It has always felt important to me to distinguish early on whether my husband was a sex addict or an ordinary man with a problem with fidelity. This distinction may be important to you as well, so I’d like to take some time to compare the two situations. I realised that I am assuming a duality here, and that there may be some overlap between a man with sex addiction and one who is what we’ll call, for now, an “ordinary cheat.” I also am reminded of my lack of expertise in all areas of human psychology.
Let me declare at the outset that I can’t think of any good reasons to have affairs, other than as a kind of admission to yourself (and eventually others) that you no longer want to be married. I am not bewildered by attraction to those who are not our partners and I am not completely unaware of the power of that attraction. However, not every attraction has to become an affair—that is a choice. And that choice has so many easy-to-understand flaws that I can only consider an affair as a bad decision. However, it is an effective tool to end a marriage and perhaps this is what some non-addicts are trying to accomplish.
Cheating is in no way confined to men—only last night I heard of a woman who’d had an eighteen month affair with a builder while her husband and children were out of the house—in fact, I know plenty of women who have had affairs. Maybe they are unhappy in their marriages and looking for a way out. Maybe they can’t afford to get out of a marriage unless they’ve attached themselves to another man first. Who knows the reasons? But they do it.
During the fifteen months of separation from my husband, I put the question of why on earth one would have an affair to a number of men whose marriages had ended due to an affair. These men were not addicts, at least as far as I could discern. They had no history of addiction, nor any particular interest in pornography or illicit sex as far as I am aware, but I was not intimate with them and really do not know.
These guys seemed in control of themselves and their sexual desires, even if they sometimes made bad choices. All of them were somewhat chagrinned about having had an affair, or more than one affair but with periods of many years of marital fidelity between. However, they did not sound as though they’d behaved in a way that was directly opposite to their intentions, which is what I often hear from addicts about their own extra-marital sexual involvement.
In other words, their marriages ended because of something they’d done deliberately and that was within their control. They’d made solid choices. Some of them seemed as though it had been too much to expect them to be monogamous all those years. They believed the male sex drive had evolved in a Darwinian manner and it was only “natural” for them to want to spread their seed. Explaining to such people that they clearly had very limited understanding of Darwin’s work or of the biological imperatives of R- and K-strategy reproductive patterns in humans and animals, would probably not have moved them from their position. They wanted to believe “boys will be boys” and would not have welcomed any argument against their evolutionary fate or even the learned, cultural-induced reactions they had to women. They were just assholes—that is the scientific term.
Many of the men I talked to were not assholes but had made decisions against the interest of their wives and marriages. Some regretted the affairs, but they never claimed to be outside of reason as they performed them. I came to understand that ordinary guys can cheat a lot but it doesn’t make them sex addicts. People who cheat are in control of their behaviour even when they are doing something that will damage their spouses and families.
By contrast, a sex addict will lose his wife because of a bout of cheating over which he appears to have had very little control. He could not stop himself , even if he had wanted to. Or rather, he might have been able to stop, but only if he were to have taken several measures days ago to prevent the mental struggles that occupied his head, and from which he wished to escape through any means.
Most of the 12-Step recovery program is about taking such measures and they are not the ones you might expect. It isn’t that the self-identified sex addict is told not to switch on pornography, or not to dial the phone and make an appointment with a prostitute. He already knows all that. It is that he is meant to prevent the constellation of mental processes, the downward spiral of intrusive thoughts about fear, self-worth, self-pity and resentments, that eventually lead him to consider phoning a prostitute. Ordinary men who cheat have little of this. They may be unhappy but they are not out of control and desperately seeking relief from mental demons.
Another thing. Every one of the non-addicts I spoke to insisted to me that their wives had been unreasonable toward them about sex. They insisted that the reason the affair occurred—the real reason—was because of a lack of sex inside the marriage. Either the sex had dwindled out over time or had ceased shortly after the children.
By contrast, the addict needs no reason from his wife or partner for acting out. His partner’s interest in sex or lack of interest in sex isn’t even part of the process of acting out—not a trigger or a reason—and plenty of sex addicts were regularly making love to their wives in addition to having all the extramarital sex, either through pornography or in real life. But for the non-addict, it appeared this was quite often the excuse. I asked them—these few men I spoke to about the matter—if they had ever even attempted to talk to their wives about sex or about a looming affair. Our conversations would go something like this:
Me: So, did you explain to her the gravity of the situation? That is, you were thinking of other women?
Me: Did you ask her to go to counselling with you about it?
Me: Why not?
Him: She’d never have gone anyway.
Me: But did you ever ask her?
Me: Did it occur to you that your marriage would end if you had an affair?
Him: Not really.
Me: Were you surprised by her reaction?
Him: Yes, the anger was astronomical.
Me: And her hurt?
Him: Yes, but we worked it out. Or at least I thought so. But then she could never really get over it and the marriage ended.
