Families and Couples

Sexual Addiction: Family Impact and Family Treatment

The behavior of sex addicts has profound effects on partners, children, parents and siblings. The addict is usually partially or totally unaware that their behavior has affected their loved ones. Families develop unhealthy coping skills as they strive to adapt to the addict’s shifting moods and behavior. Curiously some addicts may act out in solo isolating behaviors leading to feelings of family abandonment.

Partners can be affected in the following ways:

  • Emotionally – anxiety, stress resentment and confusion progress as the addict gradually abandons family responsibility. Emotional support consisting of the feeling of being cared for and listened to lessens, or repeated promises are unfulfilled.
  • Socially – the partners can experience subtle to outright embarrassment with the addictive spouse’s behavior, such as flirting, staring, inappropriate sexualized jokes or comments. Social activities may be canceled to avoid this embarrassment. Opportunities to do things together become fewer as the addiction progresses.
  • Physically – some sex addicts favor abusive techniques in their sexual repertoire, which can result in physical harm. Partners also may experience unwanted physical touch in private or public.
  • Sexually – the sex addict may pressure their partners to participate in unwanted sexual behaviors and if they don’t, physical consequences may result or even stalking behaviors. Alternatively the sex addict may lose all interest in sex with their partner. Partners of sex addicts are more prone to sexually transmitted diseases such as vaginal warts, genital herpes, syphilis and HIV.

Children are greatly affected when the sexually addicted parent is acting out, and the other parent is seeking to control the addict’s behavior. A deceitful, chaotic environment surrounds the child. Under these circumstances, the child may experience fear of abandonment, lack of trust, low self-esteem, a sense of hopelessness, overwhelming shame and the desire to perpetuate the conspiracy of silence. These effects may last all their lives. If the child is a sexual victim, these effects are accompanied by profound shame and sometimes by self destructive or suicidal thoughts.

Children need to know what is going on, but when the time comes for disclosure of sexual behavior, it should be done with the help of a counselor. The child’s age and level of maturity would be measured by the counselor. Generally, specific details are withheld. It is important for children to know they are not imagining what they see and hear and they are not to blame for it. If a child has been the focus of the addicts acting out behavior, it must be stopped immediately. Child welfare authorities must be contacted and treatment initiated immediately.

The recovery process is possible for family members. It is possible when there is:

  • Acceptance of the disease and its associated shame and how each family member has been affected.
  • A commitment to healthy change.
  • Family members no longer seeking to control the addict.
  • Willingness to get help from Twelve Step Support groups for co-dependency such as COSA (Co-dependents on Sex Addicts) or S-ANON, as well as therapy from trained therapists.

Couples Recovering from Sex Addiction

Sex addiction is a family disease. Both partners have been part of the problem and both must be willing to participate in the recovery process, individually and together. Couples who are willing to identify and to work through individual issues such as family of origin difficulties, possible past traumas or neglect, and the need for better skills to cultivate intimacy, can do well in recovery.

    1. Have made their individual recovery a first priority,
    2. Both connect with others through attending 12-step meetings as well as reach out to others for support,
    3. Usually have individual and couple counseling to identify systems that no longer work,
    4. Accept that couple recovery is a challenging and evolving journey,
    5. Read books and employ audiovisual resources for information,
    6. Are willing to grow spiritually
    7. Have a strong respect for and commitment toward each other.

Couples who do well:

WHAT TO EXPECT: The first three to six months of couple recovery are usually the most stressful. Both partners will experience a wide range of powerful feelings. There are often difficulties in the areas of communication styles, intimacy levels, sexuality, spirituality, parenting, past trauma, and finances. Identification of the sexual addiction/coaddiction systems, although painful at first, holds hope for eventual relief of the far greater pain of the addiction.

The following is a list of what to expect in the early stages:

  • Relief: The addict usually finds a great sense of relief after admitting the secret of the addiction. The end of the double life and shame may bring a premature sense of accomplishment which needs to be reinforced by attending meetings, going to therapy, and connecting with program friends for support. Coaddicts also feel a sense of relief at the end of secrecy and validation of their experience of pain.
  • Anger: Both partners can expect to experience anger. The revelation that the life partner is a sex addict may trigger much anger mixed with legitimate hurt and betrayal. The addict feels anger about the need to make changes as part of recovery. Both partners may blame and shame the other.
  • Hope: The work being done by both partners can bring new life and hope to the relationship. Both partners are encouraged to attend separate 12-step meetings as well as couples meetings such as Recovering Couples Anonymous.
  • Self-esteem: The self-esteem of both partners initially may worsen but with continued recovery will improve as both work a recovery program.
  • Intimacy: Recovering couples begin to communicate at a more intimate level, often on issues they have never discussed before. Communication skills such as empathic listening, being respectful, and expressing vulnerability, are essential to both partners’ recovery.
  • Grief: The addict experiences pain over the loss of their “best friend,” the addiction. The co-addict mourns the loss of the relationship as it was imagined to be, the reality of the partner being a sex addict. Co-addicts often berate themselves for not having been aware sooner of the addiction.
  • Sexual issues: Sexuality has a different meaning in recovery. The goal becomes intimacy rather than intensity. Abstinence, and later the frequency, types, and quality of sexual contacts, are issues that the recovering couple must address. Past sexual relationships as well as possible past child sexual abuse of either partner need to be explored. Where other sexual partners were involved, the possibility of HIV infection and other sexually transmitted diseases must be faced early. Couples who continue to learn about healthy sexuality will do better as they address these sexual issues.
  • Spirituality: Couples who grow spiritually together have hope that a power greater than themselves is also involved in the re-creating of their relationship.


A therapist trained in sexual addiction is an invaluable recovery tool for both the individual and for the relationship. Some addicts and coaddicts benefit from intensive outpatient services or possibly inpatient treatment. You can discuss all of these factors in your sessions with Carol Conklin LCSW who specializes in recovery from sexual addiction.

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