I hope it is clear that I am not telling you what to do with your marriage or your predicament. You can divorce him if you like. You can stay with him if you like. Either will work out eventually, so long as you don’t sink into despair. However, you may find that your motivating force for divorcing your husband is not a failure of the marriage, as such, but an unwillingness to continue in a relationship with someone who has deceived you, might still be deceiving you or (give his track record) will likely deceive you in the future.
Relapse is common for addicts. You may feel that as long as you are with him, you are living an uncomfortable existence on an insecure plane.
This is not a bad reason for divorce—living with a husband you feel you can’t trust has its costs. I’ve tried innumerable times to get my husband to agree to tell me when he’s acted out, but I’ve never received much reassurance from him on this front, let alone a tacit agreement. However, even if the insecurity within the marriage is challenging, and even if you feel it is untenable in the long run (it is), you may be looking to divorce to solve a problem that it won’t solve. Let me explain.
There is a sense of robustness to the project of divorcing your sex addict husband, a structure that is as clearly laid out as divorce itself. The divorce process has a way distracting you from all else; it holds out the dubious promise of a better life afterwards. The rigidity of its procedures, the professionalism of the lawyers, the filing requirements and division of assets may feel like a kind of blueprint for certainty in your life, for making things feel “real” after so many months or years of everything feeling chaotic and ungraspable.
What I am trying to say is that for a long time you’ve felt lost. You’ve been kept in the dark, out of control of your life. He can have sex with a prostitute while you are swimming at a public pool with the kids. He can spend all day watching porn and then moan to you about how he is behind at work. He can daydream about another woman so that he doesn’t even see you standing in front of him. Divorce gives you some control, or so you think. It definitely gives you something to do, which can feel like a relief. Let him go ahead and deal with his addiction or his recovery or his depression and anxiety. Leave him to it and lead your own life. If you think of it that way, divorce is the key to the door you need to open, that you need to walk through.
Once you are on the divorcing side of things, you can talk openly about his behaviour, too. If you’ve been sworn to secrecy (by your spouse, or by your family, or even by your own sense of duty), you can unswear yourself the minute you decide on divorce. You are going to have to say something when people ask about the initial separation, so why not tell the truth? Other women, you might say, and that is probably all you need to say, though you can expand if you want. And while the listener may seem a little shocked at first, that shock won’t last long. Men cheat all the time—statistics vary from 22% of married men to 60% of married men have had sex outside their marriage. You are divorcing him because he cheated on you? Well, good move, you’ll hear. You deserve better.
There is solidarity among divorcing folks, too. Women who are already divorced, or who are divorcing, are often very nice to those of us considering the same. They would agree how hard it was, how difficult and unfair and heart-breaking. When I described my husband’s behaviour they shook their heads in astonishment. They talked to me in cafes and wine bars and on the phone as I busied myself with chores, frantically folding and sorting and cleaning as though constant movement would alleviate some of the pain. These were often women in their fifties or sixties whose husbands had found new, younger women to replace them and were forced out of their marriages. I had enormous love and sympathy for them, and there they were, being so nice to me that I sometimes felt the only appropriate response to their kindness was filing for a divorce, myself.
You’ll be okay, they told me, eventually. But if I suggested not divorcing they would say that my present state would never end otherwise, that I would be stuck in the cycle of disappointment and anguish that had marked three, four, now five years of my life since discovering my husband’s sex addiction. And surely, being married to a man who was addicted to sex—addicted to sex outside the marriage—did not make a marriage.
They had a point.
If I’d kept reading the divorce books and talking to the people who reminded me how necessary divorce was (was he not unfaithful and unable to keep any promise to change? Was he not a liar? And what was wrong me me that I was “putting up” with it?), I doubt I’d have written this book. I might have written a much different book in which I attempted to convince myself and the world that there was no such thing as sex addiction or that all sex addicts are sociopaths or that any woman who stays inside such a relationship better do something quick about her low self-esteem. I’d have been joining the ranks of all those nice divorcing women—and maybe I’d have found more happiness as a divorced woman, who knows? Maybe I’d love being single or maybe be remarried by now. I will never know. I may have been advising that women like you and me—whose husbands suffer from what has been described as a “chronically relapsing condition” form the very people who purport to treat it—put our stuff in order, sort out the house and the money and the custody and move on.
