While sex addicts face many serious challenges in their effort to get sober, their spouses and partners likely have it even harder. When infidelity occurs—be it in-person, via pornography, or an online encounter—many betrayed partners mentally review and call into question everything they thought they knew about their relationship, looking back to try to figure out what they missed and what went wrong. For people who believed they were in a monogamous partnership, the revelation that they have been cheated on and lied to on a vast scale may prompt them to wonder what, if anything, is true about that relationship, and they may begin to wonder if it is possible to reestablish the kind of trust with and in their significant other that is needed if they are to continue building a life together.
Oftentimes betrayed partners begin to question their own behavior as they look back on their relationship. Just as someone who has experienced the sudden death of a close friend or parent may wonder whether he or she could have done more to enrich the relationship with that individual, partners of sex addicts often feel remorse when they consider how they might have acted in the past. It’s all too common to think: Somehow, if I had just done it differently, he wouldn’t have been with those other women. Or: If I were younger or more attractive or made more money, she wouldn’t have done this. Betrayed spouses may also begin to examine feelings and misgivings they previously pushed aside in order to justify the behavior of the sex addict. All of this self-appraisal is a normal and healthy way for betrayed partners to grieve the loss of what they thought their relationship to be.
Understanding Your Feelings
Most betrayed spouses go through a wide range of feelings about the sex addict, about themselves, and about the relationship. Whereas the sex addict has known about his or her sexual behaviors all along and may actually be feeling relief that the sexual acting out has been exposed, the betrayed partner is usually somewhat blindsided by the revelation. Typically, it’s not the cheating itself or any specific sexual act that causes the deepest pain, it’s the betrayal of relationship trust caused by consistent lying. Unlike the hurt and anger experienced by spouses who uncover a singular past affair or a few secret bachelor party lap dances—things that can often be forgiven after assurances the behavior won’t be repeated—the discovery of a longer history of infidelity or sexual addiction creates profound and lasting feelings of grief, loss, and overwhelming betrayal.
Needless to say, spouses who’ve experienced infidelity have good reason to feel angry, mistrustful, hurt, and confused. Partners of sex addicts who choose to remain in the relationship often find that it is some time before they are able to reestablish real trust and comfort. That said, if the sex addict in the relationship is committed to recovery, then this kind of healing is possible. If the betrayed spouse joins the addict in his or her efforts by also starting a process of self-examination it can facilitate healing for both parties.
Ideally, the best setting for a sex addict’s partner to get recovery is in the same place the addict receives it—with a supportive counselor or psychotherapist trained in the treatment of sexual addiction. While betrayed spouses of sex addicts are well served to be in their own individual therapy, they should expect to have some involvement in the addict’s treatment as well. The addict’s treatment and recovery process should not be a mystery or a secret. Oftentimes couples find marriage/couples counseling especially useful. In addition to therapy, many partners of sex addicts find needed answers and support in 12-step groups for partners of sex addicts such as Co-Dependents of Sex Addicts (COSA) and S-Anon.
As the betrayed spouse of a sex addict, it is important to remember to be gentle, patient, and forgiving with yourself. Remember, there is no easy or right way for a couple to handle something as emotionally difficult as a sex addiction problem. No one recovers from sex addiction perfectly. However, many couples do work through their troubles, and most couples can stay together and overcome self-destructive habits if both partners are committed to change, seek outside support, and honor a loving appreciation of each other that goes beyond the immediate crisis. Remember, too, that some partners decide the violation they’ve experienced is greater than their desire to remain in the relationship. For them, trust cannot be restored. You’re not a bad person if you choose to leave a sex addicted partner, just as you’re not necessarily wrong if you choose to stay in the relationship.