Dispelling a Myth or Two About Sex Addiction (hint: it’s not always about intercourse)

I am not a mental health professional. Nonetheless, having lived with a man who has been diagnosed as a sex addict by not one but two medical professionals on opposite ends of our country (including one who is far from being fully on the sex addiction bandwagon – but that’s a whole other post), and having read as much sex addiction literature (scholarly and otherwise) as the internet and Amazon can provide, I feel like I may have something small to offer here.  Maybe.

The World Health Organization’s recent decision to include compulsive sexual behavior as a mental health condition  on its International Classification of Diseases list (the ICD-11) has brought the sex addiction deniers out of the woodwork. To be clear, whether you call it “sex addiction” or you call it “compulsive sexual behavior” is mere semantics. The nature of the conduct at issue is indistinguishable.

On DDay #2, I learned that at this time last Summer Handsome was juggling me PLUS four other women, PLUS he was involved in pic collecting, voyeurism, pornography, and a laundry list of other sexual behaviors. It was instantly clear to me that something was very, very wrong. This was more than just casual pleasure-seeking and random self-indulgence. Why? Because Handsome was clearly miserable, distraught, and depressed. He wasn’t just sad he got caught (although there was likely a bunch of that going on). He did these things compulsively and rather than bringing him pleasure, they were literally destroying him. His drinking had escalated. His anger management was abysmal. He was alienating our family. He jeopardized his job to the point that I am still amazed he managed to keep that job. He looked unwell. It was like he was being poisoned from the inside out. I see this in hindsight. At the time, the day-to-day destruction was almost imperceptible – kind of like how you might not notice a parent aging and declining if you see them every day.

Imagine that you are throwing a birthday party for a friend. All the guests arrive and you head to the kitchen to put candles on the cake and you find that your spouse has cut a piece of the cake and eaten it. You might think “Wow, what a jerk.” Maybe you could write it off as a misunderstanding or a bout of selfishness or poor judgment. You would be mad and perhaps hurt, but not alarmed. Now imagine that instead you walk into the kitchen to find that your spouse has eaten the entire cake, all of the appetizers, the entirety of the main course, and that he/ she had started eating their way through the refrigerator and freezer. You would instantly realize that something was terribly, terribly wrong and that help was needed. That’s exactly what I felt like on DDay #2.

In those early days I would read voraciously and clip out text that spoke to me or that I found really helpful to my understanding of what was going on… what I was dealing with. I wanted to understand what Handsome was feeling and experiencing during the time he did these things. I was also skeptical about the legitimacy of sex addiction and yet I intuitively knew that Handsome wasn’t exactly enjoying himself… that he seemed caught up in something he couldn’t break free of. He wasn’t living like a happy man. He was using others and being used by them and, on some deep, dark level, he knew that sad fact. It just took a few months of therapy to surface.

I wanted answers to my questions. How could he risk everything? Why did it continue even though it made him miserable? I found the following text on a now defunct blog written by the wife of a sex addict [note: I just had these lines copied into my notebook without citation, but thanks to Maggie for her comment below with the correct reference to the now inactive blog “Living with a Sex Addict.” http://livingwithasexaddict.com/ and the post  “Sex Addiction as a Fantasy Addiction.”] The following paragraphs are about intercourse, but they could just as easily describe the pursuit of a voyeuristic encounter or sexting or pic collecting or the use of pornography. Handsome says that this is remarkably what it was like for him:

“…[s]ex addiction may not be exactly what it sounds like. He isn’t addicted to good sex or sex with beautiful women. This isn’t a case of him wanting “better” sex. I know this only because he wasn’t getting better sex when he acted out. He was getting terrible sex with whomever he could find or pay. The important thing for the addict is the fantasy that accompanies the act, rather than the act itself, which is often disappointing. Fantasy transports him from his real life. Sex blots out what is really happening inside him. And what is happening inside him is terrible, debilitating shame.

Why does the distinction between being addicted to sex and being addicted to sex fantasy matter? Perhaps it doesn’t. But it helps to understand the fantasy component because then it makes sense that he’d engage in sex even when his physical sex drive is low, even if he can’t get an erection while doing so, or even when he’s getting plenty of sex at home.

