Today’s blog is part three in a series on sex addiction. Parts One and Two explored the ways in which one might identify sex addiction in one’s self or one’s partner and possible causes and suggested supports for healing sex addiction. In today’s blog, I hope to provide partners (and former partners) of sex addicts with some support – specifically validation for the devastating effects of being in relationship with a sex addict. In tomorrow’s blog, I will explore possible supports in helping the partner heal from having been in relationship with a sex addict.
Sex addiction confused as love
As I mentioned in yesterday’s blog, for as long as sex addicts are indulging their addiction, sex addicts are incapable of experiencing or participating in true intimacy. This truth has devastating effects on any and every relationship into which the sex addict enters. As Stephanie Carnes, states, “Sex addiction thrives in secrecy, (Mending a shattered heart, 2009, p. 9)” and addicts will go to any length to protect their double life.” Whether engaging in compulsive fantasizing, pornography, sex sites, prostitution and/or masturbation, addicts accomplish this in secret and their partners are often none the wiser. Additionally, many sex addicts are masters as presenting themselves as simply “passionate” and pride themselves is being masterful “lovers,” luring potential partners in with their exceptional “skills.” Soon, however, the partner begins to see that no matter what they do or how they do it (sexually), it is never enough, neither is it good enough, because nothing can compare with the fantasies cooked up in an addicts mind or with the intensity and danger of what they might be viewing through pornography or experiencing on sex-sites. As the partner of an addict eventually learns, the partner’s need for sexual stimulation has nothing to do with love and instead of helping to facilitate intimacy, actually destroys it.
Sex Addiction is Still in the Closet
One of the challenges with sex addiction is that in most circles, it remains in the closet. Sex addiction is not discussed publicly and neither has it attained the recognition and acknowledgement of other addictions such as drugs, alcohol, gambling, etc. For some, sex addiction is considered a joke – something that was cooked up by some fundamentalist, repressed, suppressed, uptight religious folks trying to keep us from having great sex. The accessibility and mainstreaming of pornography, does not help in this regard. As such, sex addiction is difficult to identify, especially for the partner of a sex addict, who maybe never witnesses the behavior itself, but only the before and after-effects.
Effects Experienced by Partners of Sex Addicts
Before: The before effects of sex addiction are most easily recognized by feelings of withdrawal such as irritability or restlessness on the part of the addict when unable to act out sexually, which escalates until they get their fix. The partner feels the tension of these feelings and often becomes the target – being blamed by the addict for these feelings (you aren’t servicing me enough or in the ways that I want). Often, not knowing any better, the partner believes it must be their fault. Shame and guilt step in and the partner often feels pressured to play their part in helping the addict “feel better,” often agreeing to sexual behaviors that actually make them feel uncomfortable.
After: The after-effects are also comprised of shame and guilt because no matter what the partner does or how, it will never be right for the addict. For the addict, sex becomes a bottomless pit of need that can never be met, and in the mind of the addict, their partner becomes the person “responsible” for their dissatisfaction. Until they know otherwise, the partner often takes on the responsibility for the addict’s unhappiness, frequently entering into the cycle of addiction with the addict – trying everything within their means to make the addict happy and having to face the shame of continued failure. Eventually, the partner may shut down sexually and cut off any connection they may have to their own sexual needs and desires, unable to face the continual shame of failure and humiliation. Compounding this shame is the addict’s blaming and shaming behaviors toward the partner. Because of their inability to “please” them, addicts often accuse their partners of being “frigid, repressed, uptight,” or even “asexual.” Sadly, partners begin to believe these lies and end up losing any self-esteem they might have had in regards to sexual intimacy and desirability. These feelings of shame are compounded when the sex addict turns away from the partner toward masturbation, pornography, sex sites or other partners in search of a “better” fix.
Ultimately, what is created within the partner of a sex addict is a deep well of shame – shame over not being able to please their partner, shame for agreeing to sex acts they might feel uncomfortable with, shame over wondering what is wrong with them and shame over wondering if there is something wrong with their partner in a culture that often glorifies sex addiction and in a partner who might still be in denial. When recovering from a relationship with a sex addict, healing this shame is the primary and most critical task. In tomorrow’s blog we will explore strategies for healing yourself from a relationship with a sex addict.
If you are a partner of a sex addict, please seek out help and support through counseling, psychotherapy or a local 12-Step group well versed in the subtleties of sex addiction. For additional support, check out Mending a Shattered Heart – a Guide for Partners of Sex Addicts, edited by Stephanie Carnes, PhD.