A few years ago, Dr. Jennifer Schneider, Dr. Charles Samenow, and I conducted a study of betrayed partners of sex addicts to learn more about the ways in which sexual addiction damages not only their relationships, but their emotions. Unsurprisingly, almost every person in our survey said their addicted partner’s behavior impacted them in numerous negative ways – loss of self-esteem, stress, anxiety, depression, inability to trust, reduced ability to enjoy sex and romance, etc.
Consider the words of actual respondents:
- “I have been traumatized by the repeated discovery of his deception and betrayal of me with these activities.”
- “Now I feel unattractive, ugly, wondering what’s wrong with me. I can’t sleep or concentrate. I’m missing out on life’s happiness.”
- “It obliterated the trust in our relationship. I no longer believe a single thing he says.”
- “We don’t have sex often, and it irritates me that he puts more time into the porn than trying to be intimate with me.”
- “I became over-the-top with snooping, spying, trying to control the behavior, and thinking if I just did, then I could stop it. It caused complete erosion of my self-esteem, boundaries, and sense of self.”
Other research has reached similar conclusions. For instance, one study of women married to sexually addicted men found that, upon learning of their husband’s serial infidelity, many of these women experienced acute stress and anxiety symptoms characteristic of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Typically, this manifested in one or more of the following ways:
- Emotional instability, including frequent mood shifts, over-the-top emotional reactions, tearfulness, rage, etc., sometimes followed by feelings of intense love and a desire to “make it work.”
- Hypervigilant behaviors (detective work), such as checking phone and credit card bills, wallets, computers, phone apps, texts, and the like for evidence of continued infidelity.
- Anxiety, depression, loss of self-esteem, and other mood-related symptoms.
- Being easily triggered into mistrust of the cheating partner; common triggers included the cheater coming home five minutes late, turning off the computer too quickly, looking “too long” at an attractive person, etc.
- Going on the attack by “lawyering up,” spending money to punish the addict, telling the kids age-inappropriate information about what the addict did, etc.
- Sleeplessness, inability to wake up, and/or nightmares.
- Difficulty focusing on day-to-day events, such as picking the kids up from school, work projects, maintaining a home, etc.
- Overcompensating by trying to lose weight, dressing provocatively, etc.
- Obsessing about the betrayal and struggling to stay “in the moment.”
- Avoiding thinking about or discussing the betrayal.
- Emotionally escapist use of alcohol, drugs, food, spending, gambling, etc.
This does not necessarily mean that betrayed partners of sex/porn addicts should be diagnosed and treated for PTSD; it simply means that, for a time, they tend to manifest various symptoms of PTSD. This is understandable, too. Maybe even expected. As survivors of chronic betrayal trauma, it is perfectly natural for a cheated-on partner to respond with rage, anger, fear, and other strong emotions.
Basic Advice for Betrayed Partners of Sex Addicts
If your partner has cheated on you, with or without sex addiction, you know how painful this is, and how difficult it is to overcome. It is possible that learning about your partner’s behavior has left you in a daze – stunned, hurt, uncertain, and unable to fully assimilate and accept what has happened. If so, the following list of suggestions may be helpful.
- Do reach out to others for support. Dealing with your partner’s sex addiction is not something you should do on your own. It is wise to seek assistance from people who understand what you are going through and empathize with your situation – therapists, support groups, family and friends who’ve experienced similar betrayal, etc.
- Don’t internalize blame for your partner’s actions. Nothing you did (or didn’t do) caused your partner’s addiction. It doesn’t matter how much you’ve aged, how much weight you’ve gained or lost, how involved you are with the kids and your job, or how “inflexible and uncreative” you are in the bedroom. Your partner’s addiction is not your fault. Period.
- Do get tested for STDs. Sex addicts are notoriously careless with their (and your) health. In active sex addiction, safer sex is not a priority. So, as soon as you learn that your partner has cheated on you, you should visit your primary care physician, asking for a full STD screening.
- Don’t have unprotected sex with the addict. No matter what the addict tells you (about past sexual activity, recent STD tests, or anything else to do with his or her sexual behavior), you should not have unprotected sex until you are confident that the addict has had a full (and clean) STD screen, and that he or she has been faithful to you for at least a year.
- Do investigate your legal rights, even if you plan to stay together. Planning to stay together doesn’t mean you will. You need to ask an attorney about financial issues, property concerns, and parenting issues in case of separation. (It is possible the addict has already done this, so you should, too.)
- Don’t make major life decisions early in the healing/recovery process. Try to put off filing for divorce, taking the kids and leaving, quitting your job and moving to Canada, etc. That said, it’s perfectly fine to sleep in separate rooms or even to live in separate homes to protect your emotional (and maybe physical) safety. Just try not to make any life-altering decisions when you are at the height of your pain, hurt, and anger.
- Do trust your feelings and observations. If you don’t feel safe with or respected by your sex addicted partner, trust your intuition. If you don’t see your partner getting ongoing help with the addiction (attending therapy and/or going to 12-step support groups), then don’t trust that things are getting better.
- Don’t become vindictive. It’s one thing to reach out to others for support; it’s quite another to tell your partner’s mother, boss, or best friend about the addiction out of spite. Most importantly, remember that anything you say to your kids cannot be unsaid, so think twice about badmouthing your fellow parent.
Without doubt, the most useful piece of advice given above is to reach out to others for support. Unfortunately, partners of sex addicts, despite the hurt, anger, confusion, and betrayal they experience, often resent the idea that they might need help to deal with their feelings and reactions. And this resistance is perfectly natural. For those who’ve experienced the betrayal of sex and porn addiction, the obvious and overwhelming impulse is to (rightfully) assign blame to the addict. Nevertheless, most betrayed spouses find that they do benefit from therapy and other forms of external support. At the very least, they receive validation for their feelings and empathy for how their life has been disrupted by the addict’s repeated betrayals. So, even though you’re not at fault, you should not deny yourself support that can (and likely will) make your life better.