Couple's Recovery Workshop
(P) Understanding Your Partner's Addiction
As you free yourself from the misperceptions of sexual addiction, there are several opportunities for you to take huge steps forward in your own healing process. One of these opportunities occurs when you take the time to see things through your partner's eyes. This is not as easy as it sounds.
The Natural Perception
If you are like most people, you observe and interpret the behavior of others after first screening it through your own values. Besides this being a major reason why your own values tend to change over the course of a long-term relationship with a sexual addict, this also influences your perceptions over such things as the person's motivation for engaging in the behavior, the benefits they received, the way they must have perceived you and your relationship to act in such a way, etc. It is one thing to see your partner's sexual addiction in the context of your own life — thus validating how immoral, selfish and illogical it all seems. I mean, who in their right mind would ever risk ten years of marriage for a brief sexual high with a prostitute. Who would sacrifice their career to establish a brief sexual relationship with a minor, or pay $10 for a hand job in a public restroom — risking imprisonment, disease, safety. Who would ever choose to spend their time masturbating to porn, when they have a wife whom they love and desire, and who loves and desires them. Who who spend six hours outside a neighbor's window, or glued to binoculars, or engaged in online web cams in order to get a five second flash of skin as that neighbor got changed for bed.
To a normal, healthy person, such decisions make no sense. They belie everything that they know to be true about the relationship they have been developing, and the person they thought they knew. With such a perception, huge doubts, fears and instability are immediately injected into what would have already been a fragile time. And suddenly, what was once a relatively stable future is now in jeopardy.
Your Partner's Reality
To see reality from your partner's perspective, you must withdraw yourself (temporarily, at least) from the relationship and allow yourself to see things through your partner's eyes. To experience the addiction as he/she has experienced it. To allow yourself to conclude that such compulsive behavior is not all that it is cracked up to be. That this is not a case of your partner "having their cake and eating it too"; or them merely being selfish, weak, immoral people. Rather, to see addiction through your partner's eyes is to look beyond the shell of the person and to inspect their very foundation. A foundation that, as you will see, was built with shoddy material. Which is why, even as they grew into their teens and early adulthood, though they may have added beautiful layers to their personality, underneath it all, their moral structure remained unsound...and vulnerable to collapse.
Now, to say that every person that has ever experienced addiction has followed the same exact path, or has acted for the same exact reasons is silly. Obviously, they haven't. But there are distinctly common patterns shared by the great majority of those struggling with sexual addiction/sexual compulsions. These patterns are not found, however, in those who engage in the exact same behaviors due to a personality disorder, character disorder, immaturity, antisocial behavior or those who simply make the choice to engage in such behavior without concern for the consequences. In a few days, we will explore the role that addiction has played in your partner's life — which will be a detailed analysis of the who, what and why of sexual addiction. Today, our goal is to present you with a glimpse of how addiction has been experienced by your partner.
How They Viewed the Development of the Addiction
Most people who develop an addiction to sexual and/or romantic behavior, do not realize it until well after the addiction has taken root. They may have sensed that "something is wrong". Or that they seem somehow different — hyper sexual; hyper romantic. But most often, the qualities of the addiction's development have been experienced as a positive in their life, not a negative. In their minds, it is these very qualities/behaviors that make them feel special. That allow them to feel good about themselves, and their ability to intoxicate others with romance, passion and intensity. Or, at least to experience such success through fantasy. The behaviors — usually beginning with fantasizing and sexual/romantic grandeur — provide them with enormous comfort in their sexual development years. As their sexual maturity continues, it is these fantasies that help to develop the sexual and romantic boundaries that will guide them in their relationships for the remainder of their life. And as we will see in the next few lessons, because these fantasies are often based on unhealthy values to begin with, it is like a man without a compass hiking through the desert for a thousand miles. If the man stays on the right heading...he will reach his destination. But even one early step in the wrong direction and the man ends up far from where he expected to be. Such is the life of the sexual addict. With the best of intentions, he/she often ends up far, far from where they expected to be. And clueless as to how they got there.
For healthy people, when we begin to veer off that path, we have parents, teachers, friends and family who act as our compass. They teach us the landmarks to watch for in life; draw us maps to navigate with. They teach us basic survival skills. They teach us to be self-sufficient. They help us to develop a strong foundation of healthy values and boundaries to make a successful journey in life. But this is rarely the case with the sexual addict.
