Living with a sex addict: sexual betrayal may re-surface in subtle ways

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.


A sex addict’s letter from prison

Robert (no real names used) is in Federal Prison in Georgia serving a nine year sentence for photographing underage girls. He is 44, married with children.  Prior to his arrest, Robert had a 10 year history of sex addiction beginning with viewing internet pornography and evolving into viewing and creating adolescent and child pornographic material. He received intensive outpatient treatment at a clinic for sex addiction in California prior to beginning his prison sentence.  Below are excerpts from his letter from September 2011 which show his strengths, his challenges and his commitment to recovery.

Dear Linda,

…..I’m reading a great book called The Addictive Personality, by Craig Nakken.  It’s in their own library here for the drug classes.  It he says that the object of addiction can switch once an addictive personality has been established within a person.  He says when people get in trouble with one object they often switch to another one to get people off their back.  I saw some of these dynamics myself when I began to face my issues more seriously… The first day I was stopped by the FBI at LAX airport I stopped looking at any images with underage (<18) models.  That was the easiest step.  Then there was porn, your standard internet porn that millions of guys are addicted to these days.  That wasn’t so easy but with the help of Dr. Zimik (inVentura) he helped me set a goal to stop looking at porn altogether.  I was able to do this for almost a year …But I simply transferred my focus to photography and doing shoots with women in sexy outfits, sometimes nude.  It’s like squeezing a balloon, you just displace the air in the balloon, the air is still inside… it just moved to another area…

Well, on other fronts, I just switched “cellies” a few weeks ago.  My former cell mate moved because he is now in the drug program.  He was a drug dealer in Jacksonville FL.– a black guy with Bob Marly dreds and gold teeth.  He probably never worked a real job a day in his life,  he and I were not very compatible cell mates, put it that way….He stole some things from me and borrowed some stamps (about $18 worth) and refused to pay me back after months of badgering him.  He has a serious gambling addiction and I have since found out he owes several people….In a normal prison situation I would have had to “deal” with this in a violent way.  Not here. …The sex offender population have other issues but are generally normal people not trying to “get over” on anyone.  I’ve found the sex offender inmate to be socially inept and/or “nerdy”, many playing dungeons and   dragons…

I’m still working in the chow hall as a cook and I’m making and selling cakes on the week-ends….I spend about 4 hrs/wk with choir practice and several hours in Bible Study.  I will be teaching a study soon on 2 Peter….I wok out about 3-4 days/wk…I miss my family like you wouldn’t believe and still have no hope of a visit at this point.  My wife and I really don’t talk much.  I talk w/ my kids once/week – that’s going fine.  That’s all for now…

Take care,


Frequently asked questions about sex addiction: The first in a series

Is sex addiction the result of a brain disorder?

Yes, according to recent studies of brain development.  Sexual addiction is now often discussed in clinical circles as “a brain disorder manifesting in a compulsive behavior.”

Sexually addicted people very often have some history of emotional, physical or sexual abuse or neglect in their early life which is thought to cause stunting in specific parts of the developing brain. This in turn results in impairment in the brain’s ability to regulate emotional and behavioral reactions which in turn leads to over-reactions of distress and “emergency” unrelated to present day reality.  The use of a drug or an addictive behavior later in life can become a substitute for the normal mechanisms of emotional regulation such as the ability to calm oneself, to stop and think, etc.

Thus the brain of the addict has two strikes against it.  First, the person will have more difficulty maintaining their emotional equilibrium and will reach for outside substance or experience to take the place of the normal self soothing mechanisms.  Second the addict’s brain is less able to control his or her reactions and so the addict will tend to behave impulsively and without regard to consequences, especially if the behavior (drugs, sex, food etc.) offers escape from uncomfortable emotions (see also Sex Addiction is a Drug and This is Your Brain on Cyber Porn.)

With treatment the learning of new self regulating skills and new behaviors, the letting go of old reactions and the resolving of early trauma make room for different neural pathways to form. In this way the addict brain can and does heal over time

Week-End sex related news items or: why am I not shocked about pornography?

My top three stories (aside from all the hoopla about Herman Cain (see my blog  Narcissism, Sex, Power and Herman Cain 11/2/11) relate to the utterly over-the-top, flailing around that is taking place in the attempt to respond to the epidemic of internet pornography addiction and child pornography.

First is a story in the Chicago Tribune from which reports that the Wisconsin state Assembly had before it a bill to make the viewing of pornography on a school district’s computer reason to revoke a teacher’s license. This is reportedly built on the notion that teachers’ licenses should be revoked for “immoral conduct.”

