My husband used to ask me why I didn’t go to a therapist. He didn’t say why he thought I should go to a therapist, just that I ought to go. Did he imagine the therapist would teach me how to forgive the history of our marriage, which had been one of betrayal after betrayal? Would the therapist help me stay calm when he acted out? Or to be less sad when, all at once, the things he’d done (or was about to do) with another woman plunged into my thoughts—all those intrusive scenarios that played out in my brain and could arrive in the middle of an otherwise ordinary day?
While walking the dog in the sun, I’d suddenly picture the photograph of a nearly-naked woman who had texted him a code he would need to enter into his laptop to see more. I’d imagine him with her. Or I’d recall all at once the love letters he wrote to another woman which he’d idiotically saved to his hard drive. All the love he expressed to her, all the desire, took over my thoughts. Suddenly, I couldn’t see anything, not the flowering apple trees angled across the field in which I walked, not the cowslips white along the banks of the trail.
You need help, he’d say. You should talk to someone.
Those letters, I’d begin.
They meant nothing. I was just obsessed.
But that’s just it, you were obsessed—
My pain weighed upon him, worried him, and reminded him of his own part in its inception. But the way I heard his advice that I see a therapist was as his wanting me to receive professional guidance on how to be nicer to him. He wanted me to see sex addiction as a disease, not a lifestyle choice; he wanted me to be more understanding of his condition.
All that is fine, but I didn’t believe he wanted me to feel better generally as much as he wanted me to feel better about him. That was his motivation, I concluded. And I believed he wanted me to talk to a therapist so that he didn’t have to talk to me.
Nobody Is Listening
This was not simple paranoia. If I expressed the pain I felt from his having been with other women he became so ashamed, so engorged with self-hatred that he scared me. I’d feel him retreat inside himself at the first sign of my discomfort. He’d either shut me out or resent me outright. Occasionally, his anger ignited as I spoke. What do you want me to do about it now! he bellowed. I can only take actions that are possible today!
He reacted so badly that we’d end up talking about him and his feelings, not about me or mine. He always seemed on the edge of some terrible precipice that had to be respected; if I pushed him too hard with all my messy feelings, he might go over the edge.
Having a therapist may have been useful but what I really wanted was to talk to him. I wanted to talk to him about our marriage, about what he was doing, about what he had done, about how it made me feel. If only he would care about me enough to listen to me instead of defending himself or turning every discussion into one about him and his feelings, maybe I could believe he really loved me.
“If you really loved me, you wouldn’t do this“ is the first lament of the wife of a sex addict. Once she learns that his acting out has nothing to do with how he feels about her, she has a second lament: “If you really loved me, you’d listen to me.”
But often he won’t. He will say that he can’t. So where is he being a husband to us exactly? Nowhere probably. And not for a long time, if ever. Some come back into being the men they were meant to be. Some are lost in addiction forever. It will take years for you to know which will be the case for your husband. Meanwhile, there is today to live. Then tomorrow.
In the early years of discovering my husband’s sex addiction, I still imagined I could reason him out of acting out. I admit this was very naïve, but I hadn’t entirely grasped what it meant to have an addiction and wasn’t one hundred percent sure yet it even was an addiction. In some ways, the disease model of addiction still does sound wholly apt. By contrast, he was certain he was an addict and he resented any attempt on my part to talk to him about his behaviour as though it had been something he can control.
I concluded that he encouraged me to find a therapist as a means of delegating the necessary task of listening to me. Someone had to do it, but it wasn’t going to be him. Why should he when he had such great problems of his own? You can imagine how I felt: abandoned, alone, unloved, unheard.
You should see a therapist. I don’t care what it costs, he said.
What if every therapist I speak to tells me to leave you? I replied. This was before I took it upon myself to leave him anyway. Would you want me to see one then?
This was the sort of unhelpful hostility he saw as the reason we argued. I wasn’t supposed to have such thoughts, much less voice them. I wasn’t supposed to be suspicious enough to question his motivation in suggesting I see a therapist. I was supposed to see him as a victim of addiction. I was meant to see the addiction as part of a larger illness. I was supposed to have sympathy for the person with the illness, and that was him.
Sorry, I’m Not Superwoman
Over the years, I have tried a number of therapists, none of whom were optimistic for my marriage. As I’ve mentioned before, two of them suggested I get my husband out of my life. There was talk about his behaviour being abusive, comparable to physical forms of spousal abuse. The cyclical nature of his acting out was not unlike the occasional beatings a wife might receive. And while I have respect for the few smart, thoughtful therapists who specialise in sex addiction, who are somewhat more available these days, and often write articles on the internet, I have little patience for the priority they put on the addict’s problems above those of the partner.
