Why does sex addiction hurt partners so much?

There are many common assumptions and misunderstandings surrounding sex addiction which can have damaging and hurtful effects on the partners of those suffering with it. They may come from well-meaning friends, untrained therapists or even from the partners themselves.

Here I’d like to clean up and correct a few of them in order to demonstrate why sex addiction hurts partners so much.

“It’s like an affair”

Because of the nature of sex addiction, hearing the news that your partner is a sex addict can feel like an enormous betrayal. It can feel like they have had an affair. However, this comparison can be unhelpful when trying to understand and work through the problem. Firstly, sex addiction is not a couple problem. Often infidelity occurs as a result of problems in the relationship which results in some form of breakdown. And whilst issues within the relationship may contribute to sex addiction, they are never the cause of it. Many people analyse the relationship to find the reason for the addiction, but in all likelihood, the addiction pre-dates the relationship. As discussed in my previous blog, the roots of sex addiction tend to begin in childhood and adolescence.

“You’ll get over it”

This simple platitude can have a hugely damaging effect on partners as it denies their struggle and their right to feel hurt and it underestimates how difficult it is to stay in a relationship with a recovering sex addict. And for those who choose to end the relationship, it minimises the extent to which partners find themselves doubting themselves as well as potential future relationships.

“Sex addicts can’t do intimacy”

It is true that before the days of online pornography, the cause of sex addiction was often in family difficulties in early childhood which commonly resulted in adult intimacy issues. However the profile of someone with sex addiction has changed. Nowadays many people suffering with sex addiction can have loving, intimate relationships,  but still act out. They may withdraw from intimacy out of secrecy and shame but it does not mean they are incapable of it. Sex is not necessarily about intense eroticism and this kind of attitude can cause partners to doubt the authenticity of their intimate moments and overall relationship.

“Sex addicts are a risk to children”

First of all, let me state clearly that there is no evidence that having sex addiction makes you a dangerous parent. Unlike other addictions, sex addiction has no physical or mental impairment and there is no chemical ‘comedown’ or hangover to cloud judgement. Unfortunately, many people believe that sex addiction and sex offending go hand in hand, but these cases are rare. In the same way as few people with chemical addiction resort to crime, neither do those with sex addiction.  Whilst the behaviours may feel ‘out of control’, and many couple boundaries may have been crossed, that doesn’t mean that all of them will be.

“You must have known on some level”

The problem with hindsight is that we can feel ashamed that we ‘didn’t see the signs’ because they often seem so obvious when we look back. But here’s the important thing to remember. Sex addiction is invisible and can exist and flourish whilst remaining completely and totally concealed. Hindsight is not the same as unconscious knowing. So when a person tells us “well you must have known on some level,” it can almost feel like an accusation. It can lead a partner to doubt themselves and feel responsible and ashamed. But hindsight depends on there being new information to shed light on the past. Just because you can see now does not mean you should have been able to see then.

“He/she is not what you thought they were”

This idea is often offered by well-meaning friends and intended as comfort and support. It is meant to shift the burden of responsibility and shame but can actually have the opposite effect. It implies that you made a catastrophic mistake about the entire person instead of simply not knowing about the addiction. When someone is found to be suffering with sex addiction, everything about their life is called into question. Who they are, what they like and dislike, their history, their past relationships and so on. But the reality is that someone suffering with sex addiction can still have a multitude of respectful qualities. In all likelihood, everything you thought they were is still true. But now there is something else and a partner must eventually decide if they can live with it or not.

“You’re overreacting”

When someone you love tells you “it’s not that big a deal,” they are usually trying to comfort you by minimising the gravity of the situation. However, if they genuinely believe what they are saying, it is usually a reflection of their own experiences and what they perceive as normal in society. Interestingly, our definition of ‘normal’ here can vary across different genders or sexual orientations. We’ve all heard the saying “boys will be boys” and something along the lines of “he’s just being a bloke.” On the other hand, male partners of women suffering with sex addiction often have a harder time receiving serious sympathy. They may even be told that they are lucky to have “such a sexual woman.” But as I’ve mentioned before, you cannot deny a person’s right to feel hurt. Sex addiction has the potential to destroy relationships and massively decrease a person’s quality of life – whether they are the one addicted or the partner of them.

“Sex addiction is just an excuse for bad behaviour”

Finally, one of the most damaging misunderstandings of sex addiction is that it does not even exist. The media are certainly quick to dismiss the condition or mindlessly attach the term to some notoriously unfaithful celebrity. Even untrained professionals are guilty of mislabeling people with sex addiction which only fuels the fire of doubt. Sex addiction violates the very core of intimate relationships which is arguably the most fundamental need of human beings. It is profoundly hurtful for those suffering with sex addiction and their partners to see the media shunning what is a painful reality in their lives. Not only do they have to suffer personal pain and betrayal, they have to suffer the judgement of society and professionals.