In her book, “Your Sexually Addicted Spouse: How Partners Can Cope and Heal,”Dr. Barbara Steffens argues that rather than meeting criteria for codependency (more on that in another post), partners of sex addicts frequently exhibit signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. Dr. Linda Hatch and others agree that sexual betrayal is always traumatic. Steffens writes that the degree a particular partner is traumatized by sex addiction depends on what trauma that person has already experienced in life. The harder life has been for that person, the harder it will be to deal with the trauma of sex addiction.
I think the same thing can be said about self-esteem. I think the more confident and comfortable we are in our own skin, the less the betrayal hurts. The more insecurities we have already, the more it hurts and the harder it may be to recover.
As I wrote about in my post “It’s Not About You,” it’s a normal reaction for any person who has been the victim of infidelity to feel rejected.
On the very first night that I caught my husband sexting with a stranger, I was shocked (Everything seemed fine! I had no idea! We were happy together!), deeply hurt (How could he?), terrified (What else has he done?), angry (Who would do this kind of thing?), and my head was spinning as I held onto his phone and asked him question after question.
In one sense, the timing was terrible. I was only about three months postpartum, having just given birth to our third child.
On the other hand, the timing could not have been better. The “baby blues” were ending and I had not felt any signs of postpartum anxiety or depression yet, unlike after my other two births. And more importantly, the timing was good for me because for the last two to three years, I had been actively working on self-improvement, personal boundaries, and trying to overcome some of the baggage I’d been carrying with me through life with the help of therapy and lots of reading.
If “D-day” (the day I discovered the infidelity) had been a few months sooner, when my youngest was a newborn; or before that, in the middle of a difficult pregnancy while I dealt with antenatal depression; or a few years before that, while I had bad self-esteem and so much anxiety — it would have been even more painful for me. In fact, in 2014 when I caught my husband engaging in non-sexual flirtatious text conversations with an acquaintance — my first “D-day” — that was probably harder for me to heal from — in large part because my self-esteem was so much worse at the time.
I feel lucky this time around. If it had to happen, if he had to “act out,” and betray my trust, I am grateful that it happened when it did. This time, I never believed that it was my fault. I never thought my husband was unfaithful because I was somehow lacking.
The night I caught him, that idea popped into my head for a split-second, and I was able to reject it just as quickly. My head was spinning as I tried to reconcile the man I thought I knew with a man who could do this kind of thing: cheat, sneak, lie. Was this because I had a postpartum belly now? Was this because I am not as physically affectionate as he is? Bull****. I look great. And it’s not about how I act, either. Am I perfect? Nope, but I have tried my best to be a good friend and loving spouse. This is all on him. There is no good reason for him to do this.
I’m certain that having decent self-esteem has allowed me to heal faster. Not that I’m all the way there, yet. But about seven months into it, I feel good almost every single day. Rarely — maybe once every couple of months — am I assailed by the anxious and fearful panic attacks that I lived through daily in the beginning. I would say that the trauma has subsided.
Having decent self-esteem means that I have not tortured myself with jealousy or insecurity about the women he used when he acted out. It means that I haven’t been tormented with feelings of inadequacy, wondering why he didn’t love me enough to be faithful, or why I wasn’t “sexy” enough, or anything like that.
Having decent self-esteem has allowed me to be open-minded and understanding when he’s explained why he acted out. If I were secretly convinced that this was about me and my deficiencies, it might be harder for me to believe him when he told me it was all about his self-hatred, or to feel compassion instead of anger or hatred toward him for all the hurt he has caused me.
And having decent self-esteem also allows me to look honestly at myself and notice that, at least for this household, Dr. Hatch is right when she says that both sex addicts and partners of sex addicts have an intimacy disorder, or they wouldn’t have ended up together. Without feeling overly defensive, I can admit that yes, especially for the first half of this marriage, before I started to work on myself, I contributed to an atmosphere where intimacy could not flourish, because of my narcissistic and critical, unloving behavior, where every disagreement was a fight. (More about that another day.)