You will hear from the therapist, be patient with your partner, don’t expect all your questions to be answered right away, don’t ask questions that will result in your experiencing vivid depictions of all the sex your husband has been having, limit escalating arguments. This is the type of advice the best therapists will give you (if you are lucky enough to find such a therapist). They amount to a list of rules, or at least heavily weighted suggestions, and they are all about how you must behave. They may as well be telling you to be superwoman.
In fact, what they are really saying is, Be as detached and loving and careful with your husband as a therapist would be.
Yeah, good luck with that. It’s a wonderful thought but extremely difficult to accomplish. Some wives, confronted with such high expectations of how they should react to their husband’s history of sex addiction (as well as his current acting out) may decide they are simply not up to the task and walk away. Essentially, this is what happened to me. When at last, years later a couple’s therapist finally said something (therapists seem mute and useless most of the time) she asked me to see if I could separate the addiction from the man. I decided I could not.
No, I told the therapist. Because I am not a therapist. I am a wife. He has been acting out consistently for the past five years even while in recovery. Now, I ask you: have you ever been married to someone who is a sex addict? I am guessing not. Have you ever tried to have an intimate, physical relationship with a sex addict? I am guessing you have not. You tell me to separate the man from the addiction, but he’s all about his addiction. He’s so inside himself he sees nothing but his own concerns and his own addiction and you’ve joined him there. Well, that’s great–for him. But if I were your daughter, would you be telling me to separate the man from the addiction or to get the hell out of what has become an abusive relationship with me being the principle victim?
The therapist had no answer. She may have thought I was just another “difficult wife.” While it is wonderful that therapists are no longer see those with compulsive sex disorders as narcissitic psychopaths but people with an addiction rooted in trauma, I wonder if the necessary swing toward having compassion for the addict has resulted in little compassion of the wife?
Who Really Cares About The Wife, Anyway?
Where was my advocate? Where was my solace? And was there ever going to be any apology, any amends made my way? Not really. For years, my husband said he was sorry for what he had done, but he kept doing it. He rarely made amends for recurring sexual acting out, and never informed me when a “slip” had occurred. He was ashamed, which is not the same as being sorry. Shame is about how he felt, not how he imagined I might feel. There was a blip in the empathy circuitry of his brain. While I couldn’t do something to hurt another person, he could do that very thing, again and again. Let’s say that is an addictive drive, fine. I get it. But afterwards, he was also self-preserving. He minimised what he’d done. He told me I was overreacting. He yelled at me that he was doing the best he could. What did I expect? What on earth? All of this increased my fear and pain and a sense of being unlovable and abandoned.
I knew I was in a bad situation. A notable proportion of women receiving domestic abuse have depression, vague physical complaints, fatigue, anxiety and other symptoms associated with trauma. I experienced similar symptoms, including exhaustion, intrusive thoughts, a strong sense of having had my life hijacked, the inability to concentrate enough to write (I’m a writer by profession), a great deal of anxiety and unease.
As far as getting help, I felt totally stuck. The therapists who did not specialise in sex addiction would tell me the marriage was abusive and to end it (in retrospect, I think they were right in many ways though I discovered the marriage transformed as the addiction lifted). The ones who specialised in sex addiction took the position I had to be a saint, my halo glowing so brightly I might light up a city. They sounded like people who had just come from a training seminar by Patrick Carnes and were now so seduced by the “new-think” on sex addiction they were more interested in indoctrinating her with their dogma than helping the woman in front of them. Meanwhile everyone wanted £100-£250 an hour to give me either their silence or their crappy advice.
What Actually Helps Us?
What I needed was my husband to actually recover, to stop acting out so that I could get onto the business of overcoming the trauma I’d been through. What I needed was to quit being robbed by therapists learning far more from me than I was from them. What I needed was a woman like myself, but not me, who knew exactly what I was experiencing and could help get me through it with me being the priority. I didn’t need a set of ideals about how to understand addiction, cope with addiction, understand the root of addiction, the pull of addiction, how to support my spouse through his addiction.
Not that these things are unimportant–they are vital. But therapists should respond to wives in a manner that shows they also understand that the trauma we are undergoing is severe, acute, and often ongoing. After all, therapists are always talking about past traumas–the events triggering addictions and disorders of all types–can they not discern the unfolding of trauma in front of them? Telling us that addicts are victims, that sex addiction is a disease, that our husbands are suffering from childhood trauma, is helpful but not enough. Someone, somewhere, ought to care just a bit more about us.
The kind of support I found useful came from other women in my same situation, but perhaps a few years further along. And it was very rare, indeed. I have a few friends who understand the trauma I’ve gone through, who don’t ask what is wrong with me, but what is wrong with my situation, who don’t expect me to be perfect. They don’t tell me how to manage my husband’s feelings or give me the latest on the delicate psyche of the addict’s brain. These friends allow me my voice and my freedom to express myself. And they have been far more valuable than any therapist I have been to as a client or those whose articles I’ve read on the internet. Indeed, they have been my lifeline.