By Rick McKain, MAC, LPC
What’s the Connection?
Men who struggle with intimacy in relationships often entertain consistent and unrealistic sexual fantasies. From my experience working in this area, there is a reason why many of these men fantasize the way that they do. Their sexual fantasies are often failed attempts to resolve trauma that they carry around with them from childhood.
I covered some of this information in the article “Sex, Drugs, and Intimacy Issues,” which I wrote for the last New Meanings magazine. The article generated a positive response, and I was asked to write more specifically about how childhood trauma relates to sexual fantasies, and how our clients unpack these parts of their history in the BBR (Building Better Relationships) group that I lead.
As I mentioned in the last article, the BBR group started out of a need to address sex addiction with some of our clients. Over the years, it has evolved into a supportive 12-week therapeutic group that addresses issues beyond sex addiction to intimacy in general. It is an optional part of treatment here at MARR, and men volunteer to participate if they identify relationship struggles and are willing to address them.
As part of this group, participants complete and share two very significant exercises with the group, a life story exercise that helps identify trauma and an exercise looking at their sexual fantasies. These help provide a key to understanding their intimacy issues. Though intensive and difficult at times, these self-examinations viewed together can lay the groundwork for closer emotional intimacy with their partner and a stronger recovery going forward.
I help the clients map how their deep-seated pain connects to the unhealthy coping mechanisms they’ve developed. This provides these men with new information about themselves and a road map to begin resolving these traumas so they can meet their needs in more healthy ways.
Over the course of over 20 years, every single man I have worked with as a client at MARR is dealing with the trauma of abandonment on some level. And many are also dealing with the trauma of emotional invasion to varying degrees. The purpose of the Trauma Exercise is to pinpoint specific examples of when these types of harms occurred.
The clients look at their past trauma and share them with a group. By the time they’ve gotten to this phase in their treatment, they have certainly looked at and discussed some of this material before, but likely not in as much detail as is asked for in this exercise.
All the participants in the BBR group are at least 90 days sober, and as a client at MARR, this means that they have already done a First Step Exercise, a Life Story, and usually a 4th and 5th Step with their sponsor. Through these exercises, they have shared painful and difficult aspects of their story with their community members, peers, counselors, and sponsors. In all likelihood, some healing has even begun to take place related to their trauma and their capacity for intimacy.
However, the purpose of the Trauma Exercise is to really zero in on relational, sexual, and trauma history to see how these things played a formative role in shaping the way the clients view themselves and others.
In the Trauma Exercise, each man creates a timeline of events, beginning with his early life and his descriptions of early memories of his caregivers. As part of the timeline, he records painful stories about his sexual history, as well as instances of abuse or boundary violations. The exercise also includes recollections of profound disappointment, betrayal, deep embarrassments, or crises.
If this is done well, this timeline takes multiple hours to complete. In sharing the results with the group, the participants tell a version of their life story, which allows them to see that although the details may differ, many of them struggle with many of the same core difficulties.
Part of the purpose of this is to expand our idea of how our past has shaped us. For example, abandonment trauma is a broader category than most people realize. When we think of abandonment, we often think of a father or mother leaving the home, or perhaps not being around at all. This can certainly cause abandonment trauma, but abandonment can occur more subtly.
For instance, abandonment trauma also occurs when parents might be physically present, but not be emotionally available for their children. Parents don’t do this intentionally. Often, they are unable to discuss their own feelings because they were not taught how to do so. As a result, they might not be able to provide the mirroring, empathy, sense of belonging, and nurturing that every child needs to develop a stable emotional life and healthy sense of self.
An easy way to define abandonment trauma is to think of it as what didn’t happen in childhood that should have happened.
The other main type of trauma is invasion trauma, also referred to as “emotional invasion.” This usually consists of harmful messages, whether verbal or non-verbal, that got through to the person at a young age, and provide unhealthy modeling and experiences that become the familiar patterns of acting out later in life
In addition to physical abuse, Dr. Mark Laaser points out that one of the most common ways emotional invasion happens is through “put-downs” and verbal abuse. These messages can be yelled or screamed, sometimes with profanity. The message can be direct, as in: “You’re dumb, stupid, and/or ugly!” Sometimes, the message can be indirect, as in when you overhear, “I regret the day he was born; he was a pain then, and he’s always been a pain.” Emotional invasion can also come in the form of a question: “Did you screw up again? You’re always screwing up! Do it right this time, if you can.”