It isn’t your fault, I might have written had I divorced my husband with sex addiction. The marriage was doomed the first time he went on a “date” or spent all night talking sex on the phone or paid for a woman who worked out of a room in her flat when the kids weren’t home. He did this, not you. You are only formalizing a condition he created.”
Isn’t that right? Isn’t that what has happened? There is no right here. No right, no wrong. Anyway, I couldn’t go through with a divorce. It seemed to me that there was only one thing more difficult than living with my husband and that was divorcing him. I still loved him. I felt ashamed of myself for loving him as I did. It seemed an affront to love a man who could go to a prostitute and not tell me, who felt no apparent remorse as long as he didn’t do anything that might put my physical health in jeopardy. Wait, that’s not quite true. He did feel remorse. He felt awful. But whatever he felt, he didn’t tell me. He didn’t tell me how he felt or what happened or where or with whom. He didn’t think he owed it to me to tell me, and that was dead wrong. Some might say it was unforgivable.
I tried so hard to “unlove” this man, my partner for over twenty years. I had every reason to do so, every rational reason. I remember a friend telling me—correctly—that the kind of relationship I was now in was abusive. That he was sorry for every sexual experience he had outside the marriage, but that he continued to have them periodically. When I’d say I knew all that but that I love him, this friend said, Perhaps. But you sound like some pathetic teenager girl moaning ‘But I love him!’ Listen to yourself.
I can’t argue with her analysis. And later, when this same person told me that the cycle of abuse mimicked that of a wife-beater—the awful incident followed by the terrible sorrow and promises to reform—I couldn’t argue either. My husband would “act out” every three months or more and this went on for years. Eventually, when I did separate from him, I told myself the separation was right and necessary. Maybe it was.
I may be way out on a limb here, but I suspect that if you didn’t still love your husband, you wouldn’t be reading this book. You’d be reading the How To Get A Divorce book. I’ve read those books, not cover to cover, but I’ve read them. I used to hide away in what had been our bedroom and was now my bedroom, and force myself through pages that explained the process.
The process is a conveyer belt that has its own momentum. You can be chugged along toward divorce one unsteady step after another until arriving finally at an end point you never even wanted. You see people like this, both men and women. Two facts about them stand out: they are successfully divorced and they are very sad or angry or both. When given a chance, they will tell you about how it happened. “It is like it was a dream…” they’ll begin, and then comes the divorce story. It will arrive the first time in a quick entrance and exit, and they will be smiling as they tell it. It will arrive the second time in a little longer version and you may begin to glimpse the pain or the intense anger, or both. Every incarnation of the story serves, the teller hopes, to reinforce the notion that he or she is now living the right outcome. But from where I have sat as listener, I’ve never found the tale convincing now matter how it was told.
Maybe this is because with sex addicts, unlike alcoholics for example, the person is often pretty functional despite the addiction. And often remarkably nice. When the addiction is taking hold of him, he seems just like everyone else. But once he’s “in the bubble”, that’s another story. Even then, he might not be hostile. He might seem only to have disappeared.
You are in a far easier situation if at the moment of discovering your husband addiction, you were already looking for a reason to end the marriage. Because, however much I would like to say that saving a marriage in which one of the partners is a sex addict is easy, it is not. It is horrendously difficult, so if you were inclined to get out of the relationship before you found out he is an addict, it is not unreasonable to go with that plan.
If he hasn’t started a recovery program or isn’t far along in one, you’ll probably have a hellish time in any case. A sex addict doesn’t put a few weeks into rehab, or find a sponsor in a Twelve Step program, like Sex Addicts Anonymous, and become sexually sober right away. Patterns of thinking, of behaviour, of mental traps that lead the addict right back to the solace of sex don’t often change quickly. It can take a while to get sober and even longer for some of the reasons the addiction set in to settle down. More to the point, it takes years for us to believe that sobriety could ever be a permanent condition in our partners. And what does “permanent” mean, anyway, when almost every addict you talk to tells you recovery is a one-day-at-a-time process?
Divorce is okay—of course it is, but before you set it in motion, give yourself a little healing time, a little breather, a little room. There is no hurry and it won’t give you the certainty you crave. It will make some things certain, yes, but you may want to stick around long enough to see if you can find a comfortable place inside your marriage (eventually) before putting it aside.
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