Evaluating people in sexual terms is becoming a more common cultural phenomenon as opposed to just one of the sex addiction symptoms. There are increasingly sexualized imagery appearing across all media. Cocktail waitresses and centerfolds have always looked sexy, but now our TV news anchor seems to look more and more like a former beauty queen at a singles party. At some point most people can begin to separate love from mere physical lust. But for sex and love addicts this can be a difficult distinction. One of the sex addiction symptoms is the avoidance of real intimacy with a partner and the seeking out of an intense “experience” with a fantasy object of some sort. The real relationship in the sex addict’s life, if there is one, is likely to be somewhat alienated, even when there is an apparent feeling of attachment. This is not universally true of course but often the same addict who says he loves his wife will avidly seek out online encounters with people he barely knows, or build elaborate fantasies around his “relationship” with a sexual masseuse or believe that he will be able to date his favorite stripper. Many addicts in and out of relationships feel a strong and seemingly delusional pull to connect with people they relate to only sexually and sometimes only in their minds. Sex addiction symptoms and behaviors impact a relationship in that the addict is partly “gone,” and this is what often gives partners and spouses the feeling that something is wrong even when they can’t prove it and the addict denies it. Mistaking sex for love can spread in families Children The culture at large tends to encourage young people to view others (and themselves) increasingly in sexual terms. Children are exposed to sexually explicit material at younger and younger ages not only in online pornography but also in print media, music videos, movies, TV and gaming. Hopefully most will grow up to be relatively normal in sexual and relationship terms. What happens to children of sex addicts is that they may be given covert messages about sex that cause confusion. It does not matter whether the addict is an outwardly puritanical while secretly leading a double life, or whether he is more overtly sexual in his talk and attitudes toward people. The result is the same for the children. The message gets through that sex is crucial. In the puritanical message sex is given extreme importance through being seen as too dangerous even to talk openly about. And as Patrick Carnes has pointed out the puritanical façade promotes sexual duplicity as the norm. In the overtly sexual parent there may be much discussion of other people’s looks or sexual attributes or even inappropriate focus on the sexual features or attractiveness of the child or their friends. This conveys to the growing child or adolescent that they are and will be evaluated and found worthy or not in terms of their sexual appeal. Partners Partners and spouses of sex addicts tend to be lead down the same path in various ways. If the partner or spouse is a woman she will have experienced the cultural pressure to be sexually “hot” from a very early age. If a core belief of the addict is that “sex is my most important need” then the woman who is the partner of the addict may internalize the corresponding belief that “sex is the most important sign of love.” Long before discovering the sex addiction, partners of addicts may be conditioned to believe that their value as a woman or spouse is largely in their sexual desirability. This can be reinforced in many subtle ways by a sex addict. I had a voyeuristic sex and porn addict tell me that he knowingly pointed out attractive men to his wife in order to clear the way for him to fixate on other women. In this way the addict can normalize his preoccupation with sex both for himself and in his wife’s eyes. Another addict in his 60’s that I worked with fixated on and ogled young girls. He made frequent comments to his wife about women being old or “long in the tooth,” etc. Sometimes women will begin to be more overt in making sexual comments about other men as a way to restore parity, to get back at the partner, and to defend against her own fear of being sexually evaluated. A word about sexual betrayal Most of the literature on partners of sex addicts emphasizes the fact that of all the sex addiction symptoms the deception, secrecy and breach of trust are seen by partners as the most traumatic aspects of the discovery of betrayal. But the fact that the betrayal is a seen as a sexual rejection (even if some would say that logically it isn’t) is likely to be experienced as a rejection of the whole relationship. It can and does feel like the end of what is most essential to them and to their bond of love. Find Dr. Hatch on Facebook at Sex Addictions Counseling or Twitter @SAResource
Many sex addiction therapists base their thinking on the idea that real or “relational” sex, sex with a real person as opposed to porn, cybersex or masturbation is healthier in some way. They tend to believe that a preference for non-relational sex is not entirely healthy and that it is often the basis of sexual addiction.
Other clinicians and many people generally feel that it is wrong to place relational sex on a pedestal.
Some think non-relational sex is just as valid a form of sexual expression and feel that the other side is just being moralistic and narrow-minded. I will look at some of the arguments on either side.
The argument for fantasy sex
- All sex is about domination fantasies anyway
Experts have argued that all sexual arousal relates in some way to fantasy and that all sexual fantasy has ultimately got something to do with domination and submission. It doesn’t matter whether you are dominant or submissive, so the argument goes, your arousal relates ultimately to a fantasy involving unequal power.
This argument suggests that there is not so much to choose between the real person and the virtual one if the fantasy content that arouses us sexually is basically the same.
- All sex can be used for damaging purposes
The pro relational sex folks might argue that relational sex is somehow more humane and less prone to exploitive or criminal behavior. But the other side would argue that sex with a partner can be just as exploitive and potentially harmful in certain circumstances and that solitary sex such as masturbation to porn or fantasy can be seen as safe and humane.
