Living With a Sex Addict

12: On the Stove or In The Fire

Like you, I had been thrown from my notion of who I was in this world. I’d imagined that I had a solid marriage of seventeen years with a man I could trust, whereas in fact I’d been married to a man who not only lied to me, but continued to lie to me after I discovered his addiction. I’d imagined I had a faithful partner who worked long hours in order to support our family when the truth was his addiction was the driving force of his life and his stress was more over his acting out sexually than anything work-related.

 

I was also the victim of my own ignorance about addiction, particularly sex addiction. I’d imagined that a person who had sex with a prostitute was the lowest kind of societal scum, not someone who I could have loved, could have married, could have cherished. The core of my belief system and the entire constellation of thoughts that accompanied it, was now challenged. Nothing made sense the way it once had.

 

My life remained intact—neither my husband nor I were dying or unemployed. Our children were well, our social lives largely the same—but my life did not feel authentic. I lived in a vast pool of unknowing. I wanted the truth, not just about my husband’s infidelity but about the way the world worked; I wanted to know what was really going on in my life, and compare it to what might really be going on in others’ lives. I wanted some certainty. You may be feeling the same way, too.

 

You may try to make things “certain” by leaving your sexually addicted partner. You may try to make things certain by deciding he can do whatever he likes and you just won’t care. You’ll make a list of your own goals, interests, friends, and you’ll try really hard to stick to that list and ignore everything he is doing.

 

I have my own life, I remember telling myself. And it is far more interesting and complex that worrying over that man.

 

That man, of course, being my husband.

 

I remember hoping that I would somehow instantly fall out of love with him and fall into love with someone else. That was what passed as a “solution” to me at that time. Maybe this pathetic admission has some clever psychologist taking notes right now, but I’m not trying to hold up myself up as a shining example of how to respond to the discovery or to the ongoing trauma associated with a spouse’s addiction. I’ve got no agenda other than to tell you what seems to have worked—however slowly—in moving me from agitated misery to calm acceptance and, eventually, even to appreciating the experience I’ve gone through.

 

If you are feeling in flux, if you are feeling a little crazy, try to embrace some of the uncertainty. Try to accept that some bad things might happen, but that doesn’t mean they will happen. Don’t imagine what he might do tomorrow or next week or next month. Rein in your thoughts back to today, and remember that nobody knows what tomorrow brings—a bit of luck, a terrible accident, an unexpected pay rise, the loss of a pet, a new friend, a problem, a solution….we can’t tell. For now, just for today, try to accept that all of life is uncertain. We who are the wives of sex addicts do not have some extra claim to the vagaries of life but share them with the rest of humanity. The Buddhists tell us that our happiness is largely based on how much we are willing to let go of certainty, to stop grasping for it, to yield to life on life’s terms. I think there is wisdom in that.

 

You might say, But I don’t want to learn to live with uncertainty. I want to make things more sure, more concrete. This is understandable and was what I wanted desperately and for a long time. To be completely accurate, what I wanted was the whole thing not to be true. For my husband’s addiction and infidelity not to be true, for his ongoing struggle not to “act out” with other women not to be true.

 

A desire to make things certain is a response to a general sense of fear and is totally human. It may be especially difficult to cope with uncertainty in your life right now because, as Dr. Barbara Steffans and Marsha Means explain in their excellent book, Your Sexually Addicted Spouse, you are now undergoing trauma. Even if your discovery was some time ago you may be experiencing post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

 

Traditionally, trauma and post-traumatic stress were recognized only in cases that involve physical trauma (for example, a severe injury resulting from an accident) but extreme emotional pain and psychological damage is now being understood as a source of trauma as well: relational trauma. Steffans and Means write, “As the researchers studied relational trauma, they observed that its intensity increased when inflicted by someone we believe we can trust—someone we believe we can go to for support, like a parent, friend or romantic partner.” (p. 4-5).

 

Steffans and Means give a comprehensive account of what can happen to a person who undergoes the kind of trauma that spouses of sex addicts often do, and warn of persistent symptoms that many of us will recognize in ourselves. These symptoms include re-experiencing the event (as I did as though there were a video loop inside my brain), avoidance of anything that reminds of us of the event (I would not go to my husband’s office where the woman with whom he had the affair worked; I would not drive by the house of a neighbor who coincidentally also had an affair with this same woman), hypervigilance (I didn’t sleep well; I never felt relaxed; I was both afraid of and drawn to my husband’s emails and texts) and other impairments to normal day-to-day functioning. (p. 9).

 

In fact, if you want to read a book that will show you how not crazy you are for having a serious, on-going negative response to your spouse’s sexual addiction, I highly recommend Steffans and Means’s book. Not only will you see that your feelings are shared with many other women, but you will get a very good idea of how wrong it is for those 12-Step programs that insist the spouses of sex addicts are “co-addicts”.

 

I’ve already talked about the 12-Step Anon programs, but let me add that COSA and S-Anon are not the only ones who suspect we spouses of pathologies that “match” our addicted husbands. This same notion that we are sick has been put forward by everyone from Dr. Jennifer Schneider whose book, Back From Betrayal, states outright that spouses are not “victims” but people who choose straying spouses due to their own psychological profiles established early in life, to the early work of Patrick Carnes, who writes that the spouses of sex addicts are also “addicted” and that they are “mirror images” of their addicted spouses.

 

The co-addict label is not just inaccurate, but damaging. And while I am grateful to both Schneider and Carnes for the work they’ve done in some areas of sex addiction, I don’t think they should continue to support the co-addiction model.

