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Dear Chump Lady, Is Sex Addiction a Myth?

Dear Chump Lady,
It seems to me that a lot of betrayed spouses like to jump on the “my cheater has a sexual addiction” bandwagon. It is so incredibly sad to read their stories! What is so clear to me is that within the “Skein of Fuckeupedness” (as you call it),  these poor people go through every possible reason for their betrayer’s behavior  — from I’m co-dependent, to they’re Narcissistic Personality Disorders, to mid-life crisis, and then finally landing on sex addiction.  
I think labeling the cheater allows BSs to avoid acceptance of who their spouses really are. It also allows them to avoid admitting or accepting that they have no deal breakers. Though, I honestly think this is the final attempt at controlling their betrayers’ sexuality – as if putting it in a disease context makes the cheating controllable,  but that is another topic.
What do you think about cheaters who are “sex addicts”?
It’s Bunk

Dear Bunk,

Well, whatever it is, I don’t think it’s healthy to stay married to it.

Personality disorders, mental illness, and addiction are real. My advice to someone dealing with one of those issues, would be the same as someone dealing with a purported “sex addict” — you cannot fix this. In the words of the recovery folks — Detach with love. But definitely detach.

I don’t think deciding that your cheater has a Syndrome makes it any less imperative to protect yourself from their self destructiveness. Whatever you call it, it ain’t good for you.

What I do think happens to chumps though, when you have a label, is that the chump has a whole new canvas of codependency to work with. If you frame it that the cheater is Sick (sympathy), instead of framing it as the cheater is Selfish (judgement), then it’s harder to break away. Good people don’t leave sick people. They leave bad people. But if the bad person is really a sick person, well, then you feel you have an obligation to stick it out. (I tackled this dilemma in another letter – But I Made a Vow.)

All these illnesses — mental, personality disorders, and addiction — require the afflicted to make a choice about whether or not they’re going to treat their illness. It’s not a pass to abuse others. Addiction ends because addicts make a choice not to abuse (drink, drugs, other people). It’s different from other illness, like cancer. You don’t get to decide to just cure yourself with cancer. You do decide to get sober.

My brother is a recovered addict (NA, sober now 8 years). He told me when I was going through my infidelity nightmare, it’s not that addicts don’t know what to do, or how to get help — it’s that they don’t WANT TO. They like getting high better. It feels good. He called my ex’s shit pretty well.

Addiction by its nature is selfish, destructive, and full of deceit. I think cheaters do behave often as addicts. They just want their fix and they don’t care who they hurt. They are not poor sausages at the mercy of their neurotransmitters, they are sentient beings making appalling decisions and lying to your face about it.

Whether it’s a cheater or an alcoholic, or a “sex addict” — leaving them is the kindest thing you can do for them. Or, in my brother’s drug recovery parlance — “Don’t get between an addict and his bottom.” Let them hit the skids. It’s the only hope they’ve got of experiencing painful enough consequences that they will WANT to change on their own.

Oh, and I know that hope (but they’re in recovery!) will keep the hard core chumps stuck too. I have to help them with this!

In my opinion, don’t waste your life on this. Monogamy is not 12-step. If a person is truly a sex addict (or any kind of addict) to get clean, you need a ton of support. My brother goes to meetings every week. He has a sponsor. Recovery is a lifestyle for him, a religion. It takes a tremendous amount of personal strength to get right in the head. The odds of relapse are high.

Do you want that in a spouse? Do you want someone who needs a lot of support and hand holding not to betray you?

Why spend your life this way when there are good people out there who are not addicts? Who know how to be faithful and with whom you share values?

The best thing I can say about a chump giving a cheater a label, is that it might direct them to a place of support. There is a lot to be said for discovering that you aren’t alone. And perhaps through finding that sort of community, an infidelity Al-Anon, the chump will find the strength to leave.

That’s my hope anyway. Thanks for writing, Bunk.

Ask Chump Lady

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  • To talk of “sex addiction” is to make an ANALOGY to chemical dependence. Craving sex might FEEL a bit like a heroin craving feels like to a heroin addict, but it is fundamentally different, and the differences far outweigh the one similarity. Three fundamental differences jump out at us. First, a failure to indulge a “sex addiction” doesn’t result in any physical harm (e.g., DT’s) or death (e.g., “Tragically, he died of a broken penis”). Second, pretty much EVERYONE craves sex (What, are we ALL sex addicts?). Third (as Chumplady points out), any sex addict in the world can be “cured” by either: 1) choosing to stay home and read a book instead of seeking out sex; or 2) being plunked down on a desert island. Every. Single. One. Without any doctors, drugs, or therapies required.

