During  early recovery abstinence is advised

After the problem of sexual addiction has been acknowledged and some treatment has begun, many partners of sex addicts want to know whether to have sex with the addict or not.  They are not only conflicted and confused about what they feel about it but they are unsure as to what is best for their partner’s recovery.  There are no research studies on this question that I know of and the factors involved vary from one couple to another, not least of which is whether the couple are together, separated or contemplating divorce.

The prevailing wisdom among those who do sex addiction treatment is that a sex addict in the first six months to one year of recovery should abstain from all sex including sex with a partner or spouse.  The reason most often given for this is that the addict probably has a long-standing pattern of using sex as a drug and as an escape.  He or she is seen as needing to have a period of “withdrawal” much like getting free of any other addiction such as alcohol or drugs, in order to allow the body and brain to regain some normal balance and allow the addict to begin to learn new and different coping skills and ways of dealing with life other than escaping into sex or sexual fantasy.

Having sex with their partner may be a bad idea for a sex addict in early recovery because it impedes their recovery:

  • It does not allow for the neural “reset” that lets the addict brain to begin to “re-wire” itself.  In other words, it keeps the addiction going by giving the addict a small amount of the “drug.”
  • The addict in early recovery will likely revert to his or her addictive fantasies during sex with a spouse or partner.  This means that the addict is not really having sex with the partner but is using the partner to re-live addict behaviors in their mind.  This is sometimes referred to as “euphoric recall.”
  • Part of the addict’s recovery is learning how to integrate sex into a normal relationship vs. keeping up a separate and secret sexual life.  Early in recovery the addict will be lacking in the intimacy skills necessary for a healthy relationship.  Only in the context of a healthy relationship can there be a healthy sexual relationship.

Having sex early recovery may be a bad idea for the partner because it is for the wrong reasons:

  • They feel the need to have sex with their spouse or partner to “compete” with the object of the addiction or to prove their attractiveness.  Partners of addicts should never take this on themselves.  It’s the addict’s problem and it isn’t ever about the partner!
  • They feel they are responsible for “fixing” the addict and think that having sex with them will help.  The addict needs help but not in the form of sex, even with someone they love.
  • Sometimes partners feel they should not withdraw sexually because they will be seen as “punishing” the addict.  But even if they are angry, withdrawing sexually can be a normal response to the betrayal.
  • They are trying to use sex as a way to repair the relationship.  Partners of sex addicts may be very hurt and traumatized. They need to recover from that trauma first and worry about the relationship later.
  • They have a desire for sex themselves and it makes them feel better.  This is often a misguided attempt to make things “the way they were” before the crisis.  It is understandable to feel this way but relationships in recovery need to be very different from what went before.

Bottom line, sex addiction is serious.  It requires not only a recovery from the addictive behavior but the learning of a new way of living in integrity and honesty.  The couple must lay a foundation first before deciding whether to resume a relationship on a new footing or not.  This takes a lot of time and work. Abstaining from sex in the beginning months of recovery is an important part of the process for both addict and partner.

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  1. Thanks Linda for this great answer to a VERY hard question that is so important for partners of sex addicts to understand!!! I think we all know about the possibility of disease with our sex addict partners but you put out there the other issues that are SO IMPORTANT in early recovery.

    Tust and truly understanding how to be intimate with your parter takes time and patience! As HARD as it is … trust me, I know … it is important to let the recovery process run its course, naturally. You explain it so well here and help spouses understand why it is important. Sometimes, I get so frustrated since we are still dealing with the sex part. Your article really helps me to understand the why …. thank you!

    Again, love your writing!!!!!

  2. My husband is in Afghanistan and we have no way to rebuild a relationship. When he comes home for a few weeks every 3-4 months, our Christian Counselor told us we should be having sex. However, this page makes great sense and I wonder if we shouldn’t be abstaining. It has been 4 months since the discovery of his addiction and it is still very hard for me to breathe or function as before. Now, I don’t know what to do.

    • Hi Keri! What a tough situation you are in!!! The discovery that your husband has a sex or porn addiction is hard enough let alone having him only coming home every 3 or 4 months. After the discovery of the sex addiction trust is the hardest piece to build and your situation is extra challenging since he isn’t even there with you! I am the wife of a recovering sex addict so I know how hard the discovery is!

