12 Step Meetings for Spouses of Sex Addiction: Harmful of Helpful?

Spouses of Sex Addiction

“My name is Ella and I am a co-sex addict. “ I said it because everyone else did before they shared and I wanted to share too. I needed to share! Only weeks after the discovery of my husband’s sex addiction, I was in quite a fragile state. Nothing could have prepared me for the pain and confusion I was experiencing. You would think as a Licensed Professional Counselor I would be more familiar with sex addiction. But I don’t recall the term ever being mentioned in graduate school, and if it was, it was only briefly touched on. What I knew of sex addiction was based on one instance I had seen on a TV drama series, where a philandering young doctor is convinced to go to a 12 step meeting for sex addicts. He went to one meeting and ended up going home with a woman he met there. I just thought some men were cheaters, lacking self-control and moral character. When my husband told me he was a sex addict, after my discovery of a couple affairs, I didn’t know what to think, and wondered if it was just an excuse. Only the severity and frequency of the acting out behavior he shared with me made me realize this was more than normal self-gratification.

So while I was inclined to believe there was some truth to my husband’s sex addiction claim, I had no clue what I was supposed to do with this devastating information. So there I was sitting in a circle of strangers because the therapist my husband and I were seeing told me to. Normally this was the last place you’d find me. I wasn’t a “support group” kind of person. I preferred to talk to someone one on one and I definitely didn’t need to get help for a problem that wasn’t mine. I said I was a co-sex addict so I could get this horrific story out of me, where it was growing like a cancer. I didn’t know what the term even meant, other than that I was in a relationship with a sex addict. I really didn’t take the time to think about it. I really had lost the capacity to think clearly about anything and most of the time walked around in a fog. I forgot simple tasks, couldn’t focus on a TV show, and the thought of food repulsed me. While I normally am the kind of person who makes up my own mind can be quite opinionated, I was in unchartered territory and I was willing to do whatever I was told if there was even a chance it might ease the pain just a little. So if the expert told me I was a co-sex addict, so be it.

Sharing in the COSA group did not bring the much needed relief I was hoping for. I don’t know if it’s a woman thing, a human nature thing or just a me thing, but I wanted feedback.  Even asympathetic smile or knowing glance would have been nice. But I got nothing. No one even passed me the box of tissue that was out of my reach. Later I learned that even that was a form of cross-talk.

I attended two more COSA meetings. The first two were because they were required for the Couple’s Intensive my husband and I were doing with a well known sex addiction therapist. The Intensive was quite beneficial. The COSA meetings were not. The third COSA meeting was my effort to be compliant and hope that maybe this one would be different. It wasn’t.

By then I was starting to question some things. First of all, the no cross talk meant no relational element to the groups. I believe we were created to be relational people. I stayed late like was suggested and tried talking to some of the women then, but I just didn’t feel like I fit in. It was awkward and I wasn’t in a place where I had the motivation to go up to random people and introduce myself.

By this point I had learned that the term co-sex addict meant that I was the codependent of a sex addict. My initial response to this was to think it was absurd. I am not codependent. But seeing as at this point in my life so much of what I believed to be true had turned out to be a lie, I second guessed most everything.

So I went online and took a self-test that was supposed to tell me if I was codependent.  Some of the “yes” or “no” questions were no brainers for me. Do I feel responsible for the actions of others? No. Do I overcommit myself, only to feel angry about it later? No. Do I obsessively clean the house, cook, or do laundry, only to please someone else? My husband wishes! Do I feel ashamed about my family or other personal relationships? No, but my family could tell you about a few times when I have embarrassed them as I unabashedly regaled others with family stories I thought were hilarious. 

Other questions were not so clear. Do I lose sleep worrying about another person? Sometimes, like when my daughter was very sick. And of course at that time, when I wasn’t oversleeping to escape the newfound misery that had become my life, I was obsessing about my husband’s actions. Was this an abnormal response to my discovery? Do I go to the doctor to get sedatives of tranquilizers? Well, I did then. The panic attacks that came on suddenly when I would imagine the things my husband had done with other women weren’t fun.

