Tuesday, June 11, 2013

betrayal bonds and sex addiction

In the comments, someone was wondering if trauma bonding is necessarily tied to sex addiction.  I started to write a comment, but as occasionally happens it turned into a post.

Patrick Carnes wrote an excellent book called Betrayal Bonds which I have written about extensively on the blog and which many people have found helpful.  He has a test for betrayal bonds which is situated within a web site on sex addiction.  You can find the links elsewhere on this site.

I have worked on the assumption that Carnes book applies to both sex addicts and those who do not identify as such and that has worked very well for me.  I got concerned about this issue when I was exploring ptsd (through flashbacks, pseudo-seizures, and all that fun stuff along with trying to find some help) and went to some 12 step sex addiction recovery programs.  What I heard in them certainly did not fit what my experiences were.

Just like probably all abusers have trauma issues but only a small percentage of people with trauma issues become abusers, I think that most sex addicts have issues with trauma bonds but not everyone that has trauma bonds is a sex addict.  Carnes filed it under sex addiction on that site because that is primarily what Carnes works on.  The emphasis on sex addiction in the book is pretty heavy too, again because that is what he works on.  Carnes's approach to sex addiction is broad and includes love addiction and pornography addiction and relationship addiction and more.  His approach is also among the gentlest of 12 step related approaches.

The 12step sex addiction stuff as practiced in actual meetings in the real world rather than an institutional setting was really counterproductive for me though.  It was actually kind of awful in fact.  A room full of perpetrators, which I wasn't, some of whom were hitting on me it seemed, all in the name of fellowship. yech.  It gave me the willies and I left. The actual world of 12 step addiction rooms and programs is not filled with the broad spectrum of people Carnes is concerned with, nor do they operate on his somewhat more enlightened principles.  In my short experience of the rooms -- I tried going for a few months in two different cities and many different meetings -- I found the rooms to be mostly full of actual sexual perpetrators, many of them court ordered, none of whom I could particularly relate to.  They wanted to convince me that all my other recovery meant nothing and that it was as if I was never even in recovery, which was just bullshit.  My life had improved in many respects from being in recovery from the drugs and alcohol for a long time, but the trauma issues were preventing me from enjoying those improvements in any way and in fact threatening them.  I used to say I had a nice life if only I could be in it.

In fact, a lot of my trauma issues had come just at the hands of people like I met in the rooms, and they were not all on the road to recovery by any means.  I wish them well and all, and I see how I could have gone down that road if things had been different, but that is not the way it worked out, and I believe pretty strongly from my own experience and from reading all of you readers sharing in the comments that survivors of other people's abuse and perpetrators need to be separated and that any coming together of such parties should be on the terms of the survivor, including, especially, any attempts at amends.

Where it gets tricky is of course that perpetrators are pretty much universally themselves survivors of abuse too.  But they have no grounds to expect empathy or forgiveness or even cohabitation in the same space from survivors.  Survivors, and here I'll speak for myself rather than all, so let me rephrase -- I was raised from an early age to think that abuse was what I deserved because I was a bad person and whatever it was that happened to me was because I deserved it if not worse.  Abusers count on this destruction of a person's self esteem to get away with what they do.  The person literally takes the blame for the abuse that others commit on them, allowing the abusers to carry on with their lives.  The shaming and silence keeps the survivors -- and those who don't survive, for there are many -- isolated, confused, and wretched.  Do the abusers care?  Some, the narcissists and phsychopaths really don't. These are hard people to understand at all, they have little or no human empathy and live in a world of calculated manipulations and appearances. Others may be wracked by guilt, but for the survivor that changes nothing and does not matter.

I knew a guy named Bob who had cut some guy's arm off in his addiction. In recovery, he went to make amends to the guy.  The guy called the police immediately and got a restraining order and told Bob to stay the f@&k away from him.  That is a healthy response in my view.  It is easier to see when it is a missing arm, but when one of the people who perpetrated some vicious and cruel abuse in my life wanted to make amends, I let the person in and got another emotional equivalent of an arm cut off.  She was just probably doing this because that was the step she was on and her sponsor figured out what she had done and told her to make amends.  She actually used it as an opportunity for more hurting and bullshit. The arm thing is easier to figure out.  I should have told her to stay the f*#k away too, but because of betrayal bonds and my traumatic past making me susceptible to such people, I didn't.  And I paid in PTSD.

