One Monday night, my husband came home, sat me down, and told me a long list of infidelities. He had not done anything illegal, but he had certainly broken our wedding vows. He cheated on me with strangers. With men. With female friends of mine. It had been going on for his whole adult life, much of which had been spent dating or married to me.
He told me he hates that he did this. He told me he felt like there were two people living inside him, one who loves me and our family, and one who does these things. He said he feels like he has a dark shadow inside of him, similar to the TV serial killer, Dexter. But, instead of killing people, he had sex. He told me he wanted to stop and he was willing to do anything to keep our marriage intact.
When he was done, I said, “You’re sex addict.”
How did I know what a sex addict was? David Duchovny. I’d read an article in a doctor’s office about the “X-Files” and “Californican” star and his road to sex addict recovery. The actor was in an actual rehab center for sex addicts. The article and other press around Duchovny claimed that sex addiction is a psychological condition that stems from childhood trauma or events. My husband had trauma. He had depression and anxiety. He wasn’t a monster. He was having a mental health crisis.
I can’t tell you exactly why, but I didn’t want to leave right then. I was mad and hurt, but I didn’t want to storm out. I didn’t yell or throw things. I loved this man and he was suffering. I believe addiction is an illness and I believe that addicts deserve the chance to recover. I wanted to help him. But, yes, I was absolutely devastated. I didn’t know what to do next.
Since my response to life-shattering emotional trauma is panic and research, I learned quickly. Over the next five years, we both worked hard. If you suspect your spouse, significant other, or partner is a sex addict, or if they disclose or are diagnosed as such, you have a lot of options for support. My hope is that my panic research and subsequent actions can help you find the path forward.
First of all, you do not need to stay with your partner. You can go. If, for any reason, you need a break or a break-up, that is okay. However, if you want to stay with your person and work through this together, here’s what you can do:
Get help for the addict.
A possible first step, the free step, is Sex Addicts Anonymous. Just like the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings you’ve heard about and seen portrayed on numerous TV shows and movies, SAA meetings happen everywhere, are usually held in churches, and happen several times a week in all parts of the country.
If your partner is feeling suicidal or unsafe, seek mental help right away. Some resources include the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
My experience was that my husband didn’t tell me the depths of his depression until later. Fortunately, we got him in with a therapist quickly and he began attending weekly SAA meetings where he quickly found a sponsor who gave him support over text, phone, and in person.
There are therapists who specialize in sex addiction. You can go through a psychology website, your insurance, or google “Sex Addiction Therapists Near Me” to get a list people. Many of these therapists also run groups. These are often divided by gender and are sometimes for both members of the couple. Additionally, as with Duchovny, there are actual in-person rehabs for sex addiction.
This is a difficult topic, but it must be said. Sex addiction encompasses several categories: porn addiction, sex addiction, and pedophilia. Pedophila and child pornography are, of course, serious crimes. If you find out your partner was involved in illegal activity, it is your duty to get yourself and your children to a safe place and to report the behavior to the proper authorities. Also, sex addiction and sexual assault can go hand in hand, though not necessarily. Please get help and report any and all abuse.
Get help for yourself.
A disclosure like the one I experienced is enough to send you into a mental health crisis. I felt like I had been decimated. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, and I had memory issues. I had never experienced emotional trauma like this before and the person I usually relied on for emotional support was the person causing my trauma.
Do not hesitate to reach out to the anonymous hotlines above for support. Seek help from a mental health professional as soon as possible. There are therapists who specialize in helping the partners of sex addicts. I saw a sex addiction therapist who created a group of spouses of sex addicts who met once a week. More than the individual therapy, I found strength, love, and support from these women. Like me, they were in it, or they had been in it years ago and were continuing to live their lives in the face of living with an addict.
Get help together.
