Perhaps I’ve convinced you that sex addiction is a real condition. And now you are thinking, Great, he’s a sex addict, But I don’t want to be married to a sex addict. Or any kind of addict. How long do I have to put up with this?
Addictions are not quickly solved. During the early days of my husband’s recovery he was not “recovered” at all. Because I misunderstood the process of recovery from sex addiction I’d imagined that once he confronted the problem, everything would be all right. He was going to 12-Step meetings, seeing a psychologist who specialized in sex addiction (or so it was claimed), and talking to me openly about how he felt and what was going on inside him. Surely now that he was getting the help he needed, and no longer carrying the burden of secrecy, he would no longer act out sexually?
For some men, recovery is exactly this straightforward. Once they earnestly seek help for their addiction and put certain structures of accountability in place, they have a tidy before and after line. Every couple of months my husband tells me about one of these guys who, having arrived into recovery, never act out again. I’m not talking about arriving at an expensive residential recovery center and spending months in residential care, but a man who goes to an ordinary, free 12-Step recovery program offered through Sex Addiction Anonymous. He shows up a few times a week at these meetings, gets himself a sponsor, and spends the rest of his life sexually sober, emotionally sober, and eventually what is called spiritually sober.
For wives like me, whose husbands struggled for years to stop acting out, it seems too good to be true. Recovery is a process that begins with acknowledging its necessity. In other words, the addict decides he wants to recover, but he knows that will take quite some time.
However, it appears there are people for whom recovery is easier, a single moment in time that just becomes the norm. Or maybe they are just lucky. For many addicts, recovery is a bumpy road that can go on for some time.
I wish I’d known this. Most of my distress was because of the distance between what I thought ought to be happening—my husband achieving what is called “sexually sobriety”—and what was happening, a life punctured by his ongoing, sporadic use of pornography, “massage parlors” and chat lines.
Sometimes D—- was so nice to me it was difficult to stay angry him. Sometimes, he was so grumpy and anxious I wondered how he could stand himself. Addicts are notoriously anxious, angry, and terrific at blaming other people for their moods and troubles. D—- did plenty of that. But he also had moments of real honesty and openness. He spoke to me more candidly than he had ever dared speak to another human being. We spent long nights talking over the events in his life that precipitated his addiction. His introduction to sex was through a teacher who alighted upon him when he was only eleven years old. His parents were rigidly strict Christians who believed all sex outside of wedlock was sinful. His relationship with sex had always been peculiar and complicated and full of shame. What he wanted more than anything was a healthy relationship with me, both emotionally and sexually. He wanted to put things right and I wanted that, too. It was only that neither one of us knew how. We vowed to figure it out together. I was more than willing to put our history behind us and begin afresh.
But every time I’d discover he’d been somewhere he shouldn’t, it burned right through me.
Strangely, it can be oddly satisfying to be involved with someone who is so troubled. If they are behaving badly (through acting out or just generally grumpy) you are able to feel mildly superior. Before I knew he was an addict and believed, instead, that he was only an anxious worrier whose mood defaulted to mildly depressed, I could imagine that I was the more emotionally mature and spiritually superior of the two of us.
This had two positive effects on me. First, I irrationally imagined that it meant my husband respected and admired me more than he otherwise might if he didn’t “need” my good moods, my positivity, or my can-do attitude. Second, I had a ready excuse if I ever were to feel moody or sad. With a husband who needed so much caretaking, was it any surprise that I sometimes felt emotionally drained? His problems were all great excuses for my own. This became even more evident once I found out about the addiction. How could I be entirely happy, joyful, fulfilled, or successful when my husband might at any moment be involving himself with other women? And even if he weren’t with other women, the “recovery program” was so all-encumbering that it left little room in his thoughts for anyone but himself.
So, I could feel abandoned in either direction, either as a wife who was being mistreated inside her marriage by a man who said he loved her but looked for sex outside the marriage, or as a woman who was lonely and neglected inside her marriage because treatment for her husband’s addiction took up all his time and emotional energy.
This description would probably be classified as the behavior of a “codependent”, but I am wary of such terms. I have been thinking a lot about the history of the labels “coaddicts” and “codependent” and their powerful and sometimes deleterious effect on those who love men and women with addictive disorders. I have written a little about them later in this book, but will just mention now that it may be helpful to ignore such labels if they worry you.
Treatment facilities like the Marr Addiction Treatment Center in Georgia declare that codependents are “just as sick (or more so in their own way) as their addicted loved one.” I find that kind of sweeping generalization to be unhelpful at best, and unlikely to be true in the majority of cases. It is also terribly patronizing and condemning, declaring that we spouses of sex addicts are all sick and need treatment. They don’t even need to meet us to decide as much.
