FAQs for Partners of Sex Addicts

By Dorothy C. Hayden, LCSW

So you think your significant other is a sex addict? This list of frequently asked questions (FAQ) and their answers may help shed light on the topic for you.

What is sex addiction?

Sex addiction is an obsessive relationship to sexual thoughts, fantasies or activities that an individual continues to engage in despite adverse consequences. These thoughts, fantasies or activities occupy a disproportionate amount of “psychic space,” resulting in an imbalance in the person’s overall functioning in important areas of life, such as work and marriage. Distress, shame and guilt about the behaviors erode the addict’s already weak self-esteem.

Sexual addiction can be conceptualized as an intimacy disorder manifested as a compulsive cycle of preoccupation, ritualization, sexual behavior, and despair. Central to the disorder is the inability of the individual to adequately bond and attach in intimate relationships. The syndrome is rooted in early attachment failure with primary caregivers. It is a maladaptive way to compensate for this early attachment failure. Addiction is a symbolic enactment of deeply entrenched unconscious dysfunctional relationships with self and others.

While the definition of sex addiction is the same as that of other addictions, sexual compulsion is set apart from other addictions in that sex involves our innermost unconscious wishes, needs, fantasies, fears and conflicts.

Like other addictions, it is relapse prone.

While there currently is no diagnosis of sex addiction in the DSM-IV, clinicians in the sex addiction field have developed general criteria for diagnosing sex addiction. If an individual meets three or more of these criteria, he or she could be considered a sex addict:

  1. Recurrent failure to resist sexual impulses in order to engage in compulsive sexual behaviors.
  2. Frequently engaging in those behaviors to a greater extent, or over a longer period of time than intended.
  3. Persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to stop or control those behaviors.
  4. Preoccupation with sexual behavior or preparatory activities. (rituals)
  5. Frequent engaging in the behavior when expected to fulfill occupational, academic, domestic or social obligations.
  6. Continuation of the behavior despite recurrent social, financial, psychological, or marital problems caused by the behavior.
  7. Giving up or limiting social, occupational or recreational activities due to the behavior.
  8. Distress, anxiety, restlessness or irritability if unable to engage in the behavior.

How do I know if my partner is a sex addict?

Sometimes, it’s difficult to know whether someone close to you has an addiction. The addict might hide the addictive behavior or you might not know the warning signs or symptoms. Here are some things to look for:

  • Staying up late to watch television or surf the Web
  • Looking at pornographic material such as magazines, books, videos and clothing catalogs
  • Frequently isolating from spouses or partners, and not informing them of their whereabouts
  • Are controlling during sexual activity or have frequent mood swings before or after sex
  • Are demanding about sex, especially regarding time and place
  • Gets angry if someone shows concern about a problem with pornography
  • Offers no appropriate communication during sex
  • Lacks intimacy before, during and after sex, and offers little or no genuine intimacy in the relationship
  • Does not want to socialize with others, especially peers who might intimidate them
  • Fails to account for increasing number of calls to 800- or 900- toll-free numbers
  • Frequently rents pornographic videotapes
  • Seems to be preoccupied in public with everything around them
  • Has tried to switch to other forms of pornography to show a lack of dependency on one kind; concocts rules to cut down but doesn’t adhere to them
  • Feels depressed
  • Is increasingly dishonest
  • Hides pornography at work or home
  • Lacks close friends of the same sex
  • Frequently uses sexual humor
  • Always has a good reason for looking at pornography


Why can’t the person control his or her sexual behavior?

It’s important for you to know that your partner is not volitionally involved in these behaviors so you can begin to understand and, perhaps, forgive. Most addicts would stop if they could.

It’s been said that of all the addictions, sex is the most difficult to manage. This syndrome is a complex mixture of biological, psychological, cultural, and family-of-origin issues, the combination of which creates impulses and urges that are virtually impossible to resist. Despite the fact that acting them out produces considerable long-term negative consequences, the addict simply cannot resist his impulses. Individuals who are highly disciplined, accomplished and able to direct the force of their will in other areas of life fall prey to sexual compulsion. More importantly, people who love and cherish their partners can still be enslaved by these irresistible urges.

