Partners of the Chronically Unfaithful, Part 2

(Note: this is the second part of the five-part article "Partners of the Chronically Unfaithful", by Bill Herring.  Click here to return to the previous section.)


But if the perpetrator of recurrent deception is a sex addict, what word or phrase best describes his or her partner? This is an important question because the process of healing from chronic infidelity will depend to a significant extent on how the nature of the problem is perceived, and there are often profoundly different ways of looking at the same situation or event.  No label or definition is going to be fully satisfying to a betrayed partner who is grappling with how to make sense of this calamity that he or she didn’t cause, can’t stop and can’t easily escape.  

Sex Addiction and The “Co-Addiction” Model

A useful analogy to consider is the impact of alcoholism and drug addiction on families.  It’s well-recognized that people who continually abuse mood-altering substances tend to pull those around them into a despairing storm of chaos, confusion, and deception.  The Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) program of recovery begins with the admission that “we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable”.   Upon reflection it is evident that this statement also rings true for an addict’s family members.  To confirm this, just ask anyone who has loved a chronically relapsing alcoholic if they ever felt powerful enough to get that person sober or trusting enough to believe that early sobriety would last. 

This is why alcoholism is often considered to be a “family disease”.  Because of this systemic perspective, it’s understandable that many treatment professionals encourage the partner of an addict to carefully examine his or her own reactions to the problem.  The purpose of this approach is not to implicate the partner as the cause of the problem but to recognize the negative consequences an addict’s behavior has on everyone who is emotionally close to that person, even before they are aware the problem exists.  

So even though an abuser of drugs or alcohol is ultimately responsible for the turmoil this behavior causes all around, labels such as “co-addict” or “codependent” are often assigned to that person’s partner.   These terms are intended to describe some of the reactions that regularly occur as a result of the distorted reality that comes from being in a relationship with an addict.  Upon reflection, however, it is clear that this kind of language can subtly implicate the partner as part of the problem.

In other words, the “co-addict/codependent” model can unintentionally impose a framework of “illness” around the very people who have been victimized.  This way of looking at the problem comes close to implying that a partner of an addict somehow has a contributory role in either developing or maintaining a toxic relationship with some aspect of the addictive process.  This approach inevitably blurs the line between pathology that contributes to an addiction and that which results from one.  While it is true that partners have been made sick, it’s important not to confuse cause and consequence.  The partner isn’t part of the problem, the problem is part of the partner.

Partners of people who demonstrate sexually addictive patterns of behavior have often been similarly slotted into this same model, and many resources for support and treatment reflect this framework.  For example, 12-step support groups such as “S-Anon Family Groups (S-Anon)” were created to help shattered partners of sex addicts regain a sense of emotional balance and combat overwhelming isolation and despair.  In much the same way that Al-Anon Family Groups (Al-Anon) formed decades ago to benefit family members of alcoholics, these groups are invaluable sources for the kind of help and hope that cannot be found anywhere else.  

Unfortunately, partners of addicts frequently resist or flat-out refuse to attend such support groups and some even resent the recommendation to receive individual counseling.  “I’m not the one with the problem!” is a common and seemingly compelling retort.   While this statement is true, it’s the equivalent of a person who has been hit by a bus denying the need for assistance simply because somebody else was driving.  Regardless of who is responsible for the damage that has been inflicted, a person who is injured needs help.  Accepting this reality is one of the many challenges a partner must face.  My recommendation: get past the label and get to the help.

Sex Addiction and The “Relational Trauma” Model

Addiction specialists are beginning to conceptualize many of the common reactions to chronic betrayal as typical symptoms of trauma.  Many partners of chronically unfaithful individuals consider the evolving “trauma model” to be a more accurate description of their experience than the traditional “co-addict” perspective.  In some extreme examples it is even possible to consider a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for some partners of multiple betrayal.

Some skeptics may doubt how a diagnosis that applies to combat veterans and disaster survivors can be applicable to relational injury.  The answer is that the impact of a traumatic event is based on the experience of it, not just the event.   How a situation is internally perceived can be more important than what externally took place.   A person may feel either thrilled or terrified to ride a rollercoaster, and a crucial determining factor is going to be whether he or she signed up for the ride!  Any event that is overwhelming to a person to the point of threatening a fundamental sense of security is traumatic.  

Resolution of trauma depends on a person’s ability to make sense of the event and to work through basic core beliefs of safety, control, fairness, responsibility and self-worth.  Difficult, wrenching emotions such as profound grief, shock, rage and fear must be carefully navigated, not just “gotten over.”  The trauma model offers a way to move from victim to victor in response to the abuse that has occurred. 

