Why Better Marital Sex Is not the Answer to His Sexual Addiction
I have been involved in Partners in Process (a recovery program for wives of sex addicts) for ten years, the first four years as a participant and the last six years as a leader. I can tell you with confidence: One of the primary questions a wife of a sex addict wrestles with is why she is not enough for her husband. Why does he not have eyes only for her? Why is he looking at other women, going to other women? This hurts her deeply. Most wives go through a period of time where they try to “be enough”. They try to dress differently, do whatever he wants to do sexually, be like the women he is looking at…whatever they can to win his attention. Most eventually give up. Some wives give up right away realizing they could never match up.
In recovery, it is important that a wife come to a point where she realizes she is powerless over her husband’s addiction. Part of acknowledging that powerlessness is realizing she cannot fulfill the desire he is trying to fill in his sexual addiction and his addiction is not about her.
Unfortunately, many of these wives are encouraged by those they trust that they should try to be more sexual for their husband. They are told that maybe they are not paying enough attention to his sexual needs and that the lack of attention could contribute to his sexual acing out. In fact, sadly, almost every wife I have met and worked with in recovery has been advised in this way at some point, and it is often her pastor that tells her this.
Let me be clear. I do not believe these advisors have malicious intent. So, I want to address a few concepts that might be of benefit in looking at why it is a hopeless road for a wife to focus on being enough for her husband sexually when he is acting out in sexual addiction.
Before we get into that, I want to point out that sexual addiction is a “silent drug”. One thing I have learned during my time in recovery is that sex addicts and the families of sex addicts tend to have amazing images. They often look like a picture-perfect Christian family on the outside. Even after years of working with people struggling with sexual addiction, my husband and I are still regularly surprised when people we know reveal they are struggling with it. My point in saying this is that counselors must set aside their ideas and biases about a family in order to see the truth about were they are really at.
So, what is sexual addiction? I am not going to give a full explanation here, but I want to point out that it is an addiction to the personal gratification that comes from acting out sexually. It is about fulfilling self-centered desires. Just like any addiction, the core of it is control. In almost every case, the husband was dealing with this addiction long before his wife came into the picture. His addiction has absolutely nothing to do with her.
Here’s a simple (imperfect) illustration that may help: Most people would never think to blame a wife for her husband’s addiction to alcohol nor would they suggest that she just needs to give him more water to help him deal with it. Why? Because the core of an addiction to alcohol is not thirst. In the same way, the core of sexual addiction is not a need for sex with his wife. Alcohol and water cannot be compared. In the same way, the “substances” he is going to in his addiction cannot be compared to healthy marital sex. They may look similar. Alcohol and water are both fluids that we drink. But, in truth, they are very different things that people drink for very different reasons.
Sexual addiction has absolutely nothing to do with a healthy, intimate desire for marital sex. Sexual addiction is all about getting a feeling, a buzz. Therefore, the sex addict is constantly pursuing the next thing, the new thing. The old thing stops giving the buzz they crave in their selfish and unhealthy desire, so they start looking for the next thing. This is why sexual addiction is progressive. It may progress in deviancy, in frequency, in whatever it takes to achieve the desired feeling. It always gets worse over time. This craving is truly a bottomless pit. Consider King Solomon: His sinful sexual desires were not fulfilled by one new wife or two or three or seven hundred! A wife is only the new thing for a short time. I have never seen marriage cure or even “decrease” a man’s sexual addiction, except maybe for a time until the newness wears off.
Sex addicts do not even know how to have selfless, intimate sex with their spouse because they have so destroyed their understanding of what sex is supposed to be.
Unfortunately, these couples often do try to deal with sexual addiction through marital sex. The wife believes maybe she can fulfill his desire, and the husband is very willing to blame something other than himself. But, in addition to the truth that marital sex will never fulfill the unhealthy desire, it is also true that sex addicts do not even know how to have selfless, intimate sex with their spouse because they have so destroyed their understanding of what sex is supposed to be. The wives do not know what healthy, intimate sex looks like either. These wives come into the marriage with their own set of baggage and issues and this often includes false ideas about sex. Unhealthy people are not attracted to healthy people. And, regardless of what she came into the marriage with, they certainly have not been able to figure out what healthy, intimate sex looks like in their marriage with sexual addiction in the mix. So, these couples might achieve a sense of “false intimacy”, but it does not go much deeper than that. The ability to connect in true sexual intimacy will have to be built as a couple in recovery. Often, it is very helpful for them to do a 90 day period of abstinence in recovery to help reset their template.
