Married to a Sex Addict in “Denial”

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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. 
  3. 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?


The Pause Button: Should the Sex Addict and Partner Abstain from Sex?

During  early recovery abstinence is advised

After the problem of sexual addiction has been acknowledged and some treatment has begun, many partners of sex addicts want to know whether to have sex with the addict or not.  They are not only conflicted and confused about what they feel about it but they are unsure as to what is best for their partner’s recovery.  There are no research studies on this question that I know of and the factors involved vary from one couple to another, not least of which is whether the couple are together, separated or contemplating divorce.

The prevailing wisdom among those who do sex addiction treatment is that a sex addict in the first six months to one year of recovery should abstain from all sex including sex with a partner or spouse.  The reason most often given for this is that the addict probably has a long-standing pattern of using sex as a drug and as an escape.  He or she is seen as needing to have a period of “withdrawal” much like getting free of any other addiction such as alcohol or drugs, in order to allow the body and brain to regain some normal balance and allow the addict to begin to learn new and different coping skills and ways of dealing with life other than escaping into sex or sexual fantasy.

Having sex with their partner may be a bad idea for a sex addict in early recovery because it impedes their recovery:

  • It does not allow for the neural “reset” that lets the addict brain to begin to “re-wire” itself.  In other words, it keeps the addiction going by giving the addict a small amount of the “drug.”
  • The addict in early recovery will likely revert to his or her addictive fantasies during sex with a spouse or partner.  This means that the addict is not really having sex with the partner but is using the partner to re-live addict behaviors in their mind.  This is sometimes referred to as “euphoric recall.”
  • Part of the addict’s recovery is learning how to integrate sex into a normal relationship vs. keeping up a separate and secret sexual life.  Early in recovery the addict will be lacking in the intimacy skills necessary for a healthy relationship.  Only in the context of a healthy relationship can there be a healthy sexual relationship.

Having sex early recovery may be a bad idea for the partner because it is for the wrong reasons:

  • They feel the need to have sex with their spouse or partner to “compete” with the object of the addiction or to prove their attractiveness.  Partners of addicts should never take this on themselves.  It’s the addict’s problem and it isn’t ever about the partner!
  • They feel they are responsible for “fixing” the addict and think that having sex with them will help.  The addict needs help but not in the form of sex, even with someone they love.
  • Sometimes partners feel they should not withdraw sexually because they will be seen as “punishing” the addict.  But even if they are angry, withdrawing sexually can be a normal response to the betrayal.
  • They are trying to use sex as a way to repair the relationship.  Partners of sex addicts may be very hurt and traumatized. They need to recover from that trauma first and worry about the relationship later.
  • They have a desire for sex themselves and it makes them feel better.  This is often a misguided attempt to make things “the way they were” before the crisis.  It is understandable to feel this way but relationships in recovery need to be very different from what went before.

Bottom line, sex addiction is serious.  It requires not only a recovery from the addictive behavior but the learning of a new way of living in integrity and honesty.  The couple must lay a foundation first before deciding whether to resume a relationship on a new footing or not.  This takes a lot of time and work. Abstaining from sex in the beginning months of recovery is an important part of the process for both addict and partner.

Can a Straight Man be Addicted to Gay Sex?

A Hypothetical Case Example

The following is a hypothetical sex addiction case which presents a number of key choice points for the sex therapist or counselor.  A wife finds out that her husband has been “hooking up” with gay men for sexual encounters.  (We’ve seen more than one political scandal about just this situation.)  Needless to say the wife is shell-shocked since she thought they were relatively happily married and believed they had a fairly satisfying sex life.  This seismic jolt not only rocks her world but shakes her sense of her own identity.  The man admits to a problem and is himself confused about what is going on with him.  He feels he loves his wife but is drawn to these peculiar anonymous encounters.  He knows this is seedy at best and dangerous at worst but he has been leading a double life, fooling everyone and convincing himself that he wasn’t really being unfaithful because it wasn’t with another woman.

