In my last post, I began a conversation about sex addiction: what it is, who it affects, and why it happens. That post has only been up for a week or so. But in that brief time, I’ve received dozens of comments and questions. Many of you have dealt with a sex-addicted spouse, or have tried to overcome your own sex addiction.
The refrain I hear, again and again, is: What do I do now? What is the next step? Is there any hope for us? Sex addiction can be devastating. It leaves many unanswered questions in its wake, and it brings its own kind of mistrust into the spouse’s mind.
Today, I would like to share steps you can take RIGHT NOW to prevent a sex addiction from ruining your relationship. I want to show you ways to deal with suspicion in potentially productive ways.
Before I get to those steps, though, I need to emphasize one thing:
The addict MUST be willing to work on his behavior.
When an addicted person demonstrates a general incorrigibility – an unwillingness to view his behavior as problematic – there is little that can be done to save the relationship. These individuals think there’s “nothing wrong” with how they act. They justify it to themselves: It’s okay with them, okay with their buddies, okay at work or during travel, or “what she doesn’t know won’t hurt her.” In this type of situation, the prognosis is not good.
For some couples, it IS possible to put in the work and overcome the addiction. First, it helps to understand the root of the problem.
How Does Sex Addiction Start?
Unlike alcoholism or drug addiction, sex addiction is not a psychiatric diagnosis. You can’t look it up in the DSM-IV – the official “dictionary” for psychological problems. But sex addiction IS like other addictions in several key ways:
1. Sex addiction is a compulsion. Sex addicts will do nearly anything to get their “fix.” Like a drug addict, a sex addict constantly seeks a “high” – the high that comes with obtaining a sexual thrill with or without sexual contact. This addiction often carries a financial price. As I mentioned in my last post, an addict might spend the mortgage money on a prostitute or rack up credit-card bills for internet porn. And it certainly carries an emotional price.
2. Sex addicts put their own self worth into sex. A sex addict might be motivated by thoughts like, “This is the one thing I’m really good at. I know that when I do it, I please somebody, so that makes me a better person – a more worthy person.” If the addict’s sexual thrill does not involve sexual contact, the thought can still be the same: In the fantasy the person thinks of himself as being really skilled. A sex addict, like other addicts, sometimes worries that he is somehow “less than” others.
3. Sex addicts devalue sex. This might sound odd at first – how can a person who wants sex above all else actually devalue sex? It’s because many sex addicts crave mostly the physical sensation and their own emotional feelings over the emotional connection with the sexual partner, if there is a sexual partner. Sex addiction might begin in adolescence, with “trash talk” in the locker room. It is likely that a man with a sex addiction began objectifying women at a young age. Rather than maturing as he ages he continues to see women as objects. Some of these men will try to reserve a different kind of relationship for a spouse, mother, daughter, or sister.
As you can see – and as you might have experienced – sex addictions are complex. They are also dangerous and can destroy a marriage or subject a spouse to unwanted disease, or even premature death. Let’s look at ways you can rebuild your relationship as you try to come to terms with your partner’s sex addiction.
Rebuilding Your Marriage After the Storm of Sex Addiction
A sex addiction is like a huge storm that blows through your house. It breaks the windows and cracks the walls. It might even cause the roof to come crashing in. But just as some people rebuild after a bad storm, you can rebuild after a sex addiction.
You could see this as the end of your marriage. Or, you could see it as an opportunity. Finding out about a sexually addicted spouse makes you want to take stock of whom you are married to and what that says about your relationship.
In my last post, I mentioned the Five Building Blocks for a Transparent Relationship. Today, I would like to elaborate a major building block that can be particularly useful when rebuilding a marriage following the revelation of a sex addiction.
If you’re dealing with a sex-addicted spouse – or if you are the one with the addiction – suspicion has probably blown up in your relationship time and again. But here’s something interesting:
There are potentially productive ways to use your suspicions. How?
Use Your Suspicions to Zero in on Problems
Suspicion can be painful. Even when you want to forgive your partner, mistrust lingers. Even when his behavior improves, the suspicious voices in your head just won’t be quiet.
In order to overcome your suspicions, you might find it helpful to create a “suspicion filter” that analyzes these thoughts. Here’s how:
1. Filter out unlikely suspicions before you act on them.
It is very upsetting to find out about a sex addiction. You may catch yourself wondering just how far did your spouse go with his addiction. Was it porn? Dirty talk in online chat rooms? Visits to strip clubs? Meetings with prostitutes? These thoughts can become overwhelming, and you might start feeling suspicious about everything.
If your partner is truly taking steps toward recovery and honesty, it is important that you don’t voice every single suspicion, if you can manage yourself. Instead, evaluate each suspicion in its own terms.
For example, imagine that your husband says he is meeting an important client for dinner. He is telling you this because the two of you have dinner together every night, and he wants you to know the reason for his absence. You worry that maybe he is picking up a prostitute rather than going to a client dinner. Stop a moment, and be your adult, analytical self. Is there a chance that he’ll be picking up a prostitute? Yes. Do you need more information to weigh the evidence? If so, ask. If you are still uncertain, your spouse could do something reassuring like take a picture in the restaurant or at the meeting room and send it to you. The phone adds a time and date stamp.
When you work to rebuild honesty, sometimes you have to extend some trust to your partner, even though recent events would say that he is not trustworthy. In the example I just gave, if you know he has client meetings in the evenings, and you know he is working with a particular client at this time, and have other facts that would lead to a reasonable conclusion of trust, it would be better if you keep your suspicion to yourself.
2. Confront your spouse when a behavior or issue is significant enough to make its way past your “suspicion filter.”
But what if the scenario is different? What if you find a pornographic DVD or magazine mixed in with his things? He might say, “Oh, that’s nothing.” He might claim that it’s from the “old days,” when he had a problem, and that he hasn’t looked at it in months. He might even try to convince you that it’s not his, but a friend’s.
In this case, it’s reasonable for your analytic adult to ring the alarm bells.. Your spouse has done something that reminds you of the old, undesirable behavior. Whether he means to or not, he is inviting that response. In this case, the behavior has made its way past your “suspicion filter” – and with good reason. Talk to your spouse, so that he fully understands his behavior’s impact on you and its negative effects on your marriage.
The appropriately helpful response on his part to your confrontation would be to make himself an open book regarding your concerns. Use your suspicions as a guide, but, if possible, limit your confrontations to situations that lead to some reasonable doubt. The more real areas of suspicions you discuss and resolve, particularly where he willingly makes himself an open book, the more you will be able to trust your partner going forward.
Above all, do NOT be ashamed of your suspicious feelings. If your spouse is a willing participant, these feelings can help the two of you find specific ways to protect your relationship and rebuild honesty and transparency.
For more about this and the other five building blocks, I encourage you to take a look at my system How to Rebuild the Honesty.
I sincerely thank all of you for taking the time to visit this blog and share your stories. Your feedback is valuable to me and to those who are taking steps to heal their marriage. As always, I invite you to share your thoughts and questions about this blog. Simply click the “Comments” link below.
I wish you continued success as you work toward rebuilding your relationship.
Until next time,
Frank Gunzburg, Ph.D.