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.