One of the most compelling issues underlying infidelity is the way in which cheaters’ self-perception and feelings change in the moment of sexually acting out. As a result, one of the most important questions I ask my clients when we are exploring their arousal template and the unconscious meaning that their sexual behaviors hold for them is, “How do your feelings about yourself change when you are with your affair partner, hooking up with a stranger from an app, viewing pornography, engaging with a sex worker, etc.”
The reason this question is so important is that it cuts to the heart of the sexualized dependency needs that so many individuals who cheat are unconsciously channeling into their sexual behaviors.
Dependency needs are the human relational needs that we all have. At the core, dependency needs are the same for each of us. We need to matter, to feel safe, to feel significant, to be paid attention to, to feel important, to belong, and to be accepted. These needs are called dependency needs because they are the needs we depend on others to meet for us. It is in relation to others that we feel like we matter, that we are important, that we are valued, loved, and accepted.
For many sexually addicted individuals, dependency needs have become sexualized. Instead of engaging in the full spectrum of emotional, relational, and sexual intimacy that healthy (non-addicted) people rely on to meet these needs, sex addicts depend on sex alone. Sex becomes the one note on the piano that gets played over and over, while the rest of the instrument is left to atrophy.
Our drive to look for something outside ourselves to meet our needs is set up in early childhood when we are at our most vulnerable. As infants, toddlers, and children, we need to feel safe, valuable, and paid attention to. But sometimes these needs are not met consistently. The child who experiences neglect or unpredictable caregiving learns that turning to others to get these core needs met is as likely to result in the pain of loss, disappointment and loneliness as it is to result in the desired feelings of safety and comfort. As a result, the child finds ways to meet these needs that do not involve the riskiness and unpredictability of relational connection. Perhaps the child will turn to food, or alcohol, or a drug, or sexual behavior.
As a result, substances and behaviors like sex can be used as a way to meet dependency needs, though, in reality, substances and behaviors like sex are used to distract from the pain of these needs not being met. If these individuals are drunk, or high, or acting out sexually, they can escape from the emotional discomfort of not getting their needs met. And if sexual acting out is the primary tool for this, dependency needs can, over time, become sexualized. For example, when the need to feel safe arises, these individuals will automatically and compulsively turn to sexual fantasy and behavior. (Once again, sexual acting out doesn’t actually meet the dependency need, but it feels like it does because the pain of the need is temporarily masked.)
Sex is unique in its capacity to make us feel that our dependency needs are getting met. Alcohol and other substances can make us forget that we have the needs. Food, shopping, gambling, exercising, etc. can numb our feelings or help us substitute other feelings. But sex, because it almost always involves someone else (even if it is just an actor in a porn video), has a very specific and unique ability to make us feel like some of our deepest needs are truly being met.
Sex can make us feel desired, wanted, paid attention to, adored, admired, cherished, and accepted. Whether we insert ourselves through fantasy into the pornographic scene on our computer screen, or we hook up with someone we meet on a plane (or on an app, at the office, etc.), for those moments when we are in the sexual bubble it can feel like some of our most important needs are getting met. If we do not know how to get these needs met through the full spectrum of emotional, relational, and sexual intimacy—usually because our early-life history is riddled with neglect and abandonment—these few moments of sexual connection can feel like water on a parched tongue: relieving and life-giving.
For many addicts, the key to understanding their sexual behavior lies in exploring how their dependency needs are met (or, more accurately, masked) by their acting out behaviors. Consider the stories of Rick and Lou as examples.
Rick is a manager in a large corporation. He spends much of each day feeling anxious—like no matter what he does, it is never enough. His boss and co-workers all tell him he is doing a great job. Still, he feels worthless, anxious, and stressed out. At home, he and his wife are raising three small children and dealing with the never-ending stream of parenting demands. Each morning, before he leaves for work, Rick goes downstairs and sits in front of his computer and masturbates to pornography.
When Rick and I first started discussing his sexual behavior, he said it was a stress reliever, that it calmed him down so he could go into work and function without his anxiety overwhelming him. When we started to talk about his dependency needs, however, more was revealed. Rick was profoundly neglected as a child. Praised as the baby that didn’t need anything and could be “left alone to occupy himself,” Rick remembers crushing loneliness from the time he was a toddler on. He had only one solace in his life—a grandmother who doted on him. When she was around, she would pay attention to him, hold him, and give him the nurture he so desperately craved.
