In my work I frequently work with individuals who have made the discovery that their partner has a sexual addiction. This news is extremely traumatic and explosive. The individual suddenly realizes their relationship is not the relationship they thought it was. The partner is not who you thought he or she was. This has a significant impact on the relationship, the couple, the family, and anyone else involved with the couple. It may feel like a bomb has exploded in the family.
Sally had been married to Paul for twenty years when she came home one day and discovered him watching pornography and masturbating. Paul swore to Sally that he had only recently begun this behavior because their sex life had diminished. Sally accepted this and tried harder to be more involved sexually with Paul. However, her trust for Paul had diminished and she was on the lookout for any other sexual acting out behavior by Paul. Within a month, Sally came home and saw Paul’s computer open and a website for prostitutes pulled up. She then went into his email and saw Paul had been corresponding with not one but many different women about getting together for sex. Sally felt like she had been punched in the stomach and began to wretch. She felt dizzy and had to sit on the floor. Later, when she confronted Paul he told her had hadn’t actually had sex with any of these women but was only talking to them. She tried to believe him because she wanted it to be true. Again, Paul blamed Sally for having withdrawn from him sexually. Sally’s entire world had changed by the time she reached out to me in desperation.
The discovery of a sexual addiction is a traumatic experience for the partner. It brings major turmoil to the relationship. The partner experiences extreme shame, broken trust, anger, hostility, and a possible desire for retribution. What does one tell the children? What do the children already know? Basically, the family’s world has imploded.
When the discovery of a sexual addiction hits the couple is thrown into turmoil. Common feelings are anxiety, depression, self-doubt, anger, and a complete loss of trust. Sexually, there is also a major impact. I see a lot of partners who believe if they have as much sex as possible with the partner he or she won’t stray or need anything outside of the relationship.
Debbie was broken when she discovered her husband's sexual addiction. The last thing she wanted to do was be sexual with her husband. But she did, on a daily basis. She believed if she had as much sex as her husband needed then he wouldn’t stray again. During these times Debbie felt sexual aversion, shame, developed body image issues, but felt obligated and continued to be sexual with her husband.
What Debbie and other partners of individuals with sexual addictions did not understand was that the sexual addiction had nothing to do with her. It had roots in her husband's childhood. It was something that had become out of control. She did not understand the shame, guilt, and self-hatred her partner had as a result of the sexual addiction.
Joe’s wife Michelle had a sex and love addiction. Joe discovered Michelle was maintaining several. Long term, extramarital relationships. Joe had not learned self-care or how to set boundaries in childhood. Joe refused to do anything for himself that involved self-care because he was worried if he left Michelle home alone she would act out sexually. Paul sacrificed his needs, choices, and behavior for Michelle’s. He hired a private investigator, put a tracker on Michelle’s phone, and fastidiously watched the phone records. He believed he could control his wife’s addiction.
Discovering your partner has a sexual addiction is a traumatic event. Believing life was one thing and discovering it is something else is shocking. It is common for these individuals to experience symptoms of Acute Stress Disorder and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. In one study, 70 % of these individuals showed these symptoms. Different factors may contribute to how severe these symptoms are including; past history of trauma, level and length of deception, public embarrassment, and others.
Sexual addiction is a stigma. It is not something that is accepted and supported in our society. When someone loses a partner to death the support system surrounds the partner with love and support. When the discovery of a sexual addiction happens, it isn’t discussed or brought to the open. Other’s may talk negatively about it, there may be public shaming. This leaves the family isolated and embarrassed.
When partners of individuals with sexual addictions arrive at my office they often feel broken. Many times they come in with the partner whom they want fixed. They are unaware that they also need support and guidance in working through the storm. When I work with partners of individuals who are sexually addicted we work to create boundaries. We look at the individual’s history of boundaries. Did he or she learn to create them or were boundaries never respected? Was self-care taught? Is there any self-care today? I work with individuals to learn to develop a healthy support system and a healthy set of boundaries. Partners of individuals with sexual addictions cannot take responsibility for their partner’s sexual addiction. Their behavior is their own to control.
Fernando’s partner George was addicted to pornography and masturbation. Fernando did his best to control George’s behavior. He monitored the computer and the Internet. He was scared to leave George in the evenings and sacrificed his own social life and self-care. What Fernando didn’t understand was that he could not control George’s behavior. George needed to take responsibility for himself. I worked with Fernando to establish boundaries for what he would do if George continued in his addiction. Fernando was able to establish a self-care plan and to let go of the control he was trying to have over George.
In therapy some of the items partners and I work on include; letting go of trying to control the addiction, creating boundaries, developing a self-care plan, putting one’s needs as primary, and issues from family of origin that may be contributing to the couple’s problems.
I welcome partners of sexually addicted individuals into my practice and enjoy helping them along the healing process. Sometimes couples do not survive the trauma of addiction but other times couples are able to heal from the sexual addiction, when both work on their individual parts and then as a couple, coming through as a strong individuals and as a unit. This is rewarding work!
(All of the names and stories have been changed for this article.)
Melissa Muller is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor in St. Augustine, FL. Melissa works with families, adolescents, couples and individuals. Melissa has specializations in treating adolescents, eating disorders, trauma, and sexual addictions. In addition she enjoys working with the LGBT community. She often works with families in the crisis of divorce to make the transition as healthy as possible for both the children and the adults in the family.
Call for your appointment today (904) 595-6840.