Woman with alcoholIf you are unfamiliar with the complexities of substance abuse and recovery, you may be scratching your head.  But if you or someone you're in relationship with has had the unfortunate experience of becoming addicted to alcohol, prescription medications, or street drugs, then you may have seen the connection firsthand. 

In my book, Sex, Love, & Mental Illness: A Couple's Guide to Staying Connected I include a chapter on substance abuse and sexuality.  In researching the chapter and in my experience with clients, people sometimes abuse substances because of problems with their sexuality as well as their ability to form an intimate, loving relationship.  Conversely, substances can cause sexual problems, not just physical problems but emotional problems, in relationships.

Look at alcohol, for example.  Many people begin drinking at a young age to be able to fit in with some of their peers.  Alcohol makes them feel confident and cool.  This (false) feeling of confidence is what allows many people to become sexually active, often impulsively and before they are emotionally prepared.  As most people know, if they are otherwise uptight about sex, alcohol can make someone relaxed enough to enjoy it.  It isn't unusual for me to hear someone who has become sober, though, state that they no longer get aroused.  That's because they were depending on the substance to do the job for them.  Sometimes people who drink become promiscuous because alcohol loosens impulses and the attention the drinker gets boosts a weak ego.

Alcohol is also used to mask feelings associated with depression, anxiety, and even sexual abuse.  Since a person's feelings are numbed, it makes it difficult, if not impossible, to make a truly close emotional relationship with someone.  Although they may go through all the motions of being in a relationship, most people eventually recognize that the person whom they're with is more interested in drinking than most anything else–including sex.

Seeing partners of people who drink to excess (I'm using careful language here, as only an alcoholic can call him- or herself an alcoholic) in my practice is heartbreaking.  They usually love whole heartedly the good side of their alcohol using partner, but find the flip side–usually expressed as irritation, anger, sarcasm, and blame–unbearable.  In this age of easy divorce, most end up leaving–but not before spending huge amounts of time and energy trying to salvage a relationship damaged by drinking.

Alcohol is also sometimes abused by men to prolong intercourse, or by women to facilitate orgasm.  If the person becomes sober, they may go into a panic.  But, perhaps they will face what is driving their alcohol use in the first place; learning more about one's sexuality and how it connects with one's self-worth can be a highly motivating reason to stay sober.

Are you sober, but struggling with sexual problems?  Do you sense that your partner's substance abuse is getting in the way of your relationship pleasure?  Have you sensed that one of the reasons you drink is because you don't feel good about your sexuality?  Calling a sex therapist for an opportunity to explore and understand these possibilities might be a very important part of your journey to become healthy and whole.