…The rituals that come before an episode of sexual “acting out” have been observed to be very similar to those used by narcotics addicts before taking a drug. A state of hyper-arrousal (not sexual arousal, as such, but a kind of awakened excitement of the addict’s entire being) precedes the event, and sex addicts enter a state they often refer to as “the bubble” in which they are completely consumed by the planning and execution of their next sexual encounter.

The addict then does everything he can to elongate the time that sex occupies in his mind, to stay in the fantasy. His experience of addiction begins with these first moments of anticipation. He may or may not have any specific partner in mind or any specific act, but this preamble to sex pulls him away from negative feelings about himself and his life at least for a while.

Once the act is completed (the fantasy being dashed ultimately by the awful reality) the addict despairs. First, because the act was so fruitless—he’s back where he started, the same as last time. The sex [if any] almost certainly wasn’t what he’d hoped for, and didn’t accomplish whatever he’d imagined it might (yet again). And now he’s opened the possibility that you will find out and the only real love in his life will be taken away. He regrets what he’s done. He’s deeply sorry; he has almost unbearable shame.

Even worse, he knows he is likely to do it all again.”

I would only add to this description to emphasize again that for many who engage in compulsive sexual behavior, if not perhaps most, actual intercourse is neither the goal nor the point, and not even necessarily desired. Handsome was addicted to sexual attention and fantasy. He got his hits from showering the OW with attention (texts, sexts) and to receiving attention in return. If that attention was sexual, all the better. Bonus points if it was explicit. The intercourse he did have with the Whore was short and unsatisfying, and even all the unprotected oral ultimately wasn’t worth continuing (for her at least). Would he have slept with the others if he could have?  Maybe, but he also seems to have passed up multiple opportunities to do just that. Regardless, the end result would have been the same… unsatisfying, impersonal rutting followed by deep shame. On some level, I think Handsome knew that  and so his developing addiction focused on attention, fantasy, and self-pleasure instead.

There are, without a doubt, serial philanderers and folks who simply love as much strange as they can possibly get. That doesn’t make them addicts. I don’t believe that they experience what is described above. For them, it is a pleasurable process and there is no shame because, well, they just don’t feel bad about what they’re doing. They enjoy themselves and find pleasure beyond the encounter in their actions. They aren’t embarrassed and, while they might not want to get caught, that’s due more to their concern about consequences than to any deep internal shame. That certainly doesn’t describe Handsome or the other men he has encountered in his recovery.

Did Handsome enjoy driving by the Whore’s house to see her flash her boobs at him? In that singular moment, yes. And then sometimes minutes later he would be screaming at himself in frustration because the hit had passed, the momentary high had gone, and the shame train came barreling into the station. He’d resume texting her and sexting to try to stave off that bad feeling for as long as he could. In those fleeting moments he felt wanted, or at least special enough for a trashy married mother of three to stand topless in the dirty window of her dilapidated house and play with her nipples for him and the neighborhood to see. Now, in hindsight and after months of therapy, he sees it for what it was: desperate, pathetic, and just like a heroin addict chasing the proverbial dragon no matter the costs.

While there was a part of Handsome that hated having to come (partially) clean on DDay #1, there is another part of him that felt abject relief. He was exhausted, literally, trying to keep all of the pins he was juggling up in the air. (With my dark sense of humor I occasionally joke that most guys can’t deal well with one woman, let alone FIVE, on a daily basis, so what guy in his right mind would even try.) A part of him wanted desperately to just stop doing what he was doing, but he lacked the fortitude to make the break on his own. As with other addictions, he would make a mental decision to stop, only to slide back down the slope into the compulsive behavior. Having Fire Dude “out” his affair with the Whore to me was the shove he needed to end everything. It was his NARCAN revival moment – a second chance at life. It still took him several more months to come clean with his disclosures and he made a half-hearted effort to cling to a few last vestiges (saying goodbye to Angel Baby, dragging his feet on the letter to the Flame, etc.), but he says that he has had zero contact – other than sending the no contact letter to the Flame – in almost 9 months and maintained sexual sobriety throughout that entire time, and I believe that to be true.

