Living With a Sex Addict

18. Sex Addiction With Dick and Jane

 

If you have read my other blogs you know that for a time my husband and I separated. A few months into the separation, I found myself with a boyfriend who had been a banker for many years. He told me a story about his early days on Wall Street and a colleague of his who used to take him around strip bars throughout Manhattan. The boyfriend claimed that back in the 1980’s such undertakings as nightly visits to exotic dance clubs had been necessary for the rising stars of the banking world. He arrived in New York to make a name for himself as a market expert and was unwilling to challenge the tradition of making deals over glasses of Cristal and in front of stages of naked girls. That’s just the way it was, he claimed. You played the game or you left the job.

 

It’s difficult to believe that groups of men can be so gauche and so deluded, though I try to remember that these were impressionable young men whose judgement was being eroded by others. I try to remember that it was New York in the eighties on Wall Street. What did I think was happening?

 

The boyfriend had a wife in the 80’s and three children and a house in Connecticut. The wife knew nothing about the strip bars. She thought he went to work all day and sat in offices high up over the city, buying and selling assets—and he did that—in addition to getting a little drunk and watching strippers. He never mentioned that part, the stripper part. He felt she wouldn’t have been able to cope, he explained to me.

 

I am not so stupid I bought his alibi. I didn’t think any less of him for visiting the strip bars —it had been twenty-five years before I met him and he’d not been in such a place since—was I going to hold it against him now? He certainly showed no interest whatsoever in pornography or strippers or anything of that ilk during the time I knew him. In fact, much the opposite. There were probably a few things I did not know about the boyfriend, but of this I was certain: he was not a sex addict.

 

However, there was one aspect to  his stories of New York that disturbed me. That is, the not telling his wife part. It had been a convenience on his part, not a kindness he did for her. I let him know my thoughts on that matter and was surprised that even decades later he believed he had been kind in keeping this information from her. He was only at the strip bars for the sake of deal-making, and telling her such details would only disturb her.

 

Maybe he was right. I never met his wife. But to my mind, he’d been disrespectful and self-justifying and unwilling to be honest with himself, let alone with his wife. He had his reasons, I suppose. Maybe he thought his wife would leave him if she ever found out. That she would love him only for as long as he fulfilled a prescribed role. He was her husband and he felt he needed to behave like a husband, so strip bars would have been out of the question. And yet his banking buddies thought he was a banker and had to behave like a banker, so he had to go to such places. Perhaps he felt caught in the middle. I am trying not to judge him. I am trying to understand.

 

In any case, the boyfriend justified his long-ago nightlife as a banker on the basis that the other guys around him were far worse. That is the kind of thing a sex addict might say, but honestly I cannot see that this guy was any kind of sex addict. He couldn’t have been a more faithful husband during his long marriage and he was just as consistent as a boyfriend. Committing to a single woman and being faithful seemed easy for him. It was one of traits of his I liked best.   He wasn’t anxious or fearful or constantly in a spin about his difficult past or all the reasons he was treated unfairly, those being the preoccupations that precede sexual acting out and that I associate with addiction.

 

Most importantly, he never appeared to be hiding anything. His phone didn’t worry me; his computer didn’t worry me; he didn’t worry me. It was easy with him in many ways. But there was something wrong.

 

The boyfriend told me a story about a friend he’d had back then, a man who was senior to him at the bank and who had been one of the various people who insisted those he worked with went out at night, including to places like strip bars. Let’s call this guy, Dick. Dick not only went to the clubs, but regularly went to prostitutes. The boyfriend claimed to have been outraged by the notion of prostitution but followed Dick from club to club to see these women back in the 1980’s when they worked together. As his college or friend or whatever he was, he’d watched Dick throw his money around and pretend to himself that the girls who crowded near him to receive it were attracted to him.

 

Things weren’t always perfect for Dick. One day, he dragged the boyfriend to an upmarket brothel to complain about the girl he’d been given the night before. Maybe this girl had reminded him that she was a live person, or that her affection was phoney or that he was just a job and held no attraction to her. None. At. All. Whatever her “crime” was, she was now in trouble for not giving Dick a good enough time.

 

Keep in mind I was hearing the story decades later from my boyfriend. I have a feeling things were much worse than he described. And what had the boyfriend done while Dick complained about this exploited young woman who no doubt was riddled with her own psychological and (possible) physical problems for all the years she’d served men like Dick? He had stood there as Dick made arrangements for a free replacement from the brothel much in the same way that one might arrange for a replacement rental car.

