A partner is simply one who is (or has been) in a significant relationship with an addict. The partner of a sex addict has been deeply betrayed by the addict’s behavior and usually feels significant hurt and anger.
The dynamics of the relationship between an addict and partner can be complicated. In an effort to understand or control the distressing situation, the partner may 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. 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.
Partners sometimes get caught up in their own unhealthy behaviors when they discover or learn about the addict’s betrayal. They may play detective (after an expected period of investigation to find out the truth of about the addict’s behavior), 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 completely understandable, these reactions don’t help the situation, and unfortunately, they often make it worse.
A partner deserves a dedicated treatment focus to get help for the pain of the betrayal, to restore self-worth, and to learn tools and skills of self-care.
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.