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Friday, August 14, 2020

Romantic Obsessions and the Thrill of the Chase - Part 2: Getting Help in Therapy

In Part 1 of this topic, I began a discussion about the psychologically and physically addictive problem of romantic and sexual obsessions.  I also provided two clinical vignettes to illustrate two different but related problems involving these obsessions and the thrill of the chase (see my article: Understanding Sexually Addictive Behavior).

Romantic Obsessions and the Thrill of the Chase

In this article, I'm focusing on the first vignette from Part 1 about the fictional character, Ed, to delve deeper into this subject and show how experiential psychotherapy can help people with romantic or sexual obsessions to overcome their problem (see my article: Why Experiential Therapy is More Effective Than Regular Talk Therapy).

In a future article, I'll focus on the second vignette from Part 1 about the fictional character, Jane, where the symptoms are similar but the outer manifestation of the problem is different.

Clinical Vignette: Romantic Obsessions and the Thrill of the Chase: 
The following fictional vignette is a continuation of Part 1 and it will illustrate how experiential psychotherapy can help:

In Part 1, I presented a fictional case about someone named Ed, a married man in his mid-40s.  Although the vignette is fiction, the problems involved are real and common to many people who get caught up in romantic and sexual obsessions.

To Recap:
During five years of marriage, Ed had numerous sexual affairs.  Typical for people who become obsessed with the thrill of the chase, Ed got a dopamine high from these obsessions and the anticipation of "catching" the women he was obsessed about.

Even though he loved his wife and he didn't want to jeopardize his marriage, Ed couldn't stop chasing after women--even after one of the women contacted his wife out of anger and sent his wife a videotape, which she secretly recorded without Ed knowing, of one of her sexual encounters with Ed. She also told Ed's wife about his numerous other sexual affairs.

When confronted with the videotape, Ed admitted to his wife that he had been having sexual affairs throughout their marriage. He felt ashamed of his behavior and very sad that he hurt his wife. After he admitted his infidelities, he vowed to his wife and to himself that he would stop chasing other women. Although his wife was hurt by Ed's betrayal, she forgave him when he promised her that he would stop having affairs.

Ed struggled to keep his promise for a short time.  However, he felt himself being dazzled and tantalized by the attractive women he met when he wasn't with his wife, and his struggle turned out to be too much for him to bear. He gave in to his obsessions during a time when he felt bored, and he resumed having secret extramarital affairs with women he met in person as well as on the dating app, Tinder (see my article: Married, Bored and Cheating Online).

The Story Continues:
As time went on, Ed became increasingly obsessed, especially once he began using Tinder to meet women.  Realizing that he could meet hundreds of women online, who were also only interested in hooking up for sex, fueled his obsession.  He rationalized his behavior by telling himself that he was upfront with these women about his marital status so they knew what they were getting into. He also rationalized that he wasn't hurting his wife because he believed he could do a better job of hiding his affairs and what she didn't know wouldn't hurt her.

What Ed didn't realize was that his addictive behavior was not only driven by seeing attractive women--he was also now responding to the pings he heard from Tinder whenever a woman responded to his request for sex. The sound of the pings were now paired in his mind with sexual conquests, and he was unknowingly also getting a dopamine high just from the sound.

One night while he was out to dinner with his wife with his phone next to him on the table, Ed tried to resist responding to the pings from his phone while he and his wife were talking.  But the urge to look at his Tinder responses became overwhelming and he glanced at his phone several times.

Telling his wife that the pings were emails from work, Ed told her that he had to call his office. Then he went outside to look at his Tinder responses.  Once outside, Ed couldn't wait to look at the responses he received.  As he looked through the responses, he felt giddy with excitement as he saw the sexually provocative pictures from these women.  The dopamine rush he experienced was like electricity going through him, and he had to suppress an urge to laugh from the sheer thrill of it all.

He was especially thrilled that one of the women who had initially resisted his responses was now asking for sexually explicit photos of him which, as usual, he was only too willing to provide.  He could feel the thrill of pressing send to this woman's personal cellphone number as he sent her several nude pictures of himself and he requested that she do the same.