 

Had the boyfriend pointed out Dick’s disgusting behaviour? No. Had he told Dick he really ought to stop this. No. They stayed friends, apparently. They worked together for many years. Dick’s behaviour did bother the boyfriend—or so he claimed. He said he’d been very uncomfortable about it. But why didn’t he say something? Maybe he was too young and unconfident back then.

 

That might be the end of the story but this one detail struck me: what really baffled the boyfriend was not Dick’s behaviour, but Dick’s wife’s behaviour. Let’s call her Jane.  Apparently, Jane knew her husband visited strip clubs and whores, but did not leave him. She didn’t like it, but turned a blind eye. The boyfriend thought this was outrageous. Unfair to her, wrong on every level. The boyfriend could not understand it back when he was in New York and he could not understand it now in 2014. Why didn’t she just leave him?

The guy was making millions, I replied. Maybe Jane had her own reasons for turning a blind eye. Like she cared about what he gave her—that is, the money—and didn’t care about him.

Oh no, she loved him. She loved him unconditionally! the boyfriend said in disgust.

 

Now, here I became confused. I understood he disapproved of Dick’s behaviour but had felt powerless to change it, given his junior status at that time. I understood he had liked Dick so much he hadn’t wanted to risk losing the friendship by criticising the man.  But why was he so pissed off with Dick’s wife? What had she done wrong? Oh, that she tolerated it. Okay. And that even though Dick was behaving outrageously and was truly psychopathic, she stuck by him.

Didn’t just love him but loved him unconditionally, you see, the  boyfriend said. Even their marriage counsellor said that, that she loved him unconditionally like a child.

 

To the boyfriend’s mind, this unconditional love was wrong. Love should be given in certain situations, but not others. Love should be fair. This is why he took such pains to make sure his wife never found out he’d been at strip clubs—he believed she wouldn’t love him any longer if she knew. That, or she would prevent him from continuing to go, which might jeopardise his career standing. If he lost his job would she still love him? If he admitted he liked looking at naked women on stage, would she still love him? The boyfriend constructed an image in his mind of who he was and he wanted that thing he’d made, that edifice, to be loved. He didn’t want his real person to be loved; he might not even have believed he was loveable with all his flaws.

 

Perhaps he felt it was unfair that Dick, of all people, would be loved unconditionally when he had been making all sorts of concessions and hiding all sorts of facts about himself in order to be loved by his own wife?  Why should Dick, who actively behaved in a manner that was destructive to his marriage and to everyone around him, still get loved? Dick saw nothing wrong with his behaviour—he was a total narcissist—so why did his wife still love him?  The man had no remorse, no social conscious. If he was a sex addict (and he probably was) he didn’t even have the decency to seek help.

 

I get how frustrating this is—I’ve met men who will admit to being sex addicts and do not want to take a single step to change. They don’t care what they do, who they hurt, how they contribute to society’s ills. They want what they want and are not ashamed of it.

 

How could anyone love them? But by all accounts, Dick’s wife loved him.  Jane didn’t want him have sex with prostitutes and surround himself with strippers, but she couldn’t stop him, so she didn’t try.

 

That is a sign of mental illness, surely?

 

Let’s bring the beam of light around to me, away from 1980’s New York and into the twenty-first century Britain. If I still loved my sex addict husband (not that the boyfriend believed sex addiction was a “real” addiction) I was just as sick as Jane had been.

 

Ah, so that was the reason the boyfriend told me the story. Why hadn’t I seen that coming? He was drawing parallels between my own feelings for my husband, who was my estranged husband back then, a man I thought I’d have to end up divorcing due to his unstoppable acting out. He was saying that if I followed Jane’s example I was sick. I needed help. I believe he made a similar argument the last night I saw him, after which it was over between us.

 

While I could not be married to someone like Dick, who sounds to me more like a psychopath than a sex addict, I didn’t think it was crazy for his wife to love him. I told the boyfriend how I felt. He didn’t agree and said he thought I needed to seek help to cure me of feeling so kindly toward a man who had harmed me so. In the soft language of those who believe themselves to be morally and spiritual superior to another he said it would be a good idea to admit there was something wrong with me. I disagreed.

 

I had no language to voice why I thought he was incorrect in his analysis of me, about my feelings, about my thoughts regarding love. I wasn’t even sure he was wrong. But he existed in a world in which love was licensed by merit, in which love was earned and deserved.  He had a whole list of reasons, some of which sounded right enough, about why we love or don’t love, but the the reasons seemed to reduce love, to draw around it a set of laws that made sense only to my head and never to my heart or spirit.

