Couples can get through the crisis of sex addiction and recovery and they very often do so, more often in fact than you would think given how traumatic the disclosure of sex addiction is to a relationship.
Part of the reason that couples can get through the upheaval of sex addiction and recovery I think is that the addiction is really not a problem that is a product of the relationship or marriage. Sex addiction has roots that go way back into childhood attachment issues and involve patterns of coping behavior that existed well before the marriage.
The following are six basic things that couples need to know and do in order to have the best chance of having a good relationship in the future.
- Do the work. Most sex addicts find it impossible to quit on their own. I have seen couples go for years without confronting the problem and their relationship just continues to deteriorate. Partners are often the ones who have to provide the motivation for the addict to seek treatment. Many addicts will only get help after their partner lowers the boom. Partners must also be in therapy. Partners are not the cause of the problem but they need a great deal of help and support if the couple is going to make it.
- Get some separation from each other in the beginning of treatment. Many couples make the mistake of trying to confront sex addiction as a couple. Sex addiction is not that kind of problem. Couples may have many problems as a couple in terms of openness, communication, and so on, but they can only deal with those after the sex addiction has been treated for a while. It is actually a good idea to live separately for a while without making a decision about divorce.
- Abstain from sex for 6 months. Abstaining from all sex will likely be a part of the sex addict’s program in the beginning of treatment. (The reasons for this are described in my Pushing the Pause Button blog.) This period of abstaining includes abstaining from sex with spouses and partners of the addict. This may be difficult or easy, or it may seem counter-intuitive but it is part of the process.
- Get “pre-marital” counseling later on. Each person gets help with their own therapist and their own 12-step support group prior to coming together to work on “the relationship.” In other words, both people are going to undergo a lot of changes in the course of getting healthier through treatment. In some ways each partner will not be the same person they were before. It remains to be seen whether these two “new” people want to be together or not.
- Be more honest than you ever thought of being. A healthy intimate relationship demands a level of honesty, commitment and a willingness to share all parts of yourself with your partner. It also involves letting go of competitiveness and truly being there for your spouse or partner, not only in terms of what they ask of you but in your ability to respond to and support who they are.
- Be prepared to continue to work on your relationship. It is easy to backslide and become complacent. Old patterns and ways of behaving can creep back in (also see my blog on how sex addiction can resurface in subtle ways.) Some couples go to couple retreats periodically or go to couple intensive workshops to give themselves a booster shot. And be supportive of each other’s continued work in individual recovery.
Sex addiction recovery takes a long time; three to five years for substantial recovery to be achieved. Couples who decide to stick it out together need to take a very long view. Both addicts and partners tend to panic in the early phase of discovery and often overreact one way or the other. But keeping a level head and reminding yourselves that it is a long process and that you can get through it will be an invaluable tool.