by Ella Hutchinson, LPC
Part One of Two
As I look back on almost three years of treating partners of sex addicts I can only think of one who said her husband didn’t have serious issues with anger. Women share stories of their husbands cursing at the lawn mower in the front yard, throwing parts to an entertainment center they’re trying to put together across the room, holes in the wall, road rage, and unfortunately their husbands lashing out at them or their kids for things like spilled milk.
What is this relationship with sex addiction and anger all about? First of all, almost 100% of sex addicts had some kind of abuse (sexual, verbal, emotional, neglect etc.) in their childhood. This abuse is usually something they have not worked through in therapy. There is often resentment towards parents, older siblings, other abusers, or even themselves for the things that happened during childhood. In our society anger is usually the only emotion men can express without a fear of looking weak. So the pain they feel because of their childhood abuse or trauma often comes out as rage.
If we look at the core beliefs of a sex addict we see even more reasons for them to be angry. A sex addict believes he is an unworthy and unlovable person. He usually learned at a young age that he can depend on no one but himself. An exception to this is the addict with a doting parent (usually mother) who learned that he must be incapable of taking care of himself since she does everything for him…reinforcing the feelings of being unworthy. This kind of self-loathing once again is exhibited as displaced anger, usually directed toward wife, kids, or intimate objects.
The biggest reason for a sex addict’s anger, however, is the double life he has lived for so long. Sex addicts are full of secrets and secrets fuel shame. The secrets, like a tumor, grow inside them until they affect every part of their life. I often explain the concept of compartmentalization, how men are much better than women at keeping different parts of their life in separate compartment, thus making it much easier to act out sexually without thinking about their wife or other consequences. However, over time, I see a sex addict’s compartmentalization mechanism start to break down. Their secrets start to spill into other areas of their life. Guilt takes over and that’s when the anger really starts to rear its ugly head and it only gets worse.
There is something called cognitive dissonance. Basically this is when a person is living in a way that contradicts his or her value system. Either the person has to change their belief system or their behavior. Otherwise they are in a constant state of conflict, guilt, confusion, and anxiety. I see sex addicts try desperately to try to resolve this issue by either trying to stop their addictive behavior on their own, by minimizing and denying, or by attempting to normalize or rationalize their behavior. Hence comments like, “Everyone looks at porn” or “I only have sex with other women because my wife gained weight and can no longer turn me on” or “I need to spend money on prostitutes because my wife doesn’t have enough sex with me” or “At least what I did wasn’t as bad as that guy”. This kind of thinking just doesn’t work. The cognitive dissonance doesn’t go away so it shows up as irritability and a bad temper.
When an addict begins recovery, usually because he got caught, the shame he has been living with every day usually gets worse before it gets better. That means the anger may get worse. I have heard many addicts say the day their addiction came out was the worst and best day of their life all in one. The secrets are coming out and a burden is being lifted. But now they have to deal with the aftermath of their behaviors. They may have to deal with legal consequences, job loss, or public humiliation. They have to deal with having to personally accept the reality of the things they have done. But above all, for the married sex addict, he has to face how he has hurt his wife. The shame is now one hundred fold.
If he is lucky enough for his wife to have stuck around, she is probably going through so many mood swings that he can’t even keep up. One minute she is crying hysterically and the next she is yelling at him how he has ruined her life. And the research she is doing is making him crazy! She is learning what he should do to recover. For her it is because she desperately wants to avoid getting hurt like this again. But for him, it often feels like she is trying to micromanage his life. She may drag him to a counselor. She may order twenty books on sex addiction and if she doesn’t see him reading them she accuses him of not caring about her or about his recovery. She may demand he attend 12 step meetings. While at first he felt terrible for how he hurt this woman he loves, he may quickly begin to see her as his worst enemy.
It doesn’t help that the sex addict probably has some unresolved resentment toward women as a result of events in childhood. Further, his use of pornography and other sexually addictive behaviors has caused a lack of respect for women. So when his wife starts expressing her needs, especially in an angry or attacking way, she is triggering multiple emotions in him. His resistance to cooperate with her or even support her may seem surprising or even shocking to some. But for him, and this is significant, the ten year old wounded little boy is coming out, and that little boy is being scolded, and it’s just not fair!