Both of you need to get STD tests as soon as possible, even if your partner swears they were safe. My husband had been giving blood for years. I thought it was because he was doing something good for the community, but it was actually because they check for blood borne pathogens like HIV. He went to the doctor and got a formal STD test for everything under the sun that week and showed me PDFs from his doctor with the results. If you feel uncomfortable seeing your regular doctor at this point, make an appointment at Planned Parenthood.
I also recommend couples’ therapy when you’re ready. You can see someone who specializes in sex addiction or someone whose style aligns with yours. A good couples’ therapist can help you increase communication and help understand what each other is going through. My husband was pretty opposed to couples’ therapy after SAA meetings, individual therapy, and group every week, but we were committed to doing the work and tried out a few couples’ therapists.
Sex addiction is tricky. An alcoholic is told he must never drink another drop. A drug addict never uses again. But a sex addict, especially a partnered one, needs to learn how to incorporate sex into their life in a healthy way. I encourage you to get help and support around reestablishing intimacy in your marriage.
Learn about addiction in general.
The brain of an addict is a particular thing. Learning about what makes something an addiction and a disease and not necessarily a moral failing as a person can help you frame your thinking about how to best take care of yourself and your spouse. The movie “Thank You For Sharing” portrays sex addicts in recovery in a way that felt very genuine to me when we were going through it. Read books, listen to podcasts, and talk to people who know.
Talk about it.
This is where we went wrong. My husband was so ashamed of what he did that he wanted to keep it all a secret. I was also ashamed, embarrassed even, that I was the kind of wife a person could cheat on, so I also kept it a secret from the vast majority of my family and friends. This was a mistake. As we’ve learned from Dax Shepard’s pandemic relapse and his conversations around addiction in general, a recovering addict is one who admits he’s an addict. Secrets are friends of the addiction. If you’re not ready, fine, but I encourage you and your partner to work towards openness with people in your life. You don’t need to broadcast it to the PTA, but telling your best friend is something you should do.
If your partner is putting pressure on you to keep it all a secret, that is emotional abuse, which is a form of domestic violence and you should think carefully about how you’d like to proceed. If you think you are a victim of domestic violence, seek help here.
After five years of therapy, meetings, and work on our intimacy, my husband decided he was done. He didn’t want to be an addict. He didn’t want to feel guilt or shame. He didn’t want to admit that there was a higher power and that he was not in control of his addiction. I was unable to regain trust in him. I did not believe he loved me anymore. I was correct.
He left me. After all that work, he bailed. If I thought I knew devastation five years ago, I certainly was well-acquainted with misery now.
Only after he ended the marriage did I begin to see the signs that I had been in a very unhealthy relationship. Only after talking about my experience with friends and family did I see that my husband was not in recovery after all. He wasn’t going to SAA regularly any more. He threw away his handbook. He quit his therapist. He didn’t want to do couples counseling. And, worst, he blamed me for the lack of intimacy in our relationship. After years of gaslighting when he was in his addiction, he was trying to manipulate me again, to make me feel worthless and that our relationship problems were all my fault.
I wasn’t having it anymore. I didn’t want to “make it work” any more. I didn’t want him back. It broke my heart to break up our family, but I moved forward with the divorce without a fight. I panic-researched again and was able to get out with my dignity and finances slightly intact with the help of family, friends, and a good lawyer.
I tell you the end of my story and marriage in hopes that you will not discount the information I gave you above but to tell you that, even though my marriage ended, the process of going through therapy and getting help taught me how to be a healthier adult. I am thankful I went through the trauma of his disclosure when I did so I had the opportunity to learn how to deal with an addict. I was able to recognize that he was not in recovery and was not committed to our marriage. It made it easier to let go.
Many women in my support group stayed with their husbands through addiction, relapses, and recovery. Many also got divorced. Your fate is not sealed. However, both of you have to want it to win it. Both of you have to be honest with each other and yourselves. It’s humbling to go through an experience like this. You have the potential to come out stronger as an individual and, yes, even as a couple.
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