A partner is simply one who is (or has been) in a significant relationship with an addict – in this case, a sexual addict. These individuals are also sometimes referred to as a “co-addict,” which isn’t a pejorative term and definitely does not imply that the partner is in any way responsible for the sex addict’s behavior. The “co-addict” concept simply describes a type of relationship in the same way that “aunt and niece” describes a certain connection.
Understanding the co-addiction concept, though, requires going deeper into considering the dynamics of the relationship. Just as the addict is addicted to sex or some intense relationship, the co-addict can be “addicted” to the addict. (Again, this idea in no way puts any blame on the partner for the addict’s issues or acting out!) The partner of an addict can put the majority of her (or his) focus on the addict and be more attuned to the addict’s behavior and needs than to her own, which is a phenomenon often termed “enmeshment.” In a different scenario, the partner may detach from the addict and withdraw into her (or his) own world of work, children, or other interests. In some situations the partner may be totally surprised to learn the addict has been acting out.
Regardless of which end of the spectrum they’re on (from enmeshment to detachment), partners often get caught up in their own unhealthy behaviors when they discover or learn about the addict’s betrayal. They may play detective, rage, shut down, become more sexual, try to control or fix, threaten, abuse alcohol or other drugs, eat, shop, settle for the status quo, or do any number of things in an effort to cope. While understandable, these reactions don’t help the situation, and in fact, they often make it worse.
In simplest terms, before a recovery process takes place, those who are addicts struggle with the problem of addiction. Those who are partners of addicts often struggle at some level with the problem of codependency, which often is equally debilitating.
Codependency is an over used term, but it describes a set of beliefs and behaviors common to partners of sex addicts (and any kind of addict for that matter). Codependents often lack a strong sense of self and lose themselves in other people. They define themselves by how others view them and are anxious to please, help, or not rock the boat.
Symptoms of codependency include managing, manipulating and mothering those around them. Codependents often avoid their feelings through focusing externally on children, work, church, activities, and other people. They often enable addictive or irresponsible behavior by caretaking, making excuses, or covering up. Sometimes they engage in their own problematic behaviors like excessive drinking, shopping, or raging.
Because they live in a crazy-making environment of addiction or family dysfunction, codependents often doubt their own reality. They easily succumb to the addict’s explanations, accusations and promises. And most sex addicts are masters at attempting to alter a partner’s reality! This practice is called gaslighting, and it’s totally crazy-making for the partner. It’s important for a partner to trust her own gut and her own view of reality.
These dynamics and behaviors are largely unconscious and were often developed as coping techniques in the partner’s family of origin. When the family struggles with addiction, secrets, deprivation, perfectionism, or other family dysfunction, the partner must learn ways to survive. This history of codependency, then, formed long before the person met the addict.
People who are codependent tend to gravitate toward others who are emotionally unavailable or needy. That kind of relationship dance feels unconsciously familiar. Since the codependent tries to rescue, fix, “help,” or otherwise enable a relationship partner – or perhaps distances from a partner as a way to cope – without addressing his or her own feelings and needs, the codependent unconsciously often becomes involved in a relationship that is chronically unfulfilling.
Codependents believe they are doing the right thing and acting in their partners’ best interests, which makes it hard for them to see their own unhealthy behaviors and attitudes. In reality, codependency, like addiction, is an intimacy disorder. In fact, it’s the flip side of the same coin.