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Is It Love or Is It Sexual Addiction?: Partners Who Cross the Line

How do you know when your partner’s use of pornography is “too much”?

Where is the line between someone just “really liking sex” and needing sex in order to function?

Have you had fights with your partner about their sexual behaviors, with promises from them that they will change, only to have the patterns continue (or escalate)?

If you have found yourself wondering about some of these questions, or others related to your partner’s seemingly “excessive” needs around sex, you may have a partner with sexual addiction.

An estimated 17-37 million Americans are addicted to sex, according to Carnes, 2001, and Cooper, Delmonico & Burg, 2000. Tiger Woods is one of the most famous recent celebrities to receive treatment for sexual addiction, but you don’t have to live the life of the rich and famous to suffer. And sexual addiction is not just for men–this great article in Marie Claire describes the disorder from the female side as well.

However, “sexual addiction” is a term that is debated within the psychology world, as well as in the popular media, but there is no doubt that the syndrome of being addicted to sex is real. As of right now, a person cannot be diagnosed with “sexual addiction” because the actual diagnosis does not exist in the DSM-IV-TR, the manual mental health professionals use when assessing clients. “Hypersexual disorder“–essentially, describing the symptoms of sexual addiction–has been proposed for the DSM-5, scheduled to be published in 2013.

Sexual addiction is usually treated with the same methods as for other addictions, such as for alcohol and drugs: 12-step groups, abstinence, individual therapy, group therapy, possibly medication, and sometimes residential/inpatient treatment, if the problem is severe enough, or if there are other issues present, such as suicidal thoughts or addictions to substances.

What does this mean if your partner is a sex addict (or you suspect they may be)?

What you need as the healthy partner will depend on how the sexual addiction has impacted your relationship. Common relationship issues related to sexual addiction include:

  • Disagreements and/or hurt feelings over the partner’s use of pornography, online sex sites, and other sex-related media
  • Emotional fallout from affairs, “random hookups,” unwanted pregnancies, or finding out your partner is paying for sexual services
  • The healthy partner being given a sexually-transmitted disease because of the addicted partner’s sexual practices
  • Possible legal consequences for the addicted partner, such as if the partner is arrested when soliciting a prostitute, or for voyeurism/exhibitionism, or for anything related to child pornography

Unlike some of the other mental illnesses, sexual addiction is not one where you as the healthy partner can just take a back seat in your partner’s recovery.

Even though you are not the one with the sexual addiction, you have likely been affected by it. Feelings of anger, betrayal, disgust, and resentment are all common, but if you are interested in saving the relationship, this is something you both will need to commit to working on together.

Recommended next steps:

  • Both you and your partner should seek individual therapy. Your partner most definitely should work with a provider who specializes in sexual addiction. It would be very helpful for you to work with a therapist who is knowledgeable about sexual addiction as well.
  • Seek couples therapy, also from a provider who specializes in sexual addictions. Your individual therapist will likely be able to make a recommendation.
  • Consider participating in group therapy that focuses on sexual addiction, which could be a group for both partners or a group just for the healthy partners
  • Educate yourself about sexual addiction: The Center for Healthy Sex book recommendations for partners of sex addicts can be found here.

Other resources:

Sexual addiction tests (for men and women) from the Center for Healthy Sex

Sex addiction screening quiz

PsychCentral blog: Sex and Intimacy in the Digital Age


Is It Love or Is It Sexual Addiction?: Partners Who Cross the Line

Kate Thieda

Kate Thieda, MS, LPCA, NCC, is a patient advocate for Women's and Children's Services at Duke University Hospital in Durham, North Carolina. She is a licensed professional counselor associate and a National Certified Counselor who specializes in cognitive-behavioral and dialectical behavior therapies. Her book, Loving Someone With Anxiety, will be published by New Harbinger in the spring of 2013.

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APA Reference
Thieda, K. (2019). Is It Love or Is It Sexual Addiction?: Partners Who Cross the Line. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 26, 2020, from


Last updated: 31 Mar 2019
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