But partners and spouses seem to suffer illnesses before, during and after the trauma of sex addiction disclosure.
Therapists and clients alike are familiar with the situation in which partners are unhappy with the relationship without really knowing why. They have good instincts and they feel something is not right. Or they experience their partner as somehow different or distanced. It’s subtle and difficult to pin down.
Most often the addict will deny that anything is going on. The partner is therefore doubly stressed; having the stress of feeling that there is something wrong, and the stress involved in feeling shamed or pressured into ignoring their intuition. When we ignore our intuition we are lying to ourselves. This creates an additional form of unconscious stress (see also my post “Sexual Secrets Make you Physically Sick”).
When partners and spouses of sex addicts are stonewalled and lied to they feel unable to have any impact on the situation. They may try to find ways to adapt to it or wait it out, but they give up on confronting it head on. When we do this we bury feelings of all kinds: fear, self-doubt, anger, resentment and grief. The stress is the stress of abandonment on a daily basis and the feeling is one of helplessness.
When we can’t deal with feelings that deeply affect us we tend to express them through our bodies; we somatize them and they show up as everything from migraines to heart attacks.
Illness supports the addiction
The partner who becomes seriously ill will probably feel even less empowered in the relationship than they did before. Their attention will likely be on their own health and they will have less energy for anything, including their partner. They will need more and have less to give.
Addicts are generally speaking not great at nurturing. They are addicts because they are intimacy avoidant and caring for a sick loved one may place a greater stress on them than it would on another person.
The stress of being a caregiver and the partial incapacity of the partner will likely serve as a built in excuse to lead a double life. The addict will feel that his needs are being met less and less in the relationship and he will see himself as a victim. He will also feel inadequate to the job of caring for his partner, thus intensifying his feelings of low self worth. This victim mentality will then be used to justify giving in to the self indulgence of sexual acting out behavior.
The rift that is increasingly created in this situation will continue to place internal stress on both people, replacing love with guilt and caring with disappointment.
Illness is rewarded and becomes self perpetuating
For the laid-up partner of a practicing sex addict, the nurturing they are able to get, such as it is, may be one of the best experiences of care and attention they have had from that partner.
So being ill in this unsatisfying situation carries a powerful message for the spouse or partner on an unconscious level: get sick and you’ll get some love. But the paradox is that they are likely to feel less empowered in life due to being ill. This in turn decreases their ability to mobilize to deal with whatever is going on in the relationship. It can become a deadly trade-off.
There are a couple of ways out of this kind of vicious circle. Sometimes the illness of the spouse or partner will serve as the catalyst it should be to shake up the addict and get him to look at what is going on and make some decisions about his life. It may be the crisis that gets the addict and partner to deal with each other more honestly for the first time. Sometimes the recognition that we are all mortal and that we need each other will up the motivation for change.
Alternatively, the spouse or partner may come to the conclusion that the situation itself is making them sicker. They may reach a point where they are getting more suspicious, lonelier, and where they see no end in sight. They will muster the strength to pull away from the relationship in any way they can. This will mean creating some distance from the relationship at a time when it may be very difficult to do so. This will be the beginning of their empowerment and healing.