Why do most spouses and partners react to the discovery of sexual addiction with such a sense of total devastation? Sexual betrayal is an emotional blow that can be harder to deal with than anything, even death.
Most therapists who deal with partners of sex addicts now see the partner as experiencing severe trauma and PTSD symptoms, at least in the initial period post-discovery. This suggests a theoretical framework that can help us understand the partner’s recovery process as it proceeds.
The usual tools for dealing with hardship seem to fail us
Our usual arsenal of tools for transcending heartbreak and loss seems to break down in the face of the discovery of sexually addictive behavior in a loved one. For example:
Practicing detachment by reminding ourselves that the betrayal is not about us, and going to support groups and 12-step meetings, letting go of comparing ourselves to the addict’s other sexual interest. But detachment seems to keep slipping through our fingers and we feel a mix of strong emotions.
Educating ourselves about the disease by reading and learning about the roots of sex addiction in the early childhood attachment issues, by learning that sexual addiction is not a deliberate attempt to hurt us. But still feelings of anger and blame seem to hang around forever.
Meditation, prayer or other spiritual practice to help us realize that we did not cause the problem and we cannot cure it, and to let go of outcomes. This will work perfectly for some things; the job we didn’t get, the flooding in the basement, but in sex addiction disclosure there is something so totally unacceptable that we want to tighten our grip.
All of the above tools are very important in a partner’s recovery and should be practiced even when their efficacy seems limited. But why is sexual addiction so much harder to deal with?
Some reasons why sexual betrayal is different
Here are some factors that “up the ante” in sexual betrayal.
- The personal closeness you have to the person who has been deceiving you, the person you saw as your support system
- The abandonment by the most important person in your life (death is easier to accept because it is something that can’t be helped)
- The blow to your sense of reality
The last of these, the way sexual betrayal messes with your reality, is one of the most powerful factors. Sexual addiction is often so extreme and so out of character that it calls into question all your assumptions about “normal” life.
Surviving sexual betrayal as a grief process
I tend to think of surviving sexual betrayal as a grief process because I think it is the most useful way to look at it. I believe that seeing it this way will give you permission to take better care of yourself and to make allowances for your own healing.
- Grief is a process that follows its own course. It is also a process that is very different for different people depending on your own personal make up.
- Sexual betrayal is a loss and therefore must be grieved. It is a loss of the relationship that you thought you had and produces the same pain and abandonment as other losses.
- Recovery from sexual betrayal seems to follow the familiar stages of grief.
The initial stage of denial often takes the form of believing the addict’s false promises or trying to set up a quick cure. In other words, the belief that things could be patched up and go back to “normal” is a form of denial.
The bargaining, anger and depression stages of grief are also clearly identifiable. For example, self blame, feeling that you somehow failed, is a form of bargaining. It allows you to hold onto a feeling that you can control the situation.
The grief process is one that must be allowed to occur. Feelings must be experienced and emotions expelled in order to move through the process. There is no way to make it pleasant, but it will eventually lead to acceptance and a new and better relationship life.