I had spent 8 years building a life with this man. I had taken vows before God that I would spend the rest of my life with this person. Doesn’t the bible say that two are to become one in marriage? So doesn’t it make sense that I wouldn’t just take in stride the fact that my husband had broken these vows, over and over? Now that I have counseled many women struggling with this very thing, I don’t think I have met one women who hasn’t been plagued with the very same questions that flooded my mind at that time. Is this my fault? If I was prettier, thinner, kinder, would he still have strayed? Is he going to do this again? And like most of the women I talk to, I snooped to see if I could find more evidence of his behavior. I did things to try to prevent my husband from acting out again. I researched sex addiction treatment and told my husband about what I found.

I cannot tell you how many women have communicated to me their confusion over being told by well-meaning therapists and COSAleaders that they need to stop thinking about their husband and focus on themselves. Um…..seriously?! We find out our husband is addicted to looking at pornography or having sex with others, and the fact that we can’t stop thinking about it is unhealthy?    

Because of the wonderful book, Your Sexually Addicted Spouse, I am not going to specifically go into the trauma model versus the codependency model here. I will just say….read it. It is a critical read for every spouse of a sex addict or anyone who works with spouses of sex addicts or sex addicts who are married. And I cannot express enough appreciation to Marsha Means, co-author of this book, who I met shortly after my discovery of my husband’s addiction. Marsha explained the trauma theory to me before most experts or therapists in the field had heard of it. Armed with this knowledge I was better equipped to navigate my way through my new life as a wife of a sex addict.

Blog post: Cosa Does Help Some

The Elephant in the Room

It’s happened to all of us. The week has been going great, no talk of addiction, no questions, and she is even smiling. Then it happens. You may be in a restaurant,  driving in your car, or watching TV….an attractive women walks past the table, you pass a certain road or part of town, or some lewd commercial comes on while you’re watching the ABC Family Network of all things.  Whatever it may be, your once happy ignorant bliss is now covered in a thick heavy blanket of unease, making it hard for you to breathe while beads of sweat appear on your forehead. You noticed it; and regardless if you bounced your eyes, took a second look, drifted off into fantasy or turned away and captured your thoughts as Paul instructs us to do, Dumbo is now flying around.

Is she aware of what has just happened? Well, it’s not so difficult to notice an elephant with big ears flying around. If you’re a Star Wars fan you can equate it to a disturbance in the force. Still, as obvious as it is, we remain silent. We think that if we don’t acknowledge it we can somehow return to the way things were two seconds ago. Two seconds ago when she was happy. What the heck just happened? Just like you have certain triggers, so does your wife. And as sure as your triggers bring up things for you, so do hers.

I can’t really put into words the trauma our wives have endured. As a man I can’t even fathom it. If someone were to tell me to try and put myself in her place I simply couldn’t do it. If I’m honest with myself, and I think about if the table had been turned, I don’t think I would stay. I don’t know that I could bear the pain. Understanding the grace that our wives have extended us is a very difficult concept. The strength that it must take to persevere while being bombarded by constant reminders, nightmares, and visions is foreign to me. If you’re like me, I needed to “get it”. I had to try my best with my male brain to empathize, not only with what my wife has been through, but with what was happening to my wife during these times when she was triggered.

In Vietnam many American soldiers were subjected to horrible trauma, some were taken prisoner, and many who returned suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  At the time PTSD was not mainstream, causing our vets to become isolated. Many soldiers thought it was weakness on their part. We’ve all seen the movies where a soldier has a flashback that manifests with intense physical reactions to reminders of the event (e.g. pounding heart, rapid breathing, nausea, muscle tension, sweating, hypervigilence). Movies like Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, and Born on the Fourth of July give us a visual image of what PTDS looks like. These movies unleash the inner mindset of combat veterans trying their best to cope with the trauma of war. Characters clearly exhibit classic symptoms of PTSD such as uncontrollable anger, emotional numbing, denial, keyed up startle responses, an interest in recreating traumatizing events, and substance abuse. Likewise, our wives often experience symptoms of PTSD.