Rick’s grandmother was a matronly woman with large breasts and curves that the extra padding of age can add. Now, when Rick is looking at pornography and masturbating, he finds images of women who are curvy with large breasts. He has chosen a body type that mirrors that of his grandmother because, subconsciously, this body type symbolizes nurture, attention, and comfort. Masturbating to these images provides temporary relief and solace from his constant, lifelong feelings of “not being good enough.” When he is in the sexual bubble with the porn, he feels, for a few fleeting moments, that he is enough and that his needs matter.
We see a similar dynamic with Lou. Lou visits massage parlors and receives sexual services as part of his massage. When I first started working with him, he also talked about stress relief as a primary reason for his behavior. But, once again, looking deeper into what happens for him emotionally when he visits a massage parlor revealed a more nuanced story.
Lou grew up in a fractured family. While his parents did not divorce until he was older, the entire family operated in isolation from one another. Mom was unavailable and preoccupied. Dad raged and was occasionally violent. Lou, desperate for attention and to get his needs met, became super responsible to try to win approval and attention from his parents. He mowed the lawn, he cleaned the house, he changed the oil in the car, all in an effort to finally get his parent’s eyes to land on him and show him love.
As an adult, Lou is a senior partner in a large law firm. One of the youngest lawyers to ever make senior partner, he works long hours and carries an enormous load of responsibility. At home, he is married with twin five-year-old sons, one with special needs.
One day, Lou came into my office having lost his tenuous grip on sobriety by visiting a massage parlor over the weekend. When I asked him to go back to what he was feeling before he acted out, he said, “I was so angry and exhausted. All week long I felt like everyone wanted a piece of me. I was solving problems for everyone, taking care of the people around me but not myself, and I just started to feel filled with resentment and exhaustion.”
I asked him to then remember what it felt like to be in the massage parlor. He was quiet for a few minutes, and then he said, “I felt so relieved. Like I got to just lay there and do nothing and this person was going to focus on me and pay attention to me and meet my needs and I didn’t have to do anything or say anything or be anything for them. I got to be taken care of.” I asked Lou why the massage alone would not have filled this need for him. He replied, “Because when I receive sexual services, the person talks to me and tells me I’m good looking and compliments my body and I feel wanted and admired.”
From this discussion, it was clear that Lou visits massage parlors to shift the focus from him doing for others to him being cared for, seen, and admired. In his adult world, he is simply carrying on the way he did as a child, over-functioning to please the people around him. He doesn’t know how to let others carry the load with him. He doesn’t know how to turn to others to get his emotional and relational needs met. Thus, he is left in a cycle of over-functioning, exhaustion, depletion, acting out, and then back to over-functioning.
For Rick, Lou, and many other individuals, sexual acting out is a way to feel differently about themselves for a while. Sex is a way to escape the feelings of overwhelm, insecurity, self-doubt, worthlessness, anxiety, and shame that are the background music of their lives. The sexual encounter provides them with relief. For a few minutes there is a sense that they are enough, they are desired, they are attractive, they are admired, they are wanted, and they are focused on, paid attention to, and matter.
If you are a betrayed partner, you may have a lot of feelings as you read this. You may be thinking that you’ve tried as hard as you can to meet your significant other’s relational, emotional, and sexual needs, yet still your partner cheats. This can be confounding. What is it that you’re not doing right?
Let me say right now that it’s not about you. Your partner does not know how to get dependency needs met in a healthy way, because your partner did not learn how to do that in childhood. In fact, your partner fears the vulnerability that must be displayed to do that. So it may be that the healthy emotional and relational intimacy you offer frightens your significant other and therefore drives the cheating.
For your cheating partner, the high of the sexual encounter with a stranger or the hit from pornography (or whatever) provides a fantasy of being cared for, wanted, known, and paid attention to. And your partner turns to that fantasy instead of you because of a lesson learned early in life: that people who are supposed to love and care for you can’t be trusted to do so. For your significant other, learning how to get dependency needs met in a deeper, more meaningful, and longer-lasting way demands transparency, vulnerability, and authenticity. And that is very different, much harder, and much scarier than simply masking dependency needs with a substance or behavior. It is also the most important work of long-term recovery and healing. As the betrayed partner, you should not expect this work to be accomplished overnight. But you can expect to see slow but steady progress as the cheater’s recovery progresses.