Sex addiction deniers spend a lot of time on the issue of withdrawal, but I think, again, that this misunderstands the nature of the addiction. Does Handsome miss the skanks? He says not and I don’t think he does. I believe he does, however, miss being fawned over throughout the day, each and every day. He misses that attention factory. He misses the constant “hits” throughout his day. How can I tell? He is more obviously emotionally needy. (Something I never, ever detected previously over our 15+ years together.) Early on we also had to focus a bit on gratuitous touching versus that which is timely, appropriate, and mutually pleasurable. There are clearly some gaps where the addictive, compulsive behavior used to reside, and we are working on filling those gaps with healthy, positive thoughts and behaviors. It is a work in progress.

Will Handsome’s world end if sex addiction/ sexually compulsive behavior doesn’t gain further traction as being “real” in the sphere beyond the WHO? No. Handsome is more than his diagnosis. He is making strides in his recovery. It is, however, an added challenge to conquer a problem when you start behind the 8-ball because others deny that your problem even exists.






Packing for Trigger City

At the end of this week I will put my kids and my mom and her dog in my car and make the 11+ hour drive to our vacation home in New England. Normally we leave closer to Father’s Day in June, but I made the decision pre-DDay to shift our schedule this summer so that my kids could do swim team and tennis camp. Handsome will be home for about two weeks by himself, until he comes to join us for the final two and a half weeks.

The triggers this Summer are plentiful. July 2nd of 2015 was the day he screwed the Whore in a no-tell motel while I was off having lunch with my elderly mom at the seaside resort where he and I had our wedding reception.

Last year at this time I was still in pre-DDay ignorant bliss. Now I know what was going on right under my nose, and while I was away, all unbeknownst to me.

  • As of the day our kids and I left for vacation last Summer, Handsome was involved (emotionally or physically) with four other women.
  • Three days after we left, he and Angel Baby had a 2-day sleepover at our house that included their field trip to the museum, lunch, and drinks.
  • He was in daily contact with The Flame.
  • He was in daily contact with the Whore and in between their sexting he made sure to remind her how I was going out of town for several weeks, that they should get together, and vividly describing all of the sex acts he wanted to perform on her.
  • He was in regular contact with the woman (The Janitor) he took out on a date two days after he returned to town from vacation.

Handsome joined us in New England for about 12 days last Summer. We did fun things as a family and had a great time. Then:

  • He had his date night with The Janitor at the high-end romantic restaurant two days after he returned home.
  • He tries, but ultimately fails, to set up another hotel meet-up with the Whore two days before I get home with the kids (this time offering up a hotel far from her home but right down the road from ours).
  • He remains in daily contact with all of the women.

To say that I’m uncomfortable leaving him by himself is an understatement, but I’m not his mom or a baby monitor. It’s up to him to stay sober. I’ve asked him to double up on his therapy appointments or meetings while I’m away and he has agreed. That’s great, but boredom, loneliness, and unstructured alone time are all problematic for him… which makes them problematic for me.

It does not help that our vacation home – which I owned since before he and I ever started dating and which was always my very hard earned safe haven and happy place – was the site of some of his compulsive behavior. The epic sexting that went on there (complete with photos and videos from our bedroom) during his “work weekends” is still repulsive and vile and pathetic. And there are other triggers and reminders all around me there. I have to turn my head when I drive by the church we got married in… a church where my dad used to put me on his shoulders and take me to puppet shows when I was a little girl and where I take my own kids now for the same events.

Our summer vacations in 2015, 2016, and 2017 are all tainted by his affairs. In particular, in 2016 we took our regular family vacation that included our extended families, and then we took a “secret” trip – just the four of us – and had an absolutely magical week laying on the beach, playing mini-golf, eating ice cream, and relaxing. There were no schedules to juggle, no elderly relatives to please, no pets to take care of, and it was wonderful. “Best secret vacation ever” is how we jokingly and lovingly referred to it. I now know he was texting and sexting the Whore, Angel Baby, and the Flame literally within hours of pulling into our driveway at home.

