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.