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Partner dynamics in sex addiction

September 21, 2012
by Shannon Brys, Associate Editor
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Cara Tripodi, owner and executive director of Sexual Trauma and Recovery (STAR), Inc.

While those who struggle with sex addiction are working to get treatment, their partners are usually working just as hard to heal in their own way.  Partners commonly feel betrayed, embarrassed, or helpless, and it is equally important for them to get the help they deserve.

Cara Tripodi, owner and executive director of Wynnewood, Pa.-based outpatient treatment center Sexual Trauma and Recovery (STAR), Inc., explains that at her center, partners are welcome from day one to get support for what they’re going through.

“We encourage partner involvement from the beginning, and we have a psychoeducational group that is titled ‘Beginning for Addicts and Partners’ for them to get a basic overview of addiction and how it impacts family members and some of the origins of compulsive addictive behaviors,” says Tripodi.

“We start very much from the idea that they’ve been victimized by another’s behavior and the first course of action is helping them obtain safety.  To do this, we help them establish what we call ‘non-negotiable boundaries.’”

In order best to help a partner to heal, Tripodi says it takes the ability to be compassionate and validating of the person’s crisis while asking tough questions around “here and now” kinds of behaviors.  Examples include: “Is he or she still acting out?” and “What kinds of things do you need to feel secure?” 

If the partner continues to be checking on the addict, it’s important for the therapist to recognize this behavior as a trauma response because trust still may be missing from the relationship. The key is to help partners look at other ways to take care of themselves, as in continuing to build the skills they need to believe that this doesn’t have to happen again in their life. 

Situations will arise in which the partner of the individual in treatment wants nothing to do with the treatment process.  Tripodi says this often will make the course of recovery very lonely for the addict. “It activates a shame response when the couple argues about issues related or not to the addiction,” she says.

Tripodi adds, “Another dynamic that can occur is that an addict will be able to continue their secretive actions in part because their partner is uninterested or doesn’t have the tools to properly challenge suspicious behavior, fostering an environment where accountability is not present.”

Tripodi also mentions that partners and therapists should understand that whether male or female, gay or straight, individuals with sexual addiction can present with the same dynamics. “There’s a real coercion,” she says. “In order for an addict to maintain their behavior on some level they have been covertly, overtly, or both, trying to play with the thinking of the partner. Not that they try to do it intentionally—it’s a way to protect the addiction.”

It is important for a therapist treating this population to understand how the manipulative dynamics work in these relationships and to appreciate how disorienting it is for partners to listen to someone being truthful and not at the same time, according to Tripodi.  She says the importance of therapists being directive to partners is extremely high.  This will allow them to begin to recognize that there are places they can go to help give them the tools they need to confront a partner. 

Generally, Tripodi works with both addicts and partners, but usually not both of the individuals in a particular relationship.  “In these situations, with the propensity toward secrets and lies with addiction and the journey that partners can sometimes be on in the early year or two, it’s just more boundaried for me not to treat both parties in the couple,” she says.

Tripodi believes it is hard to say whether a partner of a sex addict is more or less likely than the partner of a substance addict to stay in the relationship. She does observe that “a marriage that can manage to make it past the first two years can prove to be a very stabilizing structure for an addict to get sober.” Yet she adds, “Some marriages, though, if the damage has been too great, separate and divorce in the first two years, often because the partner sees no hope for change.”

She said of partners in these instances, “They have been working very hard to accommodate the addict’s needs in various ways and when they learn of the behaviors, it is too much for them to do the work with the addict.”

 

Roadblocks in treatment

One of the major issues when working with addicts and their partners is that they are starting at two distinct places. Tripodi says, “Often an addict, if they’re willing and open to get into treatment, is feeling very relieved that the secrets they’ve kept are out.  Whereas a partner is feeling completely impacted by all these secrets because they have felt very in the dark about what the behaviors were and the extent of them.” 

This huge disconnect is occurring at this stage because the partner is in a more reactive mode, trying to make up for what Tripodi calls “lost time,” where the partner didn’t have a say in the addict’s behaviors and now does.

Longer-term issues have to do with redefining the relationship in a realistic way that acknowledges the impact of betrayal and addiction. Also, areas around sexual and emotional intimacy can pose a long-term struggle for these couples.

Another issue that Tripodi brings up in regard to partners is lack of support.  “Not having a couple of supportive people to talk to about what they’re going through in this process can be a barrier,” she explains.

 

With challenges come opportunities

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