Eight years into her marriage, Rachel started to wonder if her husband had lost interest in sex. “He’d always go to bed later than me and often made excuses when I brought it up,” explains the 41-year-old. “So when he sat me down one day to tell me he was a sex addict, I actually laughed – although I soon stopped when he disclosed night upon night of watching pornography for hours on end and numerous short-lived affairs. My life fell apart.”
Sex addiction hurts partners in a way that no other addiction can, says Paula Hall, who has written a book on the subject. Sex Addiction: The Partner’s Perspective is overdue, Hall believes, with thousands of partners across the UK struggling with something that evokes all the most destructive ingredients of personal pain – betrayal, infidelity, deceit and shame. “Sex addiction feels extremely personal when you’re the partner because it affects the most intimate part of your relationship in a way that, say, alcohol or drugs just don’t,” she explains.
“I could have dealt with a gambling addiction or alcoholism – anything but this,” Rachel confirms. Like most partners, she initially didn’t buy into the concept of sex addiction (“it sounded like a pretty weak excuse for an affair”) and even when she did start to believe that her husband’s behaviour was compulsive, her friends didn’t (“they’d look at me in despair, asking since when had sexual desire became a monster that can’t be controlled”), leaving her feeling isolated.
To be fair on Rachel’s friends, there is some debate about whether the term sex addiction is scientifically accurate, but the field of addiction is changing fast and emphasis is shifting from the substance to the psychological symptoms of addiction. The NHS has a website page dedicated to sex addiction. “It could involve sex with a partner, but it may also mean activities such as viewing pornography, masturbation, visiting prostitutes or using sex chat lines,” it explains, claiming that while for most people such habits don’t cause problems, sex addicts are unable to control these urges and actions.
Causes can of course be more complex, while for some – a fast-growing number, according to Hall – it’s simply opportunity-induced. “The reality of the Western world today means you can find anything you desire easily and anonymously. Indeed, you can find a whole load of stuff you don’t desire, but get hooked nonetheless,” she says.
Love and sex news: in pictures
Love and sex news: in pictures
1/20 Male contraceptive gel that 'blocks sperm' could be available in less than two years
A new injectable contraceptive for men could be on the market as soon as 2018, US researchers hope. Currently, men are limited to options including condoms and a vasectomy if they want to protect their partner from pregnancy. Scientists have said that the new method will be long-lasting and reversible, without the need for men to take hormones to supress fertility. Vasagel works by blocking the duct from which sperm leaves the testes and enters the urethra: the canal where semen and urine leave the penis. The contraceptive is administered by an injection into the vas deferens
2/20 Heartbreak can actually change the rhythm of your heart
Losing a loved one really can break your heart, research suggests, although not for ever. People who lose a partner are at an increased risk of developing an irregular heartbeat for the next 12 months, scientists found. The risk seems to be greatest among the under 60s and when the loss of the partner was least expected
3/20 'Weird' sexual fetishes are actually very normal
A number of sexual fetishes considered anomalous in psychiatry are actually common in the general population, a study has found. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), sexual interests fall into two categories: normal (normophilic) and anomalous (paraphilic). Researchers asked 1,040 Quebec residents, representative of the general population, about their experiences of sexual behaviour considered abnormal by the DSM-5. The study, published in The Journal of Sex Research, found that of the eight types of anomalous behaviour listed in the DSM-5, four were found to be neither rare or unusual among the experiences and desires reported by men and women
4/20 Gym 'used as a hook-up spot'
People who hope to find love and get fit in the New Year may find it surprisingly easy to tick off both goals, as a new survey has revealed that half of adults use the gym as a hook-up venue, while a quarter admit to having sex there. Apparently not put off by the surroundings, a new survey of how Britons behave in the gym has found that 25 per cent claimed to have had sex there at least once in the past 12 months
5/20 Erectile dysfunction 'linked to risk of early death'
Men who suffer from erectile dysfunction (ED) are 70 per cent more likely to die early, a new study has found. US scientists believe that the disorder may be linked to poor cardiovascular health, and suggested that men with ED should be screened for health issues that could cut their lives short
6/20 39 per cent of workers have sex at Christmas parties