Barbara Steffens, Ph.D., and Marsha Means, MA address “The Trauma Perspective” in their book, Your Sexually Addicted Spouse. “Prior to this discovery the person believed his or her partner loved only him or her and remained faithful. Suddenly their relationship holds danger and dark secrets. Discovering that much of your life is built on lies proves traumatizing and destroys one’s sense of safety and security”. Why can we accept this in others, but not in our wives? As husbands we have to be aware of what is going on and do whatever we can to help.

Insecurity vs. trust- It is ludicrous for us to believe that because our wives go into a defensive position every time they are reminded of our acting out, that they are “just being insecure”.

    

If you have some strange notion that just because it’s been six months or even five years and you feel she should be “over it” by now, then I want you to be honest and think back to some traumatic event that happened in your life and ask yourself how long it took you to get over it. Most of us have never had to deal with our issues sober, so next time you think that she should be “over it” think back to that one issue that you’re still not over.  Remember we’ve had our “drug” to help cope. She’s doing this sober (hopefully), scared, alone, and shattered; fearing the worst while praying for the best. Don’t allow things to become obscured. It’s easy to look at how far you’ve come in your recovery and feel really good about yourself.  I know about resentment and how it’s easy to feel like she’s not seeing any change. To me it seemed as if every time I was really making progress she would bring something up. I hated it; I didn’t want to revisit all the horrible things I had done. I assumed that she could just see that I was a changed man. I was under the delusion that trust could be built over night……it can’t. 

Fear can be crippling. I remember feeling frozen when some of the truth about my addiction first came out. Even in the face of hard evidence, when my wife was pleading with me to tell her the truth, I couldn’t do it. So by telling you this let me say emphatically how much I understand the overwhelming urge to keep the peace and stay silent. It’s critical for us to empathize with our wife, and during her time of need, overcome your fears. All of us have a protective instinct. We just have to realize when our wives are in danger.

So how do we come to her aid? Communicate. Let me say that again… communicate. This is scary but vital. For most of us, male and female, the fear of the unknown is terrifying. That’s what your wife is struggling with. “How can he say he loves me and still look at other women?” or “Why am I not enough for him?” or “Is he fantasizing about that woman right now?”. These are but a few of the questions that have been posed to me in my own marriage. Men, you are going to see beautiful women, just as you are going to see nature’s beauty. I do not believe this is a sin, however let me be clear the fact that we are visually drawn to women does not make it ok to linger or give into lust.

So, when you feel the flapping of giant ears around you, become proactive! Reject passivity! Be the man your wife wants you to be, the man God has designed you to be (see 1 Timothy 1:11-12).  It can be as simple as taking her hand in yours and giving it a light squeeze to let her know you are aware of what just happened or it can be as difficult as answering all her questions. Be ready, and be honest. The most important thing I’ve learned in my recovery is to be honest and forthright.  If my wife asks me if I noticed a women I have to acknowledge if I did or didn’t. If she wants to know if I thought the woman was attractive….yes or no? It’s natural for us to want to avoid hurting our wives feelings but the honesty you provide will far outweigh the moments of discomfort.  It’s your job to fill in the blanks. This will not be a pleasant experience but I am almost certain your wife will appreciate your honesty.  Support her, comfort her, ask questions, and ask if you can pray with her……communicate.  Destroy the fear of the unknown, break the silence, and watch Dumbo fly away.