 

I began to think about this question of unconditional love. Loving a person without an attachment to the thing that person provides back in response to your love, must surely be the what we call “real” love.

 

If you love, you love. You can stop being with your husband for rational reasons, as I once tried. You can stop being with him because you fear your presence is unhelpful in his recovery from addiction. You can separate from him and the love can continue, as it did for me.  Love is uncontainable while divorce is a legal state, like marriage. It will not finalize your feelings, though it will restructure how they are legally expressed.

 

Dick may not have been a sex addict—we could only know that by talking to him and asking if he was capable of stopping all the extramarital sex and voyeurism. However, lots of sex addicts have the same preoccupations he had. They go to the same places and see the same types of shows and women, create the same sort of destructive environment and exact the same toll upon their wives and families. My own husband has probably done everything Dick has done, but he is full of sorrow that these events have transpired and has dedicated his life to changing himself.

 

And he has changed himself. To me, it is easy to love him. However, many people would feel that he and Dick are no different—that my husband differs from Dick only in conscience and has adopted a more sophisticated explanation for his selfishness. They would say that he has hidden old-fashioned brutish behaviour beneath a cloak of pop psychology and that I, in order to minister to my co-dependency, have convinced myself to believe him.

 

Are they right? I don’t know. In my opinion, unconditional love is not a sign of pathology but the only love worth giving and receiving. It is also the only honest love, the only gift, as anything less is more correctly described as a bartering of emotions: I will love you as long as you behave in a certain manner and provide for me a set of specific feelings. To me, this sounds like a set of instructions (if reasonable instructions) with a promised reward. As the wonderful thinker and religious leader, Richard Rohr writes “…the old ego will always prefer an economy of merit and sacrifice to any economy of grace and unearned love, where we have no control.”

 

Far from being an indication of pathology, unconditional love may be the closest thing we have to the love of God, if you believe in God. Many of us have felt it from our parents. Almost all of us have felt it for our children. We know that it is powerful; that there is nothing else like it. If you feel this way about your husband or partner (even if you feel anger and rage at the same time) you are not “sick.” You love a person and you have no conditions on that love.  You love him when he is “sober”. You love him when he “acts out”. You are also angry and hurt when he acts out—of course you are. Love does not preclude other emotions. You may have to put all sorts of conditions on living with him. You may not be able to live with him at all for a time, or you may have to reduce your day-to-day relationship with him, but you still love him.

 

Some people may try to convince you that you are wrong to love so freely, to exist in love and not have your love mediated by how your beloved returns your love. I don’t agree.  In his Discourses, the Indian spiritual master Meher Baba wrote, “Love has to spring spontaneously from within. It is no way amenable to any form of inner or outer force. Love and coercion can never go together. Love can never be forced on anyone. It can be awaked in her or him through love itself. Love is essentially self-communicative. Those who do not have it catch it from those who have it. True love is unconquerable and irresistible. And it goes on gathering power and spreading itself until eventually it transforms everyone whom it touches.”

 

Your love for him comes from you, because you’ve extended your love his direction. It is not amenable to any other force—not even sex addiction. Not even acting out. This kind of love is unconquerable. It is irresistible. But nowhere in Meher Baba’s description does he state that it is not sometimes painful.

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4 Comments

  • Reply
    Leah
    May 8, 2016 at 4:14 am

    Hello, WOW!!! What a story. I understand this so much. My husband is/was a drug addict, I’m never really sure if sex was an issue for him (he swears it wasn’t) but I have my doubts. Either way, of course you love him. Leaving never ever stops our feelings. Thank you for sharing, I can’t wait to read more!

    • Reply
      The Wife
      May 13, 2016 at 9:22 am

      Thank you so much! I missed this comment until just today! You are so lovely to write to me and to say such supportive things. We must share more of our stories…!

  • Reply
    JoAnne
    November 10, 2017 at 2:38 am

    Wow is right! I very much wanted/needed to read something hopeful tonight. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on unconditional love. That’s who I want to be. Even if we end up separating or divorcing (I can’t imagine living with an active sex addict) I can separate out of love for myself and him. I tend to want to “Detach with a Hatchet” but I’m striving to detach with a neutral emotional approach – or maybe even with love. Thanks for spending so much of your time expressing yourself so thoughtfully and sharing from such a deep/vulnerable place.

    • Reply
      The Wife
      November 10, 2017 at 6:42 pm

      What a lovely message — thank you. Your intelligence and humor under such difficult circumstances shine through, too!

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