Ed was so caught up in responding to his Tinder requests that he didn't realize how much time had gone by while he was standing outside the restaurant.  It was as if he had fallen down a rabbit hole where he lost awareness of time and place.  By the time he looked up, he was shocked to see his wife, Megan, was standing next to him and looking over his shoulder at his Tinder account.

On the taxi ride home, Ed attempted to apologize to Megan, but she refused to talk to him.  By the time they were back in their apartment, he was desperately trying to make amends with her, but she told him to move out to a hotel until she had time to think about what she would do next.  Then, what she said next shocked him, "At least we don't have children!"(see my article: Your Spouse Cheated on You: Should You Stay or Should You Go).

This remark hurt Ed deeply because he and Megan had been trying to have a baby for the last two years.  They both loved children and it had been their dream to have a baby. Prior to this, they had even talked about going for fertility treatment.  Now, Ed felt his marriage to Megan and any possibility of having children was lost.

During the next few weeks, while he was staying at a nearby hotel, Ed reached out to his wife, but Megan refused to take his calls.  He didn't blame her for being upset.  He knew he hurt her again by continuing to have sexual affairs and breaking his promise to her.  He blamed himself and he wished he could go back in time to undo the pain and anger he caused his wife.

Ed also felt deeply ashamed.  For the first time in his life, he considered whether he was in the grips of addictive behavior.  He felt so upset and overwhelmed that he disabled his Tinder account, he stopped seeing the women he had been having affairs with, and he blocked their numbers on his phone.  He had no appetite for chasing women and the thought of it only made him feel more ashamed and angry with himself.

Several weeks later, Megan agreed to talk to Ed at their apartment.  Ed took this as a hopeful sign, but as soon as he arrived, Megan told him that she decided she wanted a divorce.  Upon hearing this, Ed was shocked and he felt like the floor had dropped out from under his feet.  She told Ed calmly that she was very hurt and she didn't trust him anymore (see my article: When Trust Breaks Down in Relationships).

She said she knew he loved her and she believed him when he first told her he would stop having affairs.  But, she said, all that changed when she discovered that he was continuing to have affairs and she knew now that his problem was much deeper than she had realized before.  She also told him that she had a consultation with a divorce attorney and she had a one-way ticket to fly home to her family in California in two weeks.

When he heard what Megan had to say, Ed felt like his life was over.  Nothing mattered to him if he couldn't be with Megan.  He told her that he realized he didn't deserve it, but he begged Megan to give him another chance.  He promised to get into individual therapy to overcome his problem and he begged Megan to come with him to couples therapy.

During the next week, Megan continued to refuse to give Ed another chance.  As she said she would, she flew out to California to stay with her parents temporarily.  She and Ed talked on the phone, but she was only willing to talk about practical matters like their apartment in Manhattan where Ed was now living alone.  She refused to attend couples therapy with Ed, but she told him she thought he should get help for himself in individual therapy, "Don't do it for me.  Do it for yourself."

Getting Help in Individual Experiential Therapy:
Not knowing what else to do, Ed sought help in individual therapy.  Although he felt desperate to get Megan back, he knew it was pointless to try to persuade her.  Initially, his motivation for individual therapy was to let Megan know that he started therapy so he could convince her to take him back.  But as he continued to attend his therapy sessions and he learned about himself, his external motivation turned into internal motivation to do it for himself.

Romantic Obsessions and the Thrill of the Chase: Getting Help in Therapy

Over time in therapy, Ed began to understand his obsessive and addictive behavior with women.  He realized that he was obsessed with women from the time he was a teenager.  He never thought much about his behavior and his inability to remain faithful before.

When he was a teenager, he told himself, "Boys will be boys" and he used this rationalization to cheat on his girlfriends.  Then, when he got older and he was married, he rationalized his infidelity by telling himself that he wasn't harming her by having affairs because Megan didn't know about it and it didn't change how much he loved her.  Even after Megan found out and he lost his initial resolve to stop chasing women, he thought all he needed to do was to get better at hiding his affairs.

But now that he was on the brink of losing his marriage, Ed began to make connections between his infidelity and his father's infidelity.  Even though his parents never talked to Ed about his father's numerous extramarital affairs, Ed heard them arguing about it late at night.