    These kinds of differences place “sex addiction” well outside the scope of the “sickness and health” clause of our marriage vows. And for anyone who disagrees, be prepared to deal with folks who claim they’re “addicted” to, say, beating their spouse, molesting children, or murdering prostitutes.

    I’d also suggest that using the same concept (illness) to apply to a spouse who sneaks out of the house while his wife and newborn are sleeping to fuck a Craigslist hook-up as is applied to my sister and her fight against ovarian cancer is either very stupid or heartless.

    Don’t confuse an analogy with reality, people. After all, a clear view of reality is the betrayed spouse’s best friend.

  • “They are not poor sausages at the mercy of their neurotransmitters, they are sentient beings making appalling decisions and lying to your face about it.”

    This is brilliant!!! Brilliant writing, hilarious, and TRUE!

    Better Now, I also really like your point about this being outside of the scope of in “sickness or health.” As Chump Lady said, leaving a sick person is a hell of lot harder than leaving a selfish person, and it takes a lot of self respect to be able to make that distinction, and act on it.


    • JP, I totally agree it comes down to being able to make a distinction between a sick person and a selfish person. And the cheater is deeply invested in having you believe they are sick versus selfish. That’s why I find the word “broken” to describe cheaters as wrong headed. No, cheaters BREAK people. They don’t get to claim the mantle of “broken.” This is where someone points out, hurt people hurt people. And yes, while there is some truth in that, it is NOT okay to work out your pain by taking it out on innocents.

  • Very interesting article. I like your site, and mostly agree with what you’re saying. I have worked in this field of “sex addiction” now for six years, and have recently moved to pastoring a church part time and starting a recovery organization for a variety of addictions. I have often felt that “sex addiction” is an unfortunate and unhelpful concept, and in fact when I do workshops I have a whole lecture about how the label is not helpful. I have worked with people who deal with a variety of addictive behaviors, and I would say that there are widely diverse psychological issues going on with different types of people and different types of behavior that all get thrown into this label of “sex addiction.” For someone married to a serial cheater, I would agree that the pain and difficulty of rebuilding trust is so great, and the likelihood of a change of heart and character if the person stays in the relationship is so small that if someone I knew was married to such a person, I would encourage them to end it. I must say that I have seen some people change … and marriages turn around … but it was a tremendous amount of work and struggle to get there, and the cheating spouse had a lot of things happen to them that created a willingness to do the hard work of changing and rebuilding.

    I think there is something going on here that goes deeper than just “this person is a selfish jerk and so they do this.” I have taken to using the term “sexual struggler” to help get an understanding of a person who keeps doing things they vowed to stop doing. Most of the people I work with who are sexual strugglers turned to sex early on as a way of coping with abuse and abandonment, and many of them got their start with sexuality by being “introduced” to sex or sexual materials by someone older — a form of sex abuse itself. Like other behavioral challenges – overeating and gambling – people who habitually “act out” sexually usually are doing this as a way of (dysfunctionally) coping with life’s challenges.

    Here is where we both agree, however. I would still say that if a person is “acting out” as a way of dealing with life’s challenges … they are still responsible for those actions, and that a spouse is totally justified in leaving or divorcing such a person. In fact, most (all?) strugglers won’t get serious about getting help and making changes until they face consequences of lost jobs, relationships, families, etc.

    Hope some of these rambling thoughts make sense. Keep up the good work.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Mark. While I don’t doubt that there are “sexual strugglers,” and sex abuse sadly is horrifically common, I do think that so many folks who get labeled “sex addicts” are users of people — predatory and manipulative. There is certainly narcissism in all kinds of addiction (putting your habit above other’s welfare). Serial cheaters know what they’re doing, and I believe they know that they are hurting others — they just don’t care. Until the consequences of such behavior HURT THEM. Until their self interest is at stake. Which shows me they lack empathy and only change (if they change) when it’s their own hide on the line. I don’t know how anyone could trust a reformed SA or serial cheater, even who did the “hard work.” I guess I’d question their motivation. I want to be with someone who feels hurt hurting me. (Actually I am with someone like that, it’s a world of difference from being with a serial cheater).

      You sound like a very kind, compassionate person doing the work you’re doing. Thanks for writing.

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