When is Cheating a Sexually Addictive Behavior?

As is the case with all sexually addictive behavior, having extramarital affairs can be part of an addiction or not.  Addiction is not defined by the nature of the affair or even necessarily the quantity of affairs.

Sexually addictive behaviors vary widely. But all such behaviors have certain common elements.  These have to do with

  • The way the behavior is conducted
  • The presence of sexual compulsivity in other areas
  • The function it serves in the person’s emotional life,

The way the behavior is conducted

What if one partner in a relationship has a one-time sexual experience while on a business trip?  Let’s suppose this kind of thing has never happened before and the person feels terrible about it.  He or she decides not to do it again (and doesn’t), tells their spouse about it (and whether it was protected sex or not) and does whatever is necessary to reassure the partner or spouse and repair the damage.  In this case the person has done three important things:

  • Has been honest right away
  • Has learned from the experience
  • Has been able to repair his relationship
  • Has made a decision to avoid further betrayal

This is a “pure case” in which the person shows none of the typical responses of the addict.  He knows his priorities and can act on them.  He will be motivated to be honest with his wife about what he wants to do in the future.  For example, he may want the freedom to go to a strip club with his colleagues while on a trip.  If this is OK with his wife then there is no problem.  The same holds true for pornography use; if it is done in moderation, is OK with the spouse, does not harm the relationship etc. then it’s not addictive.

Affairs can be part of a larger set of addictive sexual behaviors

But what if this person in the above example who has the one-time “fling” is also compulsively viewing internet pornography?  What if he is keeping the extent of his porn use from his wife?  Here a clinician would begin to see the affair as part of a larger picture.  Most sex addicts engage in more than one sexually addictive behavior.  If there is a secret sexually compulsive behavior then the affair may be part of the same problem.  And there may be other affairs or behaviors that are hidden.

So the extramarital affair in the context of another sexually addictive behavior or set of behaviors is one way in which it can be categorized as sex addiction.

The function the affair serves

Obviously if the person in a relationship is having repeated affairs and keeping it secret one would suspect that the person is using the affairs as a drug.  Of course some people are just cheaters, people incapable of an intimate commitment or unable to be accountable for their behavior.  These people may be extremely emotionally undeveloped or they may be sociopathic, but they are not sex addicts.

Most sex addicts have a long-standing habit of using their sexually addictive behavior to medicate fears, insecurities, loneliness, or other negative emotions.  You will most likely see that having affairs is being used to:

  • Take the place of vulnerability and openness in a committed relationship
  • Escape self-hate by living out a fantasy role
  • Deal with fears of abandonment by their partner
  • Affirm their worth by proving they are sexually attractive
  • Avoid sex with a real person or a person who is their equal

Low self worth, fear and shame

The common denominators in sexually addictive behavior, including addictive affairs, are low self worth and avoidance of real intimacy.  These things may be especially hard to decipher when the affairs are separated by long periods of time.  Emotional insecurities are also hard to spot in addicts who simply maintain one long affair outside their marriage.

I have seen more than one sex addict who sustained an affair with one person over decades.  In these cases the people qualified as a sex addicts because their affairs represented a deep seated and compulsive need to split off part of themselves from their spouse or partner.

Having secret, separate life strongly suggests that the person is avoiding something threatening or painful in relationships.  The fact that they are long-standing and hidden, strongly suggests that the person feels that this part of his or her life is shameful.

Very likely a thorough professional evaluation will be able to discover whether affairs are part of a larger pattern of addictive behaviors, whether they are being used as a drug to escape from oneself and whether they represent an avoidance of intimate relating with a partner.  Not surprisingly, affair addicts often see that they have a serious problem but fail to identify it as sexual addiction in themselves.

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