I do not take sides on the issue of whether it is better to stay in a marriage or committed relationship with a sex addict or whether it is better to get away and start over. I think there are many valid arguments on both sides depending on the situation.
Each couple may have their own particular considerations such as their history together, the presence of children, the age and health of the couple and so on.
I don’t believe the specific types of sexually addictive behaviors are necessarily a deciding factor either. Specific behaviors that cross a line can be a deal-breaker for some partners and spouses and not for others.
Here are some of the things I think make it worth it for you as a spouse or partner to attempt to weather the crisis and get into couple recovery.
- Psychological vs. moral issue
No matter how upset you feel there is some part of you that knows that it is a psychological problem rather than just a need on the addict’s part to be selfish and uncaring. In other words, you can separate the “disease”, the faulty wiring in the addict’s brain, from who he or she is. At least some of the time, part of you is able to say “I would stick by my partner if he/she had a stroke or a brain tumor, so this is no different.”
- The addict can be vulnerable
Even at his worst, the addict still has the capacity for what John Gottman calls “influence sharing”. The addict can listen to you and allow you to influence his or her thoughts and feelings as opposed to being in an adversarial stance all the time. This means the addict is not approaching the relationship in a hopelessly defensive and controlling way.
- Basis for intimacy
The relationship with the addict is one that enhances your life in ways other than materially. You can laugh and enjoy things together. You have a lot in common and feel that the addict knows how to help and support you in the ways that you need. Or maybe it’s just that the addict has (or at least had) the ability to add to your sense of contentment and well-being.
- You have confidence in the recovery plan
The addict sees recovery as more than getting over the sexually compulsive behavior. He or she is committed to ongoing personal growth and is open to learning in the areas of relationships and intimacy. It helps a lot if the addict has some psychological sophistication or has willingly sought out therapy in the past.
- There is still mutual attraction even if it is dormant
The addict enjoys having sex with you. Even though the addict has gotten hooked on some addictive sexual behavior or other, he or she still finds you attractive and can take the initiative in sex in a genuine way. Also the addict accepts it if you do not want to have sex and is OK with that. Sex with the addict can be satisfying to both of you and does not depend on behaviors or fantasies that feed the addiction.
- Absence of serious psychopathology
The addict does not have serious underlying psychological problems. Most addicts exhibit symptoms such as emotional volatility, narcissism, emotional immaturity and even sociopathy. In recovery these things should go away to a great extent. It will kind of be up to you to figure out how many underlying problems the addict has. Things like multiple addictions, (alcohol, drugs, gambling etc.) white collar crime, or other serious mental disorders should weigh in the balance.
- Capacity for devotion
The addict respects and values you. As he or she recovers you should see more evidence of this in terms of positive communications and cooperation vs. anger or sarcasm. Devotion is not the same as worshipping or fearing you. It means that the addict can be concerned for your happiness and is capable of making a commitment.
- You are OK single
You are staying because you want to not because you are afraid of being on your own. And going forward you should be confident that you can love unconditionally but stick around conditionally. In other words you need clear boundaries in you own mind as to what will work for you and what won’t and be willing to get out if you need to.
- You can play a long game
Being with a recovering addict requires that you take a long view and do not react to every little thing. This is easier said than done. It means letting someone go on their own recovery journey even though you can’t control the outcome. It means finding the support you need to live a fulfilling life regardless of what stage of recovery the addict is in. If it works, couple recovery can leave both partners happier and more capable of intimacy than they were to begin with.
Please share your own ideas and experiences.