Your Sexually Addicted Spouse


I am reading a book with the above title, written by two very wise and experienced women: Barbara Steffens and Marcia Means. They teach the trauma model rather than the co-dependency model for working with couples who are facing the pain and shame of one partner having a sexual addiction.

I have never liked the terms dependency or co-dependency. I  think we ARE ALL dependent from time to time, and sometimes for rather long periods of time  We are all needy and we all want to be loved, accepted, understood, and validated. And often times we will go to extreme measures to get that attention. Life can get very difficult and there are those who best know how to cope by overdoing or overusing something: alcohol, drugs, Internet, exercise, food, sleep, sex, TV, games, gambling…anything to numb or attempt to deflect the pain of feeling hurt, unseen, not understood, unloved, unappreciated , loss: of a loved one or self esteem.

Emotional pain can be totally debilitating. It can wipe us out and we can find ourselves unable to function. Physical pain often times can be seen and is most often understood, accepted, and receives empathy. Emotional/psychological/spiritual pain is not obvious. We struggle onward and try to pretend all is well. We feel unable to do what appears to be the little things of life like: get up in the morning, take a shower, go out of the house, risk being focused on at work, drive a car, complete a project that at one time felt quite simple……There are times when it feels like ANYTHING is better than living with this pain.

This desperation is true for BOTH partners. The addicted one is trying to cope as best they can. At least that is how the addiction sometimes starts: by blocking unbearable emotional pain with a substance or with doing something unhealthy but distracting.  It then becomes easier to turn to the addiction because it appears there is relief and because it is a familiar and well honed solution to emotional and psychological pain. The spouse has been traumatized by the emotional/spiritual disappearance of their partner and may exhibit behaviour generally unexpected of them because they do not know how else to reconnect with their addicted partner.  That isn’t  dependency. That is wanting, needing, and deserving attention and love.

The way in which a sexually addicted partner discloses the addiction is very important. Doing it in drips and drabs only prolongs the horror for the spouse and sets up terror that there is always going to be yet something else. Not knowing how to trust that the secret has been entirely disclosed exacerbates the trauma. The addicted partner needs to have been in therapy long enough to be able to go to their partner from a place of remorse and NOT from a place of in anyway including or blaming the partner for their own addiction. IF there was collusion along the addiction path, that can be addressed at a later date. A safer and wiser time would be when the healing is well along the path toward considerable less pain.  Often times a partner knows something is not adding up and is not making sense but does not know how to connect the dots of uncertainty and lack of information. Secrets can be felt. They also are very crazy making. It is easy for the spouse of a sexually addicted person to totally lose their confidence and not trust their intuition. But to label them co-dependent does them a great disservice. And simply need not be true.

It is profoundly traumatizing for the spouse of a sexual addict to learn this secret and sort out what it means for them for the rest of their life. Life as you viewed it just minutes ago, has been turned totally upside down. Secrets, betrayal, bafflement, shame, disgust, feelings of being totally distraught and very very alone are very common. One client I worked with a while back simply shut down life and went to bed for days. What she learned when he disclosed helped her make sense out of things she had been observing and wondering about and not understanding. But the extent and theme of the secret totally threw her out of a world she had reason to trust was safe. And it no longer felt safe or familiar to her at all. : “I was not raised to know how to deal or even look at or wonder about such things as pornography or prostitution. This is not the life I expected..” she told me.

She has absolutely been traumatized. Her life has become chaotic, unpredictable, and felt totally unfamiliar. Rather than being told she somehow played a role in his behaviour, what she needs and deserves is to be treated for trauma . She deserves to be heard and seen. By others as well as by her partner. She needs to tell her story as long as she needs to tell her story. He needs to listen to her story without being defensive or trying to correct her. She needs rest, she needs recognition that life has changed and she did not ask for that change. She needs to be honoured for the task ahead, and given time and space to grieve moment by moment as the impact becomes integrated and the new her and the new life she and her partner are embarking on deserves recognition and respect.

It is possible for both partners to heal after sexual addiction has been recognized and the entire extent of the betrayal has been disclosed. It takes a long time, a lot of hard work and pain on the part of both partners. The relationship needs support and guidance in safely helping each partner share their heart, their anger, their fear and their hopes. I want to write more about this topic. I think it is especially prevalent with so much pornography available on the Internet. I think the impact on the partner of a person with a sexual addiction is often times neglected and even misunderstood.

Blessings to any of you who are struggling with this pain. I offer you hope. And I support the courage and energy it takes to move into a new world of healing, trust, and love. I have a huge amount of respect for both of you.  Your journey is long and painful, and has the potential for great success and many rewards.

Back to Nancy’s Articles Table of Contents