How Ill-Informed Professionals Can Do More Harm Than Good

I just finished reading an article written by a previous co-worker I have loosely kept in touch with and found myself quite frustrated by some of what she said. She wrote this article, as a counseling professional, about the effect of pornography and sexually-oriented businesses on relationships. I should mention she does not specialize in sex addiction and is not a Christian. I would like to share with you the message I sent my colleague in response to her article. I’m not sure how this will affect my relationship with her, but I could not simply sit by while she offered such poor advice to people who likely see her as a credible source. I have changed her name out of respect for her privacy:

Sara,

I have to say that while you make some great points in your article, you seem quite naive about the whole pornography industry and the harm it causes. You may feel I am projecting due to my history, but on the other hand, because of my personal experiences I have become very educated on the topic and specialize in working with sexual addiction (primarily wives of sex addicts). You mention the possible consequences of visiting sexually oriented businesses, but I don't think you understand that these are much more than possibilities. Things like a person becoming less attracted to or having unrealistic expectations of their partner after viewing porn on a regular basis, are most likely going to happen. At the very least, pornography and these “sordid businesses” you mention, will severely interfere with or prevent intimacy in a relationship.

You recommend being open with your partner (always a good thing) and limiting how often one visits strip clubs. Most of the time, whether they admit it or not, a person will feel hurt and betrayed by their partner’s viewing of pornography or visiting sexually oriented businesses. Your advice to limit visiting strip clubs etc. to “several hours a month” is ignoring the progressive nature of pornography and the sex industry. A person easily becomes desensitized to certain things and needs them more often and/or to a higher degree to get that same level of excitement (i.e. moving from soft core to hard core porn, from strip clubs to massage parlors, or going from viewing porn occasionally to daily). No, this does not always happen, but it happens often enough for it to be a risk not worth taking.

Sara, I am shocked that you can state “four out of five divorcees say that pornography of some kind played a significant role in their divorces” and then say that the “brighter side of sex-oriented businesses” is that they can “spice up a dull sex life”. I’d be willing to bet that viewing pornography or visiting sexually oriented businesses causes a dull sex life (due to the lack of intimacy) a lot more often than it spices it up. Many have said that once their partner stopped this kind of behavior completely, they found a level of intimacy they had never known before.

You also mention that if you are in a relationship and going to prostitutes you may be a sex addict. That is not the definition of sex addiction. Not even close. A person can never even have physical sex with a person outside their marriage and still be a sex addict. A person can suffer from sex addiction even if they are not in a relationship at all. If you are going to address these things as a professional, please do your research first. While it may seem harmless at times, pornography in any form/strip clubs etc. are always a bad idea due to the inherent risks. This is why the bible says that lust is a sin. We need to be making an effort not to have lustful thoughts about anyone other than our partner, not putting ourselves in situations where the entire point is to lust, or more.

The website Porn-free.org states, "Webster's Dictionary defines lust as ‘intense or unbridled sexual desire’, ‘an intense longing: craving’ and a ‘conscious impulse toward something that promises enjoyment or satisfaction in its attainment.’ The problem with lust is that it is based in selfishness and works contrary to love. In fact, it is the opposite of love (see lust vs. love). When fed, it can grow into an uncontrollable force in a person's life. Like a wildfire, lust can consume a person's resources, time and attention." Visit Porn-free.org and click on "How Porn Works". Great Info!

Sara, I also recommend you go to sexhelp.com, a great secular website, to learn more on sex addiction.

I believe the ideas my colleague expressed in her article originate from the views of our corrupt society that pornography and promiscuity are normal. We live in a world where the concept “if it feels good do it” prevails. I hope we can begin to see the destruction that comes from such an open-minded view of sexuality.

How Do I Ever Feel Like Enough?

After I got past the initial shock of my husband's sex addiction, amidst the constant graphic images I had created in my head of his acting out, there was one question that kept swirling around in my mind. How can I ever feel loved or attractive to him again? No matter how much my husband told me he loved me or that he thought I was beautiful, I couldn't accept it as true. How could I compare to the women on the computer screen and on the "adult" movies at hotels?

