The Partners of Sex Addicts and Their Need for Recovery
In a relationship in which one of the partners is a sex addict, naturally the attention and focus is directed to the addict and the problems and upheavals that the condition creates in the relationship. In the midst of dealing with the pain and challenge of being in a relationship with a sex addict, the needs of the non-addict spouse are often minimized or neglected.
Another tendency arises: because the addict and his or her behavior presents the more urgent and pressing challenge and conflict, the emotional issues and dysfunctional patterns that the non-addict spouse contributes may seem insignificant by comparison. But in a relationship between two people, even though only one may be the diagnosable addict, illness surrounds both partners. If reconciliation and healing are to occur, both must be willing to seek and follow through with recovery.
Some non-addict spouses may be unwilling to work on themselves, believing that the problem is the addict’s, and that he or she should be the one to fix it and end the cycle of betrayal and relational damage. This response is unproductive and will not serve the couple well if the goal is preservation of the relationship. In all relationships there is mutual fault and injury. Both partners must be willing to look at their own part in the desperate situation in which they now find themselves.
The sex addict must allow the non-addict spouse the necessary time and space to work through the pain that the addiction is causing. Yes, the addict’s road to recovery is a rocky one, but the non-addict spouse has suffered as well. He or she deserves the privilege of healing—in their time and on their terms. This may include one-on-one or group therapy, a Twelve-Step program or support group such as COSA or S-ANON, or other therapeutic approach. Spouses who discover a partner’s sex or porn addiction often manifest symptoms analogous to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Their deep emotional needs at this time are genuine and must be addressed with care and compassion.
According to research by Dr. Patrick Carnes, the process of recovery for the spouse of a sex addict can be broken down into six main phases. Understanding these stages of recovery can be helpful for both the addict and non-addict spouse. The addict can better understand where the spouse is in the process of recovery and can attempt to serve him or her well in that stage. The non-addict spouse can utilize the stages to see that their feelings are normal, that they’re not alone or abnormal, and that there is hope of moving through the pain and betrayal of a spouse’s sex addiction.
The first stage outlined by Dr. Carnes is called “Developing/Pre-Discovery.” The relationship has shifted in its patterns of intimacy and communication and it’s easy to see that something is off, though the non-addict partner might not yet know what to expect, especially if there has been no known history of sex addiction or adultery. Confrontations are unfruitful and if asked about questionable behavior, the spouse denies it.
The next phase is labeled “Crisis/Decision/Information Gathering.” This is the phase in which the spouse discovers, either through investigation or accident, clear evidence of sex addiction. Attempts at policing in order to keep the addict from engaging in the behavior are normal, but largely ineffective. The non-addict spouse may begin to learn about the disease, seek therapy or begin attending a 12-Step Program for spouses and family members of sex addicts.
“Shock” is the third step in the progression. Here emotions are erratic and unpredictable—many spouses simply report a feeling of numbness. Responses to the betrayal at this time are unique to the individual—each person will handle these challenging emotions in different ways. While some may cry uncontrollably, others will manifest their conflicting emotions in anger and rage.
The next step, “Grief and Ambivalence,” is the natural response once the initial shock has worn off. In this fourth phase, the non-addict spouse is starting to emerge from the numbness and erratic emotions of the Shock phase and is beginning to actually feel the pain, fear and betrayal. Distancing from the addict spouse is not uncommon. Though the natural tendency may be toward isolation, the non-addict spouse deeply needs the support of others at this time—not to help solve the problem, but to provide non-judgmental, unconditional love and support.
The fifth phase in recovery, “Repair,” does not necessarily refer to repair of the relationship, but to self-repair and the beginning of healing and acceptance. In this phase the non-addict spouse will continue to recover from the shock and pain and will begin to employ the necessary means of self-care. For some this will mean on-going recovery in a Twelve-Step Program.
“Growth” is the sixth and final step in the process of recovering from a spouse’s sex addiction. The individual is pursuing their own recovery and making decisions that reflect a rational mindset and good self care. If the relationship will continue, they are ready to approach it rationally and productively and to work toward reconciliation with proper boundaries in place.
There is no timeline for how the spouse of a sex addict will progress through these stages. However, regardless of how slow the process may seem, there is hope for recovery and healing. Seek out the communities that will support and nurture you at this time and encourage you in getting the recovery help that you need as both you and your spouse seek to move beyond the sex addiction.