This article originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2009 edition of The Cutting Edge.
Author's note: Nearly a decade ago, I began to work with women confronting sexual betrayal. It was this professional experience that inspired me to write Deceived: Facing Sexual Betrayal, Lies and Secrets, a book for female partners of sex addicts. Much of this article is excerpted from that book, published by Hazelden in April 2009.
Most couples, whether married or not, have both spoken and unspoken commitments that sex stays within the relationship; they communicate and respect each other's personal needs and boundaries. Their expectation is for unconditional love, but they know that relationships have conditions that need to be negotiated openly. Unfortunately these commitments and expectations are often a façade in many relationships.
Many people are in coupleships riddled with deception, lies, and false perceptions as a result of their partners' compulsive sexual acting out. Today in every neighborhood throughout every community, these people are being challenged by the addictive nature of their partners' sexual behavior. It may be the wife who just discovered her husband was with another woman within days of their wedding. It could be the mother of two young children whose boyfriend has just lost his job due to engaging in Internet sex during work hours, or the partner who has masked her shame and confusion about her husband's chronic pornographic activity, and is now horrified at the thought that her children are going to find out about their father's voyeurism. It may be the man who recently discovered hidden computer files of sexually explicit photos his girlfriend has been emailing to a great number of men. It could be the wife of 40 years, her husband soon to retire, who has known about his affairs from the beginning of their marriage. There's nothing particularly different about the current affair that she just discovered; it's just the "straw that broke the camel's back."
The Coaddict Didn't Get Here by Accident
Influenced by both culture and family, a coaddict learns coaddictive behavior long before a partner comes into his or her life. As much as the socialization and empowerment of women in Western industrialized culture has changed, women are still more apt to:
- defer to men by giving them the benefit of the doubt take on false guilt
- believe they need a partner in order to be okay
- prioritize men's needs over their own
- be polite
- refrain from showing anger
- feel inadequate about their sexuality
- have a distorted and shame-based body image
Yet this socialization of women is not the strongest factor driving a person to couple with a sex addict. Far more influential, for both men and women, is family history. While they may not have thought of their childhood as being significant to what is happening now, and while there are no perfect parents or perfect families, looking at family history and dynamics will be significant in healing. It's critical to examine the beliefs they developed about themselves and others, the ways they learned to experience connection and/or protect themselves, and the behaviors that helped them garner esteem.
The behaviors and belief systems of both coaddicts and sex addicts are strongly influenced by individual childhood experiences. For the coaddict and the addict, it is common that one or both parents were addicts - alcoholics or sex addicts in particular.
It may not have been called "addiction," but coaddicts and addicts often say their fathers were womanizers or their mothers had lots of affairs, drank a lot, etc. There may have been a history of extreme parental rigidity, strict all-or-nothing parental codes. Messages about sex were shaming or distorted, creating confusion in the child.
In essence, both the coaddict and addict were raised in very similar family systems in which they experienced a range of emotional and physical abandonment.
The Coaddict: Trauma Repetition
Kate is an example. She was raised in an alcoholic and violent family. She is divorced from two different alcoholic men and is now married to an active sex addict. Her husband has had multiple relationships with other women, and now he is flagrantly acting out in a manner that she cannot deny. She knows he visits pornographic bookstores, and on a recent visit, he had their 4-year-old son with him. Yet she still had the ability to rationalize. He is stressed by our two young children. He wouldn't do this if he wasn't on drugs. She would deliberately not ask questions. If she didn't ask, then she wouldn't have to know. She wouldn't ask for help, because as she said, I just need him to stop. She wouldn't assert any limits because her fear is him leaving her. In ultimate desperation, she found herself left alone in a hotel room with a baby just a few weeks old, a 4-year-old, no car, no food, and no money - while he went to get more drugs and meet up with a girlfriend. And Kate just wanted him back.
Kate didn't get to this place overnight. Her childhood history was her training ground long before she entered her three addictive relationships. As with most partners of addicts, dysfunction ruled her original family. As a child, she learned to:
- Overlook (deny, rationalize, minimize) behavior that hurt her deeply
- Appear cheerful when she was hurting
- Make excuses for the hurtful behavior
- Avoid conflict to minimize further anger
- Tolerate inappropriate and hurtful behavior
- Prioritize the needs of others over her own
- Caretake others
- Fault herself for her family’s problems
- Discount her own perceptions and give others the benefit of the doubt
- Believe she had no options
- Believe she is at fault and it is her job to find the answers
- Not ask for help
She was reared to be the perfect candidate for partnering with an addict. This is a natural consequence of being raised in a shame-based family, which is very often an abusive or addictive family. The child grows up to be an ideal partner for the addict, one whose codependent traits enable him to act out his addiction with little disruption.
While the names change, the stories of repetitively partnering with an addict are common and span generations. What Kate and other coaddicts experience is referred to as trauma repetition. Although Kate repeated it many times in her own life, others simply repeat it generationally. Trauma repetition means creating behaviors and situations similar to those experienced earlier in life - reliving a story out of one's painful history. When these individuals find themselves in the same situation with the same type of person over and over again, they seldom link the behavior to their original betrayal and trauma. Reenactment is living in the irreconcilable past. They may have been raised with addiction and may even be aware of this, but that doesn't necessarily keep them from marrying addictive and/or abusive men. Replaying past trauma often involves repeating what they know, the familiar, or what they believe they deserve.
Addressing sexual betrayal that has become addictive requires special assistance, and that help is available today from professionals and 12 Step programs. While individual therapy is often where the coaddict begins recovery, I cannot overemphasize the healing power of a group, whether it's self-help or a therapy group with others who have similar experiences. It is within the group experience that many coaddicts heal to a degree they never imagined possible. It is in the group that they come to realize their healing journey is a gift to themselves that will take them through life and its ultimate challenges.
Recovery is a process that offers no guarantees about relationships, but it does guarantee a journey to self-love and self-care. A woman in recovery can learn to trust herself and listen to her inner wisdom. It is her opportunity to learn about healthy boundaries, who is responsible for what, and what provides a sense of safety. She can give voice to her reality, moving forward in truth. Secrets disappear, leaving potential for connectedness with self, others and the universe. She deserves to believe in her preciousness and to have it honored from within and by those she invites into her life. Her recovery is a journey of honoring and respecting herself. It is moving from immobilization or reactivity to a life of hope, greater esteem and greater choices.
Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health (SASH) -www.sash.net
S-Anon - www.sanon.org
Co-Sex Addicts Anonymous (COSA) -www.cosa-recovery.org
Co-Sex & Love Addicts Anonymous (COSLAA) -www.coslaa.org
Recovering Couples Anonymous (RCA) -www.recovering-couples.org
Note that the above material is an excerpt of Claudia's book, Deceived, in which she addresses issues such as:
- In The Face of Truth
- His Behavior is Not About You
- Learning the News
- Your Time to Heal
- Finding Your Serenity
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
CLAUDIA BLACK, PHD, MSW
Claudia Black, Clinical Consultant for The Meadows, is a lecturer, author and trainer internationally recognized for her pioneering and contemporary work with family systems and addictive disorders. Since the 1970s, Dr. Black's work has encompassed the impact of addiction on young and adult children. She serves on the Advisory Board for the National Association of Children of Alcoholics and the Advisory Council of the Moyer Foundation. Claudia is the author of 15 books; her newest title is Deceived: Facing Sexual Betrayal, Lies and Secrets, released in April 2009 by Hazelden Publishing. She has produced several audio CDs, the newest of which is Triggers, and more than 20 DVDs, most recently The Triggering Effect. All of Claudia's products are available at www.claudiablack.com.