Is Couples Counseling the Right Treatment for Sex Addiction?
If you’re reading this, chances are that your relationship is in crisis. Maybe you’ve probably discovered your partner’s pornography stash, an affair, his texts with a prostitute, or his lurid emails with women (or men) he’s met online. Perhaps you found something else entirely, or your partner has told you about it because he got caught.
Whatever the case, you’re probably wondering what to do. It’s only natural that you would be thinking about whether to stay in the relationship or not. Many couples seek couples counseling when there’s the first revelation of a partner’s sexual behaviors.
After all, why wouldn’t they? The discovery or disclosure does cause a crisis in the relationship, and it’s understandable that they’d seek support.
Why Couples Often Seek Couples Therapy During the Crisis Stage
The “Crisis Stage” is the second stage of sex addiction recovery. After the Developing Stage in which the problems caused by sex addiction snowball, in the Crisis Stage the addict’s acting out behaviors are revealed. This is a devastating, painful time for the partner of the addict, who feels betrayed and traumatized. The addict feels ashamed and scared that their partner will leave.
Both the addict and the partner often seek couples therapy at during this critical stage but for different reasons:
- The addict is fearful about losing their partner and is desperate to do anything to convince them to stay.
- The partner is feeling deeply hurt and confused; as angry as she usually is, she also feels vulnerable and needs the relationship’s support.
But another kind of help may be more appropriate and far more helpful at first. Why?
Why Couples Therapy Is Not Appropriate for Sex Addiction Treatment (At First)
There are a number of reasons why couples therapy is not helpful (and may actually be harmful in many instances) when sex addiction is present.
- Couples therapy does not treat the sex addiction and may allow the sex addict to continue to act out, compounding the addict’s and the relationship’s problems. This is why couples counselors routinely assess for addiction in the early stages of treatment. There’s little point in treating the paper cut while the cancer beneath continues to grow.
- Sex addiction is not a “couples” problem. It is true that couples need to recover from sex addiction (more on that in a bit). It’s also true that everyone brings in their unresolved pain into their intimate relationships that results in relational conflict. But sex addiction is the addict’s way of dealing with his or her unresolved pain. The relationship didn’t cause it and had nothing to do with perpetuating it.
- Even if the couples therapy begins by helping the addict repair the relationship, the partner is put into a position of cooperating with the addict in restoring the relationship when 1) the addict may still be acting out and 2) the partner has no idea if the addict is being honest, which makes rebuilding trust impossible.
How to Know When to Seek Sex Addiction Counseling
Again, partners of addicts initiate therapy when they sense that something is going on in the relationship. Maybe their spouse has even admitted, e.g.,
- watching porn,
- an affair,
- texting with a prostitute,
- visiting a massage parlor “just once,” or
- some other sexual behavior that would cause anyone in a committed, trusting relationship devastating heartbreak.
When someone in an intimate relationship makes some kind of discovery like this, it’s very possible their partner has told them everything, all of the ways that they’ve betrayed them. It may be that their partner is not a sex addict.
But maybe not. Where there’s smoke, there may be fire.
Sex addiction thrives in secrecy and shadows, and addicts are often amazingly adept at hiding their problematic sexual behaviors. Unless the sex addiction is revealed and treated, any treatment for the relationship will likely result in a poor outcome.
Generally, it’s a good idea to seek sex addiction counseling for the possible addict when:
- You and your partner have been to couples counseling before and the same problematic behaviors have persisted (e.g., you found a text that sent you to therapy before, and now you’ve found another one).
- You have discovered or learned about a behavior that seems unusual to you that’s causing a lot of conflict in the relationship (e.g., an email with a prostitute, hardcore or extreme pornography, increasingly demanding about having sex with you).
- Your partner has told you everything (or has told you he’s told you everything), and you know you both need help.
Couples Counseling Can Help, But at the Right Time
When the addict enters into treatment for sex addiction, it’s a good idea for the partner to get help as well. Seeking support in individual counseling from a therapist who understands sex addiction and its impact on partners can be a way of loving yourself during an excruciating time. Once the addict has traction in his recovery and the partner feels ready, the addict and his partner can enter therapy together.
The goal of this counseling, especially early on, is simple: To teach the addict to empathically support his partner. With time and patience (and no more acting out), the partner will be able to respond to him and offer him support. Only then will the couple be ready to really dig in and begin their recovery as a couple.