He was going twice weekly to Sex Addicts Anonymous and rigorously following a 12-Step program. He had a sponsor, a community of men from whom he received support and to whom he gave hours of his time weekly, a therapist, an EMDR therapist, a plan for expanding his spiritual life. He was serious about recovery, he said. He’d been at it for five years and had everything he needed. Except sobriety.
Despite this, things were pretty good between us. He was (mostly) a grateful and loving husband who I adored even with the history of addiction, and even with all the pain that we’d been through. I didn’t want us to break up. I wanted us to get through this thing and onto the other side, and I thought we were making it. Then, I thought we were not.
The problem was that in the space of six months he had acted out at least three times. He’d not really been sober for more than a few months at a time for the past five years, for that matter. I began to think the program didn’t work (at least not for him) and to resent all the time he poured into attending meetings. Tuesday nights, Friday nights, the occasional Saturday. He arrived home at ten-thirty or later on the slower trains that run at nighttime, exhausted. I admired his commitment, that he went to lunchtime meetings, that he was determined to get sober. But he had little time for me and complained a great deal because he couldn’t get all his work done at the office.
I resented his phone—a portal to pornography. I hated his ipad that made those same images blossom to a larger size. I hated London, a city with as much prostitution and vice as any big city, and perhaps more. He seemed to always have recently acted out or was getting into a state to act out and I did not know how to prevent it. In fact, I knew I could not prevent it.
Yet, I was trying. Good God, was I. I sent him notes and emails and texts when we weren’t together. Thinking of you. Love you. Just want to say hi…hope you are having a nice day….
I made love to him and listened to him as he told me, again and again, about the stress he felt at work. Just before we broke up, I organised a huge family holiday down to the last detail so that he could relax away from the demands of his job, booking the seats he wanted, the hotels he’d like. We toured around Andalusia, discovering new towns and mountains and beaches and people. We held hands, walked for days through Sevilla and Granada and every beautiful place, drank red wine, experimented with tapas, stayed up talking. We were happy—I thought so—and he certainly seemed to love his family.
But then we came home from the grand holiday and I discovered that only days before we’d left he’d been trawling through pornography and had visited a massage place that appeared to me to offer more than massages. He didn’t tell me this—I found out by looking at his gmail history. When I asked him about the massage he insisted it was just a straight-up masseuse, not a prostitute. Were you wearing clothes? I asked. No. Was she wearing clothes? Yes. What was she wearing? Vague on the details. Did you have an orgasm? Yes, but only after she left the room.
This is bullshit, I told him. And you are minimising.
I don’t care! I don’t care! I don’t care!
I cared terribly. He seemed to blame me for finding out more than blaming himself for having acted out. I was the monster who shamed him about his addiction and triggered him into further shame (which would put him at risk of another bout of acting out.) But wait a second? I was putting him at risk? I thought about all the unprotected sex I had with him throughout the holiday. What were the chances that I had an STD and didn’t even know it?
You want to know the chances? High.
A month or so later, just when I was beginning to get over that one, I arrived home from a weekend away with the kids and found out that in my absence he’d been on a sex chat line, masturbating to the voice of a woman he’d never meet who, herself, was probably a sex addict. At least this is what he’d admit to. I don’t know what else happened that weekend and I knew it was pointless to ask.
It was so hard. The same man who would put love notes in my suitcase when I went away for a day or two would spend hours watching pornography within hours after I left. He would tell me he loved me, then hang up the phone and dial god-knows-who. Even worse than all this betrayal, was how he’d insist he did not do any of these things until I showed him evidence. Only actual, hard evidence elicited a confession from him and even then he’d minimise whatever he’d done or lie outright. He would rather let me believe my intuition was wrong, my inner voice a sign of paranoia, than tell the truth.
He was a practiced “gaslighter”, a term you sometimes hear in recovery rooms. Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse. The term comes from the many film adaptations of the 1938 play, Gaslight, in which a husband tries to convince his wife that she is not seeing the dimming of lights in her house. The lights dim when he is searching the attic for jewel he intends to steal. By insisting the lights are not dimming he succeeds in making his wife doubt what she sees and eventually doubt her own sanity.
Of course, this is exactly what happens to wives of sex addicts who listen to the lies and excuses presented by their husbands. We feel he has probably has acted out (he has) and are told by him that we are making things up or acting crazy. We begin to doubt our own perceptions. We begin to doubt ourselves.
