I write this blog as though readers have just found out about their husbands sexual addictions, and as though they’ve never been to a support group. Neither of these may be the case.
Perhaps you’ve known for years and are worn out with it now. You may have long dismissed him from your life, or perhaps he is still your husband but you no longer live together. Your love for him may have dwindled with every deception; you remember too vividly the most awful times during the worst of his addiction, or his early days in a recovery program (if he has, indeed, ever started on one) in which he was acting out his addiction frequently. You may still experiencing “flashbacks” of past hurt and perhaps you now feel that the love you’ve experience with him, though once real and profound, has eroded to little more than his function within your life. He is breadwinner or father to your children or just a friend with whom you once shared something great.
Sexual fidelity is a fair enough expectation. Its absence can do incredible damage, going straight to the heart of a marriage. There may be just too much damage and not enough marriage between you and now comes the decision as to what the next five or ten years will bring. Will he get better? Will it be more of the same? Will he get worse? Perhaps he promises he will “recover”, but what evidence do you have that this is even achievable? What if you wait and wait and nothing other than more heartache comes from it? Even if he did recover now, would it all be too late?
I remember my husband coming home from a meeting with a sense of wonder surrounding him. He’d listened to a long share by a man who had stuck with his recovery program for ten years before he was able to gain even a single year of sobriety. He’d gone to meetings, made his requisite number of daily calls, read the Big Book (Alcoholics Anonymous’s Big Book is often used in 12-Step programs for other forms of addiction), seen therapists, done all the steps, knew all the literature inside out, but still wasn’t sober from sex addiction. Even with his program, his meetings, his sponsor, and probably much additional help, he was acting out for nine years while he was in “recovery”.
Did he recover? I mean, really recover? Remarkably, yes.
My husband told me this story because the man’s tenacity had impressed him. Also, this man’s experience wasn’t very far off from his own. To give you some idea, as I write these words, my husband, who has been “working the program” for seven years, has now been sober for a total of nine months, his longest period of sobriety in decades. It made him feel better about himself to hear of this fellow who took nine years to achieve roughly the same.
But what about his wife? I asked. I was imagining a woman like myself who loved her husband but was slowly getting ground to powder beneath the weight of his addiction.
His wife? said my husband, as though my question were wholly irrelevant.
Yes! What happened to her through all this?
Predictably, she’d never even been mentioned. We disappear, we partners and wives, as collateral damage in a disease that consumes not only our husbands’ time and attention, but his love and care for us. For years into my husband’s recovery program, he still pitied himself, thought about himself and his situation often to the exclusion of all else, and was pretty much stuck in his own thoughts, his own program, his own social world of fellow-addicts and therapists. He’d even begun speaking of himself in the third person as though caring for this other being that so greatly needed his attention while the rest of us (at least me, his wife) did not.
Worse still, whenever I’ve tried to draw attention to my pain, it seemed to backfire on me. If I described how I’d felt years back when I found out about his addiction, or how I felt the week before when I’d have found out he’d just acted out, he’d go to pieces. Emotional displays on my part sent him spiralling into what seemed like depression or anxiety or a combination of the two. He’d avoid me. He’d tell me I was dredging up the past and causing all the problems between us, dwelling on long-ago harms.
But what you are calling “the past” was only four weeks ago, I’d splutter. Surely your being with a Thai massage girl four weeks ago isn’t “the past!”
It was comic, really, except it wasn’t. If I showed any human response to his continued acting out, he got worse. He’d self-harm; he’d scare me to death. And, of course, he’d act out again.
He blamed me, resented me, behaved as though I was a nagging fishwife. And of course I got to hear those words that every wife of an addict hears at some point, it seems: You are getting in the way of my recovery! I need to focus on my recovery!
Maybe it was his resentment of me that made me lose heart. Not the infidelity, not the affair or whores or strip bars or lap dances or sexting, nor all the secrets, nor all the lies, but the fact that at bottom he blamed me. How long could I stay in a marriage in which a man thought I was the reason for his diabolical, self-destructive behaviour?
But…why did he blame me? How could he ever construe that I was part of his problem?
Because while we may believe that pretty girls in bikinis are what lures our husbands into acting out, it is far more likely that feelings of shame and remorse do. They can’t afford to think about our pain because it might “trigger” them into acting out.