Ed felt deeply ambivalent about his father's behavior.  Part of him hated his father for hurting his mother.  But another part of Ed admired his father for being "a ladies' man."  And when, by chance, as a teenager, he saw his father in his car with a beautiful woman, Ed felt a rush throughout his body at the thought of being able to have affairs with multiple beautiful women at the same time.

Working Through Early Trauma in Experiential Therapy
As Ed recounted his family history to his therapist, he realized for the first time that he often felt lonely and lost as a child. As the middle child of three children, he longed for his parents' attention.  But they focused on their older son, who excelled academically and in sports, and they doted on his younger sister, who was spoiled by his parents.  They compared Ed unfavorable to his older brother and he often depressed by his parents' emotional neglect (see my article: What is Emotional Neglect?).

As time went on, Ed could see that his feelings of low self worth were temporarily alleviated by his sexual conquests.  But he realized that after the chase was over with each woman, he no longer felt the initial thrill. He also realized that after a while he needed to have numerous sexual affairs in order to feel that boost to his mood, and he could see the addictive pattern.

His therapist recommended EMDR therapy, also known as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy, to work through the underlying issues that fueled his addictive behavior, including the emotional neglect he experienced as a child (see my article: Experiential Therapy, Like EMDR, Helps to Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs).

Prior to EMDR therapy, Ed had always thought, "I love women," but as he delved deeper into his problems, he realized that he also had hostile feelings towards women, especially his mother whom he experienced as cold and emotionally withholding.  He realized over time that with each sexual conquest, he was attempting to prove to himself that he was a lovable person (see my article: Overcoming the Emotional Pain of Feeling Unlovable).

A few months later, as Ed explained to Megan what he learned about himself and how he was working through his sexually addictive behavior.  He revealed to her that he no longer felt a compulsion to see other women.  After she thought about it for a few days, Megan agreed to come back to New York City to attend couples therapy with Ed.  She told him that, although she didn't trust him, she still loved him and she wanted to see if they could salvage their marriage.

Getting Help in Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) For Couples
When Megan returned to New York, she moved back into their Manhattan apartment to live with Ed again and entered into her own individual therapy to deal with the hurt, mistrust and anger she felt.  They also began seeing a couples therapist who used Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples, also known as EFT (see my article: How EFT Couples Therapy Can Help Your Relationship).

Putting the Pieces Back Together and Salvaging a Marriage:
Over time, Ed and Megan began to put the pieces of their life together. It took a while for Megan to trust Ed again.  As part of their agreement, she had access to his phone, his texts and all his computer accounts, and Ed remained faithful to Megan (see my article: Broken Promises - Surviving Infidelity).

Romantic and sexual obsessions usually get worse over time due to the physically and psychologically addictive behavior involved.  Since addiction gets worse without help, over time it takes more of the addictive behavior to get the same high--even when the high is fueled by dopamine.

People usually rationalize their addictive behavior, but these rationalizations often fall apart as the consequences to their behavior bring them back to reality. 

To overcome any addictive behavior, beyond stopping, it's important to understand and resolve the underlying issues that fuel the addiction.  These underlying issues often involve psychological trauma (see my article: How Trauma Affects Intimate Relationships).

Experiential therapy, like EMDR therapy, AEDP, Somatic Experiencing, clinical hypnosis, and EFT, which all take a bottom up (as opposed to a top down) approach, is are much more effective in getting to the root of the problem than regular talk therapy (see my article: What's the Difference Between "Top Down" and "Bottom Up" Approaches in Therapy).

Getting Help in Therapy
Overcoming romantic and sexual obsessions takes a commitment to work through the underlying issues involved in therapy.

Developing intellectual insight, while important, usually isn't enough to help people to overcome addictive behavior.  These problems require experiential therapy that helps people to shift on an emotional level and not just on an intellectual level.

If you're struggling with problems that you have been unable to resolve on your own, you owe it to yourself to get help from an experienced psychotherapist so you can free yourself from your addictive patterns to live a happier life.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, Somatic Experiencing and EFT therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Therapy).

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.