It has been said that all addictions are intimacy disorders. Addicts want intimacy in relationships, but they are driven by and settle for intensity. Many of my clients who identify as sex addicts grew up in households in which they did not receive comfort or connection as a child. As married adults later on in life, they are called upon to give or receive comfort or connection; instead, they then feel lost, confused and hurt. Relationships baffle.
As conflicting couples come into my office, there is typically a communication gap that hinders empathy and connection. To fill that gap, many therapists in our counseling center utilize a technique to help facility intimacy in couples that have been effective for addicts and non-addicts alike. The technique is called “The Comfort Circle” as described in the book, How We Love by Milan and Kay Yerkovich.
Here is a quick synopsis of the four steps of the Comfort Circle exercise:
- Seek awareness: Identifying feelings is key. Doing so helps bring awareness of triggers, past hurts or emotional injuries that linger and cloud perception in the present. Typically, a person doesn't realize the depths of his or her feelings until he or she is intentionally mindful of them through naming or expressing them. If a partner is not available to help, writing in a journal can be an effective tool to crystallize and clarify feelings. The more specific the feeling, the better the exercise will potentially turn out.
- Engage: Making a mutual decision to connect with one another is the intention. When faced with adversity, addicts tend to turn toward their acting out behaviors. They choose isolation instead of relying on and connecting with others. This step requires a partner to have the courage to be vulnerable and fully seen by the other, and it needs the other partner to be a safe person to engage with feelings and acknowledge needs openly. A good question to determine a relationship's level of engagement is, “When was the last time you were able to express regrets, confess bad attitudes, or apologize for hurtful words or actions?”
- Explore: Helping to clarify and validate feelings is the aim. The listener's goal is not to fix solve, debate, or defend; it is simply to actively reflect through asking clarifying questions and making reflective statements. The mindset is to actively demonstrate understanding by expressing empathy. Examples of helpful questions include saying to the partner, “Does this experience trigger a past memory for you?”; scaling questions such as, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how intensely are you feeling this feeling?”; or concluding with the question, “What do you need?”
- Resolve: Bringing relief through closure is the goal. If a couple successfully navigates the first three steps, chances are they are ready to speak up for what they need. The key difference here is that the emotional tension has been relieved. If couples feel lowered anxiety and higher closeness to each other, it means they're on your way to cultivating trust and bonding.