For couples seeking to heal from sex and love addiction, the process can be exhausting and difficult. Addicts need to process their own pain, handle their spouse’s trauma, and have patience in the trust-rebuilding process. Partners of addicts must address the pain of betrayal, decide whether or not to stay in the relationship, and deal with the consequences of whichever decision they make.
A recent podcast I’ve been listening to is Where Should We Begin?, a series of one-time couples sessions with renowned couples therapist Esther Perel. Imagine my delight when I came across a session with a couple dealing with sex and love addiction. I immediately thought about how helpful this conversation would be for my couples.
A few disclaimers before I encourage you to listen. Esther is not a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist. Early in the podcast, she claims that there is little research support for sex addiction as an addiction similar to drug or alcohol addiction. In fact, there is indeed a growing body of research indicating that brain changes occur in sex and love addicts similar to those of substance addicts.
Also, this podcast addresses the issues of this particular couple. As a couple with your own unique story, you may have different struggles in communication or needs for healing. For example, this particular couple was recommended to include more touch in their interactions, but that may not be appropriate for you if touch makes you feel unsafe or uncomfortable. Don’t take the advice she gives in this podcast as a “must do” for you in your relationship, but instead seek to apply the general principles to your own relationship.
Finally, this podcast contains strong language and mature themes.
Here are a few thoughts I have for both the addict and the partner.
For the Addict
You need to seek healing for the pain your addiction allows you to avoid.
A pivotal moment in the recording is when the husband admits he feels sad all the time, which the therapist points out as an emotion from childhood. Taking away the addiction, which provided a way out from feeling pain of past abuse or current circumstance, meant he would feel the pain more deeply. As an addict, you need to understand what you did was hurtful, and that it was done in an attempt to find healing from the past.
There is a delicate balance between taking responsibility and being consumed by shame.
Addiction is a shame-based disorder. As a result, the addict’s typical default mode is one of shame and self-blame. The abuse this addict experienced in his past taught him that he deserves to be punished or harmed because he is bad. These shaming beliefs make it particularly difficult to feel appropriate guilt and take responsibility because of the pain they create.
It's time to integrate the good and the bad.
One of my favorite phrases with my clients is to remind them that there’s always an “and.” There are two sides to every situation, both the light and the dark, the good and the bad. Those coexist, and don’t need to be divorced from one another. When the addiction was going strong, the “good” and “bad” selves were kept very separate. Now you are tasked with integrating these two sides together into an understanding of the self that is realistic and kind.
Your spouse needs to have his or her pain acknowledged and understood, rather than hearing “I’m sorry” all the time.
Self-absorption is the name of the game with the addict. In order to engage in the addictive behaviors without regret, the addict has to cut off empathy or compassion for their spouse. In this case, the husband was still focusing inward as he explored his abuse and hadn’t adequately connected with the wife’s pain. As you seek to rebuild trust in your marriage, you need to step out of your own pain and acknowledge the hurt of your spouse. Your spouse needs to know you understand how hard it was for them before you can move forward.
For the Partner
It’s normal to be blindsided by the disclosure of addiction.
In the podcast, the wife makes comments like, “I thought I had the perfect marriage” and “I never knew anything was wrong.” Addicts become adept at hiding their compulsive behaviors and putting on a mask. If this happened to you, you are not alone.
Because of increasing acceptance of divorce, it is becoming more of a stigma to stay in the relationship and make it work.
Friends, family, even clinical professionals might encourage you to leave the relationship after a spouse’s revelation of sexual addiction. They might not understand why you’ve chosen to stay if you are able to separate or divorce. The lack of understanding can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness. While the addict is getting support from therapy or 12 Step groups, the partner also needs significant support.
It is difficult to separate the person from the behavior, but it is important to see them as separate.
Because of the significant betrayal, the perceived narrative about the relationship has been shattered. The partner begins to distrust her own perceptions not only about the addiction, but also about any positive or good moments in the relationship. It is important to, as much as possible, see the addict’s behaviors and his identity as separate entities. The addict’s actions speak to his destructive, addictive behavior, but that does not invalidate the good in him or her. Similar to what I mentioned earlier for the addict, keep in mind the important of the “and” – good AND bad likely coexist in your spouse.
The addict can’t promise they’ll never act out again.
This is a frightening concept for many couples as they face recovery. The pain of the discovery leads partners to threaten divorce if the spouse ever acts out again. But in the course of addiction, there’s a chance of slips or full-on relapses. The couple has to make a choice that they’ll face the risk together. As a partner, rebuilt trust doesn’t come from empty promises, but instead from assurance in your spouse’s recovery work and process of setting boundaries.
It is incredibly important to name your needs.
As your spouse seeks rebuild trust in whatever ways they can, they cannot accurately predict what helps you to feel safe and secure in the relationship. It is a marriage myth that once you are married, you should know everything your partner needs. Examine why you might be reluctant to share your needs as you look at parts of your story where it wasn’t okay for you to ask for what you needed. Know that in asking for your needs, you will likely feel vulnerable – this is normal. Seek to risk in trusting your partner with what you need.
There is hope to turn this tragedy into a triumph.
Have you gotten to the end of the road with the attempts you’ve made to fix your marriage that’s been ravaged by sex and love addiction? Do you feel as though you can’t integrate both the good and bad in yourself or in your spouse? Are you tired of fighting all the time and not getting to any place of understanding or resolution? At Restored Hope, I offer marriage counseling specific to couples facing sex and love addiction. Schedule an appointment at my Ann Arbor office at 734.656.8191 or email me to hear more.