Encouraging the couple that they need more of the faux intimacy they derive from sex will only further complicate things. Healthy and intimate sex is a beautiful thing God created that is meant to be just one aspect of our deep connection and union as one. It does not stand alone as an intimate act. It is the result of intimacy in every relational area, which this couple does not have.
So, what about the idea that a husband has a deep need for sex? I want to address this because I believe there is a very strong message in the church that men “need” sex and that filling this deep need is one of the primary way wives should show them love. Men are different than women for sure. But, God created sex as a union between husband and wife. Nowhere in the Bible does it say a man has a greater need or some deep need for sex. God has given both man and women a desire for sex within marriage. In a healthy marriage, sexual desire ebbs and flows, but it is not consistently a stronger desire for the man.
In an unhealthy marriage or outside of marriage, the desire for sex is often stronger for the man. Typically, because of differences in our physiology, a man is more able to enjoy sex on a physical level without the emotional being present. Whereas, women have a more difficult time enjoying the physical if the emotional is not present. So, this lie about men have some deep need for sex probably originated with our immoral and sexualized culture. God designed it where the marriage needs sex, just like the marriage needs communication… it is not a need that just one party looks at filling but rather it is a relational aspect that both parties pursue equally for the marriage, not for the needs of the husband or wife alone. The goal is for this couple to have a healthy marriage in which they both are able to truly show each other love through sex. But, this will take time.
The last thing a couple needs to be looking at is how to be healthy in their sex life in the midst of sexual addiction: it is impossible. First, the addiction needs to be dealt with. Then, in that process, they can look at how to have a healthy relationship in every way.
So, what is good advice for these wives? I believe one factor for counselors is that they are conflicted about how to minister to the wife to help her deal with her own issues so that she can make healthy choices, let go of her husband’s choices, and at the same time process the pain of betrayal that has happened in the marriage. There is an increasing realization that the wives of sex addicts have a lot of their own issues to deal with, and an attitude of victimhood in these ladies is common. So, I believe advising her to be more sexual for her husband could be an attempt to help her see what she can do differently rather than focusing on her husband’s issues, which is noble, but giving this advice is not the answer.
His sexual addiction has nothing to do her, and she is in no way responsible for his addiction. She often believes that she can help him change, but the decision to change is one he has to make on his own, just as she has to make that decision to work on her own issues. These wives have engaged in a destructive cycle with their husbands over the years, which keeps them both stuck. The wives have to be willing to break out of this cycle by deciding they will be healthy themselves no matter what, and part of that involves a process of realizing they cannot control their husband’s addiction. These wives have to see the truth that they are responsible for their choices, but they are not responsible for his.
When a wife acknowledges she is not responsible for his choices and decides to make break out of the cycle and get healthy herself, this is the best opportunity for her husband to get healthy also. He has to stop blaming her and take responsibility for his choices, just as she has to stop blaming him for her choices. The idea that she could be more sexual to help him only encourages the destructive blame game.
One of the choices a wife will have to make is the choice to see herself as God sees her. Women tend to have a deep insecurity about their physical looks, and this is compounded by our culture’s focus on it. It is extremely compounded when her husband is going somewhere else for sex and looking at other women. She faces a very deep insecurity that she is not enough. All this is not to say that a wife is doing everything right in this arena. She might need to look at being more available or taking care of her body. But, it is certainly not the answer to his sexual addiction and any implication in this regard is only going to cause further damage.
It only keeps a couple trapped when the wife believes she can change her husband and the husband believes she should try. Let us help them break free of lies and take personal responsibility. Let us help them let go of what they cannot control and help them see the things they can.
Matthew 16:24-25 “…If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.”
If you would like to take this journey of looking at what you can control and letting go of what you cannot, contact us today. Or, if you simply have questions about sexual addiction and how to help these couples, we would love to hear from you too.