Infidelity vs Addiction: What’s the Difference?

After nearly three decades spent treating cheaters, sex addicts, and their betrayed partners, and writing multiple books on sex addiction, infidelity, and digital-era intimate connections, I seem to now be regarded as something of an expert. As such, I receive online inquiries about these issues daily. Often, a betrayed partner has just learned about his or her partner’s cheating, and wants to know if he or she is dealing with infidelity or sexual addiction or both, and what the next step should be. Without performing a full assessment, of course, I can’t provide much in the way of specific advice. What I can do is explain the difference between infidelity and addictive sexual behavior, making suggestions as to where effective counseling and support can be found for each of these issues.

Typically, my response begins with a brief explanation of the similarities and differences between infidelity and sexual addiction. The definition of infidelity that I use with my clients (and in my research and writing) reads as follows:

Infidelity (cheating) is the breaking of trust that occurs when you keep intimate, meaningful sexual and/or romantic secrets from your primary romantic partner.

Please notice that this definition does not talk specifically about affairs, porn, strip clubs, hookup apps, or any other specific sexual or romantic act. Instead, it focuses on what matters most to a betrayed partner—the loss of relationship trust. For cheated on spouses, it’s usually not any specific sexual or romantic act that causes the most pain. Instead, it’s the lying, the secret keeping, the lies of omission, the manipulation, and the fact that they can no longer trust a single thing their partner says or does (or anything their partner has said and done in the past).

This is not the same thing as sexual addiction. The criteria most often used by Certified Sex Addiction Therapists (CSATs) to define sexual addiction are as follows:

  • Preoccupation to the point of obsession with sexual fantasy and/or activity
  • Loss of control over the use of sexual fantasy and/or activity, typically evidenced by failed attempts to quit or cut back
  • Negative consequences linked to the obsessive, out of control sexual fantasies and behaviors—relationship trouble, issues at work or in school, declining physical health, depression, anxiety, diminished self-esteem, isolation, financial woes, loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities, legal trouble, etc.

Generally speaking, sex addicts, like alcoholics and drug addicts, use their behavior to “numb out” and to escape from stress and other forms of emotional (and sometimes physical) discomfort, including the pain of underlying emotional and/or psychological issues like depression, anxiety, unresolved early-life trauma, etc. So, sex addicts don’t use compulsive sexual fantasies and behaviors to feel good and have a good time, they use them to feel less and to temporarily escape the pain of life.

Can You Be a Cheater and a Sex Addict?

The short answer to this question is yes. But not all cheaters are sex addicts, and not all sex addicts are cheaters. If a person is keeping important sexual and romantic secrets from his or her significant other, that person is cheating. That person might also be preoccupied to the point of obsession with his or her sextracurricular behaviors, unable to quit even though he or she would like to, and running into all sorts of life issues as a result. If so, there is a good chance that person is sexually addicted. But plenty of men and woman cheat, even regularly, without meeting any of the criteria for sexual addiction. And plenty of sex addicts are not in relationships and therefore can’t cheat.

Unfortunately, those who’ve been caught cheating will sometimes plead “sex addiction” as an excuse for their behavior, hoping to avoid or at least to minimize the judgment and reprisals they experience related to their infidelity. Sometimes these men and women really are sexually addicted, but just as often they are not. Either way, a diagnosis of sexual addiction does not let the addict off the hook for what he or she has done.

Most of the confusion around sexual addiction and sexual infidelity (a pathological versus a non-pathological behavior) stems from the fact some people will try to use the label “sex addiction” to define any type of sexual behavior that doesn’t mesh with their personal, social, religious, familial, or marital beliefs and values. There are even some well-meaning but underinformed (or overly moralistic) therapists out there who play into this, attempting to pathologize all sorts of relatively normal (whatever that means) sexual desires and behaviors, including things like porn, affairs, same-sex attractions, kinks, fetishes, etc.

Is It One, The Other, or Both?

As stated above, sexual infidelity and sexual addiction are not mutually exclusive, but neither are they automatically linked. Infidelity occurs when a person engages in sexual and/or romantic activity outside the boundaries of his or her relationship and keeps this secret, lies about it, and otherwise covers it up. Sex addiction is a dysfunctional preoccupation with sexual urges, fantasies, and behaviors that continues despite failed attempts to quit or cut back and directly related negative consequences.

Importantly, neither of these issues is defined by the type of behaviors a person engages in, or by how long or how often those behaviors occur. For instance, sexual orientation has nothing to do with either sexual infidelity or sexual addiction. A man can cheat with women or with other men (or both), and it’s still cheating. A man can be sexual with women or with other men (or both) and that does not in any way impact an assessment for sexual addiction. Similarly, purely online behaviors versus in-person behaviors do not impact an assessment for either sexual infidelity or sexual addiction. If a person meets the criteria for infidelity—keeping sexual and/or romantic secrets from his or her primary partner—that individual is cheating. If a person meets the criteria for sexual addiction—preoccupation to the point of obsession, loss of control, and directly related negative consequences—that person is sexually addicted. Period.

Does the Distinction Matter?

When a person (or a couple) begins therapy, it is always important for the clinician to fully and correctly assess the situation so proper treatment can be implemented. Just as a medical doctor would not want to use medications for high blood pressure to treat cancer, we would not want to use the tried and true methodologies of sexual addiction treatment to address infidelity without addiction. So yes, the distinction between sexual infidelity and sexual addiction is important.

Sexual infidelity without sexual addiction is best addressed in treatment with an experienced couple’s counselor, preferably a Marriage and Family Therapist (an MFT) certified by the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy. Issues related to sexual addiction are best handled by a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist (a CSAT) certified by the International Institute of Trauma and Addiction Professionals. When there is overlap (both infidelity and sexual addiction), the treatment approaches utilized will also tend to overlap, possibly requiring the services of both a CSAT and an MFT. (Many therapists are trained as both CSATs and MFTs.)

Referrals for MFTs can be found at this link. Referrals for CSATs can be found at this link. For more information about infidelity and how couples can heal from it, I recommend my recently published book, Out of the Doghouse. For more information about sexual addiction, check out my website and my book, Sex Addiction 101.