For years, my husband was terrific at making it seem as though the slips he had—those times when he masturbated to pornography, made phone calls to sex chat lines, or “visited” massage parlours or similar—were far less dreadful than I was imagining. I’d have gone through the history on his laptop or the recent calls on his phone, or even look at an address he’d looked up on google maps, and I’d know he’d have been somewhere he shouldn’t. It was disheartening, to say the least.
Sometimes I thought I’d explode in frustration and rage. I’d confront him with whatever “evidence” I had and the first thing he’d do is pretend I was wrong. He’d insist that while he thought about going to a massage place, but hadn’t actually gone. He’d only phoned strip bars in Los Angeles, but not actually entered a single one of them.
If I didn’t buy it, he sometimes softened and told half the truth. He’d spin some truncated version of what had transpired. He’d paid for a lap dance but not had sex of any sort beyond it. Or he’d had sex but it wasn’t full sex. Or he’d begun to act out, but then stopped himself. Left the bar, left the brothel, left the massage place. Who knows what really happened? He’d try to explain it away. Whatever transpired, however, his behaviour was substantially beyond anything that a wife or partner should accept and all part of sex addiction. Even though I considered myself the injured party, we’d end up having crazy arguments about what he had done or not done, how “bad” it was, and what level of hurt and effrontery I was entitled to feel.
Meanwhile, my desperate need to know what really happened deepened. I was searching hard for certainty and not finding it.
I used to ring an old high school friend of mine who, while successful in most aspects of his life, was also an alcoholic and a drug addict. It was always difficult for me to imagine this well-dressed, handsome, polite, educated man as a drunk and a stoner, but this is what he’d been for years before we reconnected in our forties. By the time we’d become friends again he’d been sober for six or seven years and was a regular attender of AA and NA (Narcotics Anonymous). I’d pour out my worries to him over long-distance, asking him what was going on in my life, as he seemed always to have a better idea than I did about the state of D—-’s addiction. I’d cry and storm through my account of what was going on, unable to understand why the man who professed to love me hurt me the way he did, while my friend quietly soothed me.
Not that this friend didn’t have his own problems. He was also putting his life back together after a dreadful divorce. He understood the divorce; he accepted the divorce. He hadn’t wanted it. He knew his wife, now his ex-wife, was forever angry at him, but he would say it was because he put her through hell. What did he expect? He’d done just about everything a man can do to destroy a marriage, not only through drugs and alcohol but also through an affair with a woman who he later described as a complete nut. His wife was not a nut and she was not having any more of him. To his credit, I never once heard him blame her for anything in the dissolution of their marriage. He took it all upon his own shoulders, not even excusing himself by saying he was sick or addicted, though he was undoubtedly both at one time.
I fucked up, he’d tell me. And now I am not fucking up. It is really that simple.
Years and years of sobriety had helped clear his head. Though he would always consider himself to be an addict, he no longer had to think like an addict. My husband still thought like an addict.
It feels like a strange dream to me, as though it happened to someone else. I came home with a car full of stuff from my daughter’s dorm room at university. I came home with souvenirs from our trips to English castles, a tartan blanket as a gift for D—, who had not come with us that weekend. It was June; we were full of excitement for the summer. I walked into the house and I knew. I don’t know how I knew. I felt his contrition and shame and the covering-up and the lies all at once and I knew what I was in for.
He did not touch me that night in bed, which was unusual for him.
I rang him the next day at work and told him to leave. I didn’t need to hear the details of what he’d done or not done over the weekend. He didn’t deny much, nor did he argue. I think he probably blamed me for his acting out. He’d started to blame me for more and more of the manifestation of his addiction. I was the reason he felt shame and he could not afford to feel shame because it triggered him to act out. I was the reason he felt a failure, and feeling a failure made him lose his guard against acting out. I was the reason for the unhappiness in his life because I could not let go of the past.
But the “past “is usually only a few weeks ago—, I began. Then I stopped myself. He was deluded. He was heavily addicted. If I carried on as I was with him I would get ground to dust. I loved him—I really did. But I could not stay his wife under such circumstances. It had been five years. It had been hard. And as far as I was concerned at that time, unless something very dramatic happened and he recovered properly, the marriage was over.
And so we parted. It would be fifteen months before we reconciled, and during that time much changed.