- The preference for relational sex is a religious leftover
This argument assumes that if you are not an anything-goes “liberal” then you are a conservative throw-back. It ignores the fact that there are increasingly arguments coming from the gender justice, humanist and neo-feminist camps that view pornographic fantasies as corrosive on grounds other than traditional ones. The “liberals” argue that there is nothing wrong with heightening arousal through imagery and fantasies that add an air of mystery or the forbidden and that sexual experimentation is normal and healthy.
The argument for relational sex
- Deception, secrecy and shame
We don’t blatantly look at pornography in public or engage in cybersex in front of friends and relatives and so there must be something inherently shameful about it. Although the secrecy may add to the arousal, it can also be construed as promoting a secret life and a splitting off of sexuality from relationships.
Having a secret life is an integral part of sex addiction and so the pro relational sex people might see that what started out as a harmless promoter of fantasy arousal can become a compartmentalized way of life.
- Cybersex leads to losing track of reality
People who engage in cybersex can present themselves as other than who they really are. This is based on the problematic belief that no one would want them as they really are. But this can lead deeper into fantasy life and away from reality.
Sex addicts who engage in behaviors like online relationships, phone sex and even massage parlors and prostitutes can and do become very fantasy ridden about the person they have the make-believe relationship with. They can become semi-delusional about what is really going on in the “relationship.”
- Relational sex is more gender equal
A recent article reported that sex in an onging relationship provided more equal satisfaction to both partners in terms of such things as orgasm and equal amounts of giving and receiving of oral sex when compared to having sex with someone you were not dating or just met.
Another line of argument says that sex outside of a real relationship with another person is sexual objectification. And a host of ill effects of sexual objectification are talked about; everything from eating disorders to an increase in cosmetic surgery among teens. See any of the excellent work by professor Robert Jensen like “Pornography is What the End of the World Looks Like.”
There is no question that there are major changes going on in the realm of real and virtual relating as well as changes in the way relationships are established and conducted. My own feeling is that we are in a period of great turmoil and confusion about where it will all end up. This in turn breeds overblown fear and polarized attitudes. But real connecting with another person is a huge part of what makes us human, and I for one believe it’s here to stay. Find Dr. Hatch on Facebook at Sex Addictions Counseling or Twitter @SAResource
People in the addiction field have long argued that alcoholism, for example, is a “family disease”. This is often framed in terms of Family Systems Theory which posits that “This family system is a complex whole that cannot be understood by examining members separately.” As new forms of compulsive behavior such as sex addiction have been added to the list of addictions, the tendency has been to see these as also being “family diseases”.
But in the field of sex addiction treatment this idea has been challenged of late and the emphasis has shifted away from seeing the partner as part of the same problem to seeing the partner as experiencing serious trauma following the discovery of sex addiction in their significant other. Many writers and advocates for partners of sex addicts object strenuously to the use of terms like co-dependent or co-addict (see for example). Some even discourage partners from attending partner 12-step programs (link t) because they may to use the term “co-dependent” and/or encourage examination of the partners’ own role in the problem.
A triple bind
As I see it, many partners of sex addicts are caught in a number of cross-currents. They want to do what is best for their partner and are often genuinely able to see that the addict is suffering from a “disease” that he or she cannot control. And yet the spouse is likely to be experiencing a great deal of traumatic stress due to the seriousness of the betrayal and the shattering of their world as they knew it. And in addition, the partner must grapple with how and whether to proceed as a couple (or family). In other words the partner of a sex addict may be confused about what is best for him (the addict), for me, and for us.
In a nutshell, partners need help and support but they don’t need to be blamed.
How best to support yourself
In my post Discovery of Sex Addiction in a Partner: What to Do First I outlined some of the main steps that partners can take in the initial phase of post discovery crisis. I think one of the most important points is that the partner is likely to be in a PTSD state and is therefore likely to experiencing strong emotions, confusion and even irrational thinking. Do not get down on yourself if you do things that seem dumb or crazy in retrospect.
This is to be expected, and it means that getting support and help for yourself will be crucial. It also means that at this point you may not be a very “good wife” because your focus needs to be on yourself. Counseling with someone who has expertise in sex addiction, and participation in a partner support group either through a clinic or through a 12-step program is great if you find it works for you.
The pitfalls of any support group are
-that it might make you feel labeled by the term “co-dependent”,
-that it might encourage you to adopt a victim role when that is not what you need, and
-that it could and sometimes does, turn into a gripe session.
On the positive side support groups help you to
-realize you are not alone,
-get validation for what you experience,
-be comforted by others who care about you, and
-pick up a lot of useful information from other partners.
There are a number of websites and blogs specifically for partners and spouses of sex addicts and they are all good and helpful. Here are just a few of the sites I like are:
Can you support your partner in a way that is not “co-dependent”?
