Building Boundaries in Relationship With a Sex Addict
We’ve all known those people — at work, at a party, in our family — who stand a little too close for comfort when talking to us. They invade that unspoken 24-inch barrier that differentiates my space from your space. Other people stand farther away and maybe a bit to the side. Perhaps they have their arms crossed and their mouths covered a little when speaking. They feel so far away we never feel close enough to them to hear just what they’re saying. Whether you’re an in-your-face person or a cold-fish person or someone in between, barring a complication in the way you process social awareness, you notice personal boundaries.
All relationships—whether between manager and employee, parent and child, or two people in a romantic union—carry with them unwritten rules about behavior, norms about how each person is expected to treat the other. It is commonly recognized that physical violence, for example, exists outside of what is acceptable in any relationship configuration. In other words, physical violence is a boundary violation. Usually, people do not need to spell out this boundary at the beginning of a relationship; it’s simply understood—there will be no hitting. There are behaviors that fall into the category of emotional violence, however, which constitute a violation as well. Levels of emotional violence, or what one person considers abuse and another does not, range across a broad spectrum from patently unacceptable behaviors to those at the murkier, harder-to-suss-out end of the continuum. And there exist still other behaviors that may not fall into abuse territory, but can be understood to be threatening or inconsiderate to the point of offense. Not telling a partner about an STD is the kind of boundary violation we all understand, and yet too frequently, men and women refuse to speak honestly about their sexual health histories for fear of losing someone or being judged.
The Partner and the Sex Addict
If you are the Partner of a Sex Addict (PoSA), chances are likely that somewhere along the way, your boundaries became indistinguishable to you. Maybe you allowed your suspicions to go unspoken too long; perhaps you accepted repeated apologies but made no move to show there would be consequences for repeated dishonesty; you probably held your fears inside a long time before you were willing to give them voice, worried your life would change too dramatically or that you’d lose the person you loved.
When a Sex Addict/Compulsive (SAC) has accepted that s/he has a problem, and has begun to take steps toward recovery, to be sure, the road will be hard, but relationships, even profoundly healing relationships, are not impossible. What SACs learn through recovery, and what PoSAs learn along with them is the importance of a commitment to nothing less than true emotional honesty. When we fail, we admit it; we get back up. When we’re afraid, we talk about it with support and non-judgment. Building this kind of relationship, should you choose to go on at all, is essential to healing the wounds sex addiction and any other painful dynamic within your relationship may have wrought. In order to do this well, couples learn the enormous benefits, and indeed the necessity, of constructing and maintaining healthy boundaries.
The Boundary Agreement
Lynn and Alice have been a couple for six years. Both women are recovering alcoholics and Alice is in recovery for sex addiction, so they are working their recovery both independently and together. Alice likes to spend time meditating on the couple’s wide front porch, sitting on the swing, thinking nothing at all. She says this activity helps her decompress her day and helps to alleviate some of the stress-based cravings she sometimes struggles with. Lynn is someone who requires a bit more time spent together as a couple; she needs cuddling and handholding time. Recently, the couple came to therapy with a problem they were experiencing. Lynn felt hurt each time Alice chose to walk out onto the front porch, shutting the door behind her, sometimes for a couple of hours at a time. Her hurt feelings guided her words and she would find herself saying things like, “Are you going back outside again? I guess you really hate me.” Alice felt guilty and judged for her need to spend time alone.
In a session with their therapist, the couple drew up a “boundary agreement.” In it, Alice listed that spending some time alone was a healthy boundary for her and she required that it be honored and protected. Lynn discussed how spending time together as a couple was an important need for her. Both women agreed never to dismiss the other woman’s need (boundary), and to be supportive of each other. If a boundary was dishonored, rather than fighting about it, they would sit and discuss. If they couldn’t do this successfully, they would bring it back to therapy.
In a relationship in which one person is recovering from sex addiction, a partner may develop clear boundaries around members of the partner’s preferred sex, pornography, and other behaviors that led to acting out in the past. A boundary for a PoSA may be the need to be informed of slips or for password sharing until a certain point in recovery. But a SAC must develop healthy boundaries too. Learning the difference between the need to reveal behaviors and having no more privacy is important; we should all be allowed to have some personal time. The key is to build the kind of relationship where trust exists so that this personal time does not evoke fear in a partner. And creating a relationship like this, just like recovery, takes heart, and willingness and time.