I am not a fan of the co-addiction/codependency model. Our grief, our anxiety, and our fear are perfectly normal responses to the trauma we’ve been through. However, there are some great things in 12-Step programs, and one of them is a close look at Step One of the S-Anon program (it is similarly written for COSA).
Step One: We admitted we were powerless over sexaholism–that our lives had become unmanageable.
Anyone with a marital difficulty as serious as their husband having sex all over town is probably feeling their lives are unmanageable. When I arrived at my first meeting I felt my life was complete chaos and I didn’t mind admitting as much as I read the S-Anon literature. As for being powerless over my husband’s condition—sexaholism or sex addiction or whatever terminology you like—that was a lesson that I still needed to learn. There, in the airless room in the basement of a London church I finally figured out that nothing whatsoever that I did would make a difference to his behaviour.
This may sound obvious to you—of course a woman has nothing to do with her husband’s addiction!—but there is a great deal of self-recrimination by women married to sex addicts. A survey of 460 women conducted by Dr. Kevin Skinner and his colleagues at Addo Recovery revealed the following information:
25% of women thought it was “always” or “more often than not” their own fault when their partners acted out their sex addiction.
An addition 15% thought it was their fault at least half the time.
These are staggering statistics. That any woman should blame themselves for any aspect of their husband’s sex addiction is wrong, and yet a great number of us do it.
It is essential that we wives understand that we cannot be beautiful enough to distract him from fantasies of other women. We can’t be sexy enough, alluring enough, interesting enough or available enough to control his acting out. We cannot beg him enough, cry enough, show enough grief, sorrow, despair, or hurt to control his sex addiction. We also cannot yell at him enough, threaten him enough, retaliate enough or scare him into sobriety. He will evade every sanction, work around every obstacle we put in his way. There is truly nothing we can do.
I cannot tell you how long it took for me to understand that.
In some ways this is a great relief. Our powerlessness in the face of sex addiction contains a notion that should be visited again and again. I often tell myself that my husband’s condition is not due to any fault, lack, or neglect on my part. No action or absence of action. Nothing I’ve said. Nothing I am. My husband’s condition is not relieved by anything I might change in myself, any improvement or action. Nothing I say will affect his condition. Nothing I can do will affect his condition. I cannot manage his condition. And to the extent that the man is part of my life, I cannot manage that part of my life either, only my response to it.
All of this is to say that you didn’t cause this situation. He made a series of increasingly disastrous choices based largely on his early history and a set of cultural circumstances and his own relationship to sex. If you were in a bad mood, busy with children, otherwise engaged too often, that is all irrelevant. I hope there was no reason for me to state that.
Maybe this is obvious to you, but I sometimes heard from friends (usually male) that my husband was looking for something he wasn’t getting at home. I was told to dress up, try more kinky stuff, watch pornography with him. One guy went as far as to email me a set of instructions as to what to do in bed so that my husband would not stray.
Such statements are painful and untrue, but they burned right through me.
It is up to your husband to deal with his problem. Do you think that throwing him out so he hits “rock bottom” will cure him? You’ll be encouraged to believe so by some people, many of them qualified therapists, who believe that if you throw him out you will bring him to his “rock bottom” faster. Rock bottom is a destination, you see, because it is theorised that only from that lowest point does the addict make the necessary effort involved in kicking their addiction. Throwing him out is a service, not only for you, or so the argument goes, but for the suffering addict who needs to feel the pain of his addiction a little sharper if he ever hopes to recover from it.
The same people will tell you that if don’t throw him out you are an “enabler” or “co-addict” or both. There are a number of definitions of an “enabler”, depending on what you read. Darlene Lancer, a licensed marriage and family counsellor and the author of Codependency for Dummies, writes that enabling is “removing the natural consequences to the addict of his or her behaviors.” The examples she gives of enabling activities include things like calling the employer of the addict or alcoholic to make excuses for why he or she won’t be in that day or cleaning up soiled sheets, vomit, etc. The idea is that if you look after the addict or alcoholic so well that s/he doesn’t have to change, then s/he won’t change. Again, the kindest thing you can do is allow them to reach “rock bottom” and if you do not do this, you are all but encouraging his addiction.
Apparently, driving the addict to “rock bottom” is important even if the addict, in turn, drives his car drunk and kills a family or two in a collision. Or if the drug user or alcoholic overdoses or dies of alcoholic poisoning. I guess death can serve as a kind of rock bottom, though it is difficult to imagine recovering from such a state. And here I am speaking not of the addict but of people like me who happen to love an addict. I can imagine people trying to comfort me with the words, “He’d have died of it eventually no matter what you did.” This might be true. But I would not know it. And desisting in one’s behaviour as an enabler (if there exists such a thing) is cold comfort.
Anyway, what are the natural consequences for sex addicts? There is no vomit or piss or physical sickness associated with it. I don’t think that leaving the spouse is a “natural” consequence, though I don’t see why you should stay if you don’t want to. Some will say that if you stay with a sex addict, you contribute to the continuation of their addiction, but I don’t believe it. I’ve known plenty of people who left their alcoholic spouse and the person slowly drank themselves to death, and I’ve known alcoholics who recovered. I’ve known sex addicts whose wives have left them and they have continued their addiction, and I’ve known sex addicts who have remained married and stopped acting out. I don’t know exactly what the data would show, or even if data has been sought, but I think enabling is a bit of a myth.
