Help For the Partners of Sex Addicts

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s)

· 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 a 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.

· 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 of the signs and symptoms:

* Staying up late to watch television or surf the Web.

* Looking at pornographic material such as magazines, books, videos and clothing catalogs.

* Frequently isolating themselves from spouses or partners, and doesn’t inform 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 toll – 800 or 900 – calls

* 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; concoct 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 (Psych Central.com).

· Why can’t he/she control his/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/her 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.

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 anti-depressants (SSRI’s) has thus shown 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 is an unconscious but maladaptive way to repair earlier disturbed, anxiety-laden relationships. It shores up an inadequate sense of self which 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 Prosac. 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 he finds more creative ways to deal with uncomfortable feelings.

· What are the effects of cybersex addiction on the relationship?

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 addict or alcohol, for example, may manage to understand and even sympathize with her partner’s alcohol problem due to the lesser social condemnation.

But a compulsive addiction that involves engaging in sexual activities on the computer or outside of the home inflicts a psychic injury of ultimate betrayal. Sexuality goes to the heart of who we are.

Arguable, one purpose and outcome of cybersex is to detach and disconnect sexual experience from real relationships in life. Cybersex’s primary stimulus to autoerotic behavior produces profound disconnection of the sexual experience from relationship context and meaning. Compulsive viewing of pornography, for instance, in no way supports or fosters intimate, attachment-linked sexual gratification, anchored in emotional connection, intimate responsiveness and relationship fidelity.

Cybersex addiction reinforces a non-intimate, non-relational, and non-demanding sexual experience — a detached, disconnected physical arousal geared to the self-engrossed preoccupation typical of addictive sexual behavior. Cybersex entrenches emotional, psychological and spiritual/existential disconnection of sexuality from relationship context. Entrance into the “erotic haze” that encompasses the sex addict induces sexual arousal, climax and resolution without real relationship attentiveness, responsiveness, or commitment – the key dimensions of a loving attachment.

The behavior directly undermines trust in the couple’s relationship. Thus, the sexual dynamics depicted in cybersex are inherently detrimental and destructive to secure attachment that is essential to a sense of trust in the relationship.

It is also reasonably anticipated that a husband’s deception and lying – the existence of a “secret world” apart from the primary relationship is an overlapping, yet also separate detrimental influence upon relationship trust.

For some women, this lack of trust in their husband’s word – leads to uncertainty about the “substance” of the man they married, uncertainty about his true identity and a change in their perception of his identity – that of seeing him as fundamentally untrustworthy and of disreputable character. Thus, their internal model of their husband changes.

Others may feel that the husband is unable to fulfill marital expectations of emotional intimacy and companionship. They talk about not trusting that their husband would fulfill the role of being someone who could provide emotional support. They feel unable to turn to their husbands for this emotional support for different reasons: fearing she would trigger a relapse; feeling rejected because of his involvement in computer sex; sensing her husband’s inability to provide emotional support; being shamed by a husband’s angry or dismissive response from her attempts to reach out for support and companionship; or resolving that her husband was emotionally preoccupied with his own struggle with addiction.

The addict’s use of cybersex causes self doubt and lowered self esteem in the spouse. These women feel they aren’t pretty enough or skinny enough, or whatever. In any event, the feel that they are not what their husbands want. Some feel that if they were more sexually desirable, he wouldn’t have this problem. Sometimes, in a frantic effort to compete with unreal women on the internet or with prostitutes, they go to extremes with cosmetic surgery, breast implantation, excessive exercise – in the mistaken belief that if she can lure him back sexually and her husband would stop being interested in pornography and the marriage could be redeemed.

Some spouses feel that her husband’s use of internet pornography is a direct attack on her self-worth. They start doubting themselves. They doubt their self-worth. They start doubting the things that used to make them feel special and meaningful. Because if she had any meaning, why was he doing what he’s doing?

The wife is often stunned, confused, and in extreme pain upon discovery of the sexual/cybersex addiction. Anger and resentment can be overwhelming. For many partners, the addict’s betrayal can precipitate trauma that resembles post-traumatic stress disorder.

A wife can believe that sex is the most important way to express love, so her partner’s sexual acting out can leave her feeling deeply inadequate and unlovable.

Within the union, the partner’s low self-esteem can contribute to anxiety and fear of being abandoned. Often she will set aside her moral values and tolerates participating in sexual behaviors with her partner which are unacceptable or even repugnant to her. She feels too unworthy to have solid sexual boundaries. She mistakenly believes that she can stop his acting out if she satisfies his (insatiable and unrealistic) sexual needs.