 

If you want a thorough debunking of the myth of co-addiction do please read Your Sexually Addicted Spouse because its authors are terrific at showing how incorrect the label is and how injurious it is to those of us who have had the misfortune of discovering our partners are sex addicts. The authors also show how your current behavior functions as a protective measure, and is not a sign of craziness of any type. What you may be attempted to do is give yourself some certainty about what is going on.

 

For example, let’s say you check his computer history to find out if there is any danger of his acting out (what the S-Anon literature will call “snooping). Is this because you are a co-addict or because you would like some concrete, first-hand information about the state of your husband’s addiction? Addicts are brilliant at convincing their partners that their intuitions, fears and suspicions regarding infidelity have no basis in reality. They can be so good at convincing us we are wrong about what we think is going on that we begin to doubt ourselves, our powers of reasoning, even our sanity. Dr. Robert Weiss describes this process in his book, Always Turned On: Sex Addiction In The Digital Age. “The lies that sex addicts intentionally perpetrate upon their loved ones so they can continue their behaviors without interference are absolutely relentless,” he writes. “And usually they are just plausible enough to possibly be true.”

 

So, is your reason for snooping because you are an unhealthy co-addict (whatever that is) or because you want some certainty? I bet it is the latter. And I am in good company among a great number of professionals in making that bet.

 

Another example. Maybe you are having sex with him, in part, because you worry he will act out if you do not, despite the fact that all the while you are making love you are picturing the sex he’s had with other women. Are you doing this to torture yourself? I doubt it. Are you doing this to try to secure your marriage? Probably. Again, you are trying to create some certainty in your life, trying to take action to make a better future—an action that will not work, but behind which is an intent that is perfectly normal.

 

Not only did I continue to have sex with my husband even after I knew about the addiction and throughout the time he was struggling with acting out, but I tried to look better, younger, and sexier in order to compete with what I imagined he’d seen online or with paid sex workers. Admittedly, this was not “healthy” behavior on my part. I was “competing” with ghosts, with fantasy women. It went against every political notion I had, every ounce of intellectual understanding regarding women’s rights. I was trying too hard; I knew I was trying too hard; and I knew it wouldn’t work, too. But I still did it.

 

I probably don’t have to explain to anyone reading this book that I was unsettled. Perhaps I was supposed to automatically know his addiction had nothing to do with me or with male appetite or the limitations of monogamy, but it felt like I didn’t know anything at all.

 

I suppose that some part of me knew this was his issue, not mine, and that nothing I did contributed to his addiction. Some part of me knew, too, that I was a vibrant, desirable woman. A great part of me knew that being desirable to men was hardly a measure of my worth. But even so, I kept up the crazy idea that if things between us were good enough, he wouldn’t look elsewhere.

 

The positive intent in my having sex with him was to try to avoid the future pain of his wandering to the internet or a prostitute or chat room hook-up. I was living in reactiveness and fear, as most people with PTSD do. I wrongly imagined if he had a lot of sex at home, he wouldn’t look so often for sex away from home. Of course, this doesn’t work with an addict because they are more addicted to fantasy and escape than they are to actual sex. Even so, my actions didn’t define me as crazy or a co-addict. On closer inspection, it is pretty obvious I was trying to improve the outcome of a bad situation. Why? Because I was traumatized. Because I wanted to keep my life intact.

 

How long did this go on for? Maybe forever. For while my marriage feels good to me now, and my husband’s attention toward me as loving and supportive as one could imagine, there is still a shadow of our former selves. Him, the frantic, chaotic addict. Me, the quietly anxious wife. The shadows diminish with time, but every once in awhile I see his phone and wonder if I’d find any evidence of active addiction there if I looked. Or he leaves his email inbox showing on his laptop and my eye scans quickly down to satisfy myself there isn’t anything to worry about among the names.

 

In one of Dr. Robert Weiss lectures on sex addiction, he describes how emotions are there for a reason. They inform us, he explains. If we feel pain it is sometimes a warning to us that if we don’t discontinue a behavior we might suffer damage. He describes this literally, as in the case of putting one’s hand on a hot stove. If you put your hand on a hot stave, the resulting pain causes you to move it quickly, avoiding a more serious burn. He applies this same concept to emotional pain. “Emotions have a function,” he explains. “Our emotions are there to inform us to reach out to another human being.” He then goes on to explain how addicts quite often do not respond appropriately to their emotions. That is a discussion all in itself, but for now just remember Dr. Weiss’s example of the hand on a hot stove. We receive important information through pain; and our response is usually to move away from the pain before it gets worse.

 

By contrast to the stove example, the pain in involved with living with a sex addict is very complex. My belief is that when we feel pain from our husband’s extra-marital sexual behaviour, we are feeling it in many different ways and places in our hearts, in our sense of self and and in our identity as a wife and partner. Additionally, the emotional pain warns us that if we continue loving this man, more pain will follow and we will become damaged by being with him. We may not know this the first time we catch him acting out, but we certainly know it by the second, or third, or tenth . More pain is on the way. We will be further damaged.

 

The trouble here is that the alternative is also painful. We are completely bonded to this man. He may be the father of our children and the main financial provider for our family, too. If we don’t endure the pain of his “acting out” then we suffer another type of pain—pain of separation, pain of seeing our children suffer, pain of financial hardship. Naturally, we feel anger at being forced to endure one form of pain or the other. We can’t just remove our hand from the hot stove, as in Dr. Weiss’s example. It’s either the stove or the fire, I’m afraid. Our torment is real and continuous and has nothing to do with “co-addiction,” an abstract, invented condition that may not even exist.

 

Much of what transpires after we discover our husband’s addiction, or after months of his failing to curtail his extra-marital sexual behaviour, is a result of this pain dilemma. We keep wanting to get away from the pain even as it circles around us.

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