As I talk with women today I repeatedly hear this same type of question. Although I have personally found peace with this issue, I still find it a challenge to explain it to other women in a way that makes sense. After all, there were no electives in high school entitled, All About Boys. And while some of our dad's told us, "boys are only after one thing", we still didn't really get what that meant or that this problem doesn't go away as a boy becomes a man.

I'll never forget the first time my eyes were opened to how the male brain works. Months before I discovered my husband's addiction, he purchased a copy of Every Man's Battle, by Steve Arterburn. I picked it up and read the first chapter. I was horrified! "Every man thinks this way!" I exclaimed to my husband. After all, he had assured me many times during our eight years of marriage that he never fantasized about other women and, while he occasionally noticed an attractive women, he never went farther than that. My husband even criticized married men who went to Hooters, saying it was disrespectful to their wives. And once again, he explained this one away as just being a book someone recommended and that he was not like the men described in the book. The wool was sure pulled over my eyes.

Everywhere we turn there is sex. Billboards advertising tanning salons or beer, neon lights inviting men to see "Live Nude Women," Victoria's Secret commercials. And we all hear about "locker room" conversation. So then why is it so shocking when we find out our husband likes to look at naked women? Maybe because, as in my case, we convince ourselves our husband is different. Maybe we think that after marriage the good guys don't think that way any more. Maybe it's just denial.

So how can a woman ever feel like her husband is attracted to her after discovering his desire for other women, whether in his thoughts or in his actions? Unfortunately, sometimes the truth is that a man has become so warped by years of viewing pornography that he no longer is attracted to his wife. There is still hope that if he stops this behavior his desire for her will return. That is the beauty of the plastic mind. It is always changing. While exposing the mind to negative things can cause it to desire negative things, when those things are replaced with positive things (i.e. God, family, bible study), the desires of the mind and the heart will change too.

Right now I want to focus on those men who are getting the help they need, going to meetings and counseling, doing whatever it takes to hopefully salvage their marriage. Clearly these men place a high value on their wife. In so many cases it would be much easier to run, and addicts usually have a habit of avoiding and escaping. So for a sex addict to stay and do the work, he must believe that staying in his marriage will bring him greater satisfaction than immersing himself further in a lifestyle of sexual acting out.

But we women, who are so wounded and scarred, just don't see this as enough evidence. We have been betrayed in the worst way one can imagine. Will anything ever be enough? If we are blessed to have a husband who is succeeding in sexual sobriety, and we have made the decision that to stay in the marriage is what is best, then maybe we need to do some research on our own to understand the male mind. After all, for many of those male minds, it is virtually impossible for them to explain themselves in a way that we can understand and accept. The result can be a whole lot of frustration for both parties.

Here's what I have come up with so far and you might not like it. You are not the most beautiful woman in the world. Not by society's standards, not by your own standards, and probably not even by your husband's standards. Ugh! What a punch in the gut! I'd much rather believe that at least to my husband there is no woman he finds more attractive than me. But you know what? There is something even better than being physically beautiful. After all, no matter how gorgeous a woman may be according to our culture's viewpoint, we all know beauty fades. Pregnancy, age, and stress all take a toll on our bodies. There sure as heck better be something more than my looks that keeps my husband around.

I like the way Bill Perkins puts it in his book, When Good Men Are Tempted. "The magnetism of a magnet isn't based on the physical appearance of the magnet but on the makeup of the magnet. It's what's on the inside that pulls the opposite poles together." Bill continues to explain that when a man turns to God and gets his priorities straight, his wife can become, "his God-given sexual playmate". He is able to "harness his passions and direct them toward his wife".

It is in our nature to want what we can't have. This is even talked about in the Bible, such as when King David desired Bethsheba, a married woman, even though he had many beautiful wives and concubines. You may relate to this if you compare it to dieting. Once you tell yourself cake is off limits, what do you want most?