So this couple show up in my office, or no, they probably seek out a marriage counselor first because nobody has yet thought of the husband as a “sex addict” and my practice is limited to sex addiction.  After doing an initial assessment, many if not most marriage counselors or other therapists would likely suggest that the husband and probably also the wife be seen separately to resolve their individual issues first before trying to work on their relationship.  So first, the therapist who was treating the husband (the wife’s treatment is a whole other story) would be trying to thoroughly evaluate the husband’s psychological issues as well as his sexual orientation. 

Is He Gay, Bisexual, or Just a Sex Addict?

What should really happen first at this point is that the treating professional should evaluate whether the husband has a sexual addiction to acting out with men.  This is pretty straightforward in that there are a variety of well established evaluation tools which can help sort this out you can find a variety of self tests  online.  The newest and simplest of these tests contains only six questions and is called “PATHOS: A Brief Screening Application for Assessing Sexual Addiction” by Carnes et al.

Assume the husband is pretty addictive with his gay behavior, that he does it repeatedly over time, that he has trouble controlling the urge, that he feels bad about it, and that it results in negative life consequences.  So is he gay? bisexual? We still don’t know.  What we know at this point is that he has an “arousal template” so-called, laid down in early life that he re-enacts in brief, furtive sexual encounters that even he finds rather degrading and shameful.  Since sexually addictive behavior is almost universally believed to be related to early traumatic or formative events such as sexual abuse, the first task would be to treat the addiction and resolve the underlying issues so that the husband would no longer be driven to engage in this self-destructive acting out. 

That still leaves unanswered the question as to what his “true” sexual orientation is.  Well, we could ask him!  “Do you think you are really gay or not?”  Very likely he will not have a definitive answer for this until he knows what part of his behavior is coming from trauma re-enactment and what is coming from a sexual orientation preference. One possible scenario here is that the husband was born straight but was molested by an older male at an early age.   He may have married a woman because he “feels” heterosexual, but gets an unaccountable sexual charge from sex with men he will never see again.

Reaching Self Awareness

OK so now suppose the husband is successfully treated and is free of his addiction to back alley sex with strange men.  Now and only now he can begin to have a really healthy sexual relationship with another person that is based on honesty about who he really is and built on love and intimacy.  Since he has only recently become “intimacy literate” he will be engaged in a process of self exploration and self discovery.  But his underlying sexual orientation will now begin to govern his choices rather than his addiction.  If he prefers to be sexual with women, he may decide to try to make a go of it with is wife, or with another woman.  Or he may decide to be openly gay and seek a gay partner.  The point is now he has the option of a healthy relationship.  Somewhere in the dark reaches of his reptilian brain he may still have traces of the old patterns of warped sexual urges, but they will no longer have the power they once had over his life or his lifestyle.

What Happens in Sex Addiction Counseling?

Counseling vs. Treatment

Most of the sex addiction programs and certified sex addiction therapists (CSATs) that treat people for sex addiction make a distinction between “counseling” vs. “treatment.”  The initial approach to helping people with sex addiction  is more often thought of as “treatment.”  The difference is that when we think of counseling or therapy we tend to think of a process whereby people change because they get insights into the cause of their problems and this awareness makes them behave differently.  In treating sex addiction it is the other way around.  It is easiest to think of “treatment” for sex addiction as changing behavior first and thought processes second. 

Treatment for sex addiction can be thought of as a behavior modification program.  It does not require any in depth self analysis to embark on a program of recovery from sex addiction.  It only requires that the addict begins to believe that he or she has a problem and accepts, at least tentatively, that there is a need to get some kind of help in order to fix it.  Treatment is an “action program” requiring that the client agree to follow the directions of the treating professional, make a commitment to see the program through and complete a set of tasks designed to promote abstention from sexually addictive behavior. 