If any among us can discover her husband has a secret life in which he acts out his sex addiction not have a period of time during which she can think of little else, she is a different animal to me. For me, there was certainly a period during which his addiction made the headlines in my mind each morning. I imagined all my emotions were due my having been made newly aware of it. Of course, this relieved me of some responsibility for my feelings. If I felt abandoned, it was because of his addiction. If I felt I’d wasted my life, it was due to his addiction. If I felt lonely, depressed, angry, sad, we could put it all down to his sex addiction. I felt like I could not find peace unless he got better. But I experienced this only for a period of time—not forever.
If I were talking about any disease other than addiction, would my reaction sound all that “sick”? If he’d had an intractable cancer and I said that for a period of time my experience of life was entirely colored by how he felt, whether he was getting better or worse, what was going on in his body, in his mind, would I sound sick? And yet, the same psychologists that insist addiction is a disease tell us we are more sick than our addicted spouse because we respond to the condition as we might a disease.
If my husband was truly the source of my unhappiness, you might ask the question why didn’t I just leave him? Because I did not see his addiction as his single most defining characteristic. Because I thought that with help he could get past the addiction. I would have happily left the addiction, itself, at any time, but my husband was a human being, far greater than the label “sex addict.”
But did I feel happy? Of course not, or not entirely. Nor was I one hundred percent sad. We have this idea that happiness is the absence of sadness or sadness is the absence is happiness, but it isn’t like that. They aren’t mutually exclusive. You can be sad your husband is a sex addict and happy that he is with you. Both things together.
The best description of how I felt was anxious. I was always waiting for something bad to happen, for him to have a senseless affair or indulge in hours of pornography or visit a strip bar to watch girls our daughter’s age dance naked on a stage. I remember him telling me after a slip that ended with him at a “massage” place that he hadn’t touched anyone. He’d allowed them to massage him naked, but he hadn’t actually put his hands on a woman. Why not? I asked. The answer was more devastating than it ought to have been. Because I was not allowed, he said.
Not that he didn’t want to, not an admission that some part of him refused to fully engage in sex with a stranger when he was married to me. Only that he was not allowed.
So, what if he had been allowed? Well, I think I know the answer. During the years when he’d have intercourse with prostitutes what if he’d “been allowed” to not wear a condom? Would he be carrying HIV? Would I? It was all terrifying. I sometimes tortured myself with questions about what would happen if. I didn’t understand why this otherwise gentle, loving man was behaving in such a crazy way.
I guess to really understood addiction, you’d have to be an addict.
These days, whenever I hear a man in an “open meeting” talk about his addiction I can gauge roughly where his is on the path to recovery. There is no precise science to this. Having lived with one of nature’s most accomplished dissemblers I know how easily some can ape the sentiments of a recovered addict, but there are giveaways. For example, if a guy is still complaining about his unhappy childhood or his “crazy” wife or how unfair it is that she left him or how his particular suffering as child or addict is far worse than that of other addicts, his emotional scars far deeper, he is not far from acting out. Chances are he’s either “white knuckling” his way through the program or not sober at all.
White knuckling is when an addict is attempting to control his addiction by sheer willpower and not as a result of the necessary spiritual event that interrupts the pattern of addiction and fosters recovery.
White knucklers are among the most grumpy of recovering addicts. They’ve given up their coping mechanism and are now blundering through the world without it. They haven’t found the peace required for a true transition to sobriety and yet they are technically sober—and usually feel incredibly sorry for themselves. Unless a change takes place inside the addict, a change that is normally inspired through a 12-Step program or therapy or both, he will eventually lapse.
Even if a change does take place, he has to continually enlarge the part of him that is practicing healthy behaviours. If he busy in the melodrama of his life, feeling sorry for himself and feeling hard-done-by, he is vulnerable to acting out. He is probably unable to see beyond his own suffering and certainly in no position to comfort his wife or make her less anxious.
I should know.
I can remember complaining to my husband about how I was a dedicated wife, a loving wife, and felt so betrayed by his cyclical acting out. His response? Well, imagine how much worse it is to be the one who betrays? The one who causes the pain!
Amazing self-pity, but there is a certain logic to it. To be so disconnected to his partner, to the love of others, to a sense of peace and joy, that a man behaves counter to everything he values in life, must require deep inner despair. Self-absorption is not only isolating and self-defeating, but it is also is painful. Assuming that D—- actually loved me and our children and our life together, he had to be in a terrible place to put it all at risk. The seat of his disconnection was not the acting out but the emotional state that preceded it.
If I thought of it that way, his situation was worse. While I was certainly upset, I was nowhere near the kind of misery that would cause me to destroy the very family I loved.
If he could have stopped, he would have stopped. I struggled to believe that, to remember that, to keep it forefront in my mind. From the time I found out about his addiction it was as though there was a ticking time bomb inside our relationship. I could only survive for so long inside a marriage in which betrayal was a regular event. He could only recover as fast as he could. The question was what would happen first—would I run out of steam before he could get a handle on the addiction? The answer to that question turned out to be both yes and no.
Copyright © 2016 by TheWife. All rights reserved.