even tries to fix anything the other one says. Your entire attitude must be one of profound gratitude that this person would find you safe enough to share these secrets of the heart. Then treat the disclosures appropriately.

In her sexual biography exercise, Hooper lists about a dozen questions straight out of the wayback machine. What did you learn about sexuality growing up, and from whom? What was your parents’ relationship like? Were they affectionate, sexual, playful? When did you have your first kiss? Did you masturbate? What about your first sexual activity, your first intercourse?

You get the idea. You, mister, you don’t need to go into detail about your gazillion “partners.” I understand that obsessed golfers can talk about every hole they’ve ever conquered, but this is different. We’re more interested in what you were running away from than we are in what you were boinking.

Which brings us to the place where you and your sweetums converge. You need to have some conversations about what sex has meant to you, what it means now, and what you want it to mean in the future.

You, writer: What were you looking for in those 300 partners a year, and what were you running from? What inner demons showed up when you quit indulging in your habit, and what have you done to tame them? What do you want sexual intercourse to mean to you in the future? Do you have the first idea what sexual intercourse means? And what do you think it means to be penetrated? Like, say for instance someone wanted to stick something the size of your precious hard-on into your body. What would that be like?

Girlfriend: You also must think about what sexual intercourse means to you. What happened to make you turn away from sex and contemplate hymen replacement surgery after only two partners? Was it a matter of wanting to live up to your moral/ethical/religious values, or were you traumatized in some manner? You’re not one of those neovirgins who’s using sex as a means to a pretty white dress and a gold ring, are you? Maybe your first two partners were just lousy in the sack and you never could understand what all the fuss is about. How’s your masturbatory life, or do you have one? Who are you, sexually?

Letter-writer, part two: Think about this woman. Who is she, and what about her do you respect, admire, crave, wonder about, look forward to seeing at the end of the day? Picture your life with her, your home, your work life, bank account, children, in-laws, holidays. Imagine your honeymoon, your most tedious ongoing argument, the wrecked car, the career triumphs, the beach house, the bills, the chemotherapy. Do you like this woman? Does she make you laugh? Will you buy her presents you know she will like, or will you hand her a gift card and tell her to pick out something herself? Will she love you when you are old and fat and have a hairy back?

Part Two for the girlfriend: Same as for your sweet cheeks, just change the gender as appropriate and replace “hairy back” with “flat, pendulous breasts.”

About your current dilemma. Mismatch in levels of sexual desire is the number one reason why couples seek sex therapy, but you haven’t mentioned anything about desire. The two of you could be finger-fucking each other blind, for all I know, but your letter gives me the impression that you don’t even kiss if there’s a risk that tongues might be involved. If I were your therapist, I’d ask whether you were having any physical intimacy at all, and if so, how yummy is it. Frankly, it would be a little strange for two grown red-blooded Americans to get into an intimate relationship and never even try out second or third base. To be honest, I don’t even know what second and third base are, but I think they have something to do with bare breasts and damp underwear. Orgasms. Stuff like that.

Is this a good time to bring up STI testing? Any woman confronting the prospect of sexual intercourse with a man who’s had 300 partners in one year would be crazy not to wonder about disease risk, but a woman who called a halt after two partners might be a little shy about asking. Modern sexually active women find STI testing a form of foreplay, especially when the guy suggests it and makes the appointment. Nothing says “I love you” like a blood draw.

You wonder if you’re using her as a crutch. This is a difficult call, and may require some research on your part. See, good love always makes us better people, and if that’s using someone as a crutch, oh well. But if you are truly worried that she is the only thing standing between you and a sex binge, do her a favor: Take a few steps back and spend six months on your own. Really on your own, with no female holding you upright. Continue to explore your addiction, your sexuality (not just your penis), and your relationship needs. It sounds hokey, but you can’t be worth much in a relationship until you’ve cobbled together a strong sense of self.

Get busy.

About the author Dr. Nancy Daley is a licensed psychologist and adjunct assistant professor who teaches Human Sexuality at The University of Texas at Austin. If you would like to submit questions for her to answer in this column, please send them to drdaley at thatotherpaper dot com.

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