There should be a word for it, the intuition we have that our husband has acted out, or is about to act out. I’ve been waiting for the feeling to settle inside me before writing about it, because during the stretches of time between whatever triggered him to nearly act out, or the actual event when he ends up acting out, I am likely to forget.
Before acting out, the addict enters what is often called “the bubble.” One learns to hate the term because while it is a legitimate description of the hypnotic state that the addict enters into before beginning his tour into the land of sex mania, it feels like an excuse.
You will hear him talk about “the bubble” (if he talks to you at all about these things) as a place that, once reached, almost abdicates him of responsibility for everything that follows. “Everything” being a trip to a prostitute or to the internet’s virtual land of prostitution and pornography.
We can sometimes feel the bubble working within our spouses. It gently lifts him away, either through his physical absence that he will often explain is due to so much work at the office, or his emotionally absence, the language of his love for you either gone completely or reduced to platitudes, or his psychological absence, signs of which might be that he doesn’t hear what you (or the children) say, can’t remember simple tasks, does not seem “present”.
But what do we do when we feel our husbands slipping? The drama of addict and wife is seductive, powerful. You may find yourself wanting to stay inside a very bizarre, unrewarding set of roles. Perhaps you will identify yourself as the victim of the addict’s behaviour, and open the door to self-pity. It is reasonable, after all, to understand yourself as a victim, for what have you done to deserve what is happening? And what is happening?
He won’t tell you. So now the temptation is to cast yourself as detective, as the one who must find out, unearth, discover. The truth that you are seeking is the forensic truth. That is, what is happening, actually happening. Yes, you can see he may have “acted out” or he might be “getting in the bubble”, all these metaphoric terms that sometimes camouflage what is really happening–that is, what anatomical part, what thought or series of images–is your husband is now using a method of betrayal, as though betrayal was the goal he sought all along.
I have been capable of preoccupying myself either with the discovery of what he is doing, or with what he has already done, even though I know it will only make me suffer. In some ways, finding out the truth serves to lessen the psychological pain and heartache. That is because by comparison to my imagination, which is limitless, the truth is likely to be far more tame. I want to know what has happened. I feel like someone who sees the surgeon in a hospital corridor, sees his grim face and red, work-weary eyes and now thinks that the person I love and on whom he’s just finished operating is dead. I must know what has happened—what is the news, Doc? How bad is it?
The truth, however awful, serves as a kind of stopping. Or at least a resting place.
And then what? When I find out? I want to yell, to rail, to cry, to show him evidence of his wrongdoing and demonstrate to him the great destruction he is bring himself and his family. None of this will do any good but, as I’ve said, it is seductive. It’s consuming.
Maybe I don’t engage in this behaviour today, because (lucky for me?) I am already so used to the approaching “Bubble” it no longer puts me into a reactive mode. I’ve played detective and victim and worrier too many times. I’ve seen the rise and fall of triggers (and even full-on acting out) often enough, and with a deep enough understanding, that I can respond instead of frantically react. There is a difference, you see. When I respond, I stay in a place of resourcefulness; I make rational choices; I don’t feel that well of emotion that I do when I an reactive mode. I know that whatever has triggered him will probably pass without his actually acting out. I won’t turn a blind eye, but I can resist becoming overly-preoccupied.
It is difficult to be grateful for someone who is causing suffering and yet in a relationship with our addict husband or partner, it is worth taking a moment to realize we could not be so moved, so disappointed, or in so much pain if not for the flipside of this, which is that we love the man so much and are very attached to him.
Some will say this attachment is either misguided or too strong. Perhaps sometimes it is, but that doesn’t make the attachment inappropriate or something to fight against. The same people who will tell you that you “cannot” love a man with sex addiction understand sex addiction as “advanced cheating”, which it is not.
The reasoning is that we should only be attached in such a way if the same attachment (and fidelity) is mirrored in our beloved. If we are faithful and honest, they should be faithful and honest. Otherwise, we are obligated to break the attachment. Don’t bother trying to explain addiction to such people. They already know you are selling yourself short, brain-washing yourself, wasting your life.
If he cannot be faithful, you must leave. That is the bottom line. And if he wasn’t an addict, I would tend to agree. But addiction takes time to overcome—the question is whether he is giving it his full attention.
If love is to work at all in relationships such as ours, it must be of a whole different order than in relationships untested by addiction. And who is making the rules anyway? We are not obliged to create sexual fidelity as an object we must have from a person, and then decide that we will only form an attachment to a person who gives us that object. Granted, fidelity is what we thought we had, and may have been part of the basis on which we formulated the attachment that we did in years past. But we moved beyond the courtship phase of our love many years ago. We can love even if our partner is not giving us some of the aspects of love we’ve come to expect. Not only can we now continue our attachment to a person who is not giving us exactly what we want, but we can welcome our ability to love so unconditionally if we want to do so.