What are we to make of this?  The 2010 Neilson data showed that more than 25% of those with internet access at work viewed pornography during working hours (an increase from the 2007 figures).  Another statistic from the Internet Filter Software Review states that a total of 40 millionU.S.adults regularly visit pornography websites, and that 20% of men say they access pornography at work.

My own opinion is that most attempts to outlaw pornography are probably not going to make much of a dent in the epidemic.  A second story from reports that a 22 year old man fromLong Beachdeveloped an online relationship with a 10 year old boy fromOklahomawhom he met online while they were both playing the game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 on their Xbox LIVE gaming stations.  The upshot was that the man got the boy to text him phone photos of his genitals.  I mention this disaster only to illustrate the idea that where there’s a web there’s a way and that the attempt to stem the tide of sex addiction by making pornography illegal may be as effective as prohibition was is addressing alcohol use, let alone alcohol addiction, which is to say not at all.

The third article that caught my eye was one from the New York Times with the headline “Life Sentence for Possession of Child Pornography Spurs Debate over Severity.”  This is for real. Many sensational headline cases of excessive sentences for child porn viewing turn out to be cases where the defendant had also committed “contact offenses” such as child molestation.  Not so in this case.  Here a circuit court judge inFloridaon Thursday gave a sentence of life without parole to a 26-year-old stockroom worker who had hundreds of pornographic images of children on his home computer.  The man had no previous criminal record.  The article points out that “…a growing body of scientific research shows that …many passive viewers of child pornography never molest children” and that “…we ought to punish people for what they do, not for our fear.”  The question remains whether punishing everybody who becomes obsessed with pornography of whatever kind will solve the problem anyway, even if the punishment is “appropriate.”  The whole idea of sexual obsession as a disease (like alcoholism) is lost in the debate.  So is the idea of rehabilitation and recovery through treatment.



Narcissism, Sex, Power and Herman Cain

As I watched GOP candidate Herman Cain on TV in his latest encounter with the press this morning, I was struck by one small thing.  Not that he was refusing to answer questions about his alleged sexual misconduct with employees, not that he had a negative “attitude” toward the press who were crowding in on him as he exited a speaking engagement, not that his personal security guards were aggressive in shoving the reporters out of the way so that he could even walk through the crush.

I was struck by what he said to the reporters.  Instead of saying that he was refusing to answer any questions about the harassment issue or simply stating that he would not comment on that, he TOLD the reporters not to go there!  He ordered them to leave that topic alone.  When they ignored his order and asked pointed questions about it anyway, he then scolded them angrily.  After that he expressed his irritation and that is what the media seem to have seized on, his irritability.

Why do I find this interesting?  Because it is a subtle glimpse of the narcissistic world view of someone who is a big shot celebrity, politician, or other powerful figure.  He seems to have felt that he had a perfect right to tell a group of media reporters what to do or not do.  Furthermore he seems to have felt that he had a right to be angry if they did not do what he told them.  A narcissist has trouble behaving as though other people exist.  A narcissist is grandiose, with an attitude of over-entitlement and a need to have all those around him reflect his own wonderfulness back to him.  When this doesn’t happen, he is cut to the quick; this is the “narcissistic vulnerability”.  This in turn can result in rage, rage that is turned outward in contempt for others and sometimes in the extreme, inward in a fit of despondency.

The level of over-entitlement inherent in narcissism is obviously conducive to all manner of self-centered and opportunistic behavior including exploitive sexual behavior.  The lack of awareness of other people’s needs promotes a lack of accountability and explains the seemingly delusional attitude of the politician caught in sexual misconduct, the attitude of not “getting it.”

There has been an interesting kind of chicken-and-egg debate recently about what has come to be called “acquired situational narcissism”.  In other words, does the person in power become narcissistic as a result of having been treated like the world revolves around them, or do they choose to try to become a rock star, politician, or, yes, even powerful clergyman because they already have the need to be the center of the universe in order to feel OK about themselves.  Probably the best argument I’ve heard is that basically the person started out narcissistic and got even worse when they became more powerful.

Clinicians who work with patients who engage in sexually compulsive or risky behavior are well aware that narcissistic traits are par for the course, equally in the famous and the humble.  This only suggests as has been argued by James Masterson MD, who has written extensively on narcissism, that some people are just better at being narcissists, i.e. getting where they want to be, than others.  Certainly not all narcissistic people will become sex addicts.  But whether it is acquired or there to begin with, the extreme self focus of the narcissist and their lack of empathy and tendency to see themselves as exceptional  will set the stage for sexual behavior that violates the normal boundaries.   It is not hard to see the potentially addictive nature of fame and adulation coupled with unfettered sexual gratification.  This is a potent cocktail.