Rock bottoms turn out to be made of softer stuff than stone. The depths of despair experienced by an addict does not make for pleasant speculation.
If your husband is shocked enough by your leaving him to seek help in a recovery program, then your leaving him helped him. Did it help you? And it may not happen that way. He may decide to give up and just let the addiction consume him, for now or always. By contrast, if he is progressing in his recovery program and even living a sober life, your action won’t make him try harder—he’s already doing the best he can. Throw him out if you want to do so, if that is what you want, but not as a means of controlling his behaviour because you will not succeed in that. You don’t know how he’s going to respond in any case and why should that be the reason for your decision?
Again, it’s that step one truism: Nothing you do will change his addiction. You are powerless against it.
What else might be a natural consequence of his sex addiction? A sexually transmitted disease, sure. And you can’t stop that one. No worries about enabling him there—he will either get one or he won’t. Maybe a natural consequence could be your anger, though being angry at him won’t help either as it will likely just cause his shame, which is a great trigger for more acting out.
Maybe you think you’ll put security software on your home computers to prevent your husband using his phone or laptop to view pornography and find hook-ups on line. It might slow him down a few minutes, but it absolutely will not prevent him either acting out or watching pornography. There are a hundreds of ways to get around such programs (Twitter and Instagram are great places to watch porn, for example, and they aren’t usually blocked by internet accountability or filtering systems). And you want to know who often buys these programs? The addicts, themselves. Addicts want to stop watching pornography so they buy Covenant Eyes, to stop themselves. But they still act out—because the addiction is so strong they work around the filtering systems and find some way of satisfying it.
They are powerless over their addiction as well.
Do you think having an affair will show him how much it hurts you when he has sex outside the marriage? I used to believe this might actually make the difference, because he seemed too ready to dismiss the gravity of hurt he was doing to me with every case of “acting out”. Again, it isn’t likely to make your husband any more careful with your emotions. Oh, he’ll be hurt all right, but it won’t affect his addiction. Just like it states in Step One, nothing you can do—win an Oscar, fly to the moon—will make any difference to the addiction.
All of which is to say that Step One has to be remembered every day. If you go to S-Anon groups just to learn that nothing you do will change his addiction, and to familiarize yourself with the rest of the Steps that your husband will go through (assuming he is also doing a 12-Step recovery program) it is worth it. It is also worth it if you are among the minority of women who choose to stay with your husband even as he continues in his addiction because he denies that there is any harm in it. Or, he admits the problem but refuses a recovery program (or insists he will recover on his own, which amounts to the same thing). If that is the life you are leading, you need some support, and an Anon group even with its flaws may prove important.
Why? Because COSA and S-Anon are very good at helping you establish an emotional separateness from your husband. What they aren’t good at doing, is helping you get over trauma or establish intimacy with your husband. For that you will need trauma counselling and friends who stop telling you about your co-addiction and illness.
You might try www.bloomforwomen.com, which at $15.00 a month (and a free introductory trial) is an easy start in the direction of feeling better.
Meanwhile, remember Step One when your husband tries to blame you for his acting out. Addicts and alcoholics are terrific at pushing blame onto others. Only last night my husband told me that in years past he sometimes considered leaving home because he found the “stresses and strains” of living with his family too much for him. When I pointed out that some men might consider leaving the family home more stressful than remaining at home, he reluctantly acknowledged this truth. I went to sleep a bit bewildered that night because frankly I remember what happened when I finally did throw him out (the story is coming) and he was anything but “relieved of the stresses and strains.” How quickly we forget.
Recently, I was listening to a guy (a sex addict) who was disappointed in his wife’s moods. He was trying his heart out in a recovery program and felt he did not deserve all the anger coming from her. He complained that she relentlessly criticised him, that she was frequently angry at him, that she resented that he went to 12-Step meetings.
I agreed with him that we wives can go spiralling into anger pretty quickly and admitted that I had done so myself on more than one occasion. Also, some wives feel that recovery meetings are either a waste of time or places where their husbands go to hang out with “bad people” who go to prostitutes and watch pornography. I nodded my head in sympathy with this fellow until at last he said, What is the point of being sober if this is all I get from her? I might as well act out!
Well, well, isn’t that a wonderful means of making it his wife’s fault that he had thoughts of acting out? And isn’t it amazing that even in a recovery program with twice weekly meetings and a sponsor he checked in with daily, he somehow forgot Step One and thought it was his wife’s fault that he behaved as he did? He resented his wife, who I must point out was understandably dismayed by his lack of sobriety despite his efforts in the program. How do I know he wasn’t sober? Because a sexually and emotionally sober man no longer in active addiction would not consider his wife’s anger or mood to be justification for acting out. No “recovered” sex addict, if I can use that terminology, makes keeping his wife and family intact the reason for his sobriety. He does it for his own welfare and sanity. He does it because he is tired of his addiction not tired of his wife’s reaction to his addiction.
It hardly bears saying that no healthy non-addict has an argument with his wife and therefore considers having sex with another woman, that he might as well.
Eventually, this fellow will understand all that. If he follows his program, he will look back on such remarks as ridiculous. But he needs to feel the truth of Step One in his spirit, not in his head. He needs to know through every core of his being that his wife’s moods or anger—or anyone else’s moods or anger—are no reason for rushing to his fix.
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