Sexual addiction never exists in a vacuum. The individual that’s closest to the sex addict, whether that person is a marriage partner, significant other, or child, also suffers. When one person in a relationship is a sexual addict, the other partner and/or parents are negatively affected by the addiction. While children impacted by a parent or parents’ sexual addiction pose special requirements for safety, this article concerns the main partner of the sexual addict – otherwise known as the codependent.
How Codependents Suffer
As codependents, they often sacrifice their own friends, personal integrity and values in order to avoid being rejected by or upsetting the sexual addict. As the relationship deteriorates due to the sexually addicted partner’s lies, compulsive sexual behavior, extra-marital affairs, inappropriate or excessive sexual activity, emotional aloofness, lack of intimacy, financial difficulties, loss of friends, perhaps loss of job and legal difficulties (arrest for lewd conduct or other sexual misconduct), the codependent falls deeper into a pit of his or her own web of tangled emotions and behavior. Often the codependent and the sexual addict have a background of dysfunctional family. One or more parents or siblings may have been alcoholics or substance abusers, compulsive gamblers, had an eating disorder, or have been sexual addicts themselves. Either the codependent or sexual addict or both may have been sexually abused or the victims of domestic violence as children.
Typical Codependent Characteristics
The codependent exhibits certain characteristics that intensify the longer the behavior of the sexually addicted partner continues. Generally, the codependent’s behavior begins as a natural reaction to a situation that is not normal to the marriage or partnership. That is, the partner without the addiction cannot understand what happened to the relationship, where it’s gone off course, and seeks to restore the balance in whatever means possible. These characteristics are also unconsciously enabling behaviors, thus permitting the sexual addict to continue his or her addiction.
- Denial – What do individuals usually do when confronted with something that they find morally reprehensible, inconceivable and impossible to accept? The natural instinct is to deny the problem exists. Denial is one of the first reactions to a partner’s sexual addiction, just as it is to any other addiction. Both the addict and the codependent deny the problem long before anything constructive can be done to address it.
- Rationalization – Coincident with denial, the codependent seeks to rationalize the partner’s behavior – and his or her own. How the codependent acts in response is often the only way they know how. They’re operating on gut instinct, survival mode for the relationship. “I can’t help it. I love him. I have to be here for him.”
- Inability to know what’s normal – Over time, the codependent ceases to recognize what’s normal and abnormal about the relationship or the behavior of the sexual addict. As the situation continues, the patterns become entrenched. It may become normal for the sexual addict to have piles of sexually explicit material all over the house or to stay out all hours of the night, to “work late,” or other behavior. The codependent doesn’t want to rock the boat, and therefore believes the lies the sexually addicted partner spins.
- Intense fear – The codependent cannot bear the thought of the relationship dissolving. The resulting intense fear over the potential loss causes the codependent to react in wholly inappropriate ways to any signs of change. He or she may fly off in a rage, burst into tears, or seek to constantly please the sexually addicted partner in order to protect the status quo – dysfunctional though it is.
- Constantly seeking approval – If only the codependent could be a better person, maybe his or her partner wouldn’t stray, would stop all the sexual compulsion, love them more. In a frenzy of activity designed to elicit approval from the sexual addict, the codependent slips deeper and deeper into the quagmire of self-loathing and doubt. Why doesn’t anything work? Why can’t the sex addict stop? Why can’t he or she love me for myself?
- Hypersensitive – Even the most minor incident or remark can set the codependent off. Hypersensitive to the extreme, the codependent either sees everything as a criticism or a sign that they have to do better, work harder, and be more understanding. This hyper vigilance is a self-perpetuating destructive pattern – the more hypersensitive the codependent is, the more negatively the relationship is impacted with the sexually addictive partner.
- Loss of self-esteem – When nothing seems to work, the co-dependent feels it must be because they’re not worth it. Who could love them, since they must be unlovable?
- Fear of abandonment – No matter how bad it gets, the codependent will often tolerate the sexual addict’s behavior out of fear that to challenge it will lead to the partner leaving. The codependent fears abandonment more than loss of intimacy. The irony is that by clinging more, the codependent often forces the sexual addict farther away.
- Feeling responsible – The codependent often feels that they are the cause of their partner’s sexual addiction. This is similar to what occurs with codependents of virtually any other addiction. In their minds, codependents feel that they bear some major portion of the blame for what’s happened in the relationship. The fact is that they facilitate their partner’s addiction by their codependency.
