Your husband has been a sex addict for some time. Whatever event occurred that made you aware of his addiction, it is only one in a long stream of others. Did you find out because he’s been having an affair? If he’s a sex addict, this means one of many flings, longer affairs, or paid sex workers. Did you catch him watching pornography? He’s been carving out hours of his day or binging on it when you were out of the house—and he’s been doing it for so many years he’s probably bored with it himself.
What has changed in your life is not the substance of your marriage, but new information about it. Pornography, prostitutes, other women (or men) have already been occupying the fringes your life—you just didn’t know it. If you are in shock from whatever discovery you’ve just made (what some people call “D-Day”), prepare for further shock. But understand also that there has been no sudden shift. Your knowledge of what is going on has changed, but what has been going on remains the same. You are now aware of what was true all along.
I make this point because there are tragic shifts in our lives that are of a very different nature. For example, if a person is suddenly in a car accident she can go from perfectly healthy to very injured or worse in a moment. She doesn’t come to understand that she has been injured but experiences it in real time. She is a person who can say, “Everything in my life was fine until…” We are not. Our married lives have not been fine, at least not for a good many years.
At the time of discovery you may experience the same thoughts I did about the state of your marriage, and even use the same language. For example, I decided that I’d been deceived and my marriage was a sham, that none of the closeness or intimacy and love that I’d thought I was feeling during the eighteen years marriage was “real.” From the moment I discovered the affair it was though our lives had been dissolved, then reassembled, and everything looked how it had before, except it wasn’t. Our home didn’t feel like our home anymore, but like a place where we used to live. The flower beds, the little stacks of post and books, the kitchen calendar and potted plants and laundry folded into baskets, were instantly counterfeit and vile, transformed through oath and curse as though this Other Woman was standing in a witch’s hat, casting spells.
Suddenly, all the years we’d been together—even our most treasured days of walking hills in Cumbria, climbing mountains in Scotland, the Christmases and birthdays, the nights we dressed up and walked through lighted streets, or nights we stayed in, wrapped in blankets by the fire before sharing a bath—were photographs from another age. Even our children seemed distant from me, as though I was looking at them through a pane of glass. To feel disconnected to the world was hard. Feeling disconnected to my own children was agony.
He’d been play-acting; I’d been duped. I got really into the role of being the deceived one, the oblivious little fool. I was indignant, outraged, and so sorry for myself that I couldn’t see the marriage clearly at all anymore. Later, I came to understand that, while there had been a lot of deception and pretense sprinkled throughout our union, it was a disservice to call the marriage a “sham.” We were still ourselves, our genuine loving selves; whatever had happened because of addiction did not take that away.
Non-addicts have difficulty imagining this, but for the most part sex addicts love their wives. I’ve spoken to or heard of too many sexually addicted men speaking with enormous depth of emotion and commitment about their wives to believe otherwise. These men are deeply fearful that their wives will divorce them, and will do anything to keep their marriages intact while they recover from addiction. One of the many things they will do is lie—which we rightly despise—but the positive intention of the lying is often to hold onto us, to their families, and to their jobs.
My husband compartmentalized sex addiction; he knew it was marginal to his real life, that it was repetitive and fruitless and worrying. He’d been addicted for so many years he’d grown to hate it but was unable to stop. The progression of his addiction meant he’d become increasingly self-centered, self-absorbed, consumed by his own troubles and imagination. Maybe this is because his imagination was consuming him. At the same time, he also seemed increasingly dependent upon me, on my approval and my love. I believe that much of what we might observe as selfishness in the addict is actually emotional isolation. His self-involvement drove him further into himself. His pursuit of sex was probably a means of relieving his loneliness and fear—for almost every sex addict I’ve ever known is intensely fearful. The sex distracted him for a short while before plummeting him further into it.
Did I see any signs of trouble? If I’d taken inventory I might have concluded that over the years he’d become more self-obsessed and anxious. But like the story of the frog placed in tepid water that gradually rises in temperature until the poor animal is boiled alive, I didn’t notice such gradual change.
I thought he was over-worked. I thought he was a bit stressy. I’d occasionally receive phone calls from him in which he needed to hear my voice even though I’d only said goodbye to him a few hours ago as he left for the office. I later worked out that these phone calls took place just after he’d acted out, or had nearly acted out, and were a means of anchoring him back to his real life, his real family, his real wife. It wasn’t so much that he acted out because he didn’t care for me, but that the momentum of his addiction was so intractable that he engaged in sexual fantasy or actual sex with someone else in spite of how he felt about me.
