This article references the book, Mending a Shattered Heart, edited by Stefanie Carnes
Finding out your partner has been unfaithful is devastating. If the behavior proves to be the result of a sexual addiction, there can be even more overwhelming feelings of shame, confusion, loss, and pain; sometimes there are symptoms of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), such as hypervigilance and intrusive thinking.
Sex Addiction Criteria
Following are ten key criteria for sex addiction. If someone meets three or more of these ten criteria, he or she would be considered a sex addict. These criteria need to be present over a prolonged period of time (e.g., six months) and not be part of a major mood swing, such as in bipolar disorder.
1. Recurrent failure to resist sexual impulses in order to engage in specific sexual behaviors
2. Frequently engaging in those behaviors to a great extent or over a longer period of time than intended
3. Persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to stop, reduce, or control those behaviors
4. Inordinate amounts of time spent in obtaining sex, being sexual, or recovering from sexual experiences
5. Preoccupation with sexual behavior or preparatory activities
6. Frequent engaging in the behavior when expected to fulfill occupational, academic, domestic, or social obligations
7. Continuation of the behavior despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent social, financial, psychological, or physical problem that is caused or exacerbated by the behavior
8. The need to increase the intensity, frequency, number, or risk level of behaviors in order to achieve the desired effect; or diminished effect with continued behaviors at the same level of intensity, frequency, number, or risk
9. Giving up or limiting social, occupational, or recreational activities because of the behavior
10. Distress, anxiety, restlessness, or irritability if unable to engage in the behavior
If your partner meets the criteria, you may be wondering how you were not aware this was happening. Yes, there were some signs, but sex addiction thrives in secrecy. Your partner has probably gone to great lengths to protect a double life. When the extent of the behaviors begins to unfold, it usually involves heart-wrenching discoveries for the partner.
Partners of Sex Addicts
Many times, the addict will get the help needed, leaving the partner to manage alone. It is good for a partner to get some help to process the painful experience as well.
Partners who cope the best tend to find an inner reserve of strength, step up, and come to their own assistance. They tend to be willing to hit the situation head-on and are motivated to take action steps, such as:
- seek critical social support
- go to therapy or Twelve Step meetings for partners and family members
- set healthy boundaries with the addict and stand by those boundaries
- remain introspective about how the past may be impacting current events and are willing to look at these issues therapeutically
- use the trauma to grow personally and to gain clarity on their relationship
- are contemplative and are slow to make big decisions
- are selective about who they confide in for support
- educate themselves
- obtain spiritual support
Stages of Recovery for the Partner of a Sex Addict
Most partners pass through six stages on this journey. The early stages are full of emotional turmoil. As these stages pass, you will become a stronger person.
Distraction and depression are common reactions to the crisis of discovery. That is why it is important to get help and support for yourself early on.
One partner admits, “I couldn’t concentrate. I got into two car accidents and did things like put milk in the cupboard and cereal in the refrigerator. I was afraid I would drive off a bridge or hurt myself using a kitchen knife.”
The stages of recovery for the partner are:
1. Developing / Pre-Discovery
2. Crisis / Decision / Information Gathering
4. Grief / Ambivalence
Stage 1 is the period of time before knowing there was a problem or before discovery / disclosure. You may find that you were either completely in the dark about the addiction or had some suspicions but were not fully aware of the extent of your partner’s sexual acting out.
The first stage is usually characterized by:
- Believing the addict’s lies
- Tolerating and normalizing unacceptable behavior from the addict, such as verbal abuse, dependency, unavailability, and mood swings
- Self-doubt, such as second-guessing or not trusting gut feelings
- Having a hunch something isn’t right
- Seeking couples therapy
- Loss of values, morals, or beliefs deemed important to keep peace with your partner
In Stage 2 (Crisis / Decision / Information Gathering), you may find yourself grieving deeply, playing the detective, ruminating on known details, or retaliating. However, this is the time to care for yourself. This may include therapy, education, joining a group, seeking legal and financial advice.
Characteristics of Stage 2 may be:
- A catalytic event occurs: you discover or are disclosed to about your partner’s duplicitous behavior
- Information gathering (evaluating treatment options, reading books, etc.)
- Taking action / making decisions, such as sending the sex addict to treatment or joining a Twelve Step group
Initially, partners want to know every detail. It is a way to:
- make sense of the past
- validate their suspicions about what was happening in the relationship – suspicions the addict often denied
- assess their risk of having been exposed to sexually transmitted diseases, to financial disaster, and to shame
- evaluate their partner’s commitment to the future of the relationship
- have some sense of control
However, sometimes too much detail can create thoughts that intrude, obsessions with certain places or activities, and/or additional pain. You may want to make a plan with a therapist on how much information you may want to have and how the disclosure might be facilitated.
Stage 2 (Crisis / Decision / Information Gathering) and Stage 3 (Shock) may overlap or happen simultaneously. Shock is the main result in the partner. Feelings of betrayal are overwhelming and mistrust of the addict reaches its peak. You seek honesty and accountability from the addict even though he or she has become untrustworthy to you. You don’t know what to believe and you suffer from a multitude of reactions.
