Does My Husband Have a Sexual Addiction?
One of the first questions most wives face is in regard to what exactly they are dealing with in terms of their husband’s betrayal. In some cases, a husband has committed a single act of sexual sin. In other cases, his behaviors may be indicative of a sexual addiction. The difference is that isolated incidents of sexual sin can be stopped fairly easily if there is intent to stop. Addiction, however, entails qualities of progression, tolerance, and an inability to stop despite a desire to do so. Addictive behavior indicates a need to “medicate” painful feelings.
As with alcohol or drug addiction, sexual addiction starts slowly and builds — either by adding new behaviors or by increasing the involvement with a particular behavior. If masturbation was discovered at an early age, it may have been used once or twice a month. Progression, then, would mean that over time, masturbation might increase to once a week and then once a day. Some sex addicts masturbate multiple times a day, even to the point of inflicting physical harm on themselves.
In addition, since active addiction leads to tolerance, more of the actual behavior is going to be needed to create the same “high” over time. We know this to be true with alcohol — where several drinks may have easily created a high when drinking first began, much more alcohol is needed to create that same feeling after months or years of chronic drinking. In much the same way, sexual thoughts and rituals create neurochemicals in the brain such as adrenalin, dopamine, and seratonin. All of these contribute to the high that sex addicts experience and then chase. The neurochemistry of the brain adjusts to the increased levels of neurochemicals over time, and more and more sexual thought and behavior are needed to create the same euphoric feeling.
Many sexual behaviors carry risky consequences. Despite the possibility of losing jobs, losing money, losing marriages, sex addicts continue to act out sexually. Many wives will say to me, “I don’t know how he could be so crazy as to watch pornography while sitting at his desk at work. Anyone could walk in on him!” Or, “Didn’t he think I would smell perfume on his clothes when he has been with her again and again?” Or, “I don’t know how he could think I wouldn’t see the credit card bill sooner or later — he has been charging all kinds of stuff that I would question.” The behavior doesn’t make sense — and that describes what the first step in the 12-step program calls “unmanageability”: we keep doing something despite the negative consequences that could and do occur.
If you find out information about an affair, pornography use, or some other sexual acting out, your husband might quickly decide to stop what he was doing, ask for forgiveness, and agree never to do it again. If he is struggling with an addiction, however, his attempts to stop won’t work. Mark attempted to get help in the first few years of our marriage by confessing involvement with another woman to his supervising therapist. He was told, “All men struggle this way. Don’t mention anything about your behavior to Deb — it will just hurt her. And don’t ever do it again.”
Mark took the therapist’s advice to keep his behavior a secret, with all good intentions to be a faithful husband. But the behavior continued — and worsened — until years later he was confronted with disaster. Good men fall and don’t stop, not because they don’t want to and not always because they haven’t tried. An addiction is about losing the power to stop despite all efforts to do so.
Mary told me her husband had had an affair during their first year of marriage. Although she was brokenhearted, they agreed to go to counseling to get help. She said their relationship improved after counseling, and she assumed the problem was resolved. Eight years later she found him in another affair, and he confessed to having used pornography their entire married life as well as having been involved with several other women. What appeared to have been a onetime fling was actually a full-blown addiction.
Joann’s husband had been experimenting with pornography for years. She finally said she was fed up with it and told him she thought he had a sexual addiction. He denied it was a problem — he was just a typical man — and brought in a garbage bag to gather up all of the magazines, videos, and sex toys he had accumulated. He told her, “I’ll show you I don’t need this stuff. I’m throwing everything out.” After several months, she found him surfing the Internet for pornography and also found phone bills with phone sex charges. Obviously, he couldn’t stop his behavior. Sexual addiction is also a means of coping with painful feelings.
Should I Leave or Stay?
Many women ask me if they should leave or ask their husband to leave after learning of his betrayal. Some believe he needs this kind of punishment to reinforce the fact that he has done a horrible thing. Others are simply so mad they can’t stand the thought of sharing the same space with him, at least for a while.
Making a decision to leave because you need time to think things over or asking him to leave because you need space to sort through your pain is an example of acting out of your feelings and needs, not out of revenge. By the way, I am not a huge advocate for separation, especially when children are involved. If it is possible for both of you to take sexual betrayal seriously, it is not absolutely necessary to separate to work through your issues.
While there may be circumstances in which separation is necessary for a time, separation is not necessary to make progress in healing from betrayal. Some relationships are very toxic; in other words, verbal or physical battling occurs and thus safety is a concern. The only way to stabilize the environment is to create space between the two people. Even if space is needed, you can create that space with an “in-house” separation. You can choose to live in separate bedrooms for a while, live on separate floors if that is possible, decide to exclude certain topics of conversation without help from a trained third party, or decide not to socialize or take family trips together while you seek to heal. Couples can get very creative about honoring separate space for the purpose of individual reflection and growth. I’ve seen such separation provide enough salve to allow deep wounds to begin to heal.
Adapted from Shattered Vows, Copyright © Debra Laaser, All rights reserved. Used with Permission. Published by Zondervan.