From a biological standpoint, research has shown that certain formations in the right temporal lobe make certain individuals more prone to sexual arousability from birth. Whether such an individual becomes sexually compulsive or perverse then depends on the child’s home environment.

Research has also shown that the inability to control sexual impulses is associated with neurochemical imbalances in the norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine systems. The use of certain antidepressants (SSRIs) has proved to be very effective in treating the impulse control problems of many sexual compulsives.

Biological predisposition contributes and combines with psychological factors. One of the reasons the “erotic haze” is so compulsory is that it unconsciously repairs earlier disturbed, anxiety-laden relationships. It shores up an inadequate sense of self that results from these early-life interpersonal abandonments, intrusions and misattunements.

This combination of biological and psychological factors results in an “affective disorder” in the sex addict. Feeling of depression, anxiety, boredom and emptiness are quickly alleviated by immersing oneself in an imaginary world that provides novelty, excitement, mystery and intense pleasure. Sex addiction is better than Prozac. It heals, it soothes, it contains, it provides a “safe place” free from the demands of actual performance, and it gives an illusory sense of belonging. The sense of empowerment in the illicit sex act rectifies “holes in the soul” and lifts the addict from feelings of inadequacy, insufficiency, depression and emptiness into a state of instant euphoria.

Relinquishing this very special (but delusional) mental and physical state can result in a sense of withdrawal which may include mood swings, inability to concentrate and irritability. These symptoms usually disappear in therapy as the sense of self is solidified and the sufferer finds more creative ways to deal with uncomfortable feelings.

What are the effects of sex addiction on the partner?

Effects of sex addiction on the sex addict’s partner can be numerous, encompassing a wide range of emotions and reactive behaviors. The sexual codependent’s experience is similar to, but not thoroughly identical to, a codependent person in a relationship with a substance abuser. A codependent partner of a drug or alcohol addict, for example, may manage to understand and even sympathize with the significant other’s alcohol problem due to the lesser societal condemnation.

But a compulsive addiction that involves engaging in sexual activities outside of the home inflicts a psychic injury of ultimate betrayal. How much harder it is for the partner to be understanding, to extend compassion toward the person who has been sexually unfaithful? People don’t talk about sex addiction – the social stigma is considerable. Forgiveness can seem impossible. The victim feels as if his or her trust has been irreparably corrupted.

Furthermore, there is an element of intense shame for both addict and sexual codependent attached to sexual addiction, especially if sexual interests involve an object, cross-dressing, dominance and submission or children.

What are the characteristics of a sexual codependent?

Codependency is an overworked and overused word and definitions can be confusing. At core, it revolves around the fear of losing the approval and presence of others due to developmental issues with early caretakers. This underlying fear can result in manipulative behaviors that overfocus on maintaining another person’s presence and approval. Control, obsequiousness, anger, caretaking, and being overly responsible are among codependent behaviors.

Codependent people believe they can’t survive without their partners and do anything they can do to stay in the relationships, however painful. The fear of losing their partners and being abandoned overpowers any other feelings. The thought of addressing the partner’s addiction can be terrifying because they don’t want to “rock the boat” and often are frightened of igniting the partner’s anger.

Common Characteristics of Codependents

  • spending a great deal of time focusing on the addict, sometimes to the neglect of themselves and their children;
  • tolerating behaviors in the relationship that others would never tolerate;
  • sacrificing with the unrecognized/unexpressed expectation that it would create loyalty;
  • doing things for others that you should be doing for yourself while mired in self-neglect;
  • becoming someone you don’t like – a nag, a parent to your partners, a blamer, a rager;
  • setting rules, boundaries and ultimatums but not abiding by them;
  • rescuing others compulsively;
  • believing tall tales – giving the addict the benefit of the doubt when it’s not warranted;
  • becoming disabled by the addict’s crazy-making behavior;
  • being overly concerned with the opinions of others – compulsively trying to “keep up appearances;”
  • attempting to keep the peace in the relationship at all costs;
  • becoming accustomed to living with a high degree of intensity, drama and chaos;
  • forgiving – over and over and over again

Sexual codependents demonstrate denial, preoccupation, enabling, rescuing, taking excessive responsibility, emotional turmoil, efforts to control, compromise of self, anger and problems with sexuality.

