You can’t delve very far into the world of sex addiction without learning of “Anon” groups. “Anon” groups are designed to support the spouses and family of sex addicts and are made up mostly of broken-hearted, baffled wives who arrive with no idea why their husbands can’t stop buying sex or watching pornography. Having been one of those wives, I can assure you there is some relief in finding a group of people who know exactly what you are going through and are familiar with your pain and bewilderment, your confusion and exhaustion.
I’ve met some great people through Anon programs. I’ve learned a lot from them, too. I have seen the closeness and care that develops between members, the extraordinary dedicated women (mostly) who help others in the similar predicament of loving a spouse with sex addiction, and I have been moved by their courage and frank honestly.
Even so, I have a little trouble with Anon groups. While they definitely do help (at least some of the time), they do not necessarily help for the reasons they think. I wish someone had warned me that both COSA (Co-dependents of Sex Addicts) and S-Anon (a sister organization to Sexaholics Anonymous), the two largest 12-Step programs supporting the partners of sex addicts, subscribe to the notion that we partners are “co-addicts” or “codependents.” The emphasis of their programs is our “recovery” from co-addiction. If you tell them that you are not a co-addict or codependent you are told that this is a typical response from a co-addict, as we are always in denial to begin with. In other words, we have no insight into our behavior and are blind to our illness.
If a sign that you are a co-addict is that you don’t believe you are a co addict, protesting won’t get you very far. In fact, some recovery centers have you pegged at the door. According to them, the only proof they need that you are a co-addict is that you be married to (or partners with) an addict.That isn’t even a behavior on your part, but the conditions of your life at present. Let me identify the error being made. If it is assumed that a person is a co-addict simply because they are married to an addict, that is called a fallacy of composition. It is akin to saying, “Your husband is weird. Therefore, you are weird, too.” If it is assumed that a person is a co-addict because they assert that they are not a co-addict, that is “begging the question.” Begging the question is a circular argument based on an assumption that a particular statement is true.
Anyone with a fair grasp of logic naturally dismisses such nonsense. A number of women just don’t go back at all once the program’s insistence on co-addiction is clear to them, or they go very occasionally, like me.
COSA and S-Anon are using an Addiction/disease model common to many recovery centers. If you seek help through counselling or recovery centers you will have to tackle the co-addiction and codependency label. Let me try to explain the assumptions in this model. Groups that subscribe to it (like COSA and S-Anon) agree with the currently popular notion that the wife of a sex addict had a predisposition toward obsessive bonding and co-addiction before meeting the addict. This is due to events in her past. It is no coincidence that she ends up marrying an addict—her own “illness” made such a scenario likely. So, she is married to an addict because she is a co-addict. Like magnets, the addict and co-addict attract.
Does that sound like more nonsense? It is and it isn’t. I can imagine that if a person were sufficiently traumatized in her life she would make poor choices, including finding a very troubled partner. However, this is by no means always the case. Nobody would have imagined my husband was a sex addict or any kind of addict. Nor was he acting out at the time I met him, nor did he for years. His addiction ignited with the rise of the internet. By then, we were several years and two children into our marriage.
If I somehow managed to find a sex addict among the great masses of non-addicts out there, then why weren’t my previous relationships with addicts? And why wouldn’t he have been practicing sex addiction at the time we met and later married? Did I somehow “just know” he’d become a sex addict or is the far simpler explanation that my husband became an addict because of his own issues that have little or nothing to do with me? I’m willing to bet on the latter.
Some recovery centers tell the wives of sex addicts that their own “disease” contributes to that of their sexually addicted spouse. In other words, if she is focusing on his problems rather than her own life she is making his disease worse. It is beyond my understanding how a program that offers the 12-Steps can at the same time state that a wife is contributing to a husband’s addiction. The first step of the 12-Steps makes it clear that we have absolutely no impact whatsoever on our husbands’ addictions and are “powerless” against them. In fact, that is the entire point of the first step: to convince the spouse that she is powerless against her partner’s addiction. So, if she is powerless, how can she make it any worse or better? She can’t.
Now, I come to this notion that a wife is able to focus on her “own life” instead of that of her addicted spouse. Many of us have our own jobs and hobbies and responsibilities for children, etc, but if we are married we are intricately involved with the life our partner. Our marriage is part of our “own life”. It is the very core of it for many of us. What we are really being asked to do is detach from our spouses in order to survive—and here the 12-Step programs like COSA and S-Anon have got it right. We do need to detach somewhat, especially when our partners are in active addiction or early recovery.We may even have to detach altogether—every case is different. But detaching a little (or a lot) is one of many possible responses to the trauma of our situations not a measure of our improved mental health or “recovery.”
Having said that, we do need to stop personalizing the sex part of this addiction. While it is certainly the case that infidelity goes straight to the heart of a marriage, sex addicts relationship to sex is not about us or about our marriages. They may as well be taking drugs or drinking—which we imagine would be less personally injurious to us. However, there is a question we need to address here. Even if the addict’s intent to hurt is non-existent, he does hurt us. We are allowed to feel that pain. It is real pain. Whenever my husband has said, “I never meant to hurt you”, I’ve pointed out that he might have driven over me with a truck by accident and not meant to hurt me, but I would be hurt nonetheless.
