“Stephanie” came to see me after discovering that her attorney husband “Sam” had been visiting prostitutes during his lunch hour. She learned this one night while up late with their sick toddler. Sam had forgotten to log out of his secret e-mail account, the one he used to schedule hook-ups with escorts, exotic masseuses, and women he met in online chat rooms. Stephanie found the password to Sam’s account and was soon checking it several times a day.
“My friends hate him,” she told me. “Everyone says I should leave.”
Stephanie had good reasons for wanting to end her marriage. When she confronted Sam about her discovery, he showed no remorse, and in fact blamed his sexploits on her, stating that her lack of sexual experimentation drove him to have sex with strangers. Besides rejecting her sexually, Sam showed little interest in their daughter. He was rarely home; when he wasn’t spending time with other women, he was clocking long hours at the law firm, hoping to make partner.
Stephanie had consulted with a divorce attorney and was told that she was entitled to a generous settlement package and monthly support. Unlike many young mothers, Stephanie was in the position to leave an unhappy marriage and be able to provide a good standard of living for herself and her child.
“Do you think I should leave?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “But I think you should take a year to figure it out.”
Why Partners of Sexual Compulsives Benefit from the One-Year Rule
The discovery of a partner’s sexual compulsivity is a wake-up call. If both partners are committed to recovery, the relationship could actually be transformed into a real union marked by genuine intimacy and integrity. But finding out if this is possible takes time. Unless physical abuse is present, or children’s safety is threatened, a partner should ideally spend a year in treatment before deciding whether to stay or go. The following is a suggested treatment plan for couples dealing with sexual acting-out within a partnership. For the sake of clarity, I refer to sexual compulsives as “he” and their partners as “she,” although the reverse can certainly be true.
What the Sexual Compulsive Needs to Do
- Commit to treatment. This usually involves individual therapy, 12-step programs such as SAA, and, depending on the severity of the acting-out behaviors, an inpatient or intensive outpatient treatment program.
- Take accountability. Sexual compulsives choose to cheat; they are not driven to cheat by their partners. The first step in the sexual compulsive’s recovery is to take responsibility for hurting his partner and threatening his family’s stability. If he doesn’t genuinely take ownership of his behaviors, recovery is not possible.
- Identify and abstain from bottom-line behaviors. These may include affairs, prostitutes, massage parlors, chat rooms, masturbating to porn. Therapy and 12-step groups can also help the sexual compulsive identify slippery-slope behaviors such as flirting, cruising, and using the computer without net nannies (that prevent the addict from clicking on porn sites).
- Disclosure. Disclosures are facilitated by therapists in couples sessions. Typically, the sexual compulsive reads aloud his sexual history, including behaviors that occurred within the marriage or relationship. The therapist will assist the couple in processing this information and setting boundaries for acceptable behavior. The disclosure is crucial: the betrayed partner needs to know the extent of her partner’s behavior in order to decide whether she can stay in the relationshipi.
What the Betrayed Partner Needs to Do
- Commit to her own recovery. Partners tend to be caretakers who structure their lives around their significant other. Their own needs, wants, and values are often obscured by years of self-neglect due to “other focus.” Further, it is draining living with someone whose attention is always elsewhere. The partner must shift her focus from the other person to her own mental, emotional, and physical health.
- Get appropriate treatment. This means individual therapy with a therapist trained in sexual compulsivity, 12-step groups geared for partners such as COSA, therapist-facilitated partner support groups, and psychoeducation about co-addiction. Although partners are never responsible for the other person’s actions, they need to learn why they chose this person and how they might have used their obsession with their partner to keep themselves from focusing on their own lives.
- Manage her own treatment, not her partner’s.The discovery of intimate partner betrayal is intensely traumatic. The betrayed partner often becomes hypervigilant, trying to control the other person to prevent further trauma. Snooping through her partner’s belongings, calling multiple times a day to check his whereabouts, telling his therapist how to treat him, are all understandable responses to trauma, but can actually be re-traumatizing, in addition to shifting the focus from where it needs to be: on herself. The betrayed partner must learn the only person she can control is herself.
- Rebuild her life. Even if she decides to stay, she needs to set personal goals that will enhance her life. This may mean taking charge of finances, seeking paid work, developing a self-care program, and nurturing relationships with friends and family.
When It’s Time to Leave
After one year in her own treatment, Stephanie had enough information to make her decision. Sam had never truly committed to recovery; he went to therapy erratically and refused to attend 12-step groups. He never gave her a formal disclosure of his sexual history and continued to act out sexually.
Stephanie, on the other hand, diligently attended individual therapy, 12-step meetings and a partner’s support group. She reconnected with family and friends. She harnessed her self-proclaimed “obsessive tendencies” into a part-time business as a personal organizer and set up a separate bank account with funds from her organizing work. When it was clear that Sam was not invested in saving the marriage, she was emotionally and logistically ready to leave.
Even when a situation as destructive as sexual compulsivity is present, a partner should not leave a marriage or relationship in haste, despite what friends or family may urge. Taking a year to focus on personal growth — whether or not the other person chooses to do the same — will give partners clarity and empower them to make the decision that is right for them.