Components of the Treatment Program

Whether it is in a residential rehabilitation program, a clinic or an individual sex addiction counselor’s office, the beginning of a program for treating sex addiction involves some version of the following:

  • Acceptance
  • Action
  • Accountability

Acceptance: Understanding that the compulsive sexual behaviors in question whether they are internet pornography use, serial extra-marital affairs, prostitutes, anonymous sex, or even illegal sexual behaviors represent a hypersexual disorder, an addiction, and that it is out of the addict’s control.  Acceptance means learning enough about sex addiction to realize that it is not going to go away by itself and that no amount of will power can make it stop.  It also involves the dawning realization that the addict has been causing harm to himself and to others.

Action: A commitment to abstaining form the addictive sexual behavior and to regular participation in a program which puts a number of tools in place to help maintain sexual sobriety.  Usually the program or counselor suggests an initial period of abstinence from all sexual activity for three to six months or more. This abstinence applies to sex with anyone including a spouse and even includes masturbation.  During this period the sex addict will usually experience symptoms of withdrawal which can include cravings, strange physical symptoms, sleep disturbances, bizarre fantasies and sexual dreams.  This is because the addictive sexual behavior numbs out feelings in much the same way that drugs and alcohol can.  When that escape is no longer present, the sex addict’s body and brain will be going through a period of re-adjustment.

Accountability:  Treatment promotes sexual sobriety by teaching the recovering sex addict various tools to support the addict’s commitment to abstain from sexual “acting out” addictive behavior.  These include:

  • Education and reading about sex addiction in order to gain a better understanding of the function it serves in addicts’ lives and the process of recovery.  This includes raising the addict’s consciousness of the fact that their life has been one built on secrecy and shame and that recovery demands “rigorous honesty” from now o.
  • “Reporting in” to an individual therapist and a support group or therapy group in order to increase the recovering addict’s motivation to succeed.  The addict learns to notice signs of dishonesty, isolation, or neglect of self care which could be problematic and opens up about these struggles and the plan to improve in these areas.
  •  Attending 12-step meetings such as Sex Addicts Anonymous which allows for more support and encourages the addict to reach out to other people for support and understanding.  In behavioral programs the person is expected to reach out to someone before they act out or when they feel themselves at risk.
  • And a series of structured tasks which fill out the addict’s understanding of how they got that way, such as constructing a timeline of one’s addictive acting out behavior, inventories relating to other addictions, family history of addictions, and childhood history of abuse and/or neglect.

During the initial recovery process, the therapist or counselor serves as a combination coach, cheerleader and watchdog.  Establishing sexual sobriety is the beginning step in a much longer process of recovery.  At some time during the initial period of abstaining from sexual acting the addict will be encouraged to “disclose” to a spouse or significant other the nature of the addiction and begin the process of starting to relate on a different and more honest footing.  This disclosure is difficult for everyone and should only be done with the assistance of a sex addiction therapist or counselor.

Long Term Recovery Takes Three to Five Years

Getting honest with one’s self and others, staying honest, and staying sexually sober are the initial phases of treatment.  This is usually the first year or so of recovery.  Later phases involve personal emotional growth and resolving early childhood issues, repair of a primary relationship or starting a new one in a healthy way, dealing with issues involving family or origin, and working on issues involving children extended family, and work, so as to create a balanced, fulfilling lifestyle.


Spouse of a Sex Addict Asks: “Is it cheating?”

When spouses, partners or people who are dating a sex addict ask “Is sexually addictive behavior cheating?” what they usually mean is “Do I have a right to feel as betrayed as I feel?” or “Should I try not to take this so personally?”  After all, the partner may have been told that sex addiction is a “disease,” that it is out of the addict’s control, or that it has nothing to do with you.

As someone who is in an intimate relationship with a sex addict you are bound to feel many powerful feelings about what your partner is doing.  The sex addict’s compulsive behavior of going to strip clubs, sexual massage parlors, repeated affairs, and other even more deviant sexual compulsive behaviors will make you feel that you are being betrayed.  These sexually addictive behaviors may logically have nothing to do with you but they are almost certain to feel like cheating.