Having said this, I don’t for a minute downplay the degree of hurt and destruction that sex addicts bestow upon their lives, their marriages and their spouses. And I don’t feel it can be explained away as “an addiction like any other.” Sex addiction is a disease and it is a real addiction. However, in most other cases of addiction the increased dependency on a substance is fairly obvious to the spouse. A spouse can often see signs of drug use. They see signs of alcohol abuse. I doubt very much I’d have overlooked it if my husband were an alcoholic, for example. He’d have been drunk, for one thing. I’d have seen the progression of the disease from the start and been able to make decisions in full awareness of the situation. But the nature of sex addiction means that unless you find evidence of it on one or other electronic device or catch him with another person, you are unlikely to have any idea. Years can pass, your whole life even, as you remain cocooned in oblivion wondering why he is so anxious, so dissatisfied with himself, even though he has what appears to be a perfectly lovely life.
So, while sex addiction is an addiction, it is not just like “any other addiction.” And sex addiction is not like “any other disease” either. You may hear someone say that sex addiction is a disease like diabetes. I really don’t know what therapist started this notion that sex addiction is like diabetes or why addicts try this one on. The analogy is probably due to the necessity that a sex addict take daily actions in order to prevent “acting out” in the same way that a diabetic may take daily insulin to prevent a diabetic coma.
Whatever the reason, the analogy never made any sense to me. Diabetes is a metabolic disorder involving insulin resistance. It is a physiological symptom with no premeditated agenda to its symptomatology. By contrast, acting out a sexual addiction requires deviousness, deliberate deception, and intense covering up. You may explain this to your husband who is telling you sex addiction is like diabetes. He may become angry but you are right—whatever we think about sex addiction it is not like diabetes. Don’t be surprised if he storms off or sulks while you shake your head in despair that he could ever have been duped into the diabetes analogy.
He’s not deluded. He’s just stuck. He is stuck because sex addiction is a disease and he is suffering. Because the burden of having caused such pain to those he loves overwhelms him. Because of the intense shame. He wants relief from whatever poison he feels inside himself and wouldn’t it be great to say it was like diabetes or some other common, chronic condition?
I feel sorry for today’s sex addicts because, while the condition is not uncommon, it is relatively new to the scene in psychology. Men and women who are sex addicts are at the hands of professionals with little understanding of the problem, spouses who are shocked and bewildered by the problem, and a media that loves to poke fun at the problem.
Even so, wishing sex addiction to be a disease like any other does not make it so. I cannot think of any physiological disease for which the best known treatment is what the 12-Step programs call “a spiritual solution.” You might now ask who cares what the 12-Step programs call it? Why are we talking about them anyway? We are talking about them because so far their programs have had the best results. I don’t claim to thoroughly understand the 12 Steps, I don’t understand why programs centered around the 12 Steps have done so well with men and women with addictive disorders, but it is clear this is the case.
So, sex addiction is not a physiological disease. Is it, therefore, a mental illness? In a way, yes. But even if we call sex addiction a mental illness, it is not one in which the person is delusional. That is, the problem does not manifest itself across all of the addicts’s interactions. It is not easily detected by those with whom the addict lives, let alone work colleagues or the like. So, while it might be a mental illness like anxiety, it is not a mental illness like schizophrenia.
Before I understood much about sex addiction, I believed it grew out of what could be called “ordinary cheating.” That is, I thought my husband had enjoyed casual sexual so much he repeated the action until it became a habit he found difficult to stop. I used to point out this out to my husband, telling him that he didn’t start out as an addict, but as a regular guy who cheated on me for years before the behavior became an addiction.
This thought kept me miserable for a long time. Only recently have psychologists established that it wouldn’t have been like that at all. He didn’t make a practice of cheating and then turn into an addict. He was an addict looking for a fix, and eventually alighted upon sex. He found the fix and settled on sex addiction as opposed to some other addiction. Sex was simply the drug of choice.
There may be a number of ways in which it seeds itself in an individual. Almost everyone suffering an addictive disorder has suffered a childhood trauma. In the case of sex addiction, there is often a history of childhood sexual abuse. Recent studies tell us that early exposure to pornography can create an experience of abuse even in children who are not physically abused, which makes me think that sex addiction will continue to grow in years to come as the porn industry expands its reach to our children. Also, that we will see an increase in women with sex addiction.