The answer is clearly “yes”. Co-dependence can best be thought of as problem solving behaviors that don’t work. For example, if in the past you sensed there was something wrong in your relationship but didn’t trust your own intuition. You may have decided to avoid a confrontation and accept an explanation that really didn’t hold water. We do things for all kinds of reasons that may or may not lead to effective action.
I believe the most effective action that partners can take involves using the leverage that they and they alone have to get the addict to accept treatment. Denial is the norm for sex addicts and they don’t want to give up their addiction. Spouses and partners are in a unique position to exert the necessary pressure to get the addict to accept help in the first place. When threats and pleas don’t work, it may mean separating from the relationship for a while. Whatever gets the addict expert help is a good start.
Additionally, I have seen many sex addicts who have followed through with successful recovery motivated largely by the desire to win back their spouse and rebuild their relationship. And both partners often find it helpful to work together on recovery once the situation has stabilized.
But ultimately you as a partner need to develop a clear idea of your own boundaries—of what will be acceptable to you in a relationship in the long run and what not. You do this for yourself but it also benefits your partner.
If you are dating someone who has admitted to a past history of addictive sexual behavior you will need to know what to expect going forward. If the person you are dating has been in sex addiction treatment for upwards of a year or more, then the chances are that he (or she) will not relapse into the prior behavior. Or at least will not take up the full-blown version of the compulsive behavior such as cybersex, prostitutes, pornography, anonymous sex, and so on.
Positive signs to look for
You should feel encouraged by signs that the addict is in “good” recovery. Here are some of the indicators that the person has done the necessary work on himself and is ready for a healthy relationship.
Recovery history: The addict has had some combination of appropriate treatment and self help support programs such as therapy with a certified sex addiction therapist, treatment in a residential or intensive outpatient program if needed, group therapy, 12-step group participation.
Commitment to growth: The addict makes his own recovery a high priority in his life. He continues to work on himself and to be engaged with other people in recovery. You feel in your “gut” that you can trust him to be aware of and take responsibility for his own continued growth.
Insight: The addict is aware of what went wrong in his past relationships and understands how he retreated into his addiction, avoided intimacy, and hurt his partner. He understands that the relationship dynamics of the past are no longer what he wants.
Healthy communication: The addict is open and honest about what he feels and communicates his needs. He doesn’t heap blame on his past partners or project blame onto you. He takes responsibility when he is wrong.
Problems to expect
Sex addicts can be expected to have residual intimacy issues. They come out of the initial stage of recovery vastly changed in many ways, but they will still be fearful of relationships will have imperfect relationship skills.
Bonding problems: Addicts often have had early attachment issues with parents or grown up without ever having any appropriate models of healthy bonding. They may fear abandonment and feel that commitment is dangerous. If this is a problem they need to work on it in therapy.
Other addictions: Addicts seldom have just one addiction. Researchers have found that 83% of sex addicts interviewed had at least one other addictive behavior.
Subtle acting out behaviors: It is not unusual for subtle mini-behaviors to creep in such as contacting an old girlfriend “to catch up,” or looking at “harmless” videos on facebook or ads on craigslist. These things may not mean anything but sometimes they can be driven by the addiction in unconscious ways. They may seem eminently “deniable.”
Issues around sex: The recovering sex addict will often have had little or no experience with healthy sexual relationships. He may be ambivalent or avoidant about sex. Sometimes the addict will try to bring addictive behaviors into the relationship in some way. This may or may not be OK with you.
What to do?
Ask a lot of questions: Don’t be afraid to pry. Make sure you get the details of the addicts sexual acting out behavior. Many times addicts will give people a “sanitized” version of what their lives were like before. Often they will leave out a whole set of behaviors that they are to embarrassed to talk about. You need to know these things even if you don’t think you want to.
Don’t be placated: Addicts have spent many years not talking about things and just saying whatever they think someone wants to hear. This means they haven’t ever gotten used to talking about their feelings and needs with anyone. Let your addict know when he is not being open and when he seems to be putting you off. He needs to practice asking for what he wants.
Be clear about what you want: Set appropriate boundaries for yourself including what you are OK with sexually. Protect yourself and decide what your limits are. Likewise be clear about what you want in a relationship and make sure you ask your addict what he is looking for in a relationship. This is not being pushy, it’s important.
Get connected: Talk to other people or go to one of the many websites that deal with partners of sex addicts and get as much support and information as you can. Educate yourself about sex addiction, and if the relationship gets serious, feel free to make an appointment wit a certified sex addiction therapist to discuss things. Getting therapy together at some point is never a bad idea.
Nothing is for sure when it comes to relationships but dating someone in good recovery, particularly if you have done some work on yourself, can be very rewarding. You may end up in the best relationship ever. But if so that will be because you too are committed to learning and growing. One thing is for sure: relationships are to learn from.