You may be married to a man who doesn’t think there is anything wrong with how he behaves. In my discussions with sex addicts, I often ask what their advice would be to a woman whose husband doesn’t think there is anything wrong with pornography, strip bars, phone sex, even actual physical sexual acts outside the marriage. I don’t know, they might say. Or, There is nothing she can do; he has to hit rock bottom.
But he doesn’t even know there is a bottom, I explain. He thinks there is nothing wrong with his behavior other than the fact it takes place in a society that is hung up about sex, or that his wife is hung up.
There is usually an awkward pause. Then there is nothing she can do.
The suggestion from the non-addicts is clear: Then she could leave him.
That’s not bad advice, assuming that it is financially possible. I have no idea what else you can do. I think that until a man has reached a place in which he feels imprisoned by the addiction, there is no answer for him. Every time I’ve asked addicts about this situation—one in which a man feels he is entitled to look at porn just so long as he doesn’t actually have sex outside the marriage, or that phone sex doesn’t count as sex, or that pole-dancing is an art form and so it shouldn’t be a problem that he watches it three nights a week—they are baffled.
But these are the addicts in recovery; they’ve gone into recovery because their addictions almost ruined their lives. They don’t speculate on whether pornography is okay or not, it is clear it wasn’t okay for them. Sex addiction may have cost them thousands in prostitutes, ruined their financial stability, ended their marriages, and caused terrible custody battles over their children. They may have been unable to have an intimate relationship that lasted more than two months or never had one at all because of their addiction to sex. And the worst aspect of it is that even though they have suffered such consequences, they could not stop. If you ask them what to do with someone who is in such denial about his behavior, they recognize the gross self-delusion required to remain so deep into addiction, and they shrug their shoulders.
Addicts know, however, that at one time in their lives, they minimized their own misconduct. They may have reasoned with themselves that they had a bigger sex drive than other men or a need for sex that included more variety, or that what isn’t known by their wives cannot hurt them. But it does hurt them, of course. My own husband, at the height of his addiction, was about as absent and unhappy a man as I’ve ever known, blaming his bad moods on his demanding job or on me if I dared be anything but sunny and reliable, open, available. All these traits that he, himself, lacked.
He didn’t appreciate his family, his children, his beautiful home, all the privileges his life afforded him. He was cranky and self-pitying and sad. But he was also polite. When I asked him what was wrong he blamed his job. And he had moments of clarity when he realized how lucky he was to have such a loving wife and children, such a blessed life, and became very sweet. But those times became rare as the momentum of the addiction increased. I knew nothing about what was happening inside him, but I did feel the effects. I couldn’t seem to make the man I loved happy. He couldn’t make himself happy.
If a man is caught up in pornography or phone sex or pole-dancing clubs, these activities will eventually lead to prostitutes and stupid affairs. It’s just a matter of time. In Alcoholics Anonymous, they talk about how alcoholism is a progressive disease, that unless the alcoholic makes a distinct, ongoing, concentrated effort to secure his recovery from the conditions in his mind that lead to alcoholism, the addiction gains momentum. In Sex Addiction Anonymous, the same is said about sex addiction, and I believe it. There appears to a momentum to this condition and it only gets worse unless recognized and interrupted.
Besides, the practices that define sex addiction (that is, the sex) is pursued not by desire but by distress. The man who is ready to beat his addiction recognizes that he is not interested in sex as much as he is interested in avoiding his life. He also knows there is no sane explanation for sex being used as a means to alter one’s mood or to compensate for stress. Defending one’s use of random or paid-for sex or pornography (or whatever type of sex) as a harmless means to relax, distract, calm or otherwise alter one’s mood, is a sign that the person is not recognizing his problem.
Recovering addicts early in the process of their recovery sometimes minimize their addiction-led sexual behavior, too. A guy who is working the 12-Steps will talk about how he’s discovered an act that further heightens his arousal or buzz, and you’ll know he is failing to do the things he is asked in his recovery program. In fact, he is probably behaving in opposition to it. He may eventually figure it all out, but he is just not ready. He may never be ready. People can spend a long time in early recovery—that is, knowing they have a problem but not taking the necessary measures to get on top of the problem. A man who is playing with recovery has little more control than an active addict on no recovery path at all. He is like a blind man operating heavy machinery. My advice to you is get out of his way.
The addict is not the only person who minimizes the problem of sex addiction. You, too, may try to minimize your partner’s condition, arguing to yourself that what your husband is engaging with isn’t that bad, especially when compared to some men, those other, nameless, faceless men we perceive to be out there in the world somewhere. I will often hear women say that her husband has been sober except for “a little peek at porn here and there, but I’m okay with that” and I will know that she is either denying how entrenched he still in in addiction or that she doesn’t really know.
Anyway, it doesn’t matter what we spouses are “okay” with when it comes to the sex industry. Most of us aren’t okay with any of it, but the point is this: What I think of pornography has nothing to do with how it fits into my husband’s life. Sex addicts can’t afford a “peek” at anything that might trigger them. Pornography is most assuredly off limits no matter what I think of the stuff.