The exception to this, would be someone who had developed other addictions early in life (e.g. alcohol/drugs, education, religion and athletics being the more common ones); then migrated to sexual addiction through the abstinence of these other behaviors. This is most commonly seen in adults engaging in compulsive online behavior as the convenience is so alluring and the opportunity so abundant. But no matter which beginning might have applied to your partner, you can be assured that they did not recognize the development of this addiction. And by the time that they have realized it, it has often fused with their identity...and so they are not able to recognize it as an addiction, but rather, it is seen as a natural part of their personality. They may know that intellectually what they are doing is wrong, but if feels right. Then, they look back and piece together bits and pieces of the addiction's development, but again...this is not how they relate to it. Instead, they see such pieces as evidence that there is something wrong with the core of who they are, and these bits and pieces are proof of that. That what they are experiencing is a natural phenomenon, rather than a decision.
The Early Experiences of the Sexual/Romance Addict
Not one child has ever set out to become a sexual addict. Your partner did not intend to end up where he/she is now. Instead, they were knocked off course; forced to take a step in the wrong direction. And, because the life skills that are most often absent in addiction are usually developed early in life, this disruption almost always occurs then as well (though not necessarily always — more on that in a few days). Often, these disruptions come from at least one of the following traumatic childhood events:
- Physical, Sexual Abuse
- Emotional/Verbal Abuse
- Emotional Neglect
- Controlling/Domineering/Perfectionistic Parenting
- Developmental Neglect (parents provide food, clothing and shelter, but little guidance)
- Major trauma (death of parent, stressful divorce, spousal abuse)
- Extreme religiosity
The addiction itself may not be seen for many, many years...but almost without exception...the underlying patterns for that addiction began here — in childhood. And how did your partner view this? Most likely, as a normal part of their childhood. At the time, they didn't know any better. To them, whatever emotions they were experiencing...be it hatred, shame, obedience, fear, pressure...they accepted them as a natural part of their life. But, as all human beings do, they fought to manage these emotions as best they could.
How? Through fantasy. Through acting out. Through an intense focus on one or two specific elements in their life. Each outlet offering them relief from the intense emotions they would experience. Not permanent relief, but at their level of emotional development, permanent relief was incomprehensible. So they took comfort where they were able — managing their life on a moment to moment basis through fantasy and escape. This was the beginning to the pattern of their seeking immediate emotional relief versus long-term growth.
The Middle Experiences of the Sexual Addict
Keeping in mind that all current and future growth is now being developed upon a faulty foundation, the individual continues to develop their values and boundaries from the sources that they have come to rely on previously: their fantasies, TV, music, magazines, friends, dysfunctional family. But with their developing sexuality, comes the need to expand (if it hasn't already been expanded) their fantasies into more "real life" situations. Enter masturbation, relationships, pornography, etc.
To your partner, such an expansion is a natural part of their life. It provides them with the same emotional comfort that they have been experiencing for years. And so it is okay. And so it continues. Eventually, when the main sources for developing values and boundaries naturally switch from family to society, the individual recognizes that there are vast differences between the values that society expects and what he/she has developed. This has numerous consequences, not the least of which is the phenomenon of creating a "separate identity" within their personality.
One of these identities, their secret self, allows them to continue comforting themselves in times of stress or emotional imbalance (which is often); the other, their social self, allows them to put into practice the values and boundaries they are now discovering they should have already had in place. But these aren't real boundaries and values they are working with...they are illusions. They are intellectually based and have no real substance behind them — save for the individual's sincere desperation to live in such a way. But, they are lost as to how to actually gain fulfillment and comfort in such a life. So they continue to learn, and to put up more and more attractive layers — yet with each layer comes more stress to maintain the illusion. And with each stressor comes the need to hold tighter and tighter to their secret self — which now provides them even more comfort than before the separation of the identities. (And no, we are not talking about multiple personality disorder here — addicts are fully aware and responsible for both sides of their personality).
Eventually, they experience real breakthroughs in their ability to experience satisfaction and fulfillment from their "social selves". Often, this comes through parenting... coaching... teaching... counseling... pastoring... or any such behavior which requires pure altruism. And so they attack such breakthroughs with incredible passion and energy. But, just as in early childhood, rarely can this breakthrough occur for more than a few social elements at a time. They are never able to achieve the balance necessary to develop a true foundation for living a fulfilling life. To do so would mean to give up their secret selves, which is not an option at this stage. It would be similar to asking a healthy person to abandon their family — their source of comfort and support — for nothing more than a promise. Addicts just can't imagine a life without their secret self, and certainly would not jeopardize such a comfort without something immediate being offered. They have actually bonded with this secret self, and it becomes a more stable part of their identity than all of their values combined.
