At the conclusion of a recovery meeting recently, a newcomer turned to me and said, “There is so much pain in this room.” She is right. Living with or having lived with someone with a sexual addiction or compulsion is incredibly painful. And it is dirty. It is dirty emotionally, it is dirty mentally and it is often dirty physically. And we are repulsed by it. Others in our circle who know or suspect our secret are repulsed by our lives and often by us, though they may try to keep their feelings hidden. But we see it and sense it. It is revolting. It is disgusting. It is dirty.
Have you ever seen a backed up septic system or walked through that brown sludge that covers the drain field? Have you ever had to clean up a basement with feces floating in the standing sewage water that has come up through your plumbing? “Mucking out the stalls” from a horse seems like child’s play compared to the horrendous experience of cleaning up human waste. Imagine living in that cesspool—imagine sitting in it daily, raising your kids in it, sleeping in it, preparing meals in it. That is what living with a sexual addiction is like. The smell of it pervades every activity, every moment of every day. You cannot wash it away, deodorize it enough and no air freshener is strong enough to erase the stench that it creates.
Sex is a gift we are taught. And it is when the partners love and respect one another; it is a beautiful expression of that love. But when it becomes an addiction or compulsion, when one partner seeks others outside of the relationship or engages in perversion, it becomes a cesspool. The most sacred part of a romantic relationship is violated, trust is broken, and vows are betrayed. All addictions are the same, right? NO! A sex addiction strikes at the heart of a relationship; it destroys the glue that holds two people together. Sex is personal and interpersonal. It has the power to provide great pleasure and satisfaction but also has the power to create incredible pain when its sacred oath is violated. When it is used to cover up deep wounds and grows into something over which an individual has little power or control, it stinks. And it can remain hidden so easily. Deception walks hand in hand with addiction but especially with a sexual addiction. An alcoholic might deceive another about how many drinks he has had but eventually, his inebriated state will become evident to the invested observer. At some point in the binge, deniability becomes impossible, but not so with a sexual addiction. Not so.
For some, the belief that each individual has the right to seek sexual expression in whatever manner he or she desires undermines the magnitude of sex addiction. When we examine specific behaviors that the addict is prone to engage in, we can find areas of disagreement. Some feel that adult pornography is not a problem, that sex with someone of the same gender is perfectly normal and ok, that a strip club is a good outlet for a man’s sexual proclivities and that masturbation is completely healthy. Others would disagree. But getting caught up in the morality of specific behaviors involved in a sexual addiction ignores the bigger picture. In a committed relationship, sexual activities outside of the relationship, without the knowledge or consent of one partner is a violation of the sacredness of the commitment.
Social drinking is acceptable and not considered to be a problem. I think we can all agree on that (except maybe for extremely conservative religious folks). But when “social drinking” becomes breakfast, lunch, dinner and a nightcap, we become concerned. When the imbiber cannot stop drinking and when his life becomes unmanageable, we agree that he has a problem with alcohol and we feel comfortable calling him an alcoholic. Its not the alcohol that is the problem, it is addiction and the necessary consequences it brings. Certainly the alcoholic’s addiction and resulting behaviors impact everyone living in his household. Certainly the deception involved in maintaining an addictive lifestyle is damaging to all of his relationships. But one could argue that his addiction does not necessarily destroy the commitment he made to his partner. He may remain faithful to his relationship promises even though he is a falling down drunk.
A sexual addiction steals the heart of the addict. It becomes his all-consuming passion. He begins to neglect his real-life relationships in search of the thrill of one more affair, one more binge on pornography or one more hook-up. His heart leaves the relationship and looks elsewhere. As the addiction grows, the risk of discovery or of devastating consequences grows—not only for him but also for his partner. She may be exposed to sexually transmitted diseases as a consequence of his addictive behavior. Or, she may be caught up in the aftermath of his discovered criminal activity. Her self-confidence and self-esteem take a direct hit and she begins to cover up in shame. An alcoholic’s partner is not judged as “less than” due to the alcoholism; a sex addict’s partner often is. And she knows this.
When she risks disclosing her secret, she may face rejection and judgment. She can sense the wrinkled up noses of “nice, ordinary people,” who do not live in a cesspool, or so they believe. She knows that the behavior of her partner is offensive to most; it fails the “smell test.” She is fortunate if she finds an individual who is willing to sit with her in the mess. She is fortunate indeed. Most prefer not to sit in the cesspool and understandably so. Many prefer that she just leave and clean herself up so they can then sit with her. But leaving is complicated, especially when there are children present in the relationship. And she so hates to give up on the “fairy tale” of her relationship. Maybe she is dependent upon her partner financially or maybe she is just so worn down by the rejection of the addiction that she cannot fathom making it on her own.
My reply to the newcomer’s comment about so much pain being in the room where our recovery meeting was held was, “But there is so much hope as well.” So often it is easier to focus on the pain rather than the hope because the pain is so real and so intense. The hope is found in others who are willing to sit in the cesspool of sexual addiction—therapists, recovery friends, clergy—they hear horrendous stories of some of the worst behavior possible. And they remain steadfast in their commitment to helping those impacted by the stench of sex addiction. For it is in sitting with another without judgment but rather with empathy that healing can begin, that hope can emerge. Co-pilgrims journeying together through life, sharing the joy but also the pain—this brings hope.
There is hope in the incredible resilience of the human soul. We are much stronger than we believe, especially when we join forces with another or with our Higher Power. We are able to heal, though it seems an impossibility at times. We are able to transform our pain into growth and into potential for change. Farmers will tell you that nothing enriches soil as much as manure—the stuff we try to hide, bury or get rid of because it stinks, because it is disgusting. But manure releases nutrients that fertilize the growing plants. The cesspool of sexual addiction holds the potential for fertilizing and nurturing new growth in individuals, so there is hope. There is hope, even in the stench of sexual addiction but it takes courage to search for it—those small nuggets of hope mixed in the brown sludge of our lives with an addict. They are worth finding because they hold the secret to survival and even to being able to thrive in spite of or maybe because of having lived with or living with a sex addict.