This is where many couples are when they come to see me. While the addict is trying to take responsibility for his actions and how he has hurt his wife he also wants her to see that he didn’t mean to hurt her and she should understand that. Webster’s dictionary defines addiction as a “compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance (or behavior) characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal”. So if his addiction is indeed a “need” then how can she hold it against him?
On the other hand the wife is dealing with a myriad of emotions. While she may be at a point where her rational mind, based on the books she’s read and what her counselor says, is telling her that her husband’s behavior was beyond his control and his secret lifestyle was not something that he wanted, her body is reacting only to the fact that her husband has been repeatedly unfaithful, whether though pornography, cybersex, or actual encounters with other women. Even though a man’s compulsive sexual behavior is something he is unable to stop without help, this does not change the trauma his wife suffers because of his multiple betrayals.
Let’s look at the newly recovering married addict. His primary coping mechanism has been taken away. So in the most stressful time of his life he can’t turn to pornography or sex. His wife is acting like a raving lunatic, moving from anger to tears to withdrawal in a matter of minutes. His free time has been replaced by attending 12 step meetings, therapy, reading SA literature, listening to the podcasts his wife is insisting he listen to etc., all while running on three hours of sleep because she kept him up all night insisting they talk even though he had to go to work early the next morning. Even though many experts say these things are hallmarks of good recovery (minus the lack of sleep), in the beginning the addict often sees it as his wife trying to govern his every action. Rob Weiss, CSAT, clinical director of the Institute for Sexual Health in California, discusses this. Weiss, a recovering sex addict himself, states, “the problem is that addicts are used to living in a world where they have control. By ‘giving in’ to going to treatment, meetings, disclosure etc., they are in-effect, giving up this control to their spouse”.
Now let’s look at the wife who has recently discovered her husband’s sexual addiction. Her life as she knew it has been turned upside down. Everything she believed to be true now feels like a lie. The wedding she spent months planning, family vacations, romantic dinners, times spent cuddling on the couch watching movies, inside jokes, making love to her husband. All of it feels like a sham. She questions everything. Was he acting out when we were on our honeymoon, what or who was he really thinking about when he was with me, did he really mean it when he said ‘til death do us part? She wonders if only she was prettier, had been a better wife, had had more sex with him…would he have still done these things? Now she lives not only with the constant flashbacks from her husband’s past behavior, but also the persistent fear of getting hurt the same way again.
In a recent study, 69.9 % of partners met all symptomatic criteria for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder using two assessments- the IES-R and the PDS (Steffens, 2005; Steffens & Rennie, 2006, Steffens & Means, 2009). Dr. Barbara Steffens and Marsha Means state in their book, Your Sexually Addicted Spouse, “If the attachment bond you felt for your partner has been violated and broken, you have a relational trauma wound. When that happens, all the warmth, safety, joy and comfort that the relationship formerly held can no longer be counted on. The relationship now becomes a source of danger, because you’ve discovered that much of what you believed about the one you love was a lie.” Further, they say, “Partners’ intense feelings of terror, anxiety, helplessness, and hopelessness in coping with their painful situations mirror those of people who have survived violent assault, and other kinds of psychological traumas. Nothing prepares a person for this surprise in life: not a stable childhood, not a good education, not adequate training-not even a breadth of life experience can prepare the hurt partner for the intense pain encountered when this addiction surfaces in marriage.”
So what we have are two hurting people, neither of whom have what it takes to meet the other’s needs. But here is the reality. While the addict is going through an immense amount of suffering, in this scenario the partner is the injured party. While the addict’s world has also been turned upside down, it is his wife who is left suffering from a disorder that his behaviors caused. Dorit Reichental, founder of Serenity Works Life Coaching, states, “As the injuring partner, the sex addict needs to be ready and willing to lead the healing process, and needs to be guided and supported by his therapist through this process.”
Stay Tuned for Part Two where I will explore more about sex addicts, their anger, and how their shame keeps them from being able to support their wife like she needs .