Could I sell the vacation house and just start spending summers elsewhere? Sure… if I want to give up nearly 50 years of memories with my parents, friends, and our family. I’m not game for that. The skanks and his addiction aren’t going to take any more from me. I’m trying to ensure that I can take all those things back.

It’s all quite overwhelming. I’m trying to stay grounded. I’m trying to practice self-care. I’m just worried that the next few weeks may all be a bit much for me.

Avoidance – A Close Cousin of Denial?

Even though things are generally going well, I am still aware each day of the need to take care of myself in every way possible. A part of that self-care is taking measures to protect myself and my children in the event that Handsome relapses. I see no signs of this happening, but a few months of good behavior doesn’t wash away several years of horrors, nor can I predict the future based on his present intent. I don’t doubt his present intent not to act out again, but then I didn’t doubt his intent when he said our marriage vows either.

Absent a crystal ball, the best that I can do is ensure that I’ve taken the steps necessary to anticipate and to address the possibility of future problems. Fortunately, for the most part our finances have always been separate. We have one joint account, but it rarely has anything in it unless we need it to for a particular reason. We do, however, have assets, and I need to protect those not only for me but for the benefit of our children. Our son and daughter are the only two kids either of us is ever supposed to have. Everything that is ours is intended to be theirs and theirs alone should some harm befall us. Handsome and I agree on that. While I can ensure that I don’t have more children, I cannot really ensure that Handsome doesn’t get some trashy, holster-sniffing tweaker chick pregnant. He still insists that the Whore was the only AP he had intercourse with and that he used protection, but who knows? I’m not betting the proverbial farm on it. (She is actually pregnant and due next month and Fire Dude has no idea if it is his or not.) More specifically, I’m not betting my kids’ futures and college funds on it or on his ability to stay sexually sober.

I have asked for two things: a post-nuptial agreement and for him to get a vasectomy. Given what Handsome did, who he did it with, and how long his behavior went on during our marriage, I don’t feel as though either of these requests are unreasonable. Uncomfortable, sure, but not unreasonable. I pondered both things for months before I broached them with Handsome. He’s pretty miserable about both asks.

He raises all of the issues you’d expect a guy to raise about the vasectomy. (“It’s surgery!! On my balls!! What if it goes wrong???”) I can’t help but feel like he should have thought about that before he screwed the Whore and crawled into bed with Angel Baby in my f’ing house. It is literally the only way that I can ensure that I don’t open my door one day to find some ho bag standing there with a kid that looks like my husband. My family’s assets will not be used to pay child support for the spawn of his compulsive behavior, nor will my kids see their current standard of living diminished as that money goes out the door. Not happening. Not on my watch.

As to the post-nup, he’s absolutely indignant about it. If we divorce generally (not arising out of any new infidelity), we each walk away with what we came with, anything we inherit from our families, and our pensions. We split anything we accrued together. If, however, we divorce because of future infidelity (not what has already transpired), in addition to walking away with their own stuff the betrayed spouse also gets half of the betrayer’s pension. That infidelity clause (not allowed in every state, by the way, but allowed in mine) was originally specifically directed at him. In the petty move of the century, he whined that it needed to apply to me (the faithful spouse who didn’t kick his ass to the curb after all the shit he did) as well. Fine. The change was made. I know I’m not a cheater. I’m confident in my core values.

He is avoiding both issues like the plague. I think he believes that if he drags his feet enough, I’ll forget or I’ll decide they aren’t really necessary. That’s not happening. I’m happy to wait till next month to bring them up with the CSAT, but I will also continue to raise them each week in our check-in. I am nothing if not persistent.

I absolutely understand why avoiding difficult things is preferable to facing them head on. I get that. But I also think that avoidance is closely tied to denial. If Handsome had never acted on his sexual compulsions, there would be little need for either ask. But the reality – that he created by his own conduct – is that I sincerely believe that both things are necessary to protect me and our kids from his possible future behavior based upon his actual behavior in the very recent past. To take the position that this is somehow overkill is to deny that undeniable behavior.

We cannot even say that bad behavior on his part is unlikely in the future, because if I have learned anything these last few months it is that the behavior of a sex addict cannot be predicted. I know what his present intent is, and I believe him completely when he says that he doesn’t want to ever act out again. Nonetheless I, for one, would rather be safe than sorry.

