Cheaters often make excuses for their indiscretions; most notably, “Maybe I’m a sex addict.” In reality, the two are not the same – some people are cheaters (as many as half of people in committed relationships) and far fewer (roughly 3 to 6 percent of the population) are sex addicts.
Cheating can be defined as keeping secrets in a relationship. Examples include a spouse striking up a relationship with a co-worker or visiting a prostitute to escape a sexless marriage or lying about a pornography habit. While troublesome in a committed relationship and a potential violation of one’s personal moral or ethical code, these behaviors do not necessarily rise to the level of a psychological disorder, even if they happen repeatedly.
Although some of the hallmarks of sex addiction are a double life and multiple affairs and/or one-night stands, it is much more complex than run-of-the-mill cheating. Sex addicts are consumed by sexual fantasies, urges and activities, yet they gain little pleasure from their sexual acts. They spend inordinate amounts of time planning, pursuing and engaging in sexual acts, which provide a temporary escape or “high,” followed by intense feelings of shame or guilt. As a result of their sexual compulsivity, addicts experience negative consequences such as job loss, legal trouble or losing custody of their children, yet they continue to act out.
Sex addiction is typically not short-lived, but rather a prolonged pattern of impulsive, high-risk sexual behavior. In most cases, the addiction escalates over time. Someone who starts out masturbating to porn may begin viewing illegal material or contacting prospective hook-up partners in online chat rooms. Someone who has an affair may become a serial adulterer or begin visiting prostitutes regularly, feeling powerless to stop despite negative consequences.
While many people become emotionally invested in their affair partner(s), sex addiction is, at core, an intimacy disorder, and rarely comes with an emotional attachment. As such, a sex addict may have numerous affairs simultaneously or frequently visit prostitutes (or prostitute themselves) while a cheater may struggle to manage one affair that he or she is emotionally invested in.
Cheating is a betrayal of trust and may point to deeper issues the individual and couple needs to resolve in counseling. But cheating is not necessarily a sign of an underlying mental health disorder, which should never be minimized or disregarded as “just cheating.” Sex addiction, like addictions to drugs or alcohol, requires understanding and treatment for the underlying issues. It is not a bad choice, but rather a treatable mental health problem. Left ignored and untreated, sex addiction will worsen.
While neither cheating nor sex addiction is desirable in a relationship, cheating can be a one-time mistake or pattern of behavior that can be addressed in therapy by working through the reasons for cheating and making changes in the relationship. Sex addiction, by contrast, often stems from childhood trauma and occurs alongside substance abuse, eating disorders, mood disorders and other problems, meaning it typically requires more in-depth treatment. A therapist may recommend medication, along with 12-Step meetings, ongoing counseling or an outpatient/inpatient sex addiction treatment program.
Cheaters and sex addicts who cannot or will not get help may not be relationship material. But relationships with cheaters and sex addicts are not necessarily doomed to fail, and both cheaters and sex addicts can become loving, trustworthy spouses again. Determined couples who love each other can get through either scenario, but not without a strong willingness to face challenges honestly and get through them together.