What to do when your partner is addicted to sex

Is your partner becoming increasingly distant and withdrawn in your relationship? Are they regularly excusing their unacceptable behaviour? Have you noticed them becoming increasingly irritable and moody as well as being increasingly secretive? If you are answering yes to these questions it could be that your partner is in active addiction and you need help and support.

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A common misconception about sex addiction is that if you are going to be addicted to anything then this would be a ‘nice’ addiction to have. However, as anyone who struggles with sexual compulsivity will know, sex addiction is not really about the sex. In fact, too often there is an over-emphasis paid to the word "sex” than the word “addiction”. People who suffer in this area are actually in abject pain. Far from it being a nice addiction, sex is not much fun but more likely to bring shame, guilt and re-enactment of past trauma.

To suffer with addiction is to feel like a slave to something in the pursuit of emotional intensity. Indeed, anyone who feels out of control will not be having fun. Sex addiction is really about what the sex is doing to somebody and for them. The sex typically brings a feeling of belonging, a false sense of emotional intimacy, a feeling of control and power as well as a sense of nurturing.

Sex addiction is using sexual behaviour to cope with life and regulate emotions despite the negative consequences. Sex addiction can take many forms from masturbation, pornography, affairs, prostitution, swinging, exhibitionism, dogging, voyeurism and anonymous sex and is a pattern, not a short incident of problem behaviour.

For people who suffer from sex addiction there is invariably a history of trauma. Quite often the problem behaviour is a compulsive repetition of that trauma or a repetition of past abuse.

Lifestyle choices or problem behaviour?

Clinicians argue amongst themselves about the definitions of addiction. See here for the debates. Some argue that sex addiction, in common with other behavioural or process addictions, is not an accurate description as there is no tolerance or withdrawal from the problem. Others see proponents of the sex addiction label as being “sex negative”. For them, people who engage in alternative sexual expression are making lifestyle choices and should not be subject to moralistic conditioning.

The key when assessing if someone has a problem in this area is to reflect on the impact of the behaviour on other aspects of your relationship. Behaviour becomes a problem, for example, if someone starts to feel depressed after over indulgence and begins to experience lower levels of self-esteem and anxiety.

Problem behaviour could also be defined as activity involving lies, deceit and cover ups and when people end up compromising their values. Someone might not view visits to prostitutes as problem behaviour but are they being open and transparent with their partner about such visits? Swinging might also be viewed as a lifestyle choice but is there real choice by both parties or is one person people-pleasing the other and only doing it out of fear of abandonment and thereby compounding their anxiety?

When addictive behaviour is present you might begin to notice adverse effects on other parts of their life and on their relationship with you. At times there will be great enthusiasm for couple activities but this might increasingly become stop/start over time. Gradually the addicted one will become more secretive and withdrawn and will have less and less willingness, and ability, to engage emotionally in any kind of meaningful way in their relationship.

Getting support

When you are in a relationship with an addicted person the risk is that the focus can tend to shift onto them. You owe it to yourself to shift that focus back on your own life. S-Anon is a programme of recovery for those who have been affected by someone else's sexual behaviour and offers useful resources and literature.

Seeing a therapist can help you to review your personal boundaries and assess your future direction. As part of the process it could be useful to reflect on your attachment style, review your relationship history and set goals and expectations for your relationship. The therapy can help to uncover any unconscious processes occurring in your life and the manner of your own behaviour in relationships. A therapist should be impartial and hold no interest in your decisions. The private and confidential setting can be transformative since you can benefit from the opportunity to reflect on your life and to decide what to do next.

Noel Bell

I have spent the past 20 years exploring and studying personal growth, recovery from addictions and inner transformation. I am integrative in my approach and tune my work to the uniqueness of each individual I work with.