The surprising benefits of celibacy

I know you’re seeing the title and thinking “BW has lost her damn mind.” I haven’t, I assure you. I have, however, done something I initially mocked as ridiculous and found it to be a very worthwhile, if challenging, experience.

Before Handsome headed off to see Dr. M a few months ago, I was in touch with Kat from Try Not to Cry On My Rainbow, and she was getting me up to speed on the likely post-intensive after-care that might be recommended for Handsome. Among other things, Kat mentioned a period of celibacy. I was aghast. Neither Dr. M nor Handsome had made any mention of such a thing. Was anyone going to bother to consult the wife? (I was completely pissed at what I perceived to be more decisions that affected me being made without my input.) I thought, if a betrayed wife was actually willing to be intimate with her husband, why would you put an end to that? Why interfere in that aspect of the relationship? It seemed silly, short sighted, and frankly a bit patriarchal to me.

Handsome went to the intensive, came home, and began implementing all of Dr. M’s recommendations… except that one. We, together, avoided that one like a hot potato. We joked about it, actually. Then I had my post-intensive follow up call with Dr. M.  He had recommended that Handsome not just stay sexually sober for three months after the intensive (which does not require that one abstain from sexual intimacy with their spouse), but that he actually maintain complete celibacy during that time. I was fully prepared to grill him on that, but when I asked him to explain his reasoning he stated very simply, “Because Handsome has to learn to cope with emotions and day-to-day existence without relying on sexual conduct, even if that conduct is with you.” Oh. Well, yeah, that made a ton of sense. It was so obvious and so simple, yet I had missed the point entirely.

We did not, to be fair, immediately get on the celibacy bandwagon. We talked a lot about how beneficial the intensive was and how helpful to Handsome’s recovery other recommendations seemed to be … and then we bargained for another weekend or a few more days of togetherness. Finally, we ripped off the band-aid and went cold turkey.

We have a few final weeks to go on the recommended three months. Has it been easy? No. In fact, for me the whole process is somewhat triggering because it reminds me on occasion of the months Handsome chose not to pursue any kind of intimacy with me while he was acting out with others. I tell myself that at least now this is a choice we are making together.

Has it made any difference? Much to my surprise, yes! I can say emphatically that it has been beneficial for Handsome and for me.  How so?

-I can see Handsome struggle with feelings, really experiencing them and not shoving them aside. He is learning to actually process them. He has, at times, been overwhelmed by his emotions, and yet he has used his non-sexual coping mechanisms and made it through just fine. (For someone who relied on masturbation as a release/ self-soothing tool for decades, long before we ever met, this is a HUGE deal.)

-He is more emotionally connected to me and to our young kids. Our kids have noticed this and commented on it.

-He is more self-aware. (Not ideally so, yet, but far better than he was.)

-It has helped Handsome realize that he can have physical contact and tenderness with me without it leading to intercourse. This has been an issue for us as I once told him in frustration “You know you can give me more than a peck on the cheek even when we don’t have the time or energy to have sex,” to which he replied “What’s the point?” We now have hugs, hand holding, kisses, and touches throughout the day just because we can, not because sex is expected or anticipated in return.

-Any purely gratuitous sexual behavior has mostly stopped. (No more untimely and inappropriate boob grabs or the like.) More specifically, it is so obvious now that we can both call it out for what it is as soon as it’s apparent. His overall behavior has normalized.

-Seeing him vulnerable and working hard on himself serves as a reminder to me that this is a person I love and that although he did horrible, offensive things, he is more than those actions. He is more than the worst things he ever did. (So are we all.)

Have we been perfect in this endeavor. Nope. I admit we fell off the wagon once. It was during our couple’s intensive weekend and while it was lovely, in retrospect, I think we both wish that we had held out. Am I looking forward to the day when this exercise concludes?  Yes, but I’m really glad we went through this experience. I think it helped Handsome move further down the path to his own recovery and it has helped me to see him in a different, more vulnerable, light as well. Celibacy always seemed like such a draconian concept to me, and I thought this was going to be punitive, but in this case it has been well worth a few weeks of our time and a couple of brisk showers.