Much of what constitutes the multi-million dollar sex industry—lap dancing and strip clubs, massage and actual sex—is considered “harmless fun” by many. Pornography has ballooned uncontrollably since the introduction of the internet and shows no signs of slowing down. Perhaps this indicates an increased acceptance of pornography by the public generally, but the likelihood is that it is only a matter of easy access. The psychologist Dr. Patrick Carnes reports that two thirds of our teenaged kids are watching pornography while doing their homework. He further states that of those teenagers watching, 32% are at risk of developing sexually compulsive behaviour. Those numbers may seem high—even unlikely—but nobody will dispute that children and young people’s early exposure to pornography is a problem in our culture.
But other people’s opinions about the sex industry is not relevant to your immediate situation. Whatever type of sex your husband is engaging in—if it is outside his intimate relationship with you—is too much. It is dangerous, it is destructive to himself, his marriage, and his family. You can’t stop him, but don’t make excuses for him either.
I understand the wish to underestimate the hold that pornography, random and paid-for sex has on your husband. I remember asking D—- to show me the sort of pornography he watched. This was some weeks after my initial discovery of his affair, but before he had told me much about his sex addiction. He didn’t want to show me the pornography but at my insistence he brought up a video on his computer. I had a look and thought how it wasn’t that big a deal. I don’t like pornography, but wasn’t porn something that normal couples often engaged with together? Don’t they joke about it in Friends? Rarely could I get through an episode of web TV without having to watch actors having sex. So how did pornography make him an addict?
In fact, it was moments after showing me a pornography site that he told me he thought he might be a sex addict. We were lying in bed in the morning, the early sunlight behind the curtains, our cups of tea beside us on the night tables. He showed me the porn and I shrugged. I thought, that’s it? That’s why we are all upset? But then he showed me another site, an “escort” site, and this one worried me. I explained to him that pornography was one thing, but a site from which you can hire a woman for an evening was quite another. I didn’t for a moment think he had anything to do with actual escorts, real live women who you pay. I could not imagine him having anything to do with such people “You should stay away from that stuff. Those women are prostitutes,” I explained, as though he didn’t already know. “Going to sites like this is dangerous.”
It was like a bank teller explaining to the masked man in front of me that crime never pays.
Of course, he’d already been to prostitutes, to massage parlors, to private rooms. He’d paid for girls to stand in booths at strip clubs and push their crotches into his face as they danced. As for pornography, he’d already signed up to everything from on-line dating to flirty sites to video streamed porn—stuff I didn’t even know existed: Russian dating websites, live chats, “love calls”, video shows and god knows what else. I just didn’t know because D—-, like many addicts, told me only small pieces the entirety of what had been going on. He minimized everything, though I was very grateful for the bravery he showed that morning when he told me, as gently as he could, that he was a sex addict.
Even then, I found it difficult to believe. Also, difficult to take seriously. There was this one website that allowed you to hook up with women from the Ukraine as though you were dating them. But the profile photographs were ridiculously enhanced and if you wanted to talk to the women live it had to be through a translator. It was laughable—I couldn’t believe an educated man like my husband could possibly take this stuff seriously. I had to believe he’d done so, however. And when he told me how he’d “find himself” in Soho or in strip bars, I was forced to believe he’d been there, too. However, some part of me didn’t truly believe that if he went into such places he actually stayed. In my revision of events, I’d imagine him walking in, seeing what was going on, and walking out. I could not have been more wrong, but my thinking was naïve, my refusal to fully acknowledge the extent of his addiction a reflection of my own ignorance about the disease.
For a year or more after I found out about his addiction, I made every excuse I could for him. A friend of mine once told me that if I’d ever once seen him in bed with another woman, if I’d seen him naked and erect and reaching for her, I’d never forgive him. If I’d seen him arranging for paid sex, eyeing the woman he’d been allocated, the marriage would be over. All these things happened, she said gently. You weren’t there to see it but it happened.
Perhaps she was right—that is, if I’d ever seen his open desire for another woman I’d never have gotten over it. As it was, the thoughts that he had actually done such things were cataclysmic, on a loop inside my brain. My need to minimize these thoughts was borne out of a survival instinct. I am not entirely certain I have fully comes to terms with what happened even today. But it doesn’t matter any longer. That past is like dust and, if not returned to, has a wonderful way of disappearing. His addiction, like some awful storm, finally began to diminish. I know he is always an addict, but the symptoms of his addiction have diminished and with that a fair amount of my trauma has gone, too.
Just in case you haven’t already figured out, everything about my behavior during the seven years it took for him to get his addiction under control might have won me the label “codependent” or “coaddict’ or “enabler.” But those terms are apt only if you believe one set of literature. If you go with another, contrasting set of literature I was suffering “complex trauma” and “post-traumatic stress disorder.” In any case, I needed some help.
In my next blog I’ll have a look at what help there is for people whose husbands and partners are sex addicts.
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