This stage of shock is characterized by:
- emotional numbness or avoidance
- feelings of victimization
- fear about slips, future relapse
- feelings of despair
- anger, hostility, self-righteousness, blame, and criticism
In Stage 4, partners of sex addicts typically experience grief or ambivalence. One of the most important aspects of moving through your pain is recognizing and experiencing your grief. Acknowledging your pain and sadness is essential to moving past feelings of anger and betrayal.
At the core of betrayal are feelings of pain, sadness, and rejection. Anger is also often considered a secondary emotion to pain and sadness. The wounding you have experienced cuts to the very core of your heart and soul, leaving you feeling shattered. Allowing yourself time to grieve the many losses during this time will help propel you into the next stages of repair and growth.
During this stage you may experience:
- loss of the dream of your relationship
- loss of self
- loss of relationship as it once was
- loss of emotional safety
- loss of sexual safety
- loss of financial stability
- spiritual vacancy – Where was God?
You may contemplate separation, divorce, and have fantasies about how life would be without your partner or wish something would happen to him or her so you wouldn’t have to go through this pain anymore. You may also find yourself attracted to someone else or imagine what it would be like with someone new without this addiction. Alternatively, the idea of being attracted to anyone right now may repulse you and conjure up tremendous fear and mistrust.
Your self-care typically deepens during this stage as you begin to focus on your needs and wants.
Characteristics of Stage 4 (Grief / Ambivalence) are:
- grieving losses
- feelings of despair and hopelessness
- ambivalence about the relationship
- increased introspection and focus on the self
- less focus on the addict’s behavior
It can sometimes take years of shock and grief before healing really starts to take hold and the partner moves into the repair stage. Repair is marked by increased self-awareness and less focus on the addict’s behavior.
Although you continue to hold the addict accountable for what he or she did to you, you have moved toward greater responsibility for your own needs and happiness. You know you need to be treated respectfully and honestly by the addict, but you see that how others treat you stems from your own self-worth.
You may start to make connections between your past and your present circumstances during the repair stage. For example, some unresolved situations from your family of origin may begin to surface for your attention.
Additionally, the partner may deepen her or his spiritual ties with God and with others of the same faith. Twelve Step meetings for partners can also provide a place of trust and camaraderie with others experiencing similar pain.
It is during this repair stage where you are in a stronger position to evaluate the relationship. You can see boundaries that need to be drawn for your own safety, and can judge by your partner’s actions instead of his or her words. You are also more emotionally prepared to make the decision to leave the relationship if indicated by the partner’s lack of recovery. It can also be a time to begin to explore trust and intimacy that is deeper than what existed before in the partnership.
Characteristics of the Repair Stage are:
- decision-making stage about the relationship
- family-of-origin themes examined and integrated
- prior losses more fully grieved
- increased strength and coping skills
- boundary setting
- emotional stability
The final stage in mending for the partner is called the growth stage. It involves continued self-transformation. Feelings of victimization may be replaced with resiliency. There may be an understanding that out of your suffering, there came new meaning in life. The many challenges you faced elevated you to a higher level of well-being, and you experience peace and greater appreciation for the work that you had to do in confronting this challenge.
If you find you are trapped in old patterns of behaviors, feelings, or attitudes, you have choices now that seemed unavailable to you before. Those choices allow you to seek additional help in tackling any problem that presents itself. You have more clarity and vision for the future.
The basic characteristics of the final stage – growth – are:
- decreased feelings of being victimized by the addiction
- focus on issues not directly related to the addiction
- explore communication skills and conflict resolution styles
- increased awareness of your role in the dysfunction of the relationship
- acknowledgment of gifts the addiction has brought to your life
- ability to be present and fully focused on other areas of life
You may ask how you can possibly forgive when the addict is clueless about the amount of pain they have caused. In early recovery, there is very little time available for you because all the energy your partner put into his or her addiction must now be directed toward his or her own recovery.
In some ways, you may be like two ships passing in the night. For a period of time you will be wrestling with your own distinct issues that, for now, can’t be fully understood by the other. The addict can no more understand your need for remorse than you can understand what it’s like for him or her to not act out sexually for thirty days.
Forgiving the addict prematurely is a common problem for many partners. It is essential for you to grieve your losses before being able to forgive the addict. The most important loss is of yourself – the trust you had in how you viewed your partner and other relationships.
Finally, you will need to forgive yourself. Many partners blame themselves for being unaware of the problems in the relationship, for accepting the unacceptable, or not challenging things sooner. By making your own recovery a priority, you will find greater self-compassion and move toward self-forgiveness.
“Alone,” courtesy of Patrick Zacharias, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Sun,” courtesy of Arkady Lifshits, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Contemplation,” courtesy of Kait Loggins, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Restored,” courtesy of Frank McKenna, unsplash.com, CC0 License