When a partner discovers they are in a relationship with a sex addict they are to a greater or lesser degree in a kind of post traumatic state of shock. This means that they may not be able to sort out what they are feeling very well.
Often the first reflex is to be angry and want to reject the addict. But I have found that the partner or spouse will usually realize that the addict has a serious problem and begin to do the leg work of finding the right kind of help.
Sometimes the partner will be interested in participating in the addict’s recovery and sometimes not. Often the partner will be on the fence about whether they will be able to stay in the relationship. There are many different kinds of responses to this crisis and many different ways of coping.
Some common reactions
Some spouses and partners focus too much on the addict. They go into an emergency mode in which they concentrate their energy on the addict’s need for help that they neglect their own needs. The feeling is to get this problem solved as fast as possible and get back to “normal.” But the treatment for sex addiction will of necessity change the people involved in some profound ways and will therefore mean that the relationship will not go back to exactly the way it was.
Getting help for a sex addict partner is not like helping a partner get through knee surgery. It involves the addict getting help with problems relating to intimacy. A relationship that was one of dishonesty and compartmentalization becomes one of openness and trust. This big picture is usually hard for either partner to discern at the outset.
Some partners feel an urge to explain away the addict’s problem. They feel very invested in what they may think was a great relationship and don’t quite know how to adjust to the idea that there is a major problem. One way to attempt to get clarity is to blame themselves or other circumstances, such as a separation, a pregnancy and so on. “If such-and-such hadn’t happened then my partner wouldn’t have felt X or Y or Z and he wouldn’t have needed to engage in sexually addictive behavior.”
But the addict does have a problem and the fact that a life stressor caused it to escalate does not mean that it is not there.
Sometimes partners are so angry at their spouse or partner that even though they do not immediately decide to leave the relationship they try to completely shut out the problem. They say in effect: “I’m fine, you’re messed up and you need to go get fixed.” Meanwhile, their thinking goes, I will just get on with my life, and if you get better then we’ll be a couple again.
This is also a natural response but the fact is that although the addict’s recovery is not the partner’s responsibility, the partner does have to face up to what has happened to the relationship and to the impact that it has had on them. Eventually partners of sex addicts need to be able to recognize that the kind of betrayal they have experienced is not a small matter and that it is OK to be vulnerable to being hurt and OK to get support. We are human and we need to be able to trust those we love. And because we are human our loved ones can hurt us. This means we deserve help too.
What kind of help do partners and spouses need
The kind of support that partners need and want varies enormously. I have seen spouses so devastated by sexual betrayal that they wanted and needed a residential treatment program of their own. Other partners find it useful to get therapy with a sex addiction counselor for themselves. They need to better understand the nature of sex addiction and the fact that they didn’t cause it and they can’t cure it. They may need to learn to set boundaries, communicate their feelings more clearly and sort out, bottom line, what they are willing to accept and what they are not.
Most spouses and partners benefit from the support of other spouses and partners of sex addicts who are dealing with the same experiences. This can take the form of group therapy, 12-step programs for partners of sex addicts or co-dependents generally, on online resources for educational information and websites by and for partners of sex addicts.
It is surprising how many couples survive sex addiction and go on to thrive. The research has indicated that the participation of the spouse or partner in the process of recovery at an appropriate time is key to this success. Both the addict and the partner need to get the right kind of help and then they need to work together to rebuild their relationship. Find Dr. Hatch on Facebook at Sex Addictions Counseling or Twitter @SAResource