Spouses of sex addicts do not have an easy road after learning about their spouse’s behaviors. For most, finding out about a partner’s sexual betrayal is incredibly traumatic. In fact, one study found that many cheated-on partners, after learning about their spouse’s infidelity, actually experienced acute stress symptoms characteristic of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder — a very serious condition with profound negative consequences.
Typically, the pain evoked by a partner’s sexual addiction and infidelity manifests in one or more of the following ways:
- Emotional volatility, including quick shifts from rage to sadness to hope and back again
- Hyper-vigilant self-protective behaviors, including detective work (checking bills, wallets, phone apps, browser histories, etc.)
- Predicting and living in the wreckage of the future—inventing doomsday, worst-case scenarios and dreading them to the point of not being able to live “in the moment”
- Sleeplessness, nightmares, inability (or lack of desire) to wake up, etc.
- Difficulty focusing on the day-to-day
- Obsessing about the trauma and experiencing depression and anxiety because of it
- Avoiding thinking about or discussing the trauma
- Compulsive eating, spending, gambling, exercising, or other obsessive behaviors
In some ways, the pain caused by a partner’s sexual infidelity stems from the fact that, although the cheater has obviously known about his or her sexual behavior from the start (and may actually feel some relief once the truth is on the table), the cheated-on spouse is usually blindsided by the information. And even when that person had some prior knowledge of the infidelity, he or she is usually overwhelmed upon learning the full extent of the activity. (After all, sex addiction is an ongoing pattern of behavior rather than an isolated incident.)
Exacerbating the injury is the fact that it’s not just anyone who caused this pain and sense of loss. The agony experienced by cheated-on partners is amplified by the fact that the hurt has been perpetrated by the one person in the world they most counted on. Their spouse, the individual who carries the most emotional significance in their life, has essentially taken a knife and plunged it into their back, ripping apart their emotional universe with lies, manipulation, and a seeming lack of concern about their emotional and physical wellbeing.
Oftentimes spouses of sex addicts have had the reality of their situation denied for years on end by an unfaithful partner who insists that he or she is not cheating, that he or she is not being distant or indifferent, that he or she really was on a business trip, and that the worried spouse is simply being paranoid and displaying a lack of trust. Over time, many spouses of sex addicts are made to feel as if they are the problem, as if their emotional instability is the issue. In the face of ongoing lies and well-crafted defenses, they eventually start to doubt their intuition and feelings. And, as we have long known from work with abused children, being made to feel wrong when you are right—having your accurate reality denied—is incredibly traumatic.
As survivors of extreme emotional trauma, it is perfectly natural for cheated-on spouses to respond with rage, sadness, or any other emotion and to be easily triggered into emotional volatility by absolutely anything that reminds them in any way of the pain they’ve experienced. It does not matter if the infidelity is in the past. Betrayed spouses report that they are easily triggered into feelings that mirror the pain they experienced when the infidelity just occurred. And until relationship trust is re-established, which can often take a year or longer, they are likely remain on this emotional rollercoaster.
Many spouses of sex addicts, despite their depression, fears, anxiety, and emotional volatility, resent the idea that they might need help to deal with their emotions. They feel that it was their partner who caused the pain they’re experiencing, so the partner is the only one who needs to make changes. This resistance is perfectly natural. Nevertheless, many spouses of sex addicts do seek therapeutic assistance, and when they do then nearly always benefit greatly from it. At the very least spouses of sex addicts need validation for their feelings, education and support to move forward, help in processing the shame of being cheated on, and empathy for how their life has been disrupted. Many also need guidance with ongoing life issues such as managing their emotions in healthy ways, setting appropriate boundaries, dealing with STDs, and learning how to curb the almost constant desire to question the sex addict in detail about his or her past and current behaviors.