      Just know that sex, trust, intimacy and connection takes time to build back up … especially since all that is shattered when the addiction is playing out. Time is so important … don’t rush the sex thing, do it when it feels right for BOTH of you. 4 months is not a long time, trust me! Rushing into it wont help … but learning to communicate, opening yourself up to each other & supporting the traumas that you both have experienced is so important.

      I am telling the story about the journey that my hubby and I are traveling on the road to recovery with his sex addiction. Maybe reading it can help you a bit … http://mishkawifeofsexaddict.blogspot.com/ I hope it can help!!!!

      Good luck and make sure you reach out for support … especially for yourself! That is sooo important!!!

  3. […] 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 […]

  4. Is masterbating considered sex when in early recovery?

    • Usually it is discouraged early in recovery but not always.

  5. I’m devastated by all the posts I’m reading from the years of articles. It seems my life will always be impacted and, in some aspects, ruined, by my husbands choices.

    We have been married for 34 years and I thought we were both very happy: great fun together, super sex life, loving family, etc everything that no longer seems relevant to list. We both come from loving, healthy family backgrounds and all seemed fine til my son found evidence of an affair. ( photos on a USB key ) just a month and half ago. Over the first four weeks he gradually admitted to seeing four prostitutes, then he added another affair two years ago, then he said he had started to access hardcore porn a “few years ago” . Now he says he is telling the truth to me and his/our counsellor that he started porn 10 years ago, visiting dozens of prostitutes since 6 years ago and has put us in debt with secret loans totalling thousands to pay for it. We both had STIs that would have gone undetected as he says he was going to finish the affair but not tell me so it wouldn’t hurt me!

    I love this man. From the bottom of my broken heart I still love him. But…I hurt so much. I know he was not going to finish it as he had just bought her an iPad and iPhone with contract after the disclosure. How will I know when he tells the truth? I had always thought we told the truth to each other and can’t understand how I had absolutely no idea of this huge secret life. I find I doubt everything he says. I weep deeply so much of the time and am struggling to operate a normal day.

    Can anyone give hope that we will come through this huge betrayal with any form of relationship? I pray for Gods help to forgive him as I am really struggling to even think about tomorrow let alone next week/year.

    • I found out end of January about mys husbands issue. Same vein but not as extended as your issues and only 14 years of marrige. Due to this i cheated with two men he does know as one night stands. He feels broken as do I. I could have written just what you wrote. Its so hard. He is very angry with me and i just feel broken. I just want to drink all the time. I want to run away. I dont know how this ever goes away or feels better. We will never be us again and it kills me. I want to feel better, i want us better and i wish none og it ever happened. I dont know how our anger will ever go away and make us the loving couple we once where.

      • Shelly, Hang on in there.
        I am only seven months in but I can now breath and sleep (mostly) . If you once loved each other you can do it again. I have started the daily process of forgiveness and am determined to do my best to allow for us to move forward. I donot want to be destroyed by bitterness and hate. Love must win.
        We attend counselling as a couple and individually to help us through this hurtful mess. I have chosen just a couple of friends to tell about it so there is some support for me. Our grown up sons and wives are struggling horribly with the loss of the dad they thought they knew but are watching us to see any change.
        You will get through. You CAN remake your marriage and my hope is that our marriage will be better than it was before, even though I thought it was good. You can do the same. Strength will come. The weeping starts to slow and gets less painful. You will start to eat again and I can now even concentrate enough to work without being a danger to anyone!
        Make the daily decision to let go of hate and anger, they are exhausting and make you ill in mind and body.
        It is not easy and the struggle to s long but change can happen. I believe this with all my heart and hope I have it right. I can see my husbands cold heart of stone melting a bit more each week. I send you a positive hug through the airwaves and whisper, ” you can survive, you can know love again, you can make it”

    • I highly recommend two books, Your Sexually Addicted Spouse by Barbara Steffens and I Don’t Love You Anymore by David Clarke. Read the book by Dr. Clarke first and DO what he says. God bless you, my dear. I am dealing with a SA husband too.

  6. I wonder about this topic “sex addiction” or is it just that men have a higher sex drive than women. And women’s sex drive seems to drop well pretty much as soon as they are married.

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