In the early days of sex addiction treatment, the focus was primarily on the sex addict. For the most part, the partner of the addict was on her own, with little support or understanding of her experience. A common assumption was that she was a codependent, co-addict or co-sex addict, similar to a partner of an alcoholic.
A co-sex addict has been defined as:
. . . someone who is in a significant relationship with a sex addict and demonstrates a common set of behavioral characteristics including: denial, preoccupation, enabling, rescuing, taking excessive responsibility, emotional turmoil, efforts to control, compromise of self, anger and sexual issues. (Carnes, S., 2008)
While the co-addict label applied to partners of sex addicts has been misused and hurtful, the reality is that most of us – partners and others – suffer from some degree of codependency.
Although codependency has been notoriously difficult to define, it has remained in use because there is no other, better term to describe it. Codependency is characterized by:
- difficulty in identifying and staying true to one’s reality;
- difficulty establishing and maintaining effective boundaries;
- placing others needs ahead of one’s own;
- preoccupation with gaining other’s approval or attention;
- attempts to control people or situations through subtle/indirect manipulation.
The co-addiction model has been a helpful lens through which partners of alcoholics and other addicts can understand issues of enabling, preoccupation and powerlessness. However, the term has been problematic, hurtful and sometimes abusive to partners of sex addicts. Why?
Sex addiction is experienced by partners as a deep personal and intimate betrayal.
It’s one thing for your partner to choose to drink or gamble to the point of self-destruction or financial ruin. It’s quite another when your partner chooses sex with himself or others over sex with you.
The sex addict often tells himself that his sexual activities outside the relationship have nothing to do with his partner. Regardless of the addict’s perception and experience, partners invariably feel rejected and less than as a result of the addict’s behaviors. You may have asked yourself “what is wrong with me?” or “why did he choose her (or porn) over me?”
Added to the painful rejection partners feel is the deceit and gaslighting that has permeated your relationship. You wonder how you could have missed the clues. You may feel stupid or duped, as if you should have been able to see clearly through the dense fog that is active addiction. If you’re labeled a co-addict, the label reinforces your fear that you’re at fault for the addiction or somehow played a role in it.
The sexual and emotional betrayal along with ongoing deception is a significant relational trauma for the partner of a sex addict. She will often experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms such as:
- severe anxious episodes or panic attacks
- intrusive thoughts/images
- loss of a sense of safety (physical, emotional and sexual)
- disillusionment or loss of hope
- numbing or “checking out” to avoid painful feelings
- disturbances to sleep and eating patterns
- inability to focus
Partners may need trauma-specific treatment such as Somatic Experiencing® or EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing Therapy). You will also need to begin the process of creating physical, emotional and sexual safety which will involve good self-care, boundaries and testing for sexually transmitted diseases if appropriate.
Once past the crisis stage, any pre-existing issues partners had prior to discovery should be addressed. Codependency, mental health issues or past traumas in adulthood or childhood that haven’t been attended to need to be processed. Sometimes when partners have significant pre-existing traumas, they are unable to address the current relational betrayal until they have begun a process of resolving the earlier traumas.
While there has been a much needed shift away from the co-addiction model toward a trauma-focused approach, I like to think of these seemingly opposing forces as a “both/and” rather than an “either/or.” The trauma of sexual betrayal is quite real AND many partners have unresolved issues that may interfere with their healing.
Partners have a right to identify themselves by the label that works best for them whether it is partner of a sex addict, survivor of infidelity, co-addict, codependent to a sex addict, or co-sex addict.
Acknowledging and addressing trauma symptoms early in the process provides a foundation on which partners can build their healing and empowerment. Going deeper into her personal individual work after the crisis will help her grow and thrive even after betrayal.
©Vicki Tidwell Palmer, LCSW