Along with the X-rated images, texts and endless satire surrounding Anthony Weiner's erotic online exchange that emerged this week, came scrutiny over its timing. Whether the graphic texts took place before or after – and if after, how much after – Weiner's 2011 resignation from Congress due to similar behavior commanded the course of much media coverage. But the focus on those details obscures another question and one that's more difficult to answer: Why?
Why would someone repeatedly indulge in self-destructive behavior, especially when the stakes are so high? Why would Weiner dare to sacrifice his mayoral aspirations and marriage for steamy online interludes that have already cost him turmoil? Yes, we've wondered this countless times before – why President Clinton would risk his presidency for a fling with an intern, or why anyone, from a friend to a cousin to ourselves, has a compulsion for drugs, sex, food or alcohol.
In Weiner's case, we don't know if his behavior is born of entitlement or even narcissism, a level of self-absorption that crowds out concern for others. Maybe he subconsciously wants to sabotage his marriage, or maybe he doesn't know how to seek out his sexual desires within his marriage. Maybe he's just a really big jerk.
What we do know, according to mental health experts interviewed for this article, is that Weiner's behavior is a compulsive coping mechanism that delivers short-term highs and long-term lows.
"Usually men with compulsive, self-destructive behavior patterns like this are out of control and desperately seeking a high – caught in the rush of fantasy and danger – often driven by longstanding feelings of depression and/or shame," Boston area psychologist Lynn Margolies wrote in an e-mail. Specifically, "men involved in compulsive sexual acting out are experts at compartmentalizing, which allows them to maintain a double life, until the two worlds collide." The consequences of their behavior aren't properly assessed because they are carrying two identities and "driven by a fantasy that makes them feel powerful," she says.
Of course, many of the men who engage in such conduct already are powerful. But having achieved a high position typically indicates high testosterone, which correlates with an intense drive for sex and risk, says sex and relationship expert Laura Berman, host of the Oprah Winfrey Network's "In the Bedroom with Dr. Laura Berman." Berman speculates that Weiner has a "compulsive need for that raw, dirty kind of demeaning sex that he can't figure out how to bring into the relationship with his wife" or perhaps is embarrassed by or "thinks she won't accept."
Complicating matters for anyone suffering from these tendencies is the ubiquitousness of online pornography, which is often interactive, and the blurred boundaries that can create.
"A lot of men will say, 'This isn't cheating, because I never physically laid hands on this person,'" Berman relates and urges couples to establish ground rules, noting that Facebook indiscretions are cited in 1 in 5 divorces these days. "My general rule of thumb is if you are in a monogamous relationship, you should not be acting, speaking or writing in ways that you wouldn't do with your partner standing right next to you," she says. "If you want a really safe litmus test, that's it."
Another litmus test? If your sexual behavior is creating negativity in your life, then it's unhealthy, says Los Angeles-based sex therapist Chris Donaghue. "The goals of relationships and sexuality are nourishment, they're pleasure, they're partnership. They're supposed to be enhancing," he says. "If you're in a committed marriage or monogamous relationship, you find a way to express your sexuality that honors those commitments you've made."