Effect on Partners, Families and Children
By Jennifer P. Schneider, M.D., Ph.D.
The behavior of sex addicts has profound effects on partners, children, parents, and siblings. The addict is usually partially or totally unaware that their behavior has affected their loved ones. Families tend to develop unhealthy coping skills as they strive to adapt to the addict’s shifting moods and behavior. Curiously, some addicts may act out in solo-isolating behaviors, leading to feelings of family abandonment.Partners can be affected in the following ways:
• Emotionally: Anxiety, stress resentment, and confusion progress as the addict gradually abandons family responsibility. Emotional support consisting of the feeling of being cared for and listened to lessens, or promises are repeatedly unfulfilled.
• Socially: Partners can experience subtle to outright embarrassment with the addictive spouse’s behavior, such as flirting, staring, inappropriate sexualized jokes, or comments. Social activities may be canceled to avoid this embarrassment. Opportunities to do things together become fewer as the addiction progresses.
• Physically: Some sex addicts favor abusive techniques in their sexual repertoire, which can result in physical harm. Partners also may experience unwanted physical touch in private or public.
• Sexually: The sex addict may pressure their partners to participate in unwanted sexual behaviors, and if they don’t, physical consequences or even stalking behaviors may result. Alternatively, the sex addict may lose all interest in sex with their partner. Partners of sex addicts are also more prone to sexually transmitted diseases, such as vaginal warts, genital herpes, syphilis, and HIV.
Effect on Families and Children
Children are greatly affected when their sexually addicted parent is acting out and the other parent is seeking to control the addict’s behavior. A deceitful, chaotic environment surrounds the child. Under these circumstances, the child may experience fear of abandonment, lack of trust, low self-esteem, a sense of hopelessness, overwhelming shame, and the desire to perpetuate the conspiracy of silence. These effects may last all their lives. If the child is a sexual victim, these effects are accompanied by profound shame and sometimes by self-destructive or suicidal thoughts.
Children need to know what is going on, but when the time comes for disclosure of sexual behavior, it should be done with the help of a counselor. The counselor should measure the child’s age and level of maturity. Generally, specific details are withheld. It is important for children to know they are not imagining what they see and hear, and that they are not to blame. If a child has been the focus of the addict’s behavior, child welfare authorities must be contacted and treatment initiated immediately.
The recovery process is possible for family members when:
1. There is acceptance of the disease and how each family member has been affected
2. There is a commitment to healthy change
3. Family members no longer seek to control the addict
4. Family members are willing to get help from Twelve-Step Support groups for co-dependency such as COSA (Co-dependents on Sex Addicts) or S-ANON, as well as therapy from trained therapists.