I am especially grateful that having decent self-esteem means that when I think about the future, I can admit that I hope my husband is able to recover fully and be a good partner and dad, but I am not afraid to be alone.
On the night I caught him sexting with a stranger, as I took his phone and ran down the hall to see it where the baby would not wake up from the sound of my sobbing, I remember feeling a strange but deep sense of peace. On the most unhappy night of my life, I also felt a calm assurance. This was a living nightmare, but I was going to be OK no matter what.
That peace only lasted about thirty seconds before giving way to surges of cortisol and adrenaline that left me physically shaking and freezing cold, unable to eat without nausea for the next three days. But it has come back with time and healing, and as I wait for my husband to give his disclosure, I feel peaceful again. No matter what he did and no matter how it may affect me, I will be all right.
Dr. Doug Weiss and others have written that self-esteem is a pervasive problem for partners of sex addicts. In some cases, the addict and partner may have chosen each other because they were on a similar plane (i.e., both had bad self-esteem). Additionally, many sex addicts blame their partners for their acting out and reject them openly over a period of years or even decades. This emotional and verbal abuse causes bad self-esteem for the partner of the addict.
In an article titled, “Low Self Esteem in Partners,” Dr. Weiss writes:
“We live in a culture where we are encouraged to believe that outer appearances and behaviors determine our value. Partners of sex addicts frequently believe that if they were only more (or in some cases less) attractive, sexy, intelligent, shapely, submissive, or better in bed, they could alter the addict’s behavior. Their self-esteem, which may already have been damaged, falls even lower as they become more and more involved in trying to fill the insatiable needs of the addict by changing themselves.
Society imparts a strong message to women that, if there is something wrong with her relationship, there is something wrong with her. The sex addict is usually only too happy to confirm this belief.”
I am also lucky because when I caught my husband sexting with a stranger, he did not try to blame me for any of his choices. I would like to think that even if he had, I would have known better and not internalized any of that, but I am sure that my situation is easier than many because he has been willing to accept responsibility for his own problems.
My heart goes out to partners of sex addicts who feel as though it’s their fault in some way, or as though they do not deserve better.
Dr. Weiss continues:
“The partner is not only subjected to sexual put-downs, she is also frequently a victim of emotional and verbal abuse from the addict as well. Over time, she will begin to believe what the sex addict tells her about herself is true. Like the addict, she will harbor a secret belief nobody will love her for who she is, but for what she does. Unable to gain a sense of worth by being sexual enough for the addict, the partner can often be found taking care of not only the addict, but the kids, her family of origin, even her neighbors, in a search for worth that she can only experience in a recovery program and by sharing this healing process with other recovering partners.
Low self-esteem is the natural outcome of being a partner of a sex addict; it is a core recovery issue for partners of sex addicts.”
I feel inestimably lucky that I currently see myself in this description by Dr. Weiss of partners of sex addicts who don’t struggle with their self-worth:
“They knew internally that they had nothing to do with their husband’s sexual addiction. They knew they were attractive, sexually competent, and that for him to get better, it was his responsibility. They had clear boundaries and little tolerance for relapse.”
I’m lucky. Blessed. Because there’s really nothing I did right that anyone else did “wrong” to end up the other way around. It’s not as though I get credit for “achieving” self-esteem. Each person’s life circumstances are unique and self-esteem can depend on our childhoods and the people who surround us. There’s nothing about me that’s better than anyone who doesn’t have good self-esteem. We all have every right to feel peaceful, whole, and entitled to love and to be loved.
This is the reason Dr. Weiss, Dr. Hatch and other experts insist that partners must also be in therapy after discovering sex addiction. Not because you contributed in any way to the problem. Not because you share the burden of “fixing” what the addict has broken. Not because the addiction is a symptom of a broken marriage (it’s the other way around). Simply because you and I deserve happiness and to feel good about ourselves.
How was your self-esteem before you discovered your partner is a sex addict? How has it changed since finding out? Have you tried therapy since your “D-day”? Do you feel it’s helping you to feel better about yourself? Has any book, conversation, or personal realization that you came to on your own helped you to have better self-esteem? Please leave a comment. I’d love to hear about your experiences.