The Relational Processes of Sexual Addiction

This article is part of the December MAMFT newsletter, in which presenters for the 2017 Couples Conference, Tangled Truths, provide thoughts on sex therapy and trauma.

Delia* discovered that her husband, Timothy*, was having an affair four weeks before they showed up in my office. She later discovered this was only the beginning of a horrific parade of shocking news:

·      This was his 4th affair.
·      He watched pornography daily, at home and in the office.
·      He routinely visited massage parlors and strip clubs when she thought he was “working.”
·      One of his affair partners was a co-worker and subordinate, who was now suing him for “sexual harassment” and demanding $1.5 million dollars from his corporation.
·      He may be fired from his well-paying job of 15 years.

And one additional fact Delia knew all too well: the couple had been sexually inactive for the past 10 years.

Half of that information he told Delia the first week after he admitted he had been unfaithful. The remaining news took place in my office over the next 8 weeks. I told both of them I believed that Timothy was a “sex addict,” despite Timothy’s initial strong protest.

Alexandra Katehakis recently wrote about treating sexual addiction from an individual perspective in Sex Addiction as Affect Dysregulation: A Neurobiologically Informed Holistic Treatment. Her perspective estimates that approximately 85% of people who struggle with sexual addictions have a history of trauma, and deservedly need treatment. Individual psychotherapy and psychoeducation are important in treating this process.

But what about the marriage?

couple-sunset-minWould you know how to help Delia and Timothy with their relationship if they presented in your office?

These and related issues will be discussed at the Third Western Massachusetts Couples Symposium entitled: Tangled Truths: Helping Couples Living with the Aftermath of Sexual Trauma on January 27, 2017.

The impact of learning about an affair has been compared to PTSD. But the impact of discovering that your partner has had multiple affairs and sexually addictive behaviors can be even more overwhelming. And few men have admitted their full sexual history, including the presence of sexual trauma to anyone, let alone their spouses.

For hurt partners like Delia, the relationship that was once comfort and comforting is now dangerous. Delia had been raped as an adolescent, and later told me that she was particularly moved by the plight of sexually exploited women. Instead of a loving husband and father, Timothy was now seen as an exploiter of vulnerable women…and an untrustworthy liar. Her own history of abuse was alive and well in my office.

Like most people confronting their partner’s sexual addictive behaviors, a history of traumatic stress, addictions, or mental illness worsens the interactional traumatic dance of hurt, pain, criticism, and/or withdrawing between the couple. In the face of discovering sexual addictive behavior in her partner, Delia’s early unresolved traumas and unfinished business threatened to overwhelm and erode her capacity for self-regulation.

And while she had justified to herself living in a sexless marriage of the past decade, the news of her husband’s sexual behavior was a tremendous blow to her self-esteem.

Katehakis points to a host of autonomic responses in people who learn about sexual addictive behaviors of their partners. Acute stress ranging from sympathetic hyperarousal (acute stress and panic attacks) to parasympathetic hypo-arousal (depression and dissociation) and include many of the following:

Symptoms of Sympathetic hyper-aroused dissociation in the partner can include:

  • Intrusive images/ re-experiencing
  • Panic Attacks
  • Hyper-vigilance
  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Nightmares
  • Sleeplessness
  • Mood Swings
  • Rage
  • Revenge-Seeking
  • Health problems
  • Hyper-sexuality
  • Over-Eating

The partner may find him/herself saying, as a result of sympathetic hyper-aroused dissociation in the partner:

  • “I want to kill him/her”
  • “I hate his/her guts”
  • “I hope he/she rots in hell”
  • “He/she can drop dead for all I care”

Symptoms of Parasympathetic Hypo-aroused Dissociation in the Partner:

  • Emotional Numbness
  • Intellectualization
  • Rationalization
  • Dissociation
  • Obsession
  • Confusion
  • Helplessness
  • Immobility
  • Avoidance
  • Denial
  • Health Problems
  • Excessive Sleeping
  • Loss of Appetite

The partner may find him/herself saying, as a result of para-sympathetic hyper-aroused dissociation in the partner:

  • “A part of me is dying inside”
  • “I feel gutted”
  • “I’m shattered”

When these reactions are part of the psychoeducational process, strategies to both recognize and moderate these reactions can be used. More importantly, the spouse has an important role in the healing process.

Timothy’s Reaction

Timothy had his own biochemical soup to contend with: crippling shame, shock at the confrontation of his sexual behaviors, a legitimate fear of losing his job, his marriage, and the life he knew. And bewilderment at why he acted the way he did. He even felt suicidal at times.

While his actions inflicted emotional damage onto Delia, he also needed her support, as she needed his in the healing process.

The process of healing involves multiple steps including:

  • Admitting the emotional, financial, and sexual impact of these sexual behaviors.
  • Rallying the willingness to do battle.
  • Processing the emotional needs that energize the process of sexual addiction.
  • Reclaiming of the self: “A Dark Night of the Soul.”
  • Owning sexuality instead of being owned by it.
  • Tolerating feelings, compassion for self, in the ability to connect for comfort with caring others.
  • Recognize that relapse, if you will, is common.

The healing process occurs over time. It may take up 3 to 5 years because only consistent, daily actions produce reliable psycho-neurobiological changes.

When people with sexually addictive behaviors can shift away from crippling shame and into more compassionate views of themselves, they might begin to provide what their partners need: embodied empathy for the partner dealing with the shattering impact of the disclosure. However, for Delia and Timothy, this was a distant therapeutic goal.

Will you have the skills and know-how to help them through this journey?

We invite you to join the dialogue on January 27, at the Smith College Conference Center in Northampton.

Registration starts at 9:30 AM, and the conference hours are from 10:00 am – 4:30 pm. Seats are limited, so register early.

*Not their real names.  Details disguised to protect their identity.

Dr. Kathy McMahon is the President and Founder of Couples Therapy Inc., where she directs online couples therapy and couples retreats along with traditional couples therapy. She teaches Human Sexuality & Sex Therapy in the Doctoral Program in Clinical Psychology at Antioch University. She is also a Certified Gottman Therapist.

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