For spouses and partners of sex addicts, it’s not the extramarital sex itself that causes the most pain. Instead, it’s the betrayal of relationship trust – the lying, the secrets, and the ongoing deceit. For a healthy, emotionally attached primary partner this experience of profound and usually unexpected betrayal can be incredibly traumatic. One recent study of women married to sexually addicted men found that many of these women, upon learning of their husband’s infidelity, experienced acute stress and anxiety symptoms characteristic of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This means that specialists who deal with sexual infidelity and sexual addiction must be aware of and ready to accurately and effectively address the oftentimes fragile emotional state of cheated-on spouses.
Typically, the trauma evoked by the profound emotional betrayal (as occurs with sexual addiction) manifests in one or more of the following ways:
- Emotional instability, including frequent mood shifts, over-the-top emotional reactions, tearfulness, rage, etc.
- Hyper-vigilant behaviors such as checking bills, wallets, computer files, phone apps, browser histories, and the like for evidence of continued infidelity
- Predicting and/or expecting future betrayals
- Anxiety, depression, loss of self-esteem, and other PTSD-like symptoms
- Being easily triggered into mistrust of the cheating partner – trigger examples include the spouse coming home five minutes late, turning off the computer too quickly, looking “too long” at an attractive person, etc.
- Sleeplessness or inability to wake up, nightmares
- Difficulty focusing on day-to-day events, such as picking the kids up from school, shopping, household chores, and the like
- Obsessing about the betrayal, and struggling to stay “in the moment”
- Avoiding thinking about or discussing the betrayal
- Compulsive escapist behaviors with food, spending, eating, or other potentially addictive activities
Sometimes there is a gender difference in the way betrayed spouses react. Generally speaking, betrayed females see things globally, thinking, “It’s not just me that you’ve betrayed, it’s our kids, our home, and our community.” Betrayed males, on the other hand, may view spousal betrayal as a personal assault on their ego, thinking things like, “I’m not a good enough husband,” or, “I could have been cheating too.” In short, women typically feel as if their entire lives have been ruined, whereas men worry mostly about themselves. Again, these are generalizations. Not everyone responds according to type. Either way, the responses of the cheated-on partner are often quite extreme.
Much of the trauma evoked by the disclosure of a supposedly monogamous sex addict’s behaviors stems from timing. Addicts have obviously known about their extracurricular sexual behaviors all along, and once found out they often report feelings of relief that things are finally out in the open. Betrayed partners, however, are typically blindsided by the information. Often, betrayed spouses have had their intuition – their sense that something was not right in the relationship – denied for years by the unfaithful partner who continually insisted that he or she was not cheating and the worried spouse was simply being paranoid and mistrustful. In this way betrayed spouses can be made to feel, over time, as if it is their emotional insecurity (rather than the addict’s behavior) that is the source of their relationship problems. Sadly, even emotionally healthy people are vulnerable to this type of gaslighting, primarily because it occurs slowly and almost imperceptibly. It’s a bit like placing a frog in a pot of warm water that it is then set to a slow boil. Because the temperature rises so gradually, the frog never even realizes it’s being cooked.
Addressing the Needs of Betrayed Spouses
The primary initial concern when treating a sexually betrayed spouse is safety. This includes physical health (STDs, family violence), emotional health, and child/family safety (young kids seeing dad’s porn, etc.) At the same time it is important to uncover and process specific betrayals that might make the situation overwhelming, such as having an affair with a best friend or a relative. It is always important to recognize that betrayed partners are typically riding a trauma-induced emotional roller-coaster. In other words, they are likely to display high levels of emotional lability both in and out of the therapy room for quite some time, typically for 9 to 18 months. During this “crisis” period, the clinical needs of cheated-on spouses do NOT include:
- Attempts to calm them or de-escalate their affect
- Attempts to get them to “look at their part” in the relationship’s problems
- Explorations of their past of family history
- Explorations of their sexual/romantic life with their spouse
- Using labels like codependent or co-addicted (or otherwise implying there is something wrong with them)
- Attempts to diagnose them as “borderline” or anything else, other than shocked, traumatized, grieving, and in crisis
Just as we would not diagnose the psychological makeup of a parent coming to us for help after his or her child was hit by a car and seriously injured, we should not diagnose a person coming to us for help after his or her marriage has been flattened by infidelity. Instead, we should be looking for concrete ways to help that client simply get through the day. Prematurely forcing a betrayed spouse to look at his or her own issues (the underlying psychological concerns that may have led that person into choosing and/or tolerating the cheating partner in the first place) will likely just reinforce that person’s pre-existing feelings of being defective and/or at fault. As such, it is essential that we recognize the behaviors of betrayed spouses, however erratic they may appear, as nothing more than typical reactions to deep emotional trauma. A year or so later, after the crisis has abated, if the betrayed spouse wishes it, we can consider and address any longer-term issues that he or she may have, such as codependency, attachment deficits, low self-esteem, personality challenges, etc.
Based on this information, for the first 9 to 18 months of treatment (the crisis stage), the clinical needs of betrayed partners DO include:
- Concrete direction regarding healthcare issues and other forms of self-care
- Education about addiction, disclosure, and family dynamics
- Validation of the client’s intuition and feelings
- Assistance with full disclosure by the sex addict
- Guidance toward social support for what the client is experiencing (peer support groups, etc.)
- Insight into the effects of gaslighting on an intimate partner
- Structure geared toward moving forward
Needless to say, betrayed partners of sex addicts have every right to feel angry, hurt, confused, and mistrustful. As such, they understandably rage, split, decompensate, do detective work, try to get an opinion from anyone they can find, and more. This is their reaction to the trauma of infidelity. If these individuals choose to remain in their relationship (as most do), it typically takes a year or more to reestablish relationship trust – and this assumes the sex addict is committed to lasting behavior change. If the betrayed spouse joins the sex addict in his or her efforts by also starting a process of healing, it can speed recovery for both parties.
Ideally, the best setting for a betrayed partner to get treatment is with a clinician who works in tandem with the therapist treating the sex addict. In this way therapists can ensure less splitting and “taking sides.” Couples therapy may entail both individual therapists meeting with the couple together, rather than a separate couples professional. While the spouses of all addicts are encouraged to be in their own individual therapy, they should also expect to have some involvement in the addict’s treatment. In other words, a sex addict’s recovery should not be a mystery or a secret to the cheated-on spouse.
The good news here is that many couples affected by profound sexual betrayal are able to work through these concerns, staying together and ultimately developing stronger and more realistic bonds over time. This is especially true when both partners are committed to change and willing to seek outside support. That said, some partners experiencing betrayal will decide the violation they’ve experienced is greater than their desire to remain in the relationship. For them, trust cannot be restored. In such cases, the role of a counselor is to help that person, and perhaps the couple, to negotiate and process the end of the relationship, while also helping the betrayed spouse develop the self-awareness and skillset he or she needs to avoid poor relationship choices in the future.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. A licensed UCLA MSW graduate and personal trainee of Dr. Patrick Carnes, he founded The Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles in 1995. He is author of Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men and Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Porn, and Love Addiction,and co-author with Dr. Jennifer Schneider of both Untangling the Web: Sex, Porn, and Fantasy Obsession in the Internet Age and Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships. For more information you can visit his website, www.robertweissmsw.com.