What about affairs? Are they part of sex addiction?
I discovered my husband’s affair, and then he told me that he was a sex addict. That was the order of events. Had I never discovered the affair it is anyone’s guess how much longer he would have continued the grim business of his addiction. I should be glad for the affair, but I am not. You’d have thought the affair on top of the addiction would have ended the marriage, but it did not.
Wouldn’t any decent man—or at least a man who professed to love his wife—have ended the affair once his wife discovered it, stopped all the pornography and whores, kept his appalling sexual history to himself and been grateful for the fact his wife still wanted to stay married to him? If he’d been an ordinary cheat, he might very well have done just that. Because while it is difficult for people who don’t understand sex addiction to believe, he is a decent man. A very loving man, in fact.
He’d been an addict for so long and had been trying to stop for so long, he was exhausted with it. While addicts are particularly good at manipulating situations and covering for their indiscretions, these efforts are costly to them. He was tired of his unmanageable life. The affair had been another means to try to control his addiction, to contain it somehow. He’d hoped that if he concentrated on a single manifestation of infidelity with this one woman it would give him the “fix” he needed. It turned out that it had not been enough. Nothing was enough. Within a few months of starting the affair, he was back to pornography and prostitutes. There was no type of pornography that would satisfy him, no specific woman that would satisfy him. His appetite was voracious and uncontrollable; now dictating every part of his life. Why?
Again, we have to distinguish between a person with a fidelity problem and a person with an addiction. The seeking out of pleasure, whether it be with regard to an illicit affair or a prostitute or a chat room, triggers centres in the brain. The pursuit of pleasure itself—and here I am referring to pleasures that have nothing to do with sex—causes dopamine to be released. Relentless searches on the internet, even for cake recipes, let along for pornography or sex, cause dopamine to be released. Every time he hit on a new porn site, or a new video within the site, on a new “massage” website or a new profile full of images of the women available, gave him hit after hit of dopamine. But a single woman, whoever she was, could not accomplish this. No marriage would be enough; no relationship would be enough; no affair would be enough.
He told me about his addiction because he’d finally been cornered by it. I was shocked, but grateful. Like everyone, I value honesty and require it in all my relationships, especially in my marriage. I wanted the truth.
He needed to tell me because having someone to finally talk to about it—having me to talk to about it—was an enormous relief to him. But you might ask, what about the health risk? Wouldn’t he find it impossible not to let me know that he’d been putting my physical health at risk many times over the course of our marriage? Apparently not. He went regularly for testing at an expensive, private STD clinic, another of the many secrets of his addiction. But testing does not prevent transmission of a disease; he wasn’t protecting me; he was allow me to unknowingly risk myriad of diseases, including infection with HIV. If he loved me, how could he have carried on? Because he was also selfish. He wanted me to stay with him even if this meant taking away my free will to decline sexually risky behaviour and even it meant risking my life.
I realise this is unforgivable. I have no idea how I might have responded had I contracted a serious illness. But I wonder, too, if each time he received the good news from his Regent’s Park Clinic that he did not yet carry HIV or have gonorrhoea he imagined that now, with his new clean bill of health, he could put such risky practices behind him and be a faithful husband, be the husband he longed to be. I imagine his relief. I imagine his face full of hope and resolution. How long before some small disappointment or anxiety sent him racing back to the internet, and then to a brothel? A week? A month?
This will sound strange, but my husband telling me he was an addict actually made me feel better. I realise this is almost impossible to understand but will try to explain. Upon the discovery of his office affair, I was so wrecked, so convinced it was all my fault, so terrified of this Other Woman, it was a mercy when he finally admitted to the addiction. For me, the addiction was easier to take than the notion of a singular other person on whom he’d fastened his affection. This is somewhat crazy thinking on my part, if only because a single affair is often relatively easy to end while an addiction is extremely difficult.
If you’ve never gone through an affair in your marriage, it isn’t easy to imagine the pain. You feel the wife to her lover, the old to her new. You are the impediment to be gotten around, the big dumb object avoided by the lovers, who long for each other (this is what you imagine). Or at least what I imagined: that there was another woman who bettered me in every way and had captured my husband’s heart.
How pathetic I hear you saying. Where is your anger? Where is your outrage? In fact, I had plenty of both. But I also blamed myself. For allowing my marriage to deteriorate without my knowing. For being so easily duped. For being the boring wife (though I don’t think I am boring). For being lesser (less than what? you might ask). While I know it sounds pathetic to compare myself to another woman, I am just relating what I did, not what I would suggest others do.
On the face of it, his affair looked very much like the affair of a non-addict, a “normal” man, an ordinary cheat. The woman with whom my husband had an affair wasn’t particularly special, but she was a distraction (which is often what many ordinary guys are looking for in affairs). She’d had plenty of other affairs in addition to the one with my husband and she wasn’t in the least bit in love with him. Again, this had all the hallmarks of a vanilla-flavoured affair. She wasn’t half the threat I imagined, but in my mind she was the most terrifying thing on earth.
Please understand, I didn’t know anything—I was completely cosseted in my marriage, and in some ways very unworldly. Of course, I imagined her as the perfect woman. Of course, I looked at my own imperfect body and found it lacking while imagining she must be much prettier. I would do the same many times in years go come, after he’d been with prostitutes or on porn sites, until at last I understood that there really wasn’t anything wrong with me. Nothing at all. It would take years for me to “get” that, but meanwhile I had to live.
