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Understanding Desensitization and the Necessity of Re-sensitization

By Mark Chamberlain, Ph.D.

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Sex Addiction Recovery Tips from Mark Chamberlain, Ph.D.

Understanding Desensitization and the Necessity of Re-sensitization

At a professional conference, I once heard Gordon Foote, a psychotherapist from Flower Mound, Texas, tell of a client who was working to give up pornography, masturbation, and his occasional hiring of prostitutes.

One day, this client’s wife came to Foote’s office, seeking advice. “What do you think of these?” she asked, cupping her hands under her breasts. Caught off guard by her question, the only response he could think of was, “You must have a very good reason for asking that.” As it turned out, her husband was trying to convince her to undergo breast augmentation surgery. Following a protracted period of overstimulation, he was making an effort to turn away from all of that intensity and focus his affections solely upon a single, real woman. As he did, he found her wanting: her breasts were not large or shapely enough. Who knows what else he would have changed about her if he could have. Foote’s message to this woman was critical, and it is the point I make to anyone who is trying to exit the cycle of addiction: the problem is not in the quality of the stimulation available in normal, everyday life, but in your current sensitivity to it. This husband could come to enjoy his wife and in time perhaps even be thrilled by her as he was hoping to be. But the kind of changes he was trying to make were not the changes that really needed to be made. What needed augmentation was his sensitivity, not her breasts, and that would take time and patience, working and waiting on his part.

To help clients like this understand the process of desensitization and the necessity of re-sensitization, I often liken the pleasure centers of the brain to a furnace. Imagine that you were cold, and became dissatisfied with the amount of warm air that was being pumped out by your furnace. So, instead of patiently waiting for the house to get warmer in its usual, natural way, you decide to build a fire in the living room. Well, as the fire heated up, the thermostat would get the message that the room was warm enough and the furnace would produce even less warm air. In response, you might decide to stoke the fire in the living room in an attempt to heat up the place some more. The problem is, the living room is the only one in the house that’s warm–but even so not consistently warm. Instead, it cycles between being too hot for a time and then back to too cold. If you want to return your house to a point where it is more consistently and evenly heated, you have to get the furnace to kick on again. To do so, you will have to put out the fire completely and patiently wait for the thermostat to register the correct temperature. Then, the furnace will get the message that it’s needed again and its production of warm air will be restored.

With any addiction, the production and activity of the body’s natural pleasure chemicals tend to shut down as the individual subjects him- or herself to artificially intense stimulation. This is how addicts develop a tolerance. More of a substance or behavior is required because the current ammount does less and less for the addict over time. This is why the sex addict moves from light pornography and masturbation to harder porn and eventually an affair. This is why we end up doing things that we would have initially thought of as unimaginable. We keep pushing the line of acceptability further and further back, rationalizing that this new level of debasing ourselves really is not so bad. Each trip through the cycle, appetite makes its promise: “This new, more intense activity is really going to do it for me.” Paradoxically, the entire process leaves the addict ever less satisfied and more anxious and agitated over time. Before a sex addict’s desire for their spouse can increase, they have to tolerate dissatisfaction for a time. Before we can reach the oasis we are hoping for, we have to travel through the desert. Stay tuned: tolerating recovery’s dry times will be the topic of our next Recovery Tip.

Mark Chamberlain, Ph.D. is Salt Lake City-based clinical psychologist specializing in the treatment of sexual addiction. He can be reached at 801-564-7566. His offices are located at 1258 West South Jordan Parkway, Suite 202, South Jordan, UT and in Davis County at 1785 East 1450 South #233 Clearfield, UT. Mark is author of Wanting More: The Challenge of Enjoyment in the Age of Addiction and coauthor of Willpower Is Not Enough: Why We Don’t Succeed at Change. He specializes in the treatment of addictions and compulsive behavior. Contact Dr. Chamberlain to try out his eWorkbook, “Turning from Other Dependencies to God.”

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One Response to “Understanding Desensitization and the Necessity of Re-sensitization”

  1. Tim B said:

    Yes. This is one of the reasons behind the idea of addicts with spouses taking a period of celibacy as a way of getting a more normal level of sensitization before bringing sex back to the marriage. It seems so difficult to survive without sex when you’re in active addiction — like the solution is more sex and more intense sex, because that one next thing might be the one that makes everything work, perfect, whatever, and then you can quit.

    But that’s chasing the will of the whisp. Anything which is intense enough to break through the desensitization is traumatic enough to make more desensitization. It is never, never, never, never enough. It’s only through the withdrawals that come from abstinence that you can get to the point where day-to-day sobriety becomes easier, just from a physiological stand point.

    Early sobriety is so difficult. The emotions of turning away from the addiction and toward God are all over the map. Addiction always delivers, at a price. It’s reliable, but inadequate. Exercising faith in God is scary, because God might not be there when relied upon.

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