I feel that both the co-addiction and trauma approaches have great merit as well as substantial challenges.  The 12 step-based perspective can help a partner find a place of existential solace and serenity in an essentially unpredictable relationship (and world), while the trauma model provides concrete steps along the pathway to regaining a sense of empowerment and safety.  On the other hand, the focus on relational detachment and personal responsibility that is so characteristic of the co-addict model can obscure the need to recognize and respond to the inherent trauma of victimization, while the trauma model’s focus on empowerment over acquiescence can obscure the need to find a place of acceptance amidst the turmoil and regardless of anything or anyone else that poses a risk to emotional well-being.  Ultimately, both models work toward the ultimate well-being of the chronically betrayed partner, and I believe an approach that utilizes both philosophies has the greatest value in the long run.  

One of my clients who benefitted from such a blended perspective put it this way:

“I’ve discovered parts of myself during this ordeal that I never knew existed, both good and bad. Even though I didn’t create this problem in my marriage I have a responsibility to myself and to my kids to keep growing and facing myself, even during my waves of anger and sadness. I need my husband to respect me but I can’t depend on him to sustain my sense of self-worth.  

Words like ‘surrender’ and ‘acceptance’ used to drive me nuts until I came to realize that I gave away my serenity every time I needed him to act a certain way for me to be OK.  This doesn’t mean he can do anything he wants without consequences.  But ‘one day at a time’ I’m learning to maintain my sanity by releasing us both from false expectations.  

I’ve also grown to be much clearer about the limits and boundaries I need to establish in all areas of my life in order to recover from the trauma of this terrible crisis in my life.  I would never wish this kind of pain on anybody but I want people to know it’s possible to do more than just survive.  It is possible to come out of this crisis stronger, wiser, more self-aware and (even though it can be hard to believe at first) emotionally healthier than ever.

Good books are available on both approaches, although there is not yet a text that knits the best aspects of each into a cohesive blended model.  The best book on the trauma model is “Your Sexually Addicted Spouse” by Barbara Steffens and Marsha Means.  It clearly presents insights, strategies and steps for achieving healing from the damage that almost always occurs.  There are so many books that utilize the co-addict approach that I prefer to recommend the ones that I think are best after completing a personal consultation in order to assess the unique circumstance of each individual situation.



Regardless of which model seems to best fit a person’s situation, there are certain initial struggles that are almost inevitable for a partner who is facing the long road of recovery from repeated sexual betrayal.

An Inevitable Sense of Isolation

Partners of chronically unfaithful individuals usually lack sufficient sources of much-needed support and understanding.  A combination of shock and shame contributes to a sense of isolation precisely at the time when access to strength and comfort is most needed.  It can seem almost impossible to tell friends or family what’s really been going on, especially when doing so is likely to yield some emotional reactions and advice that may be well-meaning but short-sighted. People without an adequate conception of the complexity of emotions and choices that such a terrible situation brings may recommend strategies (i.e. “I’d just leave him if I were you”) which are simplistic in conception and difficult to implement.  People do a poor job of accurately predicting how they would respond in a difficult situation unless they have personally gone through something similar.  Another painful discovery that repeatedly betrayed partners make is how uncomfortable and ill-equipped many friends and family feel discussing such sexual matters at any appreciable depth.

Public Perception Versus Private Pain 

Many betrayed partners can attest that it can be simply infuriating to know that the world at large thinks that a chronically unfaithful person is a wonderful, loving and responsible human being.  The distance between such a public facade and private reality can seem like the Grand Canyon.  The repeatedly betrayed partner must either somehow withstand such a distorted image or reveal the reality of the situation for all to see.  There are occasions when this is exactly what happens, as the partner makes it almost a quest to insure that everybody knows the truth that lies lurking under the myth.  Parents, siblings, children, co-workers, employers, neighbors..……soon everyone knows the terrible things this person has done.  

I don’t recommend this course of action since it can backfire in a couple of regretful ways. Sometimes the partner who reveals the sordid mess for all to see can wind up being perceived as vindictive and not very stable.  And in the many scenarios in which the damaged relationship heals and even grows (which often happens, even though this can be hard to imagine in the early days after repeated sexual secret-keeping has been discovered or disclosed) the couple must face the task of reintegrating their relationship into a community of watching eyes, guarded whispers and limited understanding.

Limited Choices and Difficult Decisions

Sometimes partners of chronically unfaithful individuals feel they have little choice but to accept the possibility that future deception will occur or try to believe the promise that it won’t happen again. This difficult choice can be influenced by many factors, including economic reality: spouses and longtime partners who face the dissolution of their relationship often retreat back into their unhappy life together when faced with the dire financial impact this will have on both of them.  Couples may also look at innocent children sleeping peacefully in the next room while the parents’ tears rain down and wonder how they could ever visit such hardship among them.  This commitment to bear up under such strain because there seems to be little other choice becomes another source of the partner’s perceived lack of power and control over the direction the future will take.


Personal assistance is available from the author of this article, Atlanta psychotherapist Bill Herring.)