What makes the sex addict’s behavior feel like cheating is twofold:

(1)   It takes a part of your partner and removes that part of him or her from the relationship.  The whole person is not available to you.  While nobody makes 100% of themselves available to their partner all of the time, part of what makes the relationship an intimate relationship is that you and your partner are available to each other on all levels.  This includes mental, physical, emotional and sexual.  When a chunk of who your partner is as a sexual being is taken away from the relationship and invested somewhere else the natural response is feeling abandoned and betrayed.  Part of your partner is MIA.  This was not the deal!

(2)   When there is dishonesty or secrecy about the sexually addictive behavior, and there almost always is, this adds to the feeling of being cheated on.  In a committed relationship lying is interpreted as being shut out or rejected.  This is not something most people can tolerate in a partner.  After all the whole point of a committed relationship is that you are with someone who knows you and with whom you can be truly yourself.  Secrecy about anything can be experienced as a betrayal but secrecy about sexual behavior is certain to be.

Are internet porn and cybersex cheating?

What if the sexually addictive behavior involves only compulsive internet pornography use?  Or what if the behavior is limited to cybersex, “chatting” with people your partner will never meet in real life?  This is experienced by partners and spouses as a form of cheating about 99.9% of the time.  It is guaranteed to make you feel that your partner has sexual ideals and fantasies that are different from you.  This is just as true when the sexually addictive behavior is not with another real person as when it is. 


Your internal experience of any sexually addictive behavior in a partner is likely to be the same. As with all forms of sexual addictive behavior, the addictions to  pornography or cybersex makes you as a spouse or partner feel not only that your partner has removed part of him or herself from you, and that they are keeping secrets but also that it is somehow your fault.

Cheating and betrayal are as highly disturbing as they are because they make you as a partner question yourself and your relationship.  You find yourself asking:

  • Am I adequate or am I somehow deficient?  And
  • Is my partner the person I thought they were?

If the sexual addictive behavior went on for a long time before it was disclosed, you as a partner will feel as though your whole world has been shaken.  It can challenge your sense of reality even more than the cheating of a non sex addict.  “Regular” cheating may make you angry, hurt or vindictive.  But a partner with a sex addiction can be harder to fathom.  Who is this person I married anyway?  What does all this say about me?  (see Mending a Shattered Heart, Second Edition A Guide for Partners of Sex Addicts By Stefanie Carnes.)

Can sexual fantasies and looking at other men/women be cheating?

Sometimes a sex addict will attempt to act out addictive sexual fantasies with you, their partner.  If this is odd or unwelcome it may be seen as a form of cheating in that it is an attempt to have a relationship in their mind with someone who is not you, a fantasy.  Sometimes this is a matter of degree.  There is nothing necessarily wrong with fantasies, but addictive fantasies and behaviors are compulsive, they are all the addict really wants sexually.

Looking at other people may be a form of sexually addictive behavior or it may just be rude and inconsiderate.  If it is compulsive, it will likely make the partner feel rejected and unworthy.  This too can be experienced as a betrayal.

When it’s not cheating

Although all sexual addictive behaviors have an element of cheating and betrayal for the partner, not all sexual disloyalty is due to sexual addiction.  Sexual fantasies in one form or another can be a very normal part of life.  They can also be a very normal part of sex life for couples.  Looking at attractive people can be just a normal reflex for most people and may mean nothing.  Without the secrecy, the compulsiveness and the splitting off of part of your partner’s life, sexual behaviors may be disturbing but they may not be sexual addiction.  Likewise, sexual infidelity in the form of an affair may be an isolated incident.  It may cause a lot of trouble for the relationship and may even end it, but it is not necessarily a symptom of sex addiction.

However, your partner’s sexual fantasy life, their interest in other people and their tendency to look at or comment about others a lot may be a symptom of sex addiction or it may simply be a symptom of something wrong with your relationship.  If it is bothering you are not sure about what it means it is certainly a good idea to talk to your partner about it and to ask a therapist or counselor what it means.  You will either clear the air, or on the other hand you may find out there is more there than meets the eye.  Either way, it is best to know what is really going on and to take appropriate action to either repair the relationship or get help for your partner and yourself.