This is where all the crypto-Christian crap of forgive and forget was positively harmful.  I did not need to forgive and forget, this for that, it all works out, we're all connected, I grew from the experience, pray for the other person, yadda yadda yadda.  I needed to tell that person to get away and stay away which I eventually did, even though the feelings and longings were still there that this was someone I care(d) about.  That is where learning about betrayal bonds helped so much.  I had a reason why for my inability to see and treat this person as harmful, and I had a method of dealing with it.  It did not make everything alright again or any such thing, but it did allow me to get my sanity back slowly and start learning to trust people who actually earned that trust in my life.  It is like a magic trick or something.  Press this button and voila, I am right back in the crazy world of betrayal bonds that is always right there in my psyche.  The key to recovery for me has been to learn, most of the time, to not press the button and that it is not magic but harm and damage that makes the trick seem to work.

That has little or nothing to do with what the sex addict perpetrators in the 12 step rooms had to say, and I think Carnes does a disservice and some actual harm by sending survivors off to sex addict 12 step meetings in the real world.  I think it is somewhat unfortunate that he associates the two so closely, as I found the work on betrayal bonds to be life changing.  I just didn't do the sex addict part of what Carnes recommended and things worked out well for me.  And I have learned to find love and support in healthier places than 12 step programs.  Working on trauma bonding issues can no doubt be life changing for people who have been perpetrators too, and perhaps 12 step programs can restore them to some sanity and humanity,  but we don't need to do that healing together, and none of that healing should be contingent on me giving anything like forgiveness.  That is just nonsense, and as soon as I learned that, I started to get better.


  1. Wow. As usual, you "said it all." Nails on the head, fly on the wall and right as rain! I couldn't understand why survivors were lumped in with sex addicts and I was very hesitant to read the book, but now I will knowing I can leave out that (crazy) part.

    I agree completely with the "I don't need to forgive" part and LOTS of people are agreeing with you nowadays, too! Thank God.

    This part is going up on my wall in big letters and I'm saving the whole post as it all makes so much sense. You have no idea (or maybe you do) as to how much you are giving us all, sharing this way.

    You really could write a book with this blog, posts, comments and all. It's just terrific. And always seems to come just when I needed it most.

    Gracias, amigo. And I too made the mistake of letting abusers and perpetrators "back in" when my mother was dying (she was one of them) and nothing had changed after 30 years... it had only gotten worse. Almost 3 years later I am still trying to heal from those brief encounters. No more! No contact and self-protection because I KNOW I AM WORTH PROTECTING is the only way for me to go.

    "The winds of grace blow all the time; all we need do is set our sails." Please show us The Way.

    " I was raised from an early age to think that abuse was what I deserved because I was a bad person and whatever it was that happened to me was because I deserved it if not worse. Abusers count on this destruction of a person's self esteem to get away with what they do."

  2. Catherine, Thank you for the honesty with which you share. It encourages me to hang on.

    This site is the best I've found for being real in so many ways.

    The BS treatments surrounding trauma-induced suffering and those who feed off it really are unbelievable until you experience it.

    I hope you will keep searching. Surely healing is out there for each of us. I think my problem is with the necessary process it involves. And, trusting is so damn hard.

  3. Thank you for your words. I struggle with these current paradigms which I think only serve to make we survivors stay small because we aren't 'perfect enough' to forgive. I run into far too much 'sympathy for the devil', perpetrator as victim, in sex addiction verbage and advice. Maybe too much of this comes from the same source as 'wink wink' sex worker reform, which is basically just people who want to maintain access to feed their own addictions and so romanticize and normalize the lives of people abused so early that is all they have of a life.

  4. I think that may be a flaw to *all* 12-Step groups (the emphasis on making amends, which presumes some kind of rational guilt), not just ones focused on sex addiction.

    Also the group leadership needs to make sure that firm boundaries are consistently observed to keep things safe, this can vary from meeting to meeting (and group to group).

  5. Agreed on the amends. The two very harmful amends that have been done to me were both from regular AA-ers, not sex addiction 12 step.