When You Become an Acting Out Partner But Don’t Know It, PART 1

This week we are going to talk about a phenomenon that is most frequently experienced by partners of sex addicts, though individuals dealing with other forms of sexual betrayal (porn use, affairs, etc.) may also recognize pieces of this phenomenon in their experience.

When most people think about sexual compulsivity/addiction, they think about the ways in which someone is being compulsive outside of his or her primary relationship. And for many sex addicts, this is the way that compulsive sexual behaviors manifest. However, some sex addicts are compulsive with sex inside their relationship, seeing their partner as another source of the sexual high and the emotional escape provided by that high.  

As we discuss this topic, I want to give you a word of caution. It can be easy with this issue to get triggered into reviewing every nuance of your sexual life with your partner to determine if this topic applies to you. In my experience, the betrayed partners who have had the experience of being used as an unwitting sexual acting out partner do not have to search for nuances or hints about it. It is a very clear and overwhelming behavioral pattern in the relationship.

So, if this does not apply to you, do not let your fear cause you to start to believe that it does. I have had clients who have heard this material go home and accuse their spouse of using them sexually when the spouse has actually been avoidant or compartmentalized (the topic we discussed last week). So be careful with this issue. I want to validate and support those who have had this experience, while preventing those of you who have not from “borrowing trouble” based on fear rather than facts.

OK, back to our discussion.

When betrayed partners are in a relationship where their sexually addicted spouse is using them to act out sexually, the betrayed partner is often confused or unclear about what is happening. The betrayed partner views sex as a mutually loving, bonding, emotionally intimate experience. The addict, however, can view sex as a way to “get high” and escape from stress, anxiety, depression, and other forms of emotional discomfort. This dichotomy is perplexing to the betrayed partner.

Often, the addict completely loses sight of his or her partner as a loving companion and sexual partner. The emotional intimacy and connectivity disappear from the sex act. In this dynamic, sex eventually becomes a central conflictual topic in the relationship as the addicted partner becomes more demanding and manipulative, sexually.  Objections from the betrayed partner are seen by the addict not as an indication that something is amiss, but as obstacles to overcome in pursuit of the drug.

Betrayed partners in this type of relationship express feeling dehumanized and objectified by their spouse. They often say they feel used as a “receptacle” or “tool” rather than connected with and loved as a person.

Once these betrayed partners enter therapy and begin to learn about sexual addiction and to sort through their relationship, their stories of heartbreak come spilling out, even though these tales are difficult to tell. These betrayed individuals often feel enormous shame and confusion, and they are uncertain about what is healthy, what is unhealthy, what is addiction, and what is normal. In addition, they may have been coerced into sex (or sex they’re not comfortable with) by the sex addict.  Many times, betrayed partners feel alone and ashamed, believing no one else has ever had this same experience.

Here are a few stories of heartbreak:

Joy sat in my office and slowly, quietly, while looking at the floor, told me about years of sex with her spouse where he viewed pornography while having sex with her, often never breaking eye contact with the pornography to even acknowledge her presence.  


Stacy angrily talked to me during a session about how her husband insisted on having sex with her three days after the birth of their second child, causing her intense physical and emotional pain.


Amber stared at the whiteboard on the wall behind me as she told about her spouse requiring sex one to three times per day, every day, and withdrawing in angry silence or erupting in rage and taking out his anger on the entire family when she wasn’t willing to provide it.


Callie sat with tears streaming down her face and told me about figuring out that her husband had been drugging her and then having sex with her (raping her) while she slept.


Lucille told me about years of discussions about her supposedly low libido and visits to doctors as a result of pressure from her husband to try to get her to find a solution to why she didn’t want as much sex as he wanted.


These are stories of bodies being used, physical pain being caused, and shame being experienced. Each of these women told her story with sadness in her voice and confusion in her eyes as she tried to sort out how the person who claimed to love her and spoke the language of wanting to make love to her was actually using her the way a drug addict uses his drug.

If you see yourself in one of the stories above, please know that you are not alone. Others have experienced the pain, confusion, shame and anger that can result from finding yourself caught up in your significant other’s addiction. Next week we are going to continue looking at this topic and the emotional impacts to the betrayed partner.

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