- Avoidance of other relationships – Friends and even family fall by the wayside as the codependent spends more and more time attending to or picking up after the sexually addicted partner. Trying to keep the truth from surfacing, or being unable to lie any longer, and submersing or denying their own identity, the codependent gradually drifts away from healthy contact with others.
- Inability to see alternatives – Days turn into weeks and months turn into years and still the codependent may fail to see that there are alternatives to the situation. Even normal family functioning is compromised as the codependent is either so rigid in following through on what has become a “normal” routine, or lets things completely go in an inability to take care of the family’s responsibilities.
- Hopelessness – Feeling a total failure, unable to effect any changes, fearing abandonment, and believing in his or her worthlessness, the codependent often sinks into utter despair and hopelessness.
Codependents Engage In Futile Behavior
In an attempt to control the actions of the sexually addicted partner, codependents often resort to such futile efforts as snooping and spying on their partner, attempting to police how the partner spends his or her time and/or money, endless interrogations and/or rage and nonstop arguments.
Codependents Often Have Underlying Issues
As the partner of a sexual addict, the codependent – in order to heal – has to address some underlying issues of their own. Many codependents have attachment injury, intimacy disorders, were victims of childhood trauma due to sexual or domestic abuse, had parents or siblings with addictions or have addictions of their own.
The Road to Recovery for Codependents
While the sexual addict is undergoing treatment and/or is in recovery, often it’s the partner left behind – the codependent – that receives no help whatsoever. This is disastrous, not only to the addict, but also to the codependent. Without assistance and support or some kind of professional therapy and treatment, the codependent cannot begin to change his or her distorted way of thinking. The relationship cannot, therefore, be sustained on a healthy level.
What can the codependent do?
Effective treatment for codependents of sexual addicts is available through specialized sexual addiction treatment centers, individual and group counseling, support groups, books and literature. During treatment, the codependent learns how to express his or her feelings of anger, betrayal, pain, sorrow and hurt. In their first stages of recovery, they attend to the following tasks:
- Acknowledging and embracing all their feelings of betrayal and hurt
- Understanding addiction
- Understanding codependence
- Establishing safety and personal integrity
- Developing the mind-body-spirit connection
- Learning to understand boundaries
- Understanding the role of codependency in their partner’s active addiction
Through individual therapy, group therapy, family counseling and 12-step support groups, the codependent benefits from a culture of support, including professional help for depression and anxiety. Women’s support groups (for female codependents) are enormously helpful in the codependent’s recovery process. In the process of recovery, the codependent’s need to shoulder blame for the failure of the partnership or to blame the sexual addict for all the couple’s problems gradually diminishes. The focus then shifts to development of a healthy self and self-actualizing behavior. Ultimately, couples therapy – for couples who intend to remain together – help the codependent and the sexual addict through the individual and joint work they must do to work toward a future of shared intimacy, and establishing a new basis for trust.
12-Step Recovery Groups for Codependents
Codependents of sexual addicts can find support through 12-step recovery groups such as the following:
- COSA – Coaddicts of Sex Addicts is a 12-step recovery program for men and women whose lives have been affected by another person’s compulsive sexual behavior. The organization has face-to-face meetings with a listing by state, as well as telemeetings and online message boards.
- S-Anon – an international fellowship of relatives and friends of sexually addicted people who share their experiences, strengths and hope in order to solve their common problems. According to the site, the primary purpose of S-Anon is “to recover from the effects upon us of another person’s sexaholism and to help the families and friends of sexaholics.” S-Anon holds meetings in every state as well as international locations.
Books on Codependency
Numerous books are available on the subject of codependency that may prove helpful in exploring the subject – and offering hope for recovery. Use them in conjunction with treatment, counseling and support groups.
- Back From Betrayal, by Jennifer Schneider
- Beyond Codependency, by Melody Beattie
- Boundaries And Relationships, by Charles L. Whitfield
- Codependent No More, by Melody Beattie
- Living With Your Husband’s Secret Wars, by Marsha Means
- Love Is A Choice, by Robert Hemfelt
- Partner’s Healing Journey Workbook, by Marsha Means
- Women Who Love Too Much, by Robin Norwood