So, I’d listen to this kind of thing and think that, like these other women, I had found it very difficult to get over the affair. I would also wonder why people didn’t talk more, because I am sure that I talked to my husband all the time. Well, I talked. I now see that he talked, too, but not about the stuff he ought to have been telling me. He would talk as a means of camouflaging what was really going on. He would talk up a smokescreen. Here, I didn’t see much difference between the addict and the ordinary cheat. Was sex addiction just an excuse or a real thing? Was it just a degree of cheating or a genuine mental and/or spiritual illness?
Inevitably, I would ask these guys how much sex was “not enough” sex. What counted as a “lack” of sex in their marriage anyway? The answer surprised me. The men I spoke with—admittedly a poor statistical sampling—claimed to be having no sex, or so little sex that it may as well have been nothing. According to one source I read, a “sexless” marriage is one in which there is sex fewer than ten times a year. These men were all in sexless marriages, or at least this is what they claimed.
By contrast, I’d been making love with my husband about twice a week (sometimes much more and very occasionally less) for the whole of our marriage. For years, due to the way my husband felt about our sex life, I’d been under the delusion that this wasn’t much sex. He behaved as though twice a week was paltry. Three times a week kept him from complaining. More than that and he seemed….oh yeah, more rarely happened. Because he was not at home. The truth was that came home so late I’d be asleep. He was sometimes out of the country. He was often working late. Of course, he was probably watching pornography, visiting prostitutes and flirting on the phone in addition to whatever else he was doing, but the point is he wasn’t even available for more sex. He worked long hours, had a very demanding job, and he was often asleep, himself. I didn’t want more sex, so I didn’t complain about it. But why had he been complaining about sex he wasn’t even around to have?
I now see that it wasn’t just a question of quantity. It was a question of getting what he wanted right now. He’d become so used to having sex on demand (either through the internet or phone lines or actual live women) that the notion that he couldn’t have what he wanted immediately, caused him enormous frustration. I suppose he was unable to voice this problem in any honest way because what he considered his needs were unreasonable by any standard. Some part of him must have known that.
So he sulked. He withdrew. He was very good at complaining. If I were to single out the most common trait among sex addicts, it would be how good they are at feeling sorry for themselves. Bill Wilson writes in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous (the Bible of AA), that alcoholics are restless, irritable and discontent. When I read that I thought my husband could not have been more concisely described. The man who had once been sensitive, loving, giving, caring, had turned into a cantankerous, unhappy individual with little insight into his own behaviour or how he provoked the very situations he claimed to hate.
His sanctimoniousness was present almost all the time, but he was too well brought up to make it evident. He had a quiet way of making it appear as though he was tolerating a great deal of annoying behaviour from everyone around him. And he was always cross. He was cross because he lost his glasses, broke his phone, forgot his keys, incorrectly timed his journey, had to wait in traffic…the list was endless. My life had become one of either avoiding his bad moods or trying to jolly him out of them. I found, fixed, remembered and gave him whatever it was he thought he’d lost, broken, or forgotten.
In a bad mood, he brought gloom into the house and despair into our relationship. In a good mood, he swept all that away and we were happy, but as his addiction became worse his moods became worse. He seemed forever at the end of this tether, sometimes with me and sometimes with the rest of the world. He felt so sorry for himself and I could not figure out why. It was baffling. But it was only baffling because I didn’t know he was an addict and didn’t know anything about how addicts behave. In addition to the behaviour that defines their particular type of addiction (drugs or sex or alcohol) they are generally miserable.
As an aside, I’d like to mention just how grumpy addicts can be even when they are sober, sometimes especially when they are sober. If they are only “white-knuckling” it, with the addiction still pulling at them and no true spiritual awakening to turn to, they are often nasty toward those around them, cantankerous, short, disrespectful or mean. When they aren’t talking about themselves, they talk about their jobs, their thoughts, their feelings, and the way everything affects them. There is no other subject. They have standards and expectations and those need to be met, lest everyone around them suffer. Anything that can feed the great machine of their self-pity and indignation, will do exactly that.
Of course, because my husband was a sex addict, sex was always the locus of his dissatisfaction. Either there wasn’t enough, or the light should be on, or brighter, or I should be awake at ridiculous hours or I should be initiating more of it. I can’t imagine how he got me to buy into all this, but his complaints were oddly convincing. I suppose that there is a media bias in favour of men—that is, we women are meant to “please” them and also to want sex as often as they do, so it wasn’t difficult for me to be convinced that our sex life wasn’t good enough. If you looked at films and television, with all their highly-stylised, unlikely sex, our real-life sex life was clearly too tame. He seemed constantly in a state of self-pity about the lack of sex or about how it was not given immediately and precisely when he asked. Meanwhile, I became resentful of his expectations.
It wasn’t until I spoke to those guys who had affairs because (they claimed) of a lack of sex, that I finally saw that my husband’s notion of a good sex life was set at a fairly high bar. I asked these guys who’d had affairs would sex two or three times a week be “not enough” for them in a marriage? These men were all in their forties and fifties and all had been in long marriages with kids involved. They seemed fine with twice a week. Three times would be a bonus. I thought perhaps they were only trying to cheer me up, so I asked other guys—old friends, mostly, who didn’t mind talking about it. It was almost a revelation to speak to all these non-addicted men about sex. Twice a week after how many years of marriage? Fantastic, I’d hear. How much was he around? Mostly weekends? So, you made love when he was around. Sounds okay to me.