Experts in sex addiction often say that the addiction burgeons early in life, probably during puberty when the future addict first discovers his response to sex as not exactly like that of his more typical peers. He may ignite an active relationship with fantasy years before he has any thoughts of marriage. The fantasy can be powerful enough to blank out some of the other more challenging conditions of his life and he then begins to rely on it. Can we blame the addict for resorting to what he learned as an adolescent or a very young man? By fantasizing about women (or men) through pornography or some other means he has discovered how to relieve himself of what feels like intolerable stress, perhaps due to a history of family problems, parental abuse, sexual abuse or similar. His addiction is in the making before we even arrive on the scene.
When I first found out about my husband’s sex addiction, I was in way too much agony to have sympathy for him, for his condition, or for what may have caused it in his early history. Even reading a paragraph like the one above might have annoyed me. I didn’t like it when addicts and therapists called sex addiction a “disease”. I felt like I was being told that I did not have sufficient sympathy for the poor man, who was the real victim in all this. Also, that I was an unsympathetic wife just for challenging the notion of whether he was really an “addict” in the first place.
I was supposed to be calm and supportive. I was supposed to be patient about whether or not he stayed “sober” so early in his recovery program. Being understanding about infidelity—even on medical grounds—was an untenable position for me as a wife. And who was asking this of me? Oh yes, by my husband, a sex addict. Sex addicts are notoriously good at moralizing while failing to follow their own principles. He was advising me on my behaviour? This only further inflamed me. It seemed absurd that there was a recommended way of responding to what felt like an assault on myself, my family, my marriage or what might be called the memory of my marriage. And yet, it wasn’t an assault on any of that. He was ill. I was not.
I realize I can sound critical, especially considering that I am happily married to a sex addict, but I only became happy after years of frustration with my situation and it would be dishonest of me not to acknowledge that. Like any wife, I felt enormous pain associated with my husband’s addiction. I have been in turns frightened, angry, hurt, bewildered, baffled, dysfunctional and broken-hearted—and this went on for years.
I’ve heard a few addicts state flatly that a woman should stand by her sexually addicted spouse in the same manner she might had he been diagnosed with cancer, because after all sex addiction and cancer are both diseases. I’ve been told a woman should stand by her addicted spouse “until he is ready” for treatment or until he achieves sexual sobriety. Such advice (often from recovered addicts) downplays the painful emotions, the exhaustion, the despair and loneliness, not to mention the utter shock and horror, experienced by spouses of sexually addicted people. Many addicts take years to gain sobriety and are completely absorbed either or in their addiction or in their recovery programs during that time. Standing by your man can feel very lonely and you have no guarantee he will ever get better, nor that you will ever be able to relax, trust, or feel happy with him again. There are psychological risks to sticking with him, time and opportunity costs, as well as physical risks of sexually transmitted diseases.
Having said all this, I am also going to tell you that I am very glad to be with my husband, whose recovery was slow, frustrating, not always obvious, and something he still has to work at every day of his life.
We’re going to get to the part where I show you how that happened, but meanwhile it is worth saying that nothing I describe is meant to persuade you one way or the other about your future with your partner. I just want to reassure those who are hoping to stay with their partners that while the past can be ugly, the future can be better. Did you love your husband or partner before you found out about the acting out (by “acting out” I do, of course, mean the pornography, affairs, chat rooms, phone sex, prostitutes and sex websites)? If so, you love him now. And don’t believe anyone who tells you that you love a man you who you have “invented.” I used to hear that all the time. You say you love him, but you didn’t know him. You say you love him but you’ve only made him up in your head.
You haven’t invented him at all. He wasn’t always hiding himself, nor could he have done. Sex addiction is progressive—he wasn’t always quite as selfish or mercurial or deceptive or deep into addiction. If you love him, it is the genuine love for a real person, not a misguided projection of love onto an invented man. It will take years, not days, to dismantle that love, if this is what you choose to do. But you don’t have to leave him; he can get better. And as impossible as this may sound at the moment, you can forgive him. Loving him doesn’t mean living with him will be any easier. That you love the man so much may intensify the pain of his unfaithfulness and dishonesty, making it almost unbearable. He has disrupted what you believed at your very core, about your life, about your marriage, and about yourself.
Like the rest of the world, you thought good people did good things and bad people did bad things. But your husband, who is a good person, has not only done something bad but has done it at your expense. If you feel crazy, don’t worry. You should feel crazy. You learned something unspeakable about the man upon whom you’ve hung every hope. Moreover, your entire worldview is being challenged. If a man you love can do such wrong, what about all the other “bad guys” out there who you may once have comfortably separated into a different part of humanity? Are there “good people” in prison? Is it possible, as Thomas Aquinas says, that nobody intentionally does evil?
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