Can a Marriage Recover from Sex Addiction?
Part 3 of a 3-Part Series
Sex Addiction: The Hidden and Little-Understood Pandemic
Without a doubt, healing from sex addiction is most definitely possible. But getting there is difficult work, for both the addict and his spouse.
God forgives even the ugliest of sins. This means that each of us can experience real and meaningful forgiveness with each attempt to start over and break our patterns of repetitive sin. When our human transparency and need is met by God’s acceptance and mercy, change happens.
A Sex Addict Needs to Want to Recover
When thinking of the addict and addiction, one should think “recover” rather than total cure. This is akin to being declared in remission when cancer is involved. However, there is much growth and blessing to be received in the recovery process. The addicted person must come to a point in the active addiction process where he hurts enough to conclude that he wants his peace of mind back. He needs to want what he has lost, or what he is about to lose, more than he wants the emotionally mind-numbing and ultimately life-destroying effects of sex addiction.
Some addicts hit bottom soon after the addiction cycle begins. Others spend years, even decades, caught in the addiction cycle, engaging in risky and dangerous sexual behaviors before they acknowledge that they need help. Still others never reach, or refuse to reach, the realization they are addicted to sex. If the addicted person fakes hitting bottom, he is back to playing his con games.
The Addict is Responsible for His Own Recovery
The addict is responsible for working on himself. Others can support his work toward sobriety, but no one can do the work for him. In addictions – whether sexual or of any other kind – the addict must be responsible for changing his perceptions, attitudes, actions, and self-concepts, as well as the belief system that underscores his addiction issues.
Help and support await the addict – but he needs to show up and work the process. A typical “recovery process” for a sex addict includes the following:
- Consistent participation in a Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA) 12-Step type of program, such as Sex Addicts Anonymous (SSA), Prodigals International, etc.
- Checking in as often as necessary with a Sponsor (a sex addict who is sober, is a member of SAA, and continues to work his program in order to remain sober).
- Therapy with a counselor who has undergone rigorous training to earn the designation of Certified Sex Addiction Therapist3 (CSAT) status.
- The realization that it takes time and allegiance to the program and to God, (aka the “Higher Power” in 12-step groups) in order to achieve sobriety. He must understand that attaining and maintaining sobriety involves a daily commitment. Sometimes, especially at the beginning of the recovery process, sobriety has to be dealt with hour-by-hour.
The Spouse’s Road to Recovery
Upon discovering the addiction, the spouses of sex addicts find themselves mentally and emotionally shattered. Some counselors would say that spouses are “codependent” at this point, a term that is defined as:
A psychological condition or a relationship in which a person is controlled or manipulated by another who is affected with a pathological condition (as an addiction to alcohol or heroin).
Or, more broadly speaking, this can be defined as:
Dependence on the needs of or control by another.1
However, while in most addictions the assumption can be made that the partners are co-dependent, or at least the addict’s partner had co-dependent behaviors, this is not necessarily so in the case of sex addiction. In recent years research by psychologist Barbara Steffens, Ph.D. has led to a new assessment model that differs in both its assessment and its methods of treatment for the spouse. Her studies conclude that on discovering sex addiction, spouses are more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than co-dependency.
Together with co-author, Marsha Means, MA, Steffens wrote a remarkable book on sex addiction and PTSD as it relates to her research. Readers’ reviews3 of Your Sexually Addicted Spouse2 indicate that the book offers the spouse an understanding of her trauma, supports her needs, validates her long-term suspicions, and serves as an important pillar of her healing journey.
The Spouse’s Choice in the Face of Sex Addiction
It can be a rough road to healing for the spouse. Feelings of confusion, betrayal, abandonment, and even anger and hate, are normal responses under these circumstances. At this point, the spouse faces a choice in her response to her partner’s addiction and actions. Her response will determine whether she grows emotionally and spiritually, or whether she emotionally stagnates. She can either learn and grow, or she can stay mired in anger, betrayal, and distrust.
It is crucial for the spouse to seek two things immediately upon disclosure. Firstly, counseling with a therapist who is familiar with treating the effects of this kind of trauma. And, secondly, active participation in a support group of other women whose husbands are addicted to sex. Both issues need to be addressed, but dealing with trauma has priority. Counseling and involvement in a support group will help the spouse to deal with the angst in her head and heart, as well as to help her gain emotional strength. Over time, her self-care will improve her ability to deal rationally with the situation-at-hand.
The disclosure of her husband’s sex addiction may very well turn a woman’s world upside down, but with good self-care, counseling, and faith, she will come through the experience stronger, wiser, smarter, more resilient, and in even a closer relationship with God.
Can a Marriage Recover from Sex Addiction?Speaking realistically, not all marriages survive the onslaught of sex addiction. Often the addict’s shame and guilt surpass his ability to seek recovery and the help needed to heal the relationship. The same holds true for wives whose pain and anger lead to a permanent loss of trust. The factors that lead to one outcome or the other are as varied as the people involved.
Factors that add to the chances of rebuilding the marriage include:
- Establishing a higher level and new kind of communication;
- Acceptance by the addict that he broke the covenant of marriage and must be willing to accept responsibility;
- The addict must work to rebuild his wife’s trust in him. This takes time – sometimes lots of time;
- If restoration of the marriage is to occur, the wife must firmly establish her boundaries, engage in the self-care of counseling and support, and be willing, at some time in the future, to be called to forgive him. We are called by God to forgive and forgiveness is one part of the restoration of the marriage.
Marital counseling for couples can be quite helpful to the future life and health of the relationship, but should only occur after each partner has participated in individual therapy to help them each rise above their own set of issues.
Christian Counseling for Sex Addiction
As a Christian counselor, I have seen that some marriages can certainly be restored, but there are no guarantees of restoration. Of the utmost importance is the restoration of the two people in the marriage, both of whom are devastated by the addiction. Willing hearts make up just one avenue to healing. If you or someone you know is faced with the painful challenges brought on by sex addiction, do seek out the services of a Christian counselor.
Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Definition retrieved from URL: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/codependency
Steffans, PhD, Barbara / Means, MA, Marsha (2009) Your Sexually Addicted Spouse. Far Hills, New Jersey: New Horizon Press.
Amazon. Reviews of Your Sexually Addicted Spouse. http://goo.gl/ABFA1j
“Couple,” courtesy of Milza, morguefile.com; “Lifesafer,” courtesy of arcturusangel, morguefile.com; “Man at Sunset,” courtesy of Oleander, Morguefile.com