I found the notion of his affair almost unbearable. It continues to be the most painful aspect of the history of our relationship—and I am talking as a woman who has now lived with her husband’s sex addiction for many years, who has been separated, and who has experienced at various times intense, long-lasting pain. I suppose the affair was the first assault. It bewildered me because I loved our marriage. I loved our life, all the day-to-day things we did, the weekends with tea in bed in the mornings, the walks and chats and the easy intimacy of married life. To imagine that this hadn’t been good enough, that he’d fallen in love with someone else, about killed me.
I asked a friend what she would do if she found out her husband was having an affair and she told me she would pack everything he owned in bin bags and leave them on the lawn for him to collect. I am pretty sure she meant it, too, as she’d been recently divorced and still had a fair degree of anger coursing through her. But putting D—-’s clothes and bicycles and cricket bats, his music and books and files, all out on the lawn was not something I felt I could do. It struck me as violent and debasing to us both. I imagined, too, that being thrown out was exactly what this other woman wanted to have happen, and the last thing I wanted to do was please her. I’d never even met this woman, but she was on my mind all the time. I lived inside my own circle of hell and thought of her. Her and Them. How they had loved each other. How they still probably loved each other. None of this was true. I don’t think they even liked each other, but in my mind they were star-crossed and passionate.
I wanted my husband back. I wanted to know that he loved me. I am recalling now the weeks before I knew anything about sex addiction and thought he was “just” having an affair. In all my agony, I’d do internet searches on how to survive an affair, googling every combination of words that might tell me what to do, how to act, how to stop crying and find the off button for the rage. The advice was largely that a woman should try not to judge her husband, but to listen to him. I read, If a woman wants to save the marriage, she needs to understand which of her husband’s needs she has failed to meet. After all, it takes two for such an event to transpire and you should own up to your share of the responsibility.
Reading this kind of advice was an awful blow coming at a time when I could hardly function, when even breathing in and out had become a deliberate act. It felt like being lectured by someone on safe driving while bleeding to death under the crushing weight of a wrecked car. His needs? His many, complicated, important, ignore-at-your-peril needs? They made it sound as though he were a cat that I’d neglected to feed and so it went to a neighbour’s house.
I wrote many letters of response to the authors of this brand of misguided advice, telling them how much harm they did people with it, but I never sent the letters. What was the point? People who think the way they do would only dismiss me as the heartbroken, misguided, unsexy, hateful little wife who’d failed her wonderful husband.
All of this is to explain, in part, why once I found out about the addiction, I felt some of the grief of that affair lift (not all of it, by any means). The affair was not due to some great lack on my part, but a bizarre mental problem on his. He showed me the escort sites, told me a little of what he’d done, and I realised that he had a very big problem. I did not feel personally threatened by whores or sex chat rooms or people you pay for their sexual attention. The women who are stuck as prostitutes or self-selling as swingers have already been completely dehumanised. I knew my husband didn’t love them, or even recognise the person inside the packaging he was admiring.
But the affair—even now I am capable of getting myself hung up on that, imagining how he would arrange holidays with her, write her letters, buy her jewellery. I found a receipt for a necklace D—- had purchased for her for Christmas—a little diamond pendant that had shone in a lighted window in a hotel shop window, and which (I imagined) he had pointed out to a store attendant with his new love in mind. When I found that receipt my skin went hot and I felt myself gasping. I imagined the attendant’s gloved hand plucking the necklace from its velvet seat beneath the lights, the care he would have taken arranging it into a satin-lined box while my husband dug out his wallet. In this awful daydream I could see D—-’s face smiling in anticipation of the delight he would see in her, how surprised she would be, how much she would love him for such a gift. I thought of the quickening inside him as he envisaged how she would wear the pendant next to her own heart. Such reveries were abundant in those days, so many of my thoughts damning, wrecking, self-annihilating.
I often asked him how he could possibly place this affair within the larger framework of sex addiction. It didn’t make any sense to me. For months, the necklace sat in its packaging in the bottom of a desk drawer until, at last, he was able to offer it to her as a Christmas present. During the whole of that time he might have regretted the heady moment in the jewellers when he chose it for her, regretted the affair or at least felt guilty enough to either sell or give the diamond to me instead of a woman who held him in no high regard. But he didn’t.
How do you “get over” that? The woman, the necklace, the long weeks before Christmas when he kept the pretty, wrapped parcel secreted in his office at work? Well you don’t. Not completely. He claimed that the affair was just another desperate attempt to make normal his frenetic sexual activity, and I believe that. He thought she might solve his problem, but she did not. I found out and now the problem compounded—again.
And so the affair became just another event that happened in the great stream of other events. It is almost sad that such a major violation to a marriage could be overwhelmed by further pain, but this is not unusual when talking about marriage to a sex addict. If you love with someone with sex addiction, you may feel that same upset over an affair, but try to put it to rest. We can easily punish oneself with old tales of woe about necklaces or concert tickets or hotel rooms. We can imagine, then re-imagine, the excitement the lovers had upon seeing each other, the beautiful nights, the reckless passion, all of this dead in the past but alive in our imagination. All that we achieve from such reveries is suffering. We suffer as we churn it up inside ourselves and suffer as we read others’ tales of betrayal and ruin.
But here is the truth: the past dies easily enough if you allow it to do so. If there is nothing that can be done about a situation—and certainly there is nothing that can be done about what your husband once did in some other place with some other woman—there is no point in giving it too much attention. If you are married to a sex addict your hope lies with the future and your current serenity exists only in the present moment. You learn this. Or you leave him. Or you learn it and leave him anyway.
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