Looking more closely at the list of symptoms of co-addiction and codependency as defined by COSA I do wonder what they imagine a “healthy” response to discovery your husband is a sex addict might be. Most of what COSA describes as identifying behaviors of codependency seem reasonable responses to living with an addict. For example, the first identifying behavior is “Believe you would be happy if only the sex addict would change.” While it is perhaps unreasonable for a spouse to assume they would be completely happy if their husband changed his addictive acting out and stopped having sex with random other people, it is certainly understandable that they might be happier.
Another defining behavior is “Spend time worrying about where the sex addict is, who they might be with, what they might be doing.” Spending time worrying? How much time? Does it make you are a codependent if you spend any amount of time? A minute a day? A minute a week? I would say that it would be far more indicative of an underlying pathology if you knew your husband was a sex addict and yet you spent no time worrying about where he was or what he was doing. Total indifference should not be a sign of improved mental health.
Another ridiculously attributed “symptom” of codependency is number six on the COSA list. Number six says, “Sometimes feel crazy and have a hard time separating the truth from lies when talking to the sex addict.”
A hard time separating truth from lies? And we are talking about addicts? It is almost impossible to separate truth from lies when talking to an addict.
I cannot stress enough how well sex addicts lie. My husband lied to a church minister, his own therapists, his sponsors, me, and anyone else who challenged him. Professional counsellors and psychologists cannot discern when people are lying. There is plenty in the literature for professionals working with addicts that indicate this fact. So how on earth are we supposed to separate truth from fiction with our husband when trained counsellors cannot?
I am speculating now, but I believe that one reason they are so good at lying is that addicts don’t always believe they are lying, themselves. One often hears an addict who has been years sober describe how he used to engage in all sorts of wrong thinking. He’ll shake his head and say, “I used to think it was okay to act out because I had an unusually high sex drive”, or “My wife just didn’t want sex enough so I felt justified”, or “I used to pretend I wasn’t really acting out if there wasn’t penetrative sex involved”, and he’ll shake his head at these old, misguided notions. He can hardly understand himself why once he believed what he did. He probably believed the things he said at the time, and when someone believes what they are saying is true it is awfully difficult to discern what is really going on.
As for we wives “feeling crazy”, it is only that we are bombarded with dishonesty and manipulative behaviour on the part of addicts and even those who purport to be helping us. What we feel is uncertain, unsure, insecure, traumatized. And we feel this way not because we are crazy but because we are sane.
Much of what defines a codependent or co-addict (which are labels that do little to elucidate) would also describe a person who is undergoing trauma. While it is very possible that the spouse of a sex addict has a kind of codependency, I don’t think it is necessarily the case and such an assumption undermines the humanity of women seeking help. Ascribing the behavior of a traumatized person to that of a co-addict can cause a great deal of confusion for everyone, especially the one who is traumatized.
This is not to say you can’t be a co-addict or codependent, although neither of these terms is terribly helpful and probably detract from what is really going on). I am pointing out what ought to be obvious to anyone, which is that there has been no established definition of a healthy response to discovering one is married to a sex addict. That being married to an addict does not necessarily make you a “co-addict” and that labels like codependency and co-addiction are unhelpful if only because their use usually obscures what is really going on.
As for me, being married to an addict has influenced my life enormously; it is likely that if you are married to one you are feeling its effects. I think there would be something very wrong with a marriage in which one of the partners is an addict and the other is totally unaffected by his condition. Even before discovering the problem, I experienced and was sympathetic to my husband’s mental absences and anxiety, not because I thought he was an addict but because I thought he was very stressed. I made up for his physical absence by doing more around the house and for the children. I encouraged him when he needed support and helped him when he needed help. Isn’t that what we do for those we love?
However, even if his addiction had not taken him away from his home and occupied so much of his thinking, his very demanding job would have had similar effects. The bottom line was that he had a far more stressful job and he earned more than I did—a lot more—and so I made concessions. Had I been able to distinguish when he was acting out his sex addiction from when he was working hard, I would not have cooperated with the times he was seeking sex as opposed to working. But how was I to make such a distinction when I didn’t even know about the addiction?
It wasn’t as though I was unhappy with my life—I would have liked more input from my husband, yes. But I did all sorts of things: looked after my children, enjoyed my job, laughed with friends, travelled, learned a language, read novels, drank wine, planted m garden. In other words, I lived my life.
Once I knew about the addiction, I had a different feeling about when he was “working late.” Now I was unwilling to always believe that working late meant he was actually working, or that time on his computer was necessary for completing a job-related project. I was anxious about his email, his phone messages, where he was, who he was with. All these signs that I sought security inside my marriage are understood by places like COSA and S-Anon or any of the 12-step programs for spouses of sex addicts, as signs of my “co-addiction”. For example, if I were to ask my husband how his recovery was going this would be interpreted by the COSA group as a failure to “mind my own business” which is one of the important steps toward my “recovery”. If I asked when he last struggled with acting out or whether he had spoken with his sponsor lately, COSA would also say I was “acting out” my co-addiction.
Anything that belied my interest in my husband’s behavior and how my welfare and that of my children might be affected by it was classified as an sign of my codependence. As far as the 12-Step model was concerned, I was sick.
There is a far more researched and contemporary description of the experience of the partners of sex addicts, which is the trauma model which I will discuss in another section of this website.
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