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Should You Divorce a Sex Addict?

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"Stephanie" came to see me after discovering that her attorney husband "Sam" had been visiting prostitutes during his lunch hour. She learned this one night while up late with their sick toddler. Sam had forgotten to log out of his secret e-mail account, the one he used to schedule hook-ups with escorts, exotic masseuses, and women he met in online chat rooms. Stephanie found the password to Sam's account and was soon checking it several times a day.

"My friends hate him," she told me. "Everyone says I should leave."

Stephanie had good reasons for wanting to end her marriage. When she confronted Sam about her discovery, he showed no remorse, and in fact blamed his sexploits on her, stating that her lack of sexual experimentation drove him to have sex with strangers. Besides rejecting her sexually, Sam showed little interest in their daughter. He was rarely home; when he wasn't spending time with other women, he was clocking long hours at the law firm, hoping to make partner.

Stephanie had consulted with a divorce attorney and was told that she was entitled to a generous settlement package and monthly support. Unlike many young mothers, Stephanie was in the position to leave an unhappy marriage and be able to provide a good standard of living for herself and her child.

"Do you think I should leave?" she asked.

"I don't know," I said. "But I think you should take a year to figure it out."

Why Partners of Sex Addicts Benefit from the One-Year Rule

The discovery of a partner's sexual compulsivity is a wake-up call. If both partners are committed to recovery, the marriage could actually be transformed into a real union marked by genuine intimacy and integrity. But finding out if this is possible takes time. Unless physical abuse is present, or children's safety is threatened, sex addiction therapists recommend that partners spend a year in treatment before deciding whether to stay or go. The following is a suggested treatment plan for couples dealing with sexual acting-out within a marriage. For the sake of clarity, I refer to addicts as "he" and co-addicts as "she," although the reverse can be true.

What the Addict Needs to Do

1. Commit to treatment. This usually involves individual therapy, 12-step programs such as SAA, and, depending on the severity of the acting-out behaviors, an inpatient or intensive outpatient treatment program.

2. Take accountability. Addicts choose to cheat; they are not driven to cheat by their partners. The first step in an addict's recovery is to take responsibility for hurting his partner and threatening his family's stability. If an addict doesn't genuinely take ownership of his behaviors, recovery is not possible.

3. Identify and abstain from bottom-line behaviors. These may include affairs, prostitutes, massage parlors, chat rooms, masturbating to porn. Therapy and 12-step groups can also help the addict identify slippery-slope behaviors such as flirting, cruising, and using the computer without net nannies (that prevent the addict from clicking on porn sites).

4. Disclosure. Disclosures are facilitated by therapists in couples sessions. Typically, the addict reads aloud his sexual history, including behaviors that occurred within the marriage. The therapist will assist the couple in processing this information and setting boundaries for acceptable behavior. The disclosure is crucial: the co-addict needs to know the extent of her partner's addiction in order to decide whether she can stay in the marriage.

What the Co-Addict Needs to Do

1. Commit to her own recovery. Partners tend to be caretakers who structure their lives around the addict. Their own needs, wants, and values are often obscured by years of self-neglect due to "other focus." Further, it is draining living with someone whose attention is always elsewhere. The partner must shift her focus from the addict to her own mental, emotional, and physical health.

2. Get appropriate treatment. This means individual therapy with a sex addiction specialist, 12-step groups geared for partners such as COSA, therapist-facilitated partner support groups, and psychoeducation about co-addiction. Although co-addicts are never responsible for the addict's actions, they need to learn why they chose the addict and how they might have used their obsession with the addict to keep themselves from focusing on their own lives.

3. Manage her own treatment, not the addict's.The discovery of the addict's behavior is intensely traumatic. Co-addicts often become hypervigilant, trying to control the addict to prevent further trauma. Snooping through the addict's belongings, calling multiple times a day to check the addict's whereabouts, telling the addict's therapist how to treat the addict, are all understandable responses to trauma, but can actually be re-traumatizing, in addition to shifting the focus from where it needs to be: on the co-addict. The co-addict must learn the only person she can control is herself.

4. Rebuild her life.Even if she decides to stay, she needs to set personal goals that will enhance her life. This may mean taking charge of finances, seeking paid work, developing a self-care program, nurturing relationships with friends and family.

When It's Time to Leave

After one year in her own treatment, Stephanie had enough information to make her decision. Sam had never truly committed to recovery; he went to therapy erratically and refused to attend 12-step groups. He never gave her a formal disclosure of his sexual history and continued to act out sexually.

Stephanie, on the other hand, diligently attended individual therapy, 12-step meetings and a partner's support group. She reconnected with family and friends. She harnessed her self-proclaimed "obsessive tendencies" into a part-time business as a personal organizer and set up a separate bank account with funds from her organizing work. When it was clear that Sam was not invested in saving the marriage, she was emotionally and logistically ready to leave.

Even when a situation as destructive as sex addiction is present, a partner should not leave a marriage in haste, despite what friends or family may urge. Taking a year to focus on personal growth -- whether or not the addict chooses to do the same -- will give partners clarity and empower them to make the decision that is right for them.