What counts as sexual betrayal?
When we think of being sexually betrayed by a partner who has a problem with sexual addiction we typically think of sex with someone other than us. But sexual betrayal can take many forms; just as sexual addiction can take many forms (see Defining Sex Addiction, The Ten Types). Any of a wide range of behaviors can be experienced as sexual betrayal including visiting sexual massage parlors, going to strip clubs, hiring prostitutes, sexually spying on others, exposing oneself in public, and reading or viewing pornography. These are obvious forms of sexual betrayal and a sex addict may engage in any or a combination of these and more. Often a spouse or partner will have only a vague intuition that there is something going on, but it is important to listen to that intuition and find out as much as possible, even when a person denies everything. The head-in-the-sand approach doesn’t work!
After uncovering the sexual betrayal is the partner a victim, policeman, or enabler?
Most often the disclosure of sexual addiction is experienced as extreme betrayal by a partner no matter what the sexual behavior. Typically a partner finds out about the sexual “acting out” gradually, as the addict is forced to admit to the full extent of his or her behavior. What follows is an attempt by the spouse or partner of the addict to get the addict to change. This is usually met with little or no success unless the addict agrees to get into some form of treatment. Here the spouse or partner is in a horrendous emotional situation in which he or she likely feels the symptoms of acute posttraumatic stress due to the traumatic nature of betrayal, and is put in the position of trying to find “help” for the betrayer. Worse still, the partner is expected to support the addict’s recovery and refrain from “enabling” the addiction. This is a hopelessly confusing emotional rollercoaster. At this point it is normal to feel extreme feelings of all kinds, grief, paranoia, rage and self doubt.
So what is the best approach for a spouse or partner?
First and foremost, the partner of a sex addict needs to take care of him or herself. No matter what the partner’s problems, it is important that they get all the support and help they can without feeling guilty. Second, it is very important for a spouse or partner to hold the addict accountable and not give in to the addict’s need to dodge the issues or make some weak partial gesture toward getting treatment. Often it is the spouse or partner who gives the counselor the ammunition they need to get the addict to follow through (up to and including being willing to walk away). During the addict’s recovery, the partner will be the most help to the addict by keeping them accountable. The pitfall here is when the addict wants to find a way to make it the spouse’s fault if they fail to get better! It’s never the partner’s fault.
What about the long haul?
Living with a recovering sex addict has its own serious challenges. The spouse or partner may experience “mini-betrayals” in which the addict wishes to get away with a watered down version of some previous acting out behavior. An example would be seeking out input that is not strictly speaking pornography but still gives the addict a “charge”, or contacting an old girlfriend on the internet to “see how she’s doing and catch up” and so on. These min-betrayals can get quite subtle, like excessively looking at other women or men, flirting in a supposedly “harmless way” and talking about friends in a very sexual manner. It is not wrong to confront the addict about these behaviors and to demand that they stop. If the addict is in pretty good recovery by then he or she will recognize that you are right or at least agree to stop doing the behavior just to be on the safe side. Unless the sex addict can do and say the things that make their partner feel safe and trusting, then the sexual betrayal is still going on in some form or other.