When we think of the sex addict in a marriage or a relationship we think of him or her as leading a life of deception. Regardless of what the sexual behavior is e.g. serial affairs, prostitutes, internet pornography, exhibitionism, and so on, a key feature of the addiction is that it is done in secret.
Partners who have discovered sex addiction feel two things about being deceived.
One is that they are amazed at what a great liar their spouse or partner is; how completely they were deceived. The other thing that partners often feel is “I knew it!” Meaning they knew on some level that something was wrong but were prevented from seeing it clearly until it was officially brought out into the open.
What to look for
We who work with sex addiction see it as a form of intimacy avoidance or “intimacy disorder”. Sex addicts become very good at hiding their addictive acting out behavior and they also become very good at hiding their intimacy issues.
But the intimacy issues are easier to spot when you know what to look for. An addict can completely conceal the visits to prostitutes or the hours spent viewing porn at work just by skillfully lying about it. But the concealing an intimacy disability in a committed relationship is a lot harder.
The whole relationship style may evolve in such a way that it helps conceal the addiction.
One such style is the “great partnership” style where the couple get along very well by dividing the labor and cooperating well but without a lot of demands for real intimacy being placed on the addict. Another is what I call the “high drama” style. If there are frequent conflicts, extreme emotions, and on and off patterns of relating then once again the addict is free from the normal demands of intimacy.
If the partner would like to feel more closeness and a more intimate bond, this kind of relationship will feel lacking in something, even though it may be hard to put a finger on.
Other symptoms of the sex addict’s intimacy issues
- Since intimacy disability is intimacy avoidance, the addict may show subtle symptoms of avoidance of closeness such as needing to drink alcohol to have sex, not wanting sex, or asking to bring in fantasy elements into the sex life.
- Another subtle maneuver is being withholding or judgmental in such a way that the spouse or partner does not feel desirable or important. This drives a wedge that makes the partner ambivalent about sex and closeness so that the addict can blame their partner for the lack of intimacy in the relationship.
- Phony intimacy may be a way for the addict to get around their lack of ability to invest fully in an intimate relationship. This can take the form of being over-competent at the outward trappings of romance and commitment. In this case the attentive behavior is skin deep and is done as a way to play an appropriate role.
- Over compliance is another way that addicts can behave that essentially allows them to avoid real engagement in the relationship. The focus here is for the addict to placate the partner by being “good” thus placing the partner in the role of the parent. This is a way for the addict to play an irresponsible role and to rebel by acting out sexually.
Why partners miss these subtle problems
These symptoms of intimacy avoidance are not the fault of the partner. The relationship style grows up around the relationship as a result of the addict’s problems. The reasons why the partner may not spot it are not hard to understand.
The partner feels there is something missing but gets talked out of it.
The partner feels the lack of intimacy and blames him/herself or the circumstances.
The partner feels invested in the status quo and is afraid of conflict
The addict conveys an implicit threat or guilt trip that makes the partner feel to blame
The partner’s friends and family fall for the façade of devotion
The partner feels he or she cannot act without concrete evidence
Partners should confront the intimacy issues
Sometimes the partner does confront the addict and gets lied to and talked out of it or “gaslighted”. In this case the partner is confronting based on sexual suspicions, but often what the partner doesn’t do is confront the symptoms of intimacy disorder.
This is not surprising either since the addict’s intimacy avoidance is often subtle, hard to see and easy for the addict to dodge. Nevertheless, partners of sex addicts and anyone in an intimate relationship needs to feel empowered to confront aspects of the relationship that worry them, no matter whether they seem “reasonable” or not.