The festive season may be a time for good will and sharing – but it’s also apparently the perfect excuse to hook-up with the cute person from accounts, according to a survey which has revealed that 39 per cent of people have had sex at their work Christmas party. Even more people admitted that the annual knees-up offered the chance to kiss a co-worker, with over locking lips at the event. A survey of 2,000 UK adults by high-street lingerie retailer Ann Summers revealed that IT and HR are the professions most likely to snog or have sex with a colleague or get incredibly drunk at the Christmas party, at 63 per cent and 56 per cent respectively.This was compared with 27 per cent of those in education and 29 per cent in health
7/20 Durex calls for a condom emoji
Emojis have come a long way in recent years - since they were first integrated into Unicode in 2010, we've gained emojis of all different ethnicities, emojis for every flag in the world, and even the middle finger emoji. However, we're still missing a condom emoji. Durex wants to change that. It's easy to suggest sex with emojis (think aubergine, peach, the 'OK' sign), but there's nothing that shows safe sex. So, to coincide with World AIDS Day on 1 December, Durex is encouraging its customers to call upon the Unicode Consortium, who oversee the introduction of new emoji, to give the world a condom emoji in their next update
8/20 Spliting the housework equally is the secret to a better sex life
Better communication, getting more exercise, oysters, more date nights, time away from the kids – these are just a few common theories for how couples can improve their sex life. But now, a new study has offered up a different one, suggesting that the key to being more satisfied between the sheets could in part be down to taking it in turns to wash them. According to the study from the University of Alberta, couples enjoyed more frequent and satisfying sex for both partners when the housework is split equally across men and women
9/20 Arguing with a partner is beneficial
Arguing in a relationship is not often seen as having a positive impact on both partners. But a new study from US psychologists suggests that if each party feels understood, falling out does not have a detrimental impact on their satisfaction in the relationship. Researchers at the University of California said feeling understood appeared to improve a relationship on its own, regardless of any practical consequence of that understanding. And when people felt their partners understood them, the conflict was not only not harmful but actually good for the relationship
10/20 Ireland gay marriage
Same-sex couples in the Republic of Ireland can officially get married after the country voted overwhelmingly for the change in a referendum in May. Legislation legalising gay civil marriage, passed following the vote, came into effect on 16 November 2015. The first couples to be affected will be gay couples who married legally abroad – whose unions will now automatically be recognised by the Irish state. But the race is now on to see who which couple will become the first gay newlyweds to legally marry in Eire itself
11/20 'Female Viagra' approved
A drug dubbed the ‘female Viagra’ has finally been approved by the US Food and Drug administration but concerns have been raised over the drug’s possible side effects. Flibanserin, produced by Sprout Pharmaceuticals, was approved by the FDA on the third application in five years – after twice failing over concerns regarding possible side-effects.
12/20 Grindr users surveyed on sexual preferences
Grindr users are not that gay, at least according to a new survey. More than 300 users on the gay dating app, contacted by Pink News as part of an informal study, did not identifying as exclusively attracted to men. The study used the Kinsey scale, based on the work of sexologist Alfred Kinsey, which ranges from 0 (exclusively straight) to 6 (exclusively gay) and also allows identification as asexual (X). Pink News found that the average answer was around five, with the most frequent answer being five, followed by six and then four when they contacted users from their office in central London.
13/20 Watching porn does not cause negative attitudes to women
The average porn user may have more egalitarian views towards women than non-users, a contentious new study has suggested. Researchers at Western University in Canada have even argued that many pornography fans might be “useful allies” in women’s struggles for equality in the workplace and in public office. They reported in the Journal of Sex Research that the 23 per cent of people who said they had watched an “X-rated” film during the previous year were no more or less likely to identify as feminists than those who did not watch porn.
14/20 The characteristics of men who pay for sex
Men who pay for sex share similar traits to rapists and sex offenders, according to new research. A study from University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), claims that men who have sex with female sex workers feel less empathy for them than men who do not buy sex. Part of this reason is due to the fact that they view them as "intrinsically different from other women,” according to the authors.