The Later Stages of the Addiction
By the time that most of you have come to know your partner, the two separate identities are firmly entrenched. All that you will be presented with will be the more idealistic social self...and, those parts of the secret self that allow him/her to experience passion, romance, intensity. Quite often, it is a social self that is severely lacking in many vital areas. Insecurity, uncomfortableness in groups, fear of rejection, avoidance of 'small talk' — to name just a few. But this is often overlooked as shyness — though it is not shyness at all, it is a lack of true social skills. And now that they are being expected to fulfill the social roles that they have displayed an intellectual competence to, they become overwhelmingly stressed and emotionally vulnerable because they know that the foundation for engaging in such roles is just not there.
While at work, while in marriage, while parenting: sexual addicts can be extremely attentive, productive and are capable of gaining substantial fulfillment from such roles...when they are able to isolate their attention and focus exclusively on those roles. It is their inability to manage a foundation of such values that cause them to retreat to the safety and comfort of their secret world. Here is where the behaviors of sexual addiction come into play as an adult. Each of these behaviors, no matter what they are...from porn viewing, to affairs, to compulsive masturbation, to prostitution provide your partner with the opportunity to escape from the stress of trying to maintain their lives on such a faulty foundation. Engaging in such behaviors — which by this time are often complex ritualistic "chains of behavior" — provide your partner with the ability of emotionally escaping. Any time they are intensely involved in such behavior, and this includes behavior such as parenting, love making with you, reading the Bible — as well as the more destructive sexual behaviors — they are entering a trance-like state where they are emotionally at peace. By focusing intently on this one thing, all other aspects of their life disappear.
One of the hardest things for partner's to understand in regards to their loved one's behavior, is "How can they have sex with some nobody in the day, and then come home to make love to me that evening?" They see their partner's attempts to explain away this behavior by saying that it had "nothing to do with you" as poppycock. Well, it isn't poppycock. They are telling you the absolute truth. Their behavior really did have nothing to do with you. Instead, it had to do with the patterns that they have developed over the years, and their ability to enter a trance-like state to escape overwhelming emotions. Not necessarily bad emotions, just overwhelming ones — often triggered by change. Even, at this stage, the change of not acting out.
How they view their addictions at this stage, if indeed they do have an addiction, is to know that they have severe problems, but that...if they can just keep things secret for a while longer, they will be able to work through these problems. Because they have this secret life, and will protect it at all costs, they often believe that the behaviors they engage in also fall under this protection. They do not expect to get caught — ever. And, in their minds, as long as they aren't caught, they are doing nothing wrong. Society might think it wrong, you might think it wrong, but such fantasy/behavior has comforted them for so long, that they cannot change now. And shouldn't have to. Not for as long as the behaviors remain secret.
Also, at this stage, their attempts to engage in socially fulfilling, healthy activities are real. The love that they share with you, their behavior in most life events (holidays, vacations, birth of a child)...they are all genuine. That is not to say that occasional struggles (or frequent struggles) between their addiction and their desire to live a socially-acceptable life do not occur. They do. Especially in situations where fantasies are easily produced (e.g. public places, sexual environments). In fact, the stress of maintaining this secret life over the years often begins to crack, and the more comfortable your partner becomes with you, the more he/she begins to let the pressure from that secret life out — through sexualizing most conversations, activities, etc.
I hope that what has been shared will help open your eyes to the absolute misery that encompasses the life of a sexual addict. Feel sorry for them? No. Excuse their behavior? Absolutely not. But if you ever want to love and trust them again, you will need to understand these patterns, and understand that the only true recovery includes rebuilding that foundation of their life. You will not be able to do it for them, but when the time comes, you can prove to be invaluable in terms of role modeling and teaching. Being their compass.
1) Calmly, gently sit down with your partner and try to verbally summarize their addiction. Be general in your summary, without graphic content. For instance, "From what I understand, you were a fairly normal kid up until the age of about 16. You then started looking at Playboys with your friends, and then alone. Once you moved out on your own and had unfettered Internet access, the porn use increased substantially. You have struggled with faithfulness most of your life. You have struggled with deception most of your life. All of this has now come to a head in your life and you are now seeking fundamental changes to the person that you are."
If you don't feel comfortable talking about this with him this early in the process, then write it out. What is important here is that you begin to expand your awareness of his addiction from the time period he has used it to violate your partnership; to seeing it within the scope of his entire life.