Good Wives? Supporting Your Sex Addict Partner and Yourself

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:

Partners of Sex Addicts Resource Center

Married to a Sex Addict

Mishka Wife of a Sex Addict

Wife of a Sex Addict

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.

Partners Need to Know the Secrets and Lies of Sex Addiction

People generally do not want to disclose their sex addiction to their intimate partner.  And yet in sex addiction treatment we believe that couples cannot begin the process of recovery as long as the addict is still keeping secrets or telling lies.  Hence the saying in treatment circles:

Tell it all, tell it soon!

This is not to say that we cannot have a private inner life or that we have to tell our spouse or partner everything we think or do.  But telling the truth about sex addiction is an essential part of recovery.  It is essential for the addict, for the partner and for the relationship.

When disclosure is not necessary

Disclosing the full extent of a sex addiction is not generally advised when the couple are planning to divorce or separate.  Couples in the process of separation and divorce are dealing with a lot of emotional and real life upheaval.  The disclosure of the details of sexual betrayal may be detrimental to the process of separating.  It can fan the fires of resentment and conflict around settlement and custody issues.  Often a partial disclosure has taken place which is part of the reason for the divorce.  Disclosure can add to the traumatization of the partner who already feels betrayed, without serving any useful purpose.

Disclosing to a partner is often partial and disorganized

Partial disclosure, or disclosing in “stages,” is the norm although it is not considered a good idea.  The addict feels the pressure to come clean but wants to hold back some facts about the sex addiction, usually those that are most damaging or shameful.  The addict who has been partially found out is in a crisis state and is most often very afraid of abandonment by a partner.  The feeling is that if the spouse or partner knew everything they would surely leave.  This is not necessarily a true or rational idea.

However, full disclosure sets the stage not only for the addict to begin a new way of living but for the relationship to begin on a new basis of honesty and trust.  Every time another little piece of information about the addict’s past behavior trickles out it makes the partner feel like it is just more than they can take.  This is because the partner feels the dishonesty may have no end.

The commitment to truthfulness going forward

Holding on to secrets is a sign that the addict is not in very good recovery.  “Rigorous honesty” is considered to be at the heart of the 12-step model of addiction recovery.  There is a level of self hate and shame in the addict who feels he cannot be honest.  He is continuing to act on the core belief that if someone really knew him they could never love him.  It is a way to hang onto control but it is unfair.

Dishonesty about who we are sexually is a way to keep ourselves apart from our partner.  It is a fatal barrier to true intimacy, which involves allowing ourselves to be known.  It also gives the addict unequal power.

To the partner, the fact that they do not know what is going on or has gone on means that not only do they not know their addict partner very well but they do not have a view of their life that is based in reality.  Partners cannot find contentment and happiness if their reality is being manipulated by someone else.

What not to disclose

The optimal way to disclose the facts of a sex addiction to a partner is thought to be through a “planned disclosure.”  This is one where the couple prepare separately with their counselors and carry out the disclosure in the presence of a treating professional.

As part of the preparation, the partner or spouse will decide what it is they want to hear.  This is very important.  The addict may want to tell more than the partner wants to know.  The addict will have to take direction from the partner as to what to disclose.  For example, the partner may or may not want to know how many times the addict did a certain thing, or with whom, or what the details of the act were.

Planned full disclosure may be the ideal, but people are human and it is often not that neat.  We need to accept that both people may be afraid and mistrustful.  The addict may try to get away with holding onto a few key pieces of information our of fear, and the partner may resort to spying on the addict’s email in order to deal with the crazy-making feelings of mistrust.

But even if it is not perfect, the disclosure must take place for the relationship to survive and thrive.

Discovery of Sex Addiction in a Partner: What to Do First

When you first discover sexually compulsive behavior in a partner, it may be hard to think straight.  Nevertheless, you are in a position of being a “first responder” in a crisis situation that seems to require action of some sort.

You are the “interventionist” for the moment

Very often a spouse or partner of a sex addict is alone in confronting the situation.  An alcoholic or drug addict may have half a dozen friends or family members who are fed up enough that they will band together for a professionally led group intervention to try to get the person to accept help.  Sex addiction is a less public problem and the partner who discovers the secret life of the addict might not have anyone to open up to.

But as a partner of a sex addict, you may be a crucial person in determining whether the addict gets treatment.  What you do or don’t do will have significant effects.  How and in what way should you try to have an impact?  What will you need to know to act effectively? Here are some of the major things to consider.

1.     Confront the sexual behaviors.

It is important for partners and spouses to ask the hard questions.  If you don’t take the issue seriously the sex addict may try to placate you with promises or minimize the problem.  What has the addict been doing? How often?  For how long?  It is not necessary to know all the gory details about specific behaviors.  What matters is to begin to be honest.

2.     Choices to make and choices not to make

You do not have to make a choice about whether to leave the relationship in the middle of the discovery crisis.  But assuming you might stick it out, you do have to make a decision to take the necessary next steps.  Don’t get caught up in definitions of addiction.  The label is not what matters.  What matters is taking action to get help.

3.     Expect some distorted thinking and a mix of strong emotions

The addict at first will be prone to some amount of denial and may not be thinking too clearly.  He or she may react to overwhelming guilt with strong emotions and even anger and accusations.  Don’t be derailed.

4.    You have more power than you think: use it

The partner of a sex addict has a great deal of leverage in the crisis-discovery period.  Most addicts will agree to get help if their partner insists on it, even if they don’t quite understand that they have an addiction.  It is important to know that you may have more influence than the therapist in getting the addict to make the initial commitment to treatment.

5.     Find a sex addiction specialist

Initiate contact with a sex addiction therapist and go in together for an assessment if possible.  Don’t plan on continuing in couple therapy at this point.  Sex addiction is not about issues between you as a couple.  There will be time to deal with that later.  The goal is to get the addict into the proper level of individual treatment for his or her sexually compulsive behavior.

6.     Get help for yourself

It is important that you find a sex addiction therapist who also works with partners and spouses and get individual counseling.  You will also begin to educate yourself about sex addiction and recovery.  This is a time to rely on trusted friends and family for help and support. Your addict partner cannot be your major support system and you must rely on other people as difficult as that may be.

It will only be after both partners have had the appropriate treatment and support over a period of six months to a year that they can then begin to re-evaluate and work on their relationship together.  The initial period is one in which each partner will separately work on their problems.  If you as a spouse or partner have taken a stand and helped make this happen then you will have done the best that you could do.