Grief and addiction share a common trait: denial. Denial is a very normal stage of the grief process; denying the loss of a person, place or thing is a typical first reaction when a person loses something valuable in his or her life.
However, with addiction, denial also plays a key role. In addictive behaviors, there is usually global denial regarding the addictive behaviors, and the impact of the behavior on others.
As a partner of an addict, denial can appear as overlooking your intuitions in the relationship that something doesn’t feel right. Underneath this denial, there is usually a lot of rationalizing, that is, talking yourself out of the gut feeling that something is very wrong.
This can be a survival mechanism that stems from your family of origin.
It is often useful for partners of sex addicts to examine their historical issues. For example, if a partner of a sex addict grew up in an alcoholic home where secrets and lies and “keeping up appearances” were an integral part of how the partner learned to be in the world, then it would also be likely that the partner brings this way of being into their relationship.
Not only do family messages play an important role in the partner’s reaction to the addict, but cultural messages influence how partners of sex addicts perceive their situations. Thoughts such as, “If only I were more attractive,” or “more sexual,” or a “better wife or husband than this would not have happened.” While such thoughts are very normal to think when faced with the crisis of infidelity and sex addiction, they imply that the partner is responsible for and has control over the addict’s behavior.
Attempts by the partner to control the addict’s behavior can include using sex as a reward or withdrawing sex as a punishment. Furthermore, enabling behaviors such as attempting to rescue the sex addict from the natural consequences of their acting-out behaviors can arise as well. Such actions on the part of the partner can contribute to isolation that keeps the addict and the partner from seeking help from professional sources outside of the family.
At times, a partner of a sex addict can find themselves vacillating between an aggressive, controlling role, and a compliant, enabling role in an effort to deal with the unmanageability of sex addiction. Understanding these behaviors and connecting with a therapist who is versed in sex addiction issues, as well as attending 12-step groups, such as COSA and S-ANON can be powerful ways to begin the healing process for partners of sex addicts.
Some partners may feel resistance to getting the help they need through this difficult time. They may feel that it is up to the addict alone to seek help for his or her problem.
However, partners of sex addicts can benefit greatly from professional treatment to assist them through the crisis of discovering that their partner is a sex addict as well as working through their own recovery plan. A solid relationship with a skilled therapist trained in sex addiction can help guide the partner through this process.