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. 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 lie 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 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 hardcore 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.
This column was previously published. I’m recycling while I’m updating my site. Please feel free to comment! Thanks.