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Infidelity: Looking Beyond the Ashley Madison Scandal

Drawing the line between addiction, 'high sex drive' and plain old dishonesty.

The words sex addiction get thrown around a lot when it comes to cheating, especially with all eyes on the recent Ashley Madison hack. Society is still trying to understand the difference between sex addiction, an illness, which inspires a certain amount of compassion, and the moral character defect of dishonesty, which tends to inspire condemnation.

One thing is for sure. The spouse or partner of a cheater knows a whole other level of pain than the one whose mate merely watches porn or compulsively masturbates. That’s not to say that a porn addicted spouse doesn’t inflict psychic pain, they do. However, there is something incredibly personal about being cheated on. It makes you feel you've been replaced; that your love has been a total lie; that you did something wrong. So it's difficult to listen to experts or therapists explain cheating as a component of sexual addiction. It sounds like they might be making excuses for the 'liar.'

Although it’s difficult to know where to draw the line between addiction, ‘high sex drive’ and plain old dishonesty, there are some basic patterns that one can identify in an effort to make sense of a betrayal. For a true sex addict, cheating is just the latest manifestation of a host of symptoms that cover up deep, underlying and unaddressed trauma. This can be emotional, sexual, physical or spiritual abuse. It can be events and experiences from the past that the addict never processed. Along with compulsive 'acting out' behaviors such as infidelity, paying for sex, excessive porn consumption or fetishes, the addict experiences overwhelming guilt and shame for his or her actions. There is incongruence between the person’s values and their actions, and this causes enormous distress. He or she feels powerless over the need to cope with life's problems by getting high on sex, intrigue, and fantasy. This coping mechanism has most likely been an entire life strategy going back as far as childhood or adolescence.

The addict will engage in high-risk situations that can damage or end relationships, reputations and careers, but all of it will seem worth it. Why? Because the addiction is masking even greater secret wounds that the psyche will go to any length to protect. Sometimes these wounds are known to the addict, other times they are unknown. Either way, the addiction serves a purpose, and disassembling it will take hard work, commitment and the guidance of a trained therapist, not to mention a huge support network.

It is no easy task. Not everyone has the courage to face their issues. For some, it’s easier just to cheat or act out and not ask the deeper questions. If you, or someone you know, was exposed in the Ashley Madison hack and identify as a sex addict, there is hope if you choose recovery.

Once the addict truly begins to value and care for themselves, to truly love themselves, their own integrity will become of utmost importance and deceiving or manipulating others becomes unthinkable. Respect for relationships and the feelings of loved ones stops being a struggle or something to fake. It becomes a genuine concern and a priority. Although it may take a great deal of time, damaged relationships can be healed and trust can be reestablished.