Finding out that a husband or wife, boyfriend or girlfriend is caught up in a sex addiction pattern usually leads to intense feelings of hurt and anger for the partner. The words “sex addiction” may not come to mind, but the partner feels deeply betrayed and trust is broken by the other’s sexual behavior. The behavior often involves pornography use, but may go beyond that and include some form of direct involvement with other people.
There can be a repetitive pattern which involves: multiple instances of the partner catching the sex addict “acting out,” followed by a commitment to stop the behaviors by the person struggling with addiction, only for the partner to discover a recurrence after some time. The process of the partner discovering exactly what the sexual addiction behaviors and patterns are is often very volatile and intensely conflicted. Some form of what therapist’s call “staggered disclosure” commonly occurs – where only bits and pieces of information come out, with partners uncovering more information and relapses over time, instead of the whole story. This further undermines trust and increases damage to the relationship as the addict loses all credibility. There is usually a painful element of emotional trauma for the partner as this process unfolds.
Therapy can effectively help people recover from sex addiction and its impact on an individual and couple level. Partners often consider ending the relationship, but many partners want to make an attempt to heal and stay together, not only for their own and their partner's sake, but for the benefit of any children in the family as well. For the partner, resources are available to help:
- Partners of sex addicts need support. Sometimes the partner will insist the sex addict seek treatment, but resist seeking professional help for themselves since clearly the addict has the problem. Partner feelings of shame, and even protectiveness towards the addict, may encourage the partner to isolate and not reveal what has happened to close friends and family, increasing vulnerability to anxiety, depression, anger and rage. While being open to others may or may not be fitting, depending on the situation, partners can benefit from the support, insight, and coping skills they receive meeting confidentially with a psychotherapist trained in this specialization.
- Therapy can help partners learn how to cope better with the emotional “flooding” that often occurs when they are triggered internally and/or by something in the environment that associates to the betrayal experience, and brings up thoughts, images, and raw emotions that are overwhelming. Partners can eventually work through the reactivity and trauma so they can be in a clearer, more secure place; and respond out of that greater sense of grounding and well-being as they move forward.
- Psychoeducation can play a role in clarifying the meaning of sex addict behaviors, which can help free the partner from being overly responsible, or self-devaluating in any way. Psychoeducation can also stimulate hope that there is a solution to this problem for the partner, the addict, and the relationship if the partner wants to pursue reconciliation, which is usually the case in our experience.
We believe that a good approach for assessing and treating sexual addiction issues can include individual therapy for each partner, couples therapy when the time is right, and group therapy to further facilitate recovery. Sometimes one or both partners in the relationship seek individual treatment initially. Other times we meet with the couple first to assess and recommend a treatment plan. Our intention in any case is to offer support and guidance.