A surprisingly common effect reported by many partners – after the shock of discovery -is the feeling of losing one’s mind. Obsessing about the details of the sex addict’s betrayal, repeatedly confronting her partner with “evidence” of infidelity and being told she’s “crazy” or “just jealous” results in a loss of focus and an inability to concentrate. Fear and anger aggravate the condition. Furthermore, there is an element of intense shame for both addict and sexual codependent attached to sexual addiction, especially if his interests involve an object, cross-dressing, dominance and submission or children. She isolates herself from friends, family and community due to her shame, which provides fertile ground for depression. In some situations, the partner is brought to a point of absolute despair.

Some maladaptive strategic responses the sexual codependent may engage in as a means of coping include excessive alcohol consumption, food binges, excessive house cleaning, and overtime career activity; acts that can serve as distractions from her distrust, pain and hostility. Distractions, of course, provide only a temporary and false “relief” and often create more problems than they solve.

When the partner’s anger and resentment are suppressed over a period of time, they eventually explode in a volcano of rage, blame, and furious criticism of the sex addict.

The explosion of frustrated emotions can open a door to enormous guilt and remorse, so the partner may forgive the addict’s offenses and not stand clear in setting boundaries for herself. The result is an unfortunate snare for the couple, in which the partner unwittingly enables the sex addict to carry on with his unacceptable pattern of sexual acting out.

The converse is true regarding the emotional influences on the wife. She may turn inward, withdraw, stay silent and distant. This can include withdrawing from any sexual activity with the addict. These stonewalling behaviors can ignite strong feelings of shame and rejection in the sex addict. In a way, the partner succeeds in punishing the sex addict through these behaviors. But the price of this punishment may be a return to his active addiction as a way to deal with conflict at home.

A tremendously debilitating effect on the partner is to assume all responsibility for the addict’s sexual acting out, and even for all of the problems in the relationship. The sex addict may exploit this to his advantage, perpetuating self-doubt within the partner.

For example, the partner may confront her spouse with evidence of a transgression, like a credit card charge to a hotel, but the sex addict is skillful and experienced in deception. He will boldly challenge the partner’s credibility, suggesting she see a “shrink” for being so paranoid and suspicious of him. He can persuasively feign righteous indignation, causing his partner to distrust her own instincts and perceptions, even in the face of tangible evidence.

The self doubt can plague the partner, aggravating her confusion and contributing to the feeling of “losing my mind”. Not wanting to continue to feel “crazy”, she may retreat into denial, the basic and most fundamental defense mechanism for both partner and addict. When in denial, she will believe the addict’s lies, however far-fetched they may be. She will accept the unacceptable. Whichever lies the sex addict offers to cover up his addiction, she is compelled to “not rock the boat” in order to assuage her abandonment fears.

· What are the characteristics of a sexual codependent?

Firstly, let’s consider what codependency is. Codependency is an overworked and overused word and definitions can be confusing. At core, it revolves around a deep fear of losing the approval and presence of the “other”. This underlying fear can result in manipulative behaviors that overfocus on maintaining another person’s presence and approval. Control, obsequiousness, anger, caretaking, and being over-responsible are among the behaviors that can be the manifestations of codependent behavior. Because of dysfunctional family-of-origin issues, codependents learn to react rather than respond to others, take responsibility for others, worry about others, and depend on others to make them feel useful or alive.

Codependence also refers to the way events from childhood unconsciously produces attitudes and behaviors that propel people into destructive relationships in the present. The self worth of the codependent comes from external sources. They need other people to give them feelings of self-worth. Codependence is a particular relationship with one’s self in which the person doesn’t trust his or her own experiences. Lacking the inner boundaries necessary to be aware of and express their true wants, feelings, goals and opinions, they are “other-validating”. Having only a reflected sense of self, they constantly seek affirmation and validation from other people because they are unable to endorse and validate from within. “Self-validating” people are able to do this. Co-dependents often focus on an addict’s sobriety as a way to achieve a precarious sense of self- consolidation. Sadly, their behavior often perpetuates the loved one’s addiction.

Codependent people believe they can’t survive without their partners and will do anything they can do to stay in the relationship, however painful. The fear of losing their partners and being abandoned (once again) overpowers her ability to make decisions in her own best interests. The thought of addressing the partner’s addiction can be terrifying: they may be frightened of igniting the partner’s anger which can result in feeling emotionally flooded by (childhood) fears of loss.

The sexual co-dependent suffers from additional symptoms: driven by the potential loss of the relationship, which she sees as identical with her very identity, some women engage in sexual activities with their partners that they find distasteful or even morally repugnant – all in an effort to keep him home and happy. However, this type of fantasy-based acting out may not be based on her real sexual needs and desires and opens the way to turning his partner into yet another object. Certain kinds of sexual acting out can turn sex into another fix for him. The partner senses this, making her sense of sexual betrayal even more poignant.