Pure Intimacy: God's Design for Sex


How Do People Become Addicts? (Part 1)

Unresolved family trauma is at the root of most major life conflicts facing individuals and families.

by Steven Earll, MA, MS, LPC, LAC
It's 4:00 am and once again Sandy has spent the night online in sex chat rooms. At times like this, when she is tired and vulnerable, she asks herself how she has come to this place in her life. She feels ashamed when she thinks about the drive to fantasize, talk, flirt, and possibly "hook up" with faceless men. Sandy thrives on the attention, mystery and danger that have become the sum of her sexual life.

This excitement is familiar. Sandy grew up with a mother who was addicted to pills and a father who valued his sons and ignored his daughters. When she was twelve, she discovered her father's collection of Playboy magazines and was fascinated by the perfect bodies and the obsession that men seemed to have concerning sex. In her teen years she discovered that she could get male attention by using her body and control men through sex. These relationships never fulfilled the need for love from her parents and caused deeper emotional pain. Years later Sandy is driven by a need to feel loved and complete. Now, however, her sexual behavior is out of control.

One of the most common questions that visitors to Pure Intimacy ask is: "What causes a person to become addicted to pornography?" Numerous variations, such as "How could a Christian become addicted?" crop up, but all of these variations lead back to the underlying point: why do people become addicts?

After spending years studying the issue and counseling addicts, I can tell you that addictions are very complex. Yet, I also know that many people who engage in harmful behavior (even if they would not be clinically diagnosed as an addict) do so as a result of unresolved family trauma.

Unresolved family trauma is at the root of most major life conflicts facing individuals and families. Addictions, personal dysfunction, relationship conflicts, divorce, and abusive behaviors often find their origins in a painful family history. All families and individuals encounter trauma at some point in their lives; the way we handle trauma often determines how it will affect our lives and our family's life for years—or generations—to come. When an individual or family does not seek to heal these wounds, the legacy of trauma is often passed on to the next generation in varying degrees.

This leads us to the unspoken part of the question posed above. If we understand what causes addictions, won't we then know how to cure them? For some people, simply having a personal revelation will open a vital door to helping them stop their harmful behavior. Others may need to put forth a much greater effort to overcome their patterns or addictions. In most cases what is often thought of as a "behavioral" problem, such as alcohol, drug, or pornography abuse, involves deep-rooted wounds. The behaviors are the visible aspect of something going wrong in an individual's life. But like the tip of an iceberg, what is going on below the surface is far more dangerous. Identifying the deeper wounds allows an individual and a family to move toward recovery and healing.

Not all people who experience unresolved trauma will develop addictions, but any unresolved trauma can prevent a person from enjoying life fully and from relating intimately with others. The less unresolved trauma in our lives, the more likely we will develop healthy relationships, happy homes, and joyful and fulfilling lives.

Defining Trauma
Understanding exactly what constitutes trauma will help identify it in our lives. Trauma can be understood as a severe psychological stress, injury, loss, or wound. Put more simply, it's any experience that wounds the soul. Family trauma can include some of the following: loss of relationships through separation, divorce, death, addictions, major illnesses, absent parents, deprivation or neglect, or emotional, physical, and sexual abuse.

It is no surprise to say that trauma is a part of life. All families experience varying degrees of trauma such as illness, relocation, end–of-life decisions, "empty nest," and death. Some families are able to handle trauma in a healthy manner while other families are destroyed by similar circumstances. Many factors need to be considered when talking about a family or an individual's response to trauma, but certain basic components contribute to a healthy response to trouble.

Psychological and spiritual health depends on the ability of an individual or family to:

  1. Face a trauma;
  2. Work through the issues involved in the trauma;
  3. Grieve the traumatic event or process;
  4. Move into healing.

When the emotions of a trauma are acknowledged, personal and family issues needing to be addressed become clearer. A plan for healing involves spiritually and psychologically addressing, grieving, and working through each area of trauma.

This is not to say such a process is easy. Many families do not know how to work through a trauma or, because of a number of issues, are unable to do the work necessary to find proper closure and healing. Individual and family dysfunction results from the improper response to trauma.

In dysfunctional families, the reaction to trouble includes:

  1. Denial of trauma;
  2. Avoidance of working through trauma issues;
  3. Running from grief emotions; and
  4. Not allowing healing.

This avoidance/denial process allows unresolved trauma to become a destructive force in a family's lives.

Family Trauma
Family trauma can be divided into five major categories (this division may not account for every possible situation.):

  1. Family Loss;
  2. Unpredictable Families;
  3. Families where Children Take on Adult Roles;
  4. Families of Deprivation;
  5. Families of Emotional, Physical and Sexual Abuse.

Each category alone constitutes trauma, but, in reality, most individuals and families struggling with addictions and other major dysfunction experience multiple situations.

Read part two of this article.

Copyright © 2004 Steve Earll. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.

About the author

Steve Earll is a Licensed Professional Counselor and a Licensed Addictions Counselor in private practice specializing in family trauma, addictions, co-dependency, and recovery issues in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Steve has conducted training with therapists, educators, and churches concerning issues of addictions and family trauma in the United States, Canada, Europe, and the Mid-East.