Is sex addiction a real disorder? It doesn’t exist in the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual of the American Psychiatric Association. And, after all, who is to judge how much sex is too much sex? Maybe it’s just moralizing to say that people who enjoy a lot of sex are sex addicts. The problem this post will address is this: Sometimes infidelity is a result of men that have frequent casual sex outside of marriage, sometimes seeing prostitutes, sometimes going to massage parlors, sometimes picking up women at bars while intoxicated.
Once exposed—sometimes through the credit card bills that reveal paying for sex—they vow to recommit to monogamy. Yet they may find that they can’t easily honor their commitment to monogamy because they can’t seem to refrain from surreptitiously returning to their frequent casual extra-marital sex life. That sex life seems to have taken on a life of its own that is out of control. Such individuals, usually men, find themselves in a painful dilemma. They don’t want to lose their wives who require recommitment to monogamy to stay in the marriage, but they can’t seem to abstain from their surreptitious extra-marital sexual practices. Such men are forced to choose between their wives and their extra-marital sex lives.
Men who choose their wives over their extra-marital sex lives may seek help with trying to curb their extra-marital sex lives by attending a 12-step program like Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous. In the meantime, their wives may seek professional help trying to see if it’s worth remaining married to a man who suffers from sex addiction. If such wives decide to remain in the marriage, they then have to figure out how to best help their husbands with their recovery rather than become an enabler. In any addiction, there is a significant risk of relapse prior to achieving long-term abstinence.
A sexual betrayal is committed every time a married man trying to recommit to monogamy relapses into some form of surreptitious extra-marital sexual behavior despite trying his best to abstain. Should he confess the relapse or hide it? Will his wife be willing to tolerate one more infidelity and remain committed? How is trust ever re-established if a wife can’t be confident that her husband can maintain long-term abstinence from extra-marital sexual behavior? There are no clearly right or wrong answers to such questions. Each couple has to negotiate such issues for themselves. The spouses of any type of addict have to decide for themselves how many relapses they can tolerate and still remain committed to the relationship. In the case of sex addiction, it is a particularly difficult issue as each relapse might be experienced as a painful sexual betrayal one must patiently endure in the hope that eventually long-term abstention will be achieved.
Spouses of sex addicts may suffer PTSD-like symptoms in discovery of the sexual betrayal. Such symptoms might only be exacerbated by each subsequent relapse. Spouses who decide to tough it out in the relationship with the recovering sex addict must do two things: 1) Work on helping themselves heal from the trauma of sexual betrayal, a process I discussed in a prior blog (Does Sexual Betrayal Cause PTSD?), and 2) Play a constructive role in helping the partner recover from sex addiction.
Of course, many wives of sexually addicted men will just end the relationship rather than put themselves through what may turn into quite an ordeal learning to deal with the ups and downs of a recovery with repeated relapses. But some spouses will remain committed to recovering from infidelity if the sexually addicted partner is sincere in wanting to recover from a sex addiction and recommit to monogamy.
For those committed to toughing it out, these steps can be helpful:
- Work on your own healing. It’s not your fault, so don’t blame yourself. Engage in consistent self-care in terms of diet and exercise. Get social support.
- Refrain from sexual intimacy until your husband regains your trust: Part of recovery from sex addiction is replacing addictive behaviors with constructive alternatives. In the case of sex addiction, the constructive alternative is usually sexual relations in a long-term intimate relationship. Nevertheless, betrayed wives should not feel pressured to have sex with their sexually addicted husbands until their husbands have regained their trust. Practicing safe sex may be necessary as sexually addicted husbands may transmit STDs to their wives. Until betrayed wives are ready to resume sexual relations with their husbands, their husbands can find other constructive alternatives like meditation, exercise, attending 12-step groups, calling a sponsor, etc.
- Don’t assume responsibility for your husband’s abstinence: Don’t get over-involved in surveillance or control of your husband’s extra-marital sexual behavior. He has to assume responsibility for self-monitoring himself and shouldn’t become dependent on his wife to keep him in line. That’s an unhealthy dependency. Trust means you can trust your husband to remain faithful even when you’re not obsessively monitoring him trying to catch him in another infidelity. Your husband has to assume full responsibility for implementing a 12-step program of recovery of his own volition.
- Your husband must earn your willingness to recommit: Your husband is not entitled to your forgiveness or continuing commitment so shouldn’t get angry if he doesn’t get it. Only time will tell if your husband can maintain his recommitment to monogamy and to recovery from his sex addiction. Trust and recommitment must be earned as your husband passes the test of time by being able to remain faithful in frustrating circumstances over the long haul.
“Tough love” can help sexually addicted husbands recover because it requires them to assume full responsibility for their own recovery if they want to save their marriages. It’s tempting to try to make somebody else responsible for one’s own recovery when it seems overwhelming to make the significant lifestyle and attitudinal changes that a 12-step program requires. Nevertheless, following the 12 steps requires making a searching and fearless moral inventory of oneself as well as making amends to people that have been harmed by one’s behavior, like one’s betrayed wife. Wives can begin to believe in and respect their unfaithful husbands once again if they see that their husbands are sincerely dedicating themselves to following the program despite the demanding sacrifices involved.
Josephs, L. (2018) The Dynamics of Sexual Infidelity: Applying Relationship Science to Psychotherapy PracticeT. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.