Understanding Sexual Addiction as a “Courtship Disorder”

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Not too long ago, I was sitting at the bar following a volleyball match, when I was awakened to a moment I needed to spend with my soul. As I found myself alone, left by my teammates who all had gone home, I was quietly attuned to the television, which was playing the film The Legend of Tarzan

During the scene when Jane and Tarzan meet suddenly the term “tears in my beer” became real for me in a way that I had never experienced before. While there was nothing particularly moving about the film, what struck a chord in my soul was that the actress playing Jane resembled one of my old girlfriends. This girl was basically the love of my life. I was so hurt when we broke up, and I began using pornography shortly afterward. 

Though I still think about her, we haven’t spoken in a few years. So, I was a bit shocked at the outburst of tears. However, if “the body keeps score,” then our hearts cannot tell lies, either. I tend to believe that we are never really “out” of a relationship with anyone—sure, the state of the relationship might change, we might live far away and never cross paths, but we are nonetheless always bonded in some way to the people we encounter in life. 

A similar situation unfolded a few weeks later as I was watching Law and Order SVU. Olivia Benson was reunited with her old partner, Elliot Stabler, who historically had a close but conflicted relationship with her. Their reunion also brought me to tears, and it reminded me of my longing to talk to my ex-girlfriend again. The reunion of two close friends tugged hard on my heartstrings.

As I asked myself why I was brought to tears on both occasions, the answer emerged: I have never felt as close to someone as I did when I was with my “Jane.” We had chemistry. We would get excited talking about the silliest of everyday details. We bickered like a couple who had been together for forty years. We were romantic together. So on and so forth. While I have had great friends and mentors since then, none of those relationships have matched the level of connection and emotional intimacy I experienced in that relationship.           

Even as I continue to struggle with pornography, I cannot help but keep in mind that, ultimately, I’m not in a relationship with the women whose images I look at. That it’s all just a fake “filler” for what I’m made for.

All of this made me think of Dr. Patrick Carnes’ work. He is the preeminent psychologist dealing with sexual addictions. Carnes says that sexual addiction is ultimately a “courtship disorder” because we are made for relationship. Our acting out is a cheap substitute for authentic sexuality and relational bonding and our unhealthy sexual behaviors damage our ability to bond intimately with others. 

Pornography is a form of voyeurism, which entails watching others while invisible. It’s a withdrawal tactic (certainly, watching television can be technically seen as voyeurism as well). Voyeurism is problematic because it can cause us to avoid real relationships altogether and settle for mediated encounters, encounters in which we remain invisible and only watch in secret. Pornography takes voyeurism to the next level of dysfunction.

The concept of “courtship disorder” is, in my opinion, compatible with Catholic teaching. In writing one of my previous articles, I was inspired by Carnes’ concept of “courtship disorder.” This concept also shaped my thinking in another article as well.

Ultimately, our human development always plays a role in our shortcomings and addictions. We are not simply “addicts,” “sinners,” or “bad people.” Instead, our behaviors usually stem from some sort of deficiency or wound in our lives. Working alongside therapists with specialized training has helped me discover deeper insights into how my own “courtship disorder” manifests. If you’re struggling with sexual addiction, I would certainly suggest seeking counseling and therapeutic help.

In light of my story, how do you see your sex addiction as a “courtship disorder?” In what ways might you be trying to compensate for a deficiency or wound in your own life?

Quarter Joe is a lifelong Catholic and has been in recovery for pornography addiction for nearly three years. He is passionate about the spiritual path of the 12-step model and the power of Jesus in the Eucharist in bringing healing and transformation.