Betrayed partners often ask me, “How do I know if my partner is a sex addict?“ Usually, they are looking at the pattern of sexual behavior involved in the cheating and wondering if it has crossed the line between infidelity and sexual addiction.
This is an important question to ask because if your partner is a sex addict, the treatment path will look very different than if they are not. When couple’s therapists try to address sex addiction using a traditional infidelity treatment model, it does not work. The couple ends up spending time, energy, and money on therapy that never addresses the real issue. Often, relationships that could have been saved end because the addiction was never arrested and treated. Meanwhile, treating infidelity with a sex addiction model can be equally ineffective.
Sex addiction treatment involves a number of interventions that all get deployed in the right order at the right time. These include individual therapy, group therapy, a 12-step program, couples therapy, and other intensive therapy work.
If that sounds daunting to you, imagine a high-speed train throttling down its tracks (the fastest one in the world can travel 430 kilometers per hour). Now imagine using regular old train brakes to try to stop it. Those brakes will not even make a dent in the train’s speed because they are not built to slow let alone stop that much momentum. The same is true of addiction. Regular therapy that is not specifically designed to move clients through the tasks and steps involved in intervening on the addiction, establishing sobriety, and moving into long-term recovery will just not be effective.
In the aftermath of betrayal, it is vital to get the correct diagnosis and get on the correct treatment path so you don’t waste time, energy, and money during a time when you are already incredibly drained emotionally, physically, and maybe even financially.
Which brings us back to the original question. How do you know if you are dealing with sex addiction versus ‘regular’ infidelity?
When screening for addiction, some common questions are asked. These questions center around trying to determine if the person is engaged in a pattern of compulsive, out-of-control behavior that is creating negative consequences. Here are the types of questions that are asked:
- Have you experienced negative consequences are a result of your behavior but continued that behavior anyway?
- Have you intentionally stopped your behavior but not been able to stay stopped?
- Has your behavior changed or escalated because your original behavior no longer produces the same level of stimulation?
- Do you find yourself spending a lot of time thinking about, preparing for, or recovering from your behavior?
- Have you hurt someone you love as a result of your behavior?
- Have you engaged in your behavior even though you didn’t really want to?
- Have you lied about or kept your behavior secret?
- Have you engaged in behavior that contradicts your value system?
When someone is dealing with sexual addiction, there is often a chronic pattern of behavior over a period of time that is marked by increasing preoccupation and time spent on the behavior, repeated ineffective attempts to stop, and negative consequences that pile up. If those indicators are present, addiction is likely in play.
For those dealing with sex addiction, the addiction centers around the compulsive pursuit of sex in some shape or form. It can look like someone who is addicted to pornography and spends hours daily in front of the screen viewing porn, even if they don’t engage in any other sexual behaviors. It can also look like someone who has sex with anonymous partners, sex with sex-workers, serial affairs (both online and real-world), etc.
In the same way that some people believe that a person is only an alcoholic if they drink from morning to night, some people think that only certain behaviors are part of sex addiction. This is not true. Sex addiction is not about sexual behavior; it’s about the compulsive pursuit of sex and using the stimulation of sex to mediate one’s emotions.
While non-addicted affairs can look like they have a compulsive element to them (for example, people are often operating outside of their value system when engaged in an affair), they are not part of a larger compulsive pattern of behavior that centers around using sex in some form or fashion as a coping mechanism. They are often singular events (meaning one affair) that a person has gotten involved in.
As a result, treating affairs often involves individual therapy to help the person look at what the affair was about for them and to help them make decisions about how they want to move forward as a person and in their relationship. Couple’s therapy (if the couple is staying together) may be used to help the couple repair and heal from the damage caused by the cheating. These therapies are typically less structured and less task-focused than sex addiction treatment.
For you as the betrayed partner, it is important to identify whether you are dealing with an affair or a sex addiction. Certified Sex Addiction Therapists use a tool called the Sexual Dependency Inventory to assess for sexual addiction. There are numerous other tools therapists use that also help with this determination. If you are wondering about whether your partner’s behavior is part of an addiction, asking your partner to be evaluated by someone trained in assessing for sexual addiction is a good next step.
As a betrayed partner, you need a clear understanding of what you are dealing with so you can operate from a place of empowerment in your relationship—a place where you make good, healthy decisions for yourself. When the cheating partner gets on the correct treatment path, in addition to helping your partner, it helps you experience less pain and chaos for yourself and in your relationship. The good news is that in all cases, with both regular infidelity and sexual addiction, healing and recovery are possible. Getting on the right path makes all the difference in helping you move toward health and joy.