Note: While this article is primarily intended for women, men can also be drawn to women who sexually betray them. In addition, not all infidelity constitutes sex addiction.
Recently I received a phone call from a distraught woman, "Claire," who had read my HuffPost piece on whether or not to leave a sexually addicted spouse. Married for ten years to a charismatic man who traveled frequently for work, Claire had known about his porn addiction for five years, yet had chosen to remain in the marriage.
After her discovery, her husband did not go to therapy nor did he make any significant attempts to change his behavior. Claire also learned that her husband was seeing prostitutes during his business trips. When I asked her why she tolerated this level of sexual betrayal for years, she paused and said: "I don't know... I tried not to think about it. And I told myself he would change."
Not only did her husband not change his pattern of sexual addiction, but he also betrayed Claire financially. After ten years of marriage he vanished. He simply never came home. Now Claire was reeling not only from the shame of sexual betrayal, but also heaps of debt from financial shenanigans her husband had managed to keep secret.
Claire's question to me was why? Why did he do what he did? But the question she needed to ask was "why did I put up with it?"
Why Some Women Get Hooked on Sexual Betrayal
We all have arousal templates: psychic blueprints of what we find sexually desirable. This runs the gamut from physical attributes such as hair color and body type to less tangible personality types such as "father figures" and "wounded birds." Arousal templates are formed when people are young and when they take hold they are extremely difficult to alter.
This is fine when women's arousal templates are healthy. But in my work with partners of sexual compulsives, I have found that virtually every woman suffered from some form of betrayal at an early age that led to the formation of a destructive arousal template. Women who grew up as targets of abuse -- physical, sexual, or psychological -- or abandonment, or who witnessed sexual betrayal in their parents' marriages, tend to be drawn to partners who will re-enact the betrayal of their childhood.
The compulsion to resolve the betrayal -- which almost never happens -- is highly addictive. Pursuing a partner who is intermittently available -- a pattern known as the "chase" -- can actually increase dopamine, a neurotransmitter that regulates pleasure. This psychological and neurochemical addiction often consumes a woman's energy, resulting in the loss of ambition, personal values and self-esteem. In extreme cases like Claire's, getting hooked on sexual betrayal creates damage that can never be undone.
Now That I Know Why I'm Hooked, How Do I Get Unhooked?
Many partners devour books on sex addiction in an attempt to figure out their partners, usually in hopes of changing them. While psychoeducation is important, understanding what makes a sex addict tick will not heal the partner. Instead, women need to read books intended for partners, so they can learn how to navigate their situation. There are several excellent books written specifically for partners, among them Mending a Shattered Heart, Your Sexually Addicted Spouse: How Partners Can Cope and Heal, and; Deceived.
Insight alone, however, is not enough to create change. And unless a partner changes, she will likely wind up in another exploitive relationship. Change requires developing self-esteem, boundaries, and eliminating behaviors that both attract men who betray and allow them to continue the betrayal.
5 Ways to Get Unhooked from Sexual Betrayal
- Find a therapist who specializes in sex addiction. I cannot emphasize strongly enough how important it is to find a therapist with training in sex addiction. I cringe when I think of the partners who told me of prior therapy with clinicians who either minimized their partner's sexual compulsivity or blamed them for it. The Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health (SASH) offers a directory of therapists trained in sex addiction. However, be sure to choose a therapist with experience treating partners.
- Join a 12-step program. S-Anon and COSA are 12-step programs based on Alcoholics Anonymous. They provide a community of people who share the same experience of being betrayed by a sexually addicted spouse or other primary attachment figure. In these programs, you will work on steps to recovery while also drawing strength from others like you.
- Find a Partner Support Group. 12-step groups are not for everyone. Psychoeducation, task work, and fellowship are also found in support groups not specifically affiliated with 12-step programs. These groups differ in that they are usually facilitated by therapists and often draw from different ways of conceptualizing partner addiction.
- Visit online support forums. If you cannot physically go to a group, try an online support group. While not limited to partners of sex addicts, web sites such as The Path Forward offer forums where you can connect with other women who have been in exploitive relationships.
- Get Creative. Being creative is a powerfully transformative experience. Writing, painting, dancing, making music and other forms of creative expression help partners make meaning of their past and develop new, healthy life narratives. Many of these activities are free and require only self-motivation; taking sole charge of one's healing is empowering. One woman I know whose love addiction morphed into self-injury used beading as a coping skill to stop cutting. Eventually she beaded her way into a lucrative jewelry design business!
Once you know why you've been hooked on men who betray you, you can take steps to get unhooked. Initially, life without the drama of addictive relationships may feel routine. But if you commit to healing from interpersonal trauma and focus on personal growth, your life will be richer and more meaningful than it ever would have been had you stayed hooked on partners who betray you.
Follow Virginia Gilbert, MFT on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@VGilbertMFT