Even after a sex addict has admitted the problem and has gone into treatment for sexually addictive behaviors like serial affairs, excessive porn use, or compulsive cybersex (to name just a few), it is normal for spouses and partners to feel hurt, angry and suspicious. Even after the addict has been sexually “sober” for a period of months, the spouse will usually be justifiably mistrustful.
They see the sex addict going to therapy and support groups; they hear the addict saying all the right things and yet they feel that there is not enough evidence of real change; they are afraid it’s all a sham.
After working with many recovering sex addicts and their partners, I feel that there are four key elements to regaining trust:
1. It’s not about being sexually “sober” — it’s about being different
Telling your spouse “I’ll never do it again,” even if you mean it, is beside the point. Even if the addict took a polygraph every week and passed, the spouse would not really be in any better position. The spouse doesn’t just want to know you are faithful; he or she wants to know that you are changing in some basic ways.
Simply becoming better able to listen to your spouse’s feelings with respect is one indicator of such change. Being better able to talk openly about your own feelings and needs and being scrupulously honest in your interaction also demonstrate a letting go of the old sex addict ways.
2. Be in recovery for its own sake rather than as a means to an end
It is absolutely true in my experience, that most married sex addicts enter treatment more for the sake of damage control than out of any desire to change. Becoming engaged in recovery and coming to place a high value on it for its own sake comes about gradually and only after the initial crisis period is over.
When asked “How long do I have to go to these meetings?” (like Sex Addicts Anonymous) a therapist colleague of mine answers: “Until you want to.”
So the addict needs to be saying “I am doing all this to become a stronger healthier person,” not “I am trying to prove to someone else that I’m OK.”
3. Get out of the Dog House
Addicts often act irresponsibly and they often make someone else, usually a partner, into the “policeman.” But acting remorseful and guilt-ridden will not increase trust, nor will giving up all power to a spouse. Constantly putting yourself last is another way to avoid taking responsibility.
It is a sign of recovery when an addict becomes more emotionally mature and appropriately assertive. The addict does not have to be a hero or a villain. Some recovering addicts will often tell you “I shot my ‘white horse’.” And with a stronger sense of self-worth, the addict can let their spouse be alienated for however long it takes without having to “fix” it.
4. The odds are with you but it’s a long process
It is possible to regain trust and rebuild a marriage after sexual addiction but a classic 1996 survey of couples recovering from sexual addiction by Schneider and Schneider found that it took about a year for partners to begin to trust and forgive the addict.
It’s generally accepted among sex addiction therapists that sex addiction recovery takes from three to five years. As their recovery evolves, addicts have to learn honesty, intimacy and empathy and these are new skills that are acquired slowly through practicing new behavior and accepting a great deal of support and help. But even if the relationship ends, the process of becoming trustworthy is a necessary step in the sex addict’s recovery.