As we approach the holiday season, I’m aware that many of us are going to be facing more social situations than usual… ready or not. I’d like to spend the weeks leading up to the holidays looking at ways we can help our friends and family (those who are safe enough to share with) get equipped to support us—the woman or couple healing from sex addiction and its impacts.
A Friend/Family Primer
Sex addiction is one of those things we always hope will be other people’s problem. However, this issue is so common today—in the church as well as secular society—that almost all of us will know and love people whose lives are being impacted by it. While it may seem like one of those issues we should, “stay out of,” it’s quite likely your family member/friend has never needed your support more.
That said, many family members/friends inadvertently end up causing harm when they get involved. The information below (and over the next few weeks) was put together to help you give the best possible tools for supporting: a. the person with the addiction, b. the traumatized spouse and/or c. the two of them as a couple.
What is this problem?
Sex addiction is a term that encompasses a broad range of “sexual acting out” behaviors including regular porn use, hiring of sexual services, affairs, one-night-stands and more. In a Christian context, we accept that even habitual lusting and emotional affairs are a type of addiction for many men—or in other language, a type of sin that is extremely damaging to marital (and other) relationships.
While it is men who are most likely to struggle with a sexual addiction, it is not uncommon for women today to also be struggling. Likewise, betrayed husbands can also experience trauma.
It is important to note that a one-time affair does not necessarily indicate a sex addiction—though it does indicate a problem in the unfaithful partner that needs tending to. Also, it is not uncommon for a betrayed spouse to have a “revenge affair” (real or virtual). This may be a reaction to a life of betrayal and its (often) accompanying patterns of neglect and abuse. Such a reaction, while concerning, does not necessarily indicate an addiction in that spouse.
Betrayal trauma: Researchers have demonstrated that the discovery of a spouse’s infidelity (particularly when there has been a regular pattern of it) creates a trauma response in most people. This trauma response is usually complicated by other patterns in the marriage that go alongside the sexual acting out—patterns such as lying/hiding, emotional abuse, anger, controlling behaviors and other forms of domestic violence.
Normal trauma responses you might now be witnessing in your friend/relative include:
- Not being present (aka, being “zoned out”) at times
- Forgetting things she ought to know (including words, facts, and where she left her car keys)
- Uncharacteristic, or seemingly unaccountable, displays of anger, fear, depression
- Sudden panic attacks or startle reactions
- Inability to cope with usual day-to-day tasks
- Inability to enjoy life as she did previously
Whether or not you wanted to know about your friend’s, parents’, child’s, sibling’s, etc. issues around sex addiction/betrayal trauma, you are to some degree involved. This is because he/she/they are quite possibly in the crisis of their lives and it’s not possible to keep the issues politely “under wraps” all the time any more. They may be wanting to talk about their journey constantly, withdrawing from contact and keeping silent, or going back and forth between the two. They may be exhibiting other types of behaviors that negatively impact their relationships.
Listening and showing empathy are two of the most helpful things you can do right now. If it all starts feeling overwhelming after awhile, remember you can lovingly/prayerfully use boundaries (e.g., “We've spent an hour today talking about ‘him,’ let's spend the rest of our time talking about other things.”). Since, however, rejection is a common theme in the life of both the addict and the partner, consider telling them that the boundary is not a rejection, just an indication that you don’t have the capacity to hold all the pain: it needs to be shared around by a broader support community.
That said, your friend’s or family member’s journey is one that has the potential to grow you. If you are willing to be part of their messy world, to some degree, in this season, there will undoubtedly be blessings and growth that follow.
Thanks for being both brave and loving enough to consider entering in.
Next week we'll look more specifically at how family/friends can support the person with the addictive behaviours, in a way that will help him find healing and maturity—and support her healing at the same time.