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.