The partner’s experience
If you have ever been around someone who is “in denial” of their sex addiction (or any other addiction) you probably know that it is difficult if not impossible to convince them that they have a problem which requires help. The sex addict may be exhibiting what looks like a preoccupation or obsession with one or more sexual behaviors which are obviously causing any number of difficulties. They may be spending a small fortune on strip clubs and lap dances, they may be wasting half their day hooking up for casual sex online, and they are most certainly leading a “double life” with many excuses, secrets and lies.
These behaviors seem blatantly destructive to the addict and undoubtedly cause pain to those around them. The fact that the addict continues a pattern of secrecy can be crazy making for the partner. Partners may be deceived about what is going on, but even if they have some clear knowledge about the addict’s behavior, they have little or no effect in changing it. Partners sometimes blame themselves for the addict’s problems and think that they can help the addict get better without treatment, but this is always a dead end. Often the partner threatens to leave and then the addict finally goes for help. Even then, the addict who shows up in my office or in rehab is likely to be still in the grip of a powerful system of denial. He will state that the reason he is getting help is: “to keep my wife happy.”
The delusional aspect of denial
To understand why denial is so powerful I think it is necessary to understand the factors that underlie the addict’s ability to remain oblivious of the meaning and consequences of his or her behavior. Even when the behavior is exposed, the addict still finds ways to deny that it is a problem. This can only be seen as delusion. Denial is a form of delusion and as such it is very persistent and difficult to confront head on. The mystery for many people is where this delusion comes from and why it persists in the way that it does. There are three levels of processing on which denial takes place: memory (ignorance), thought (dissonance) and emotion (shame).
Denial is built on three very powerful factors.
- Ignorance. For most sex addicts the seeking of a sexual “high” outside of their normal life is all they know. They literally have no concept of how it would be to be in a marriage or other intimate relationship in which a sex life with that partner was fulfilling. Usually this is due to their early life experience where for any number of reasons they may never have seen expressions of romantic love, intimacy and commitment in their parents or other adult “models”. They may see what seem like happy couples leading a normal sex life, but they don’t “get” it on some deeper level. Even if they crave it, it seems inconceivable for them.
- Dissonance. Still you might say “well the addict knows that the behavior is somehow not OK in that he or she hides it from everyone!” Yes the addict does know that the behavior goes against the value system of those around him and this creates a tension on a deep level. In order to neutralize this tension or dissonance of ideas, the addict must come to believe that having a compartmentalized secret life is necessary and justified. An elaborate system of beliefs may come into existence in order to render acceptable that which is clearly not acceptable. Since the addictive behavior is a compulsive way of dealing with life, it will be impossible by definition for the addict to simply decide to stop engaging in the behaviors. Instead to the extent that the addict thinks about it at all, any number of rationalizations spring up to keep the dissonance at bay. Even in the early days of treatment, many addicts will strongly assert that they are basically “good”; they see their sexual behaviors as though they were distinct from who they “are” as a person.
- Shame. A related aspect of the personality of sex addicts is an underlying feeling of lack of self worth and a feeling that no one has or ever will really know them and accept them. Addicts tend to believe they are unique in their unworthiness and come to feel that their special badness renders them hopeless and beyond help. Any time they come close to being found out or seeking help, the threat to their sense of who they are is so great that they withdraw. Shame is the emotional side of the equation. It is a feeling so powerful that addicts cannot expose themselves to others, even others in support groups for other addicts! The shame not only supports the addict’s belief that he is not worth helping; it keeps him trapped in secrecy. For many sex addicts (including many addicted clergy) the denial takes the form of a delusional role in life, the pillar of the community, the ideal father, wife, husband and so on. The knowledge of the shameful hidden behavior feeds the sense of a lack of a real and decent sense of self.
Getting past denial
Dealing with the various forms that the addict’s delusional thinking takes is the first task for the therapist and it is the first step in a 12-step “anonymous” program. It involves education and information, exploration of the addict’s behavior and feelings in a safe setting, support group participation and a great deal of faith that a better life is possible.
For the addict, getting to the point of admitting the problem and admitting that he or she needs treatment is often a long process in itself. Often there is a crisis in which a spouse or partner discovers part of the addict’s pattern of behavior. The addict may continue to lie, make promises and give explanations which are only partly or not at all comforting to the spouse. These are attempts to maintain the addiction and placate the partner. They are not reassuring because there is no real recognition of the problem. The addict is still basically in denial.
What partners can do
Spouses and partners of sex addicts can and should take a stand about what the addict needs to do. If the addict does not get appropriate treatment then the partnership will be untenable. After consulting a sex addiction specialist, the partner should make an unequivocal stand regarding the need for whatever treatment is indicated. Dragging the addict to a marriage counselor will not cause the addict to budge as long as the partner is being wishy-washy about the problem. Therapists cannot make addicts get treatment. Very often it is the crisis and the initial leverage of the resulting consequences for marriages, careers etc. that propels the addict into treatment and ultimately into recovery.
For more information for partners of sex addicts and sex addicts see the getting help tab at my home page and also explore the self tests tab and the literature available at Gentle Path Press. See also my related blog Are you living with a sex addict?