A simple way of defining invasion trauma is what did happen in childhood that should not have happened.
Sometimes, these violations are simple traumas, meaning that they can be traced back to isolated, life-disrupting events. Other times, they cause more complex traumas, related to repeated trauma or abuse or to repeated, subtle messages received from parents or others that they were not worthy of time, attention, and acceptance.
Regardless of the cause, the takeaway the person holds is: “I am unworthy of time and attention” or at the other end of the spectrum, “I am unworthy of having autonomy and reasonable boundaries.” This exercise helps us see where these ideas first started to take root and how they have shaped the clients.
Sexual Fantasy Exercise
To treat these deeply held negative beliefs, men often develop an active sexual fantasy life. These idealized scenarios are often attempts to resolve these traumas and soothe themselves into believing they are “man enough” or just “enough” to handle life.
We start out this exercise with the understanding that the fundamental problem in regards to sexual fantasy is not one of willpower. Most of the men I have worked with have tried, oftentimes very strenuously, to stop the problematic sexual fantasies. Whether their fantasies actually leads to infidelity, activity inconsistent with their values, a pornography addiction, or just an inability to connect with their partner on a deep level, it is something they are usually actively trying to stop, but failing to.
In the fantasy exercise, participants are asked to inventory, without judgment, the extent that sexual fantasies are part of their daily life. As the activity continues, they are asked to describe their ideal sexual fantasy in a non-graphic and straightforward way. They complete this part of the exercise as if they are to describe it like a newspaper reporter. They also share the end result of this exercise with the group, which helps to destigmatize their experience and relieve them of some of the shame they likely carry with them as a result.
It’s important that this exercise allows the clients to see and describe their fantasy objectively. This objectivity allows them to start to see their fantasy life as a symptom and response to a series of losses and traumas that they experienced in life.
Linking Their Trauma and Fantasy
I tell the men in the group that by understanding the fantasy, we can start to understand the trauma and vice versa. To help them with this, I closely read both of these exercises and give them a written synthesis of how I see their specific traumas and fantasies informing one another.
I explain to them that the objective isn’t to figure out a way to stop fantasizing. Many of them have already tried this and failed. Rather, the goal is to find healthier ways to resolve the trauma. Ultimately, healthy relationships and healthy trauma resolution will free them from fantasy.
In the synthesis I write for them, I highlight the specific ways their trauma created a vacuum. I also help them see the connection between this vacuum and the specific “magic” person and situation they have created in their fantasies. This person and situation typically embody perfect nurturing to the client by treating those sore spots of their negative self-image.
This process is not meant to lay blame on our caregivers or create resentments. We must avoid these tendencies. Rather, the purpose of the work is to give the clients the space to grieve what was missing. Emotional healing takes place when we accept that we can’t return to the past and get the love and nurturing that we needed when we were younger. Even if the people who abandoned them are more available today, it can’t make up for what was missed in childhood. Accepting that means that they must grieve the loss.
The written synthesis of their trauma and fantasy helps them to see how their trauma has fueled the energy for their sexual fantasies. In presenting their individual reports to the men at the end of the group, I stress that they can heal from these wounds. But healing takes time, and they may need help. I highly recommend that they take the information that we have gone over to an individual therapist for them to continue to work on. It is a lot to process.
This work is meant to allow space for grieving and growth, and, if done thoughtfully, this type of trauma work will not create a sense of victimhood. In fact, such understanding offers us increased capacity for empathy, forgiveness, and intimacy.
As part of wrapping up the group, the men create a Mission Statement where they decide what direction they want for their life going forward. Through this, they get to see that they are not defined by past hurts. They then are on firm ground to use the difficult parts of their past for healthy growth and connection with others in the future.
As the A.A. Literature so beautifully states: “No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we can use our experience to benefit others.”
In other words, no matter how great the hurt received or inflicted on others is, I firmly believe that with proper healing there is always a way for good to come from the past when it is truly embraced and understood.