03/29/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

When Is An Affair An Addiction?

Q: I have just discovered that my husband is having an affair with his secretary. Actually, she let it slip, so to speak. I called her to ask about my husband's next business trip and she indicated that "THEY" would be at a Miami Beach hotel for the week. I was puzzled: What business did he have in Miami that required his secretary being with him? I innocently -- or I believe I was innocent -- asked him about the trip. He became flustered and then I knew. When I pushed him a little, he spilled it all. He begged for my forgiveness and said he was happy the whole mess was out in the open. He claims he has been going to therapy for months to try and stop the behavior. He vowed he would fire the secretary and that I should be understanding because his therapist told him he suffers from sexual addiction.

My husband and I have been married for twenty years. We have three teenage kids still at home aged twelve, fifteen and seventeen. We met in high school at fifteen and have therefore been together for twenty-eight years. Needless to say, I thought we shared our lives, our souls, and our goals. I thought we were childhood sweethearts who would successfully continue down the path of life together. I have never known another man. I always thought he was loyal.

How do I deal with this situation? I feel betrayed, angry, and confused. But shouldn't I also understand that my best friend is suffering from a real disorder, sexual addiction? And, if so, what does that mean for us? How do I help him? And frankly, what is sexual addiction anyway?

A: Before we get into a deeper conversation about what is sexual addiction and how it applies to you, let's just make sure we clarify some other things in your story.

I don't think your husband was really hiding his affair very effectively, nor do I believe you did not suspect what was going on. As a couple you are both obviously quite intertwined. You obviously know him well enough for you to have questioned his trip to Miami and why he needed his secretary there. You may not have thought he was actually trying to deceive you, but you did unconsciously sense that something was going on. He, in turn, was not hiding it very well.

Your husband does not sound like someone who has been enjoying women often. He was clearly not sophisticated or devious enough to come up with a clever cover story. And the moment he was questioned, he crumbled and begged forgiveness. It almost sounds like he was waiting for you to get him to tell the truth. (In this sense, you're still best friends.) In addition, he probably found himself passively complying with the secretary who was more than happy to plan their trip and let you know what was happening. Who knows what she stupidly hoped would happen?

Of course you should feel betrayed. Of course you should feel angry. These are all appropriate emotions. There's a crisis in your marriage and the two of you need to work things through. Since you have been together for such a long time, you may already have established patterns of communication that will enable you to reach out to one another, lovingly, while exposing some profound and raw feelings. Hold on to what is good in the history of your relationship, in your memories, and in the family structure that exists. It sounds like there must be enough there to supply the foundation you need.

It is also important for the two of you to take into account the time of your lives when this is all happening. Is it possible that for your husband this is the dreaded and clichéd mid-life crisis? Is it possible that two people who started as childhood sweethearts will become curious about what else is out there -- what else they could experience? Each person experiences a moment in life where they wonder if they could have done more - is this the way it will always be? We need to know that we can still be adventurous, that we can attract others, and that we are living our lives out of choice. The two of you may need to accept the reality that you've been together a lifetime and it's time to rejuvenate your relationship. You may both need to change patterns emotionally, intellectually and sexually as well.

Now on to whether your husband is a sex addict. Sexual addiction is basically a compulsive search for multiple sexual partners or an equally compulsive need to masturbate, seek out pornography or engage in something like phone sex. This sort of behavior can progress to illegal activities such as rape and molestation. In fact, 71% of child molesters are sex addicts. Sexual addiction obviously leads to a loss of intimacy and destroys the family as well as other intimate relationships -and can cause the ruination of one's own life. It often involves the need for power, dominance, and control. In other words, as with all addictions, a compulsive need takes over one's thoughts. Sex addiction sounds funny, but it can be a real mental ailment with its own listing in the bible of psychology, the DSM.

There is also a lot of controversy and disagreement amongst mental health professionals about what constitutes sexual addiction and if it is too quickly diagnosed -as could be the case with your husband. The conflict revolves around whether to see sexual addiction as a mental disorder or as a narcissistic need. A mental disorder is one thing. A narcissistic need is something else and by labeling that as mental disorder we let the person off the hook.

I believe you can see my own bias. When we paste labels on what was once just plain bad behavior, we divest the individual of the power he or she has to take responsibility for their own actions -and to control them. Obviously there are mental disorders that need to be accepted as such and need to be treated with the appropriate medication, talk therapy or combination of the two. But at the same time, let us not misapply the mental disorder label so that not only is responsibility ducked, but real harm is done. The idea is not to release the individual -and his family--from working individually and together on these issues.

As for you, merely accepting your husband's excuse of sexual addiction does not take into account your own anger and does not include a plan of treatment that would bring the two of you to an understanding of what had brought you both to this pass. Your husband may well have a compulsive and destructive need for many sexual partners (or constant sexual activity of another kind) and this, of course, would have to be dealt with. But you both may need to become aware of what may be a fear of death and the powerful apprehension that as a couple you have not experienced all life has to offer. Go out and find those adventures together.