If you believe someone you care about has a problem with sexual addiction, or you’re already certain you need help yourself even if your person doesn’t admit to a problem, here are some first steps you can take.

Detachment with Love

The idea of detaching with love is usually hard for partners to grasp. You’ve been so affected and hurt by the addict’s behavior, and your life has become entwined with the addict’s. To step back from the situation is difficult.

Detachment begins with separating the addict from his/her problem of sexual addiction. The person is not the disease. When you can attribute the drama, deceit, and decisions to the problem of sexual addiction, it’s easier to stop taking it personally. As the book How Al-Anon Works explains, “If we can learn to step back from [sexual addiction’s] symptoms and effects just as we would from the sneezing of a person with a cold, we will no longer have to take those effects to heart” (page 84).

Detachment means emotionally distancing from the disturbing behavior of someone’s sexual addiction. If you remember that addicts usually surround themselves with chaos, blame, and pain, you can choose not to play a part in the turmoil. Instead of getting caught up in defending yourself or lashing out against the addict’s behavior, you can take a deep breath, remind yourself, “That’s just the sexual addiction,” and let it go. You can remember that you’re not the cause of the addict’s behavior, and you can’t control or cure it.

This attitude is actually more compassionate and respectful than the indifference, coldness or compulsive involvement you may have shown in the past. That’s the reason for the description “detaching with love.”

Detachment with love means that you also take actions for yourself that help you keep your emotional equilibrium. You set boundaries or create space by ending a conversation or exiting a situation. You surround yourself with supportive people who understand addiction and learn all you can about the dynamics between addicts and partners.

As How Al-Anon Works says, you probably won’t detach gracefully at first. You’re used to reacting to the addict with resentment, silence, rage or self-righteousness. It takes practice to learn how to respond differently. Attending your own support group for partners and receiving guidance helps you make the changes that benefit you as well as your relationships.

Detaching with love allows you to get out of God’s way and to allow natural consequences to unfold. It is admitting your powerlessness over anything or anyone other than yourself and placing your focus squarely on what you can control: you.

Talk with someone about your problem.

According to a slogan from the Twelve Steps, we’re as sick as our secrets. Tell someone else about what’ going on in your life and ask for help. You don’t need the addict’s permission to talk with a trusted person, and you have no obligation to keep protecting the addict’s secret sin.

Learn more about the problem and the solution.

Reading is the best place to start. Back from Betrayal by Jennifer Schneider and Intimate Deception: Healing the Wounds of Sexual Betrayal by Sheri Keffer are great books that combine the trauma and systemic models of helping partners. Other good books include Mending a Shattered Heart by Stephanie Carnes, Shattered Vows by Debra Laaser or Your Sexually Addicted Spouse by Barbara Steffens and Marsha Means.

To understand more about sexual addiction, get Healing the Wounds of Sexual Addiction by Mark Laaser if your loved one is male, or No Stones: Women Redeemed from Sexual Addiction by Marnie Ferree if your addict is female. Other great books are anything by Patrick Carnes, including Out of the Shadows and Don’t Call It Love.

Browse Suggested Reading

Take healthy action.

You’re not responsible for your addict’s behavior and you can’t control it. You can, though, respond to it appropriately. Most partners of addicts have tried a variety of ways to deal with a loved one’s sexual addiction. And most of those ways haven’t been helpful. You can learn how to respond instead of react, how to set healthy boundaries, and how to keep the focus on yourself.

Most people find it hard, if not impossible, to take these actions early in recovery. Don’t give up if you can’t do these kinds of things by yourself. No one can. Learning to use the tools of recovery will ultimately help you succeed.

Attend a Twelve Step or support group.

“Why should I go to a group when the addict is the one with the problem?” A support group helps you focus on yourself instead of your addict, which is enormously hard to do. It provides the company of others who understand the challenges of living with an addict and have learned how to detach with love, get off the roller coaster, and be as healthy as they can be individual despite the craziness. You’ll learn how NOT to accept responsibility for things that aren’t your deal (like when the addict blames you for the addiction).

Most partners find it extremely hard to go to a support group, but it’s one of the best things you can do for yourself. Find a 12 Step group for loved ones of sex addicts like S-Anon or Co-SA or a faith-based program like a L.I.F.E. Group or Celebrate Recovery. If a partner group isn’t available in your area, go to Al-Anon. Commit to going to at least six meetings before you decide it isn’t for you.

Find a counselor who understands sexual addiction and how to help partners of addicts.

Many counselors (including Christian ones) aren’t trained in treating sex addiction, and they can unintentionally do more harm than good. Unfortunately, most untrained counselors do an extremely poor job of working with partners of sex addicts. They may offer horrible suggestions like, “Just have more sex with your addict” or “Try going out on dates to rekindle the spark you once had for each other.” Yikes! Find a counselor who understands addiction and its root causes and who is specifically familiar with the needs of partners. The best place to locate a clinician is through the website of the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals (IITAP). Visit sexhelp.com for a searchable database and look for those who specifically indicate they treat partners.

Decide to postpone any major decisions.

Agree to defer important decisions like getting a divorce. Give yourself time to grieve, heal, and see if your addict is serious about recovery. You may decide you need to ask for a separation from the addict, which might be a very helpful, protective step for you. We suggest you also decide to spend 6-12 months getting help for yourself before you make any long-term decisions.

Consider coming to a workshop.

It may feel like a big step, but a workshop provides a HUGE jumpstart into recovery. It’s time to take care of yourself! Attending a workshop quickly gets you way down the road to healing. The Healing for Partners Workshops section has complete information.