Maybe they were just being kind. I don’t know. But while I couldn’t understand why some of the guys had affairs instead of talking with their wives, I did understand that they wanted regular sex that was mutually enjoyable. They were understanding of such things as illness, periods, incompatible work schedules and all the various other compromises one makes in a marriage. In other words, they wanted to come to an understanding. While my husband, the addict, had acted like an unhappy customer, these husbands held genuine intentions of working out an ordinary relationship matter.
Sometimes my husband would apologise for his behaviour, for how he sulked and criticised me over our sex life. I now recognise that he probably was apologising after he acted out. The guilt was terrible and he needed to discharge some of it, so he’d pretend his sorrow was due to castigating me about a lack of sex when, in fact, his sorrow was because he’d just been with someone else. Anyway, there was no true lack of sex—that is, if you looked at the actual happenings between us rather than the hurt and rejection that he invented and then dwelled upon for the smallest of reasons.
I used to drive my son to youth group then wait at a pub for ninety minutes until he was finished. There was a man who was often there in the evenings because he stayed in rooms upstairs during the week due to a project he was managing far from his home in another part of England. He took a shine to me and would sometimes talk to me from another table, or come sit with me at my own. He’d been through one marriage and now was onto his second. A good looking man in his forties who seemed to genuinely love his wife, he always made a point of reassuring me that he was not flirting with me. He was not trying to start anything between us. Meanwhile, he talked about his life, telling me about how his first marriage had ended because there was no sex and now, sadly, it looked as though his second marriage was going the same direction.
I spoke to him perhaps a half a dozen times over the course of a few months and each time it came back to his unhappy marriage. Meanwhile, could he buy me a drink? Did I want some dinner? At the time, I was separated and very confused about what was “normal” guy behaviour and what was not. I declined drinks and dinner, but I did talk to this man. My conclusion was that he really was just lonely. He was lonely inside this second marriage and he was lonely because he was away from home during the week.
What did he want? Some company, some physical comfort, and perhaps sex if it was available. He didn’t say this. He didn’t say anything lascivious. Once he told me he believed that men were quite selfish in bed and I am certain he said this as a means of communicating to me that he was not. But he didn’t press sex. He didn’t get overly flirtatious and he didn’t find excuses to touch me.
All in all, it was fairly innocent. He enjoyed it when I’d show up on a Thursday evening and wait the hour and a half for my son to come out of a nearby school where his youth group met. Maybe he wanted an affair or maybe not. I suspect an affair had ended his first marriage and that one could easily end his second, but it didn’t seem to bother him that sex wasn’t on the cards with me. A sex addict? No. An ordinary guy in a marriage that needed attending to, sure. An ordinary guy who, if he decided to be unfaithful to his wife, would do so in full power of his senses and not as a neurotic response to changing his feelings. Not a sex addict.
But I can’t see inside this man’s head, so how can I know he’s not a sex addict? Because he was talking to me, for one thing. In my experience, addicts don’t share their lives with people who they want to hook up with. They engage in insane, sporadic sex with strangers who don’t even like them. They have sex with people at the very fringes of their lives, or paid workers, for example. They have sex with people they aren’t even necessarily attracted to. They may love their wives, but they need this outside life, too, one that is full of secrets and cover-ups and about which they are desperately ashamed. The quality of their encounters is wholly different to the garden-variety attraction this man in the pub showed toward me.
Also, whenever I saw the guy, he seemed wholly relaxed. He didn’t strike me as someone looking for a way of neutralising his fears or feelings. He did seem like he was looking for comfort through sex. I know that sex addicts can engage in “acting out” even without a problem or bad feelings or something they are avoiding, of course. The buzz comes as much from the anticipation as the sex act, itself. In fact, the sex when it finally arrives can be a terrible disappointment.
Even though the addict may have a bad experience, he moves onto to fantasising about the next encounter—an encounter that is going to be better, he thinks. He lets this fantasy fill his head and cause him to “forget” what has just happened. He discards from memory the terrible shame, the awful let-down, the fruitlessness of it all, and focuses instead on everything that lead up to the point just before the shame. This mental construct that excites him, deludes him, and manages to exclude the inevitable result of the action he is now actively planning.
In my experience, sex addicts imagine also that they are unlike other men. They have difficulty talking about sex or sexual thoughts and believe others do not have this difficulty. They imagine that other people are having fantastic sex that they are missing out on. They may feel entitled to a certain type of experience, or “body type” in a woman, or they may have moved into so deep a state of addiction that they don’t even have reasons for it any longer.
Sex become a means to change their feelings; they use it as a response to their low self-worth, they use it to counter their despair. They use it when they feel frustrated, and they use it when they feel scared. Perhaps they’ve already had addictions to other things—to drugs or alcohol, for example—and got caught in sex addiction because it had never occurred to them that sex, like these other things, can be addictive. But the point is they use sex. Just like a drug.
Copyright © 2016 The Wife. All rights reserved.