One's company, two's a crowd, and three's a party. But when is too many partners too much?
You can't turn on the TV lately without hearing the newest shocker about what sex addiction has done to famous people. It becomes a bad joke that, whenever someone famous trips over him or herself, the answer is "rehab." So if you're partner is in trouble with his (or her) sexual behavior, you're right in style. Of course, knowing that your problem is "trending" doesn't really help. Let's look at what does.
I recently heard a well-respected professional claim that sex addiction is not really an addiction. This was "proven" by a brain-scan study which lit up one way for drug addicts and alcoholics, but not for "sex addicts." I firmly believe that what they observed was the difference between a substance addiction and a behavioral, or process, addiction.
An addiction is a pattern of pleasure-seeking behavior that becomes repetitive and obsessive, to the point that the subject will take unreasonable and dangerous risks in order to continue it. It's also characterized by tenacious denial, both in the addict and in the people closest to him. Some addictions are physical and some are emotional (with body chemistry contributing a physical piece).
There's a particular configuration of an addict's daily life, which we call the "cycle of addiction." It's a bi-polar image, without a bi-polar diagnosis. I always picture the silhouette an egg. The larger part, the "bottom," is daily life, including all its slings and arrows. There are many reasons why an addict finds this unbearable. For a professional who is not familiar with addictions, it is easy to dig up "reasons" for the addict's behavior. But for the active addict, knowing those reasons simply provides another excuse to stay in the cycle. The addict wants to get up to the top of the egg, where he’s above the fray, feeling "on top of the world." When the high wears off, he starts to slip down again, is filled with remorse and may truly believe he'll never do that again. But the high has cost him. Now the low is not just the low of daily life, it's made worse by guilt and remorse, so the impulse to get up there, to the high place, where the world is wonderful, becomes stronger. So up he goes, then down again, deeper than ever. (The highs don't get higher, but the lows do get lower).
"Recovery" is about interrupting the cycle. At first, it's about learning to live without the high. That's why people usually don't get straight as soon as they recognize they might be in trouble. The high has become the only source of pleasure in life, for them. A life with no pleasure is no life at all.
In a way, alcoholics and drug addicts in recovery have it "easy," because they can put down their substance and never use it again. (This is not to minimize the terrible ordeal substance abusers must go through to stop using the drug of choice).
Process addictions like food , relationship, money , and sex, require even more attention in recovery because we can't live without food, relationship, money, or sex. (Sex is part of life, even for someone who is celibate). A sex addict in recovery has to learn how to live a "sober" life while still living a sexual life. (A sex addict who opts for celibacy as a "cure" is a little like an alcoholic who "white knuckles" his recovery).
Okay, this sounds like your partner. What can you do?
First, a caveat: I'm going to write this next part as if the sex addict were a man and the partner were a woman. These dynamics work both ways, but the pronouns can confuse the important issues.
When you first realize that your partner is engaged in addictive sex, you will be faced with your own natural reaction, which is to take it personally. If you were more beautiful, if you were a better lover, if you never said no, he wouldn't be out there doing that stuff! You assume that your relationship, if not your own physical nature or your own personality, is the "problem." Then, when he is filled with shame and remorse and promises never to do that again, you experience enormous relief. Maybe he really does mean it; maybe he'll mend his ways. If he loves you enough, surely he will!
But it happens again. And again. And again. (A recent New Yorker cartoon shows a bride and groom at the altar and the minister is saying, "Will you stand by him through humiliating revelation after humiliating revelation and then, once you're sure it couldn't possibly get any worse, when even more humiliating revelations come to light?")
This is the nature of addiction. Your first task is to recognize this and to know that his addiction truly is not about you.
But if you want to be in this relationship for the long haul, there’s something in here that is about you. You are experiencing the bi-polar nature of the addictive cycle, yourself. You feel the "high" when he comes home with a bouquet of flowers, promising "never to do that again." You feel the anxiety that builds as you see him become more complacent, as you start to wonder where he is at odd hours, as you try to reassure yourself that "he promised." And you feel the hopeless "bottom," when you realize he's done it once again. In other words, you have your own addictive cycle. While he searches for the euphoria of his particular release, you search for the euphoria of feeling "everything is going to be all right with us."
You are locked with him in a two-person dynamic, which grows the feast/famine, good/bad cycle. If you reproach him, his self-loathing increases and his low gets lower. If you berate him, he can justify his behavior. If you are "nice" to him, he can feel he's "dodged a bullet." You just can't win!
You are not the problem, but you can choose to be part of the solution.
To do this, you have to take your focus away from him and his behavior and look at yourself. Look at your own needs and wishes. Focus on your own decisions and your own pleasure. In this way, you begin to interrupt the cycle in yourself. You begin to develop the kind of healthy emotional separateness that lays the groundwork for a healthier relationship. You replace his dominance in your life with your own. You come to understand that you never have to feel shame for something someone else does. You become the "star" of your own life.
If you change yourself, he has to change. We like the metaphor of the hanging mobile: it is still, until you touch one piece of it, at which time, the entire system moves.
The addictive relationship dynamic is enormously powerful. Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to turn your entire world inside out. Do not try to do this alone! There are 12 Step programs for partners of sex addicts, like COSA and S-Anon. Seek professional help from a therapist who is knowledgeable about the nature of addiction. Beware the practitioner who urges you to leave without exploring what this relationship means to you. (The only reason to leave a relationship immediately is if there is danger of physical harm to you or your children).
There are powerful personal reasons, both conscious and unconscious, which keep you in this relationship. The right therapist can help you know yourself well enough to make wise decisions about your future. You may go, you may stay, so long as you own your own life.