When the news broke about New York Governor Eliot Spitzer’s alleged involvement with a prostitute the nation was inundated with newspaper reports expressing shock and confusion. Politicians, corporate executives, and various other pundits were outraged by Spitzer’s behavior? And healthcare providers began scratching their heads at the apparent level of ignorance about addictive behavior that these responses demonstrated.
In fact, Spitzer’s behavior is a classic reflection of a particular kind of addiction known as sex addiction.
In the addictions recovery field providers refer to the “insanity” of the addict. They define this as a way of thinking that compels the addict to continually make choices harmful to self and others yet denying consciously or unconsciously to self that such choices will have any significantly negative impact. In Spitzer’s case he continually made choices despite the enormous risks involved– risks that included divorce, alienation from children, loss of employment, legal charges, disease, blackmail, and personal humiliation.
Obviously from the news this kind of behavior now confounds many people. They do not understand what propels a person to act so irresponsibly that he ends up egregiously hurting self and loved ones. Many are casting criticisms, judgment and expressions of glee with no understanding or interest that Spitzer’s behavior reflects a deeply painful and unmanageable internal state of being very likely driven by formative experiences that compromised a healthy sense of self and others.
Such a painful state is at the root of sexual addiction. Healthy individuals need to feel a positive sense of connection with self and to know that they are able to manage their lives. Our ability to experience this grows out of our interactions throughout childhood with our primary caretakers and are shaped by the extent to which we experience a sense of safety, a sense of feeling loveable, and a sense of feeling competent.
When we do not have enough of these experiences growing up we become adults who suffer a host of problems that include negative beliefs about ourselves, a generalized state of anxiety and/or depression, feelings of grandiosity, loneliness, a need to please or be pleased, and a need to dominate or be dominated. A pervasive sense of inadequacy is central to these states and addiction is a means to manage the pain of it.
The seeming effectiveness of sexually addictive behavior to ameliorate such intense pain lies in the emotional shift that occurs. The sexual behavior triggers a mood-altering state that gives the addict temporary relief from emotional pain and a euphoric sense of excitement. And in the case of prostitution, the male or female prostitute is simply a means by which the addict can experience the excitement, sense of power, and the feeling of connection that he is otherwise unable to experience in his life.
Governor Spitzer wielded enormous power in his political life, and he presented the embodiment of a dedicated, effective, productive and respected civil servant. Yet despite all this his sexual behavior indicates that he was unable to consistently experience an internal sense of confidence, loving connection, and healthy control. Perhaps he would deny this. What he cannot deny are the enormous losses he and his family suffered as the result of his sexual behavior.
At the very least, Governor Spitzer has an opportunity now to be curious about his choices, to recognize how little healthy power he demonstrated over his behavior, and to seek out understanding and help with making healthier choices in the future. These are the critical first steps for all those painfully caught up in sexual addiction. To do so offers profound and deeply healing experiences that lead to compassionate understanding and forgiveness, a world full of loving friends and family, and a life robustly lived with grace and dignity.