The partners of sex addicts experiences a traumatic loss of self as they make sexual compromises in the relationship that may go against their moral values.
exhausting.

Finally, sex as an addiction is rarely discussed and there is a huge social stamina associated with it, resulting in the co-addict wanting to hide or to provide a good “front” to deal with feelings of shame and despair. She may become socially isolated because she can’t discuss the situation with friends. Depression easily enters into an emotional environment of isolation and shame.

What’s involved in therapy for sex addicts’ partners?

Sexual codependents who attend either S-Anon or COSA 12-step programs for partners of sex addicts often feel extraordinary relief. To break the shame and isolation, it’s important to know others are going through the same thing you are. Some members have been grappling with these issues for years and can offer hope to newcomers. Individual psychotherapy also is extremely important.

Treatment for sexual codependence can become a process of continued growth, self-realization and self-transformation. Working through feelings of victimization can lead to a new sense of resiliency. Going through this process and dealing with the suffering you’ve endured can be an avenue to discovering meaning and to building stronger self-esteem. The challenges you’ve faced can elevate you to a higher level of well-being. You may develop a sense of serenity and peace from the appreciation of having worked through this process.

You will be able to do things that you weren’t taught in your family-of-origin: appropriately esteem yourself, set functional boundaries, be aware of and acknowledge your personal reality without fear, take better care of your adult needs and wants while allowing other adults to take care of theirs.

Your internal and external boundaries will be strengthened. Strong external boundaries will ensure that you will not again put yourself into a victim role. A sense of having internal boundaries will open up new avenues of healthy intimacy as you will know who you are and be able to hear who another is. At the heart of healthy intimacy is the ability to share your real self with another and be available when someone else shares his real self with you.

You will no longer have to bend yourself into a pretzel to be someone somebody else wants you to be. Rejection or disapproval may be unpleasant, but not devastating – and you’ll stop marring your personal integrity in order to get external approval and validation. With increased self-knowledge, you’ll be more able to rely exclusively on yourself and your own healthy behaviors as the source of your self esteem.

You may choose to leave the relationship or not, with the knowledge that you can craft a fulfilling life for yourself whether alone or in a partnership. Should you decide to stay, you can reclaim a sense of dignity and renewed sense of purpose even if your spouse is still active.

Finally, time and energy spent on preoccupation and control of the addict can be used to attend to and emotionally support your children, to recommit to and obtain increased satisfaction from your work, to meet new people and to develop new recreational activities.

How Can I Forgive?

Forgiveness is a critical part of recovery for the partner of a sex addict. To forgive is not to forget. Forgiving means being able to remember the past without experiencing the pain all over again. It is remembering but attaching different feelings about the events, and a willingness to allow the pain to have decreased relevance over time. Understanding the pain, compulsion and despair that your partner has gone through in his addiction can help open you up to compassion.

To forgive is important primarily for yourself, not for the person you forgive. The opposite of forgiveness is resentment. When we resent we experience the pain and anger all over again. Serenity and resentment cannot coexist.

The process of forgiveness begins with acknowledging that a wrong has been done to you. You have to recognize that you have strong feelings about what happened and you need to feel and process those feelings. You are entitled to be angry or hurt. Ideally, you can share those feelings with the person who has hurt you in couples counseling. If that is not possible, then you can share the feelings with your therapist or support group. After that, you can choose whether to stay in a relationship with that person. In either case, forgiveness does not imply permission to continue hurtful behaviors. As part of your own treatment, you need to decide which behaviors you can accept in your relationships and which you cannot.

The primary goal of forgiveness is to heal yourself. In a partnership affected by sexual addiction, forgiveness is aided by evidence of each partner’s changed behavior and commitment to treatment. These are also elements in rebuilding trust. For many couples, forgiving and learning to trust again go hand in hand. Both take time, making amends, continued treatment and trustworthy behavior.

 

APA Reference
Hayden, D. (2009). FAQs for Partners of Sex Addicts. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 23, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/faqs-for-partners-of-sex-addicts/0002611
Scientifically Reviewed
    Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Jan 2013
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