I came very late to understanding about triggers and imagined that they were mostly external ones, like attractive women in his vicinity or alluring photographs or any other sexually stimulating situations or materials. It took me a long time to see that while external triggers played a part in my husband’s acting out, they were not the biggest factor. What sex addiction expert and C-SAT qualified therapist, Dr. Rob Weiss, calls “internal triggers” were far more triggering in my husband’s case.
Writing for the internet magazine, “I Love Recovery Cafe,” Weiss lists common internal triggers as the following: Boredom, anxiety, unresolved resentments, anger, loneliness, shame, stress, sadness, depression, frustration and fear. Pretty much anything can be a trigger for a sex addict, but I think the biggest ones in my husband’s case was self-pity and shame. And nothing made him feel more sorry for himself than feeling he was doing everything he could to stop acting out and yet “losing his sobriety” (a term I despise because it makes it sound as though something was taken from him rather than his actively seeking out that loss) every few weeks or months.
The only thing that made him worse than his own inability to stay sober was seeing its effect on me. Yes, I was traumatised and I am not suggesting that a wife be blamed in any way for her husband’s acting out, for behaving in a traumatised manner, or for having emotions of her own. I don’t think a woman can be blamed for any of that, nor rational contributions to a discussion about the effects of addiction on family members. However, it was unreasonable for me to expect him to do anything other than behave like an active addict. He was an active addict. He was better—the acting out had lessened both in frequency and outrageousness—but he was still doing it. His commitment to SAA meetings, to Big Book memorization, to EMDR, to therapy generally, had chipped away at his addiction, but it was still in force.
So, we both suffered. He had an expansive, very useful fellowship of other addicts in his 12-Step program who reassure him what a good guy he was. They’d ring him and meet with him and welcome him to meetings. They’d encourage him and mark his progress and show him a better way to look at whatever obstacles presented themselves in his recovery.
Meanwhile, I did what I did. I looked after my children and sought out my friends and worked (you won’t be surprised to hear I am a writer). I walked my dogs, and listened to podcasts like Jack Kornfield’s or Ram Dass’s and tried to stay calm. Walking my dogs through the woods behind my house, I tried to imagine myself lucky in a life that had great physical comforts and many advantages. I counted my blessings.
I didn’t begrudge him any of his support, but I had little of it myself. People get tired of hearing about your addict husband and you run the risk of alienating friends by mentioning the problem at all. As I’ve already said elsewhere, the “anon” groups are troubling. If you aren’t getting dragged into the outdated, debunked myth of co-addiction, you are trying to help some poor woman who, despite doing all the Steps and believing the coeducation garbage, is miserable because she still has no real marriage, no intimate connection, no proper partnership with her addict husband. Her condition is due, in part, to the fact the 12-Steps aren’t about helping unite partners. They are about convincing us to live our lives apart from our addict spouse, even if we share the same house.
But that is no fun, is it? Creating emotional and spiritual (if not physical) distance between you and the man to whom you’ve given yourself?
Maybe there is nothing to blame, not even the 12-steps codependency model or the dearth of intelligent therapists who are current on the subject of sex addiction. Maybe we are better off accept that if our husbands are in active addiction we are going to suffer. If we leave them we are going to suffer, too. The suffering won’t be forever and it won’t be unbearable, but it is there. Best to acknowledge it, even to accept it, rather than pretend that our suffering is due to co-addiction or some other nonsense.
Essentially what I want to say is that we won’t wriggle out of suffering and there is no point in trying to do so. We will only prolong our pain. If we love our spouse, our marriage, our family, there is loss. I will come back to this point about suffering, about loss, and about how one can eventually rebuild an even better relationship with your husband, or a new life without him, but for right now, let’s just sit with the fact there is pain. First, there is pain. And while we don’t live entirely in reaction to our partner’s sex addiction, we cannot live while entirely disregarding his addiction either. Nor can we cure it. Addicts want to recover—that is why they are in a recovery meeting. They are in collective pursuit of a single goal: sobriety. And they can cure it.
For “anon” members, it isn’t always so clear what we are trying as a group to accomplish. What are we recovering from exactly? Certainly not the “disease” that COSA and S-Anon describe and what some psychologists seem to believe we have. From what, then?
A good question and one that set me down a path that helped me, and that in future blogs I hope to describe in a manner that might give you cause to think might help you.
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