There's another analogy that helps me, but to share this with you I have a confession to make. I'm a Twilighter. That's right, a wife and mom, no longer in her teens, not even in her twenties, and I have read every book in the Twilight Saga and seen every movie. And I am head over heels for Edward. How can I not be? He is THE perfect man. He's strong enough to physically stop an oncoming car from hitting his love interest, can recite Shakespeare, speaks several languages, always knows what to say, isn't uncomfortable expressing his emotions, and willing to do whatever it takes to protect his lover and make her happy. I admit there have been times I have wished my husband were more like Edward. I see this as innocent fun, but is it that different from my husband fantasizing about another woman's body?

Romantic comedies and romance novels often portray men in a light much more flattering than the men in our reality. If we're not careful we can begin to see our husband as not good enough, without even realizing why we are thinking that way. I wonder how many marriages have ended because of these unrealistic expectations of men we get from TV, fiction books, and movies. I truly believe that movies and books such as Twilight are shaping many teenage girls' view of what romance should look like and could potentially harm future relationships.

My conclusion? Learn to accept that you are beautiful in God's eyes; no matter if you are twenty-one or seventy-nine, no matter if you weigh 105 or 355. Accept that if your husband tells you he thinks you are beautiful, he probably means it. Accept that love and intimacy don't come from what you look like, but from something much deeper, and much more satisfying. Trust that if both you and your husband are willing to turn to Him, God will provide what you need to have that kind of gratifying love for each other.

NOTE FROM ELLA:

I encourage you to read the books I have mentioned in this article to help you further your knowledge on this topic and better understand your husband.

Am I a Co-Addict?

I am becoming increasingly frustrated that the term co-addict or co-sex addict is used interchangeably with partner or spouse in the field of sex addiction. If you have done much research I am sure you have found this to be true. If you are in a relationship with a sex addict, you are automatically labeled a co-sex addict. In my opinion, the term Co-addict implies we are part of the problem. Considering the trauma the discovery of a spouse’s sex addiction causes, giving someone the impression that it is partially their fault just makes matters worse. Add to it that we are told being a codependent of an addict (another expression used to describe partners of sex addicts) is a disease. A disease! Even if we were in a marriage where we had no idea that our husband was a sex addict for years, until that fateful day when it all came tumbling out (or those miserable weeks and months when little bits leaked out at time). Addicts are great liars and very manipulative. No one denies this. But we are told, or it is at least implied, that we should have seen the signs. Since we didn’t, we were in denial. Were we in denial or did we go into a marriage believing our vows, believing the commitment we made to each other and “til death to us part”? Was that dumb of us? Was that naive? Anything less and a therapist would say we had trust issues or abandonment issues. So if we believed our husband when he told us the pornography in the computer history was just a pop-up, that we were just being insecure when we thought he was being flirtatious with another woman, or that he was asleep when we couldn’t reach him in his hotel while he was on business, does that make us sick?

One Certified Sexual Addiction Therapists’s website states, “A woman in a relationship with a sexual addict is a codependent of a sexual addict whose self esteem comes from success as a people-pleaser.” The bold print is not mine, it is how it is printed on the website. Pretty emphatic. It does not say “some women”, or “sometimes”, or even “often”. It says “is” implying “always”. The website goes on to say:

Codependency has to do with trying to take care of and control an addict. Some individuals are actually attracted to people with problems such as sexual addiction because their own self-esteem is built too much on looking after someone who needs them. The codependent of a sexual addict (or co-addict for short) is usually much more in tune with what someone else wants than with her own wants and needs.

I can’t fault this CSAT. They are only reciting back what they have been taught. But if they had been there before, they may feel differently. I am definitely not saying that some partners of sex addicts are not codependent. Many are.  But my experience shows that many are not.  Even for those who are codependent, is that the first thing that needs to be addressed with a women suffering from her husband’s betrayal?