I wish it were easier, however, to decide.
I am not saying that one’s goal should be to accept a partner unconditionally. I am saying that when we are feeling our most miserable, we might want to consider that it is something quite tremendous to love somebody who is not providing for us the things we rightly should expect, and who is not doing all he said he was doing, or ought to do, who often lies to us or lies by omission. What we do with these thoughts will be different for each one of us.
If he is an active addict, he will likely continue to lie because his own attachment to you is so precious to him. He will lie and hide in order to reduce the risk that you will leave him. It is too great a price to pay, this truth you insist upon, because he has to face consequences. If he tells the truth, he allows you your own free will. Your free will is the most dangerous thing to him—he fears you will leave. In a world of tallies, of counting up all right and wrongs, you would leave him, too. But not everyone keeps the same score card.
Even if you did leave him, you are likely to suffer. The pain of living with an unfaithful partner can be terrible, but the pain of living without him will also make you suffer. Our best bet is to learn to be comfortable with suffering, or at least not to make decisions based on a fanciful notion of escaping it altogether.
We often dwell. We rehash the anguish of discovery, and of hurt. What is the function of our dwelling? Is it to make ourselves miserable? Or to dramatise the hurt so our partner sees it?
I don’t think it is either of these things. Having lived with sex addiction for a long time, I feel that sometimes dwelling on what he has done, what he may be doing right now or what he might do in the future, is a way of trying to create a cohesive narrative. We want a story we can understand instead of all the chaos of our lives. So we tell ourselves a story that makes sense because nothing else makes sense.
The mind of an active addict is busy with so much self-involvement that he, himself, cannot tell his own story even if he tried to do so. An addict with some “recovery behind him” may feel his sobriety threatened by looking too closely at his past behaviour, so he can’t talk about it either. Only an addict well into recovery who has dealt with his shame, with the pain he has caused to himself and others and has matured to a place in which he can discuss these things without falling into an abyss of depression can tell his story.
It’s all very strange. An addict’s nature may be very much at odds with his addictive behaviour. Your husband may be the most urbane, composed, controlled man in every public arena and yet privately acts out in the most horrendous ways and without any great insights into his behaviour or willingness to discuss it.
You try to explain it to yourself. You try and try.
A facile reading of his contradictory behaviour is, of course, that it is due to the fact he is so composed and in control of himself that he has to exhibit this other “wild side.” His addictive behaviour—by which I mean all the porn and whores—can be read as side B of the record. If he weren’t so “repressed” he wouldn’t do all that stuff. Maybe you need to spice up your marital sex life, have sex more often, dress up for him.
All that is rubbish. Pay no attention.
Being generally well-behaved and polite does not mean there is an alternative side desperate to thwart all the cultural conditioning he has undergone. It is also rubbish that he has a bigger sex drive than other men, though he may try to convince himself of this before finally submitting to a recovery program. If he were truly expressing his private sexuality through sex workers (or whatever) why is it that he is so unhappy with himself and his condition? Why is it that he doesn’t even enjoy it any longer? Or that he has to go to greater extremes to get the same “kick”?
He doesn’t like it and yet he cannot stop—how is that expressing a “natural” drive?
The truth is that if you meet a lot of sex addicts you will see all sorts of different people, some of whom are apparently composed and some who are not. The truth is that we don’t really understand why he acts out unless we, ourselves, are addicts. That won’t stop us from dwelling on what he does. That won’t stop us from occasionally listening to the ill-advised theories of our friends who would like to explain away his addiction as nothing more than selfish sex. We want a narrative. We want to make sense of this.
So we concentrate our thoughts and try to come up with some understanding –at least, that is what we tell ourselves we are doing. However, it isn’t long before we start thinking not about what he’s doing or done or might do, or why he would do these things, but about how it makes us feel, about how wrong it is, about the injustice. So now we’ve created a worse place for ourselves. We have a narrative that is not accurate but it is punitive—to us.
You may be better off focussing on the fact that you love this man. And he loves you. Something will change—that is, if he is serious about recovery and if he serious about you. If his problem with sex addiction does not change, lessen, lift, or reduce over time, then you may have to make a decision to reduce his presence in your life, to break up with him or divorce him or move away. I’ve met women who I wished would pack a bag and go, even if it meant leaving everything but her children behind. But I’ve met a lot of women who have stuck it out and are now in very good marriages. If only we had a crystal ball…
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