15/20 How much sex we have (and how much we'd like)
As a nation, we don’t have as much sex as we would like, a survey has (somewhat unsurprisingly) confirmed. In a poll of 1523 people by YouGov, 64 per cent of Britons said they would wish to have sex at least a few times a month. The same sample said that only 38 per cent had sex at least a few times a month. In addition, 10 per cent said they wished to have sex every day, a goal which only 1 per cent admitted reaching.
16/20 One per cent of Britons 'have never felt sexually attracted to anyone at all'
An estimated 1% of Britons have almost no interest in sexual activity, according to researchers. The identity, which describes rarely or never experiencing sexual attraction, has moved from a diagnosis of mental disorder in the past to a sexual orientation in its own right today. As public interest in “asexuality” grows, researchers at Glasgow University have found that romance and intimacy is still very much on the cards for those who take the label.
17/20 Women really are more attracted to men who make them laugh
Researchers at an American university have claimed that humour is a key factor in human “sexual selection”, with women appearing to be more attracted to men who make them laugh. Jeffrey Hall, an associate professor of Communication Studies at the University of Kansas, found that when two strangers meet, the more times a man tries to be funny and a woman laughs, the more likely she is to be interested in dating. The reverse was not true for women who attempted humour, according to his study “Sexual Selection and Humour in Courtship: A Case for Warmth and Extroversion,” which has been published in the Evolutionary Psychology journal.
18/20 What makes a perfect penis?
Scientists have now answered one of these great unknowns. According to a new study, “general cosmetic appearance” is the most important penile aspect when it comes to what women value down there. This is swiftly followed by the appearance of pubic hair, penile skin, and girth. Length comes in at number six, with the look of the scrotum trailing closely behind. The least important facet of the phallus, say the scientists, is the “position and shape of meatus”, the vertical slit at the opening of the urethra.
19/20 Students who marry after studying the same subject
Picking a university subject is already difficult enough for young people. But here’s an extra piece of data to weigh on your decision: you may be picking a life partner as well. Dan Kopf of the blog, Priceonomics, analysed US Census data and found that the percentage of Americans who marry someone within their own major is actually fairly high. About half of Americans are married, according to the 2012 American Community Survey (part of the Census). And about 28 per cent of married couples over the age of 22 both graduated from college. (The survey didn’t recognise same-sex marriages for the 2012 data, but it will for 2013 onwards, says Kopf)
20/20 Half of divorcees had doubts on their wedding day
Over half of divorcees considered abandoning their husband or wife-to-be at the altar on their wedding day, a new study has revealed. On top of likely worrying about wedding favours and making sure guests behave on their big day, 49 per cent of divorcees admitted they were unsure before the ceremony that their marriage would last. Some 15 per cent of divorcees polled said they were so wracked with doubt that they felt physically sick in the run up to their wedding.
Traditionally, most partners of sex addicts have been treated as co-dependents, says Hall. “The presumption is that the partner knew at some level what was going on and was ‘enabling’ it, which is frankly an insult. The reality for most partners I see is that they experience phenomenal shock.” The damage to self-esteem, she continues, isn’t just about the sexualised behaviour, such as visits to prostitutes that partners never knew about. It’s the fact that they’ve lived with someone so long and had no idea. “These guys, and it is mostly guys, are on the whole loving husbands, yet they did this right under your nose, leaving you unable to trust your partner, or even your own judgements,” she explains.
No wonder many partners suffer trauma, which can lead to depression, anxiety and panic attacks, rage or utter dissociation. “One confident businesswoman recently told me that the discovery that her husband is a sex addict turned her into a ‘screaming banshee – I’ve become a stranger to myself’,” Hall tells me.
Hall believes these partners need help of their own – hence her book, which is essentially a self-help guide, covering three broad areas: understanding sex addiction and why it hurts partners so much; repairing the damage it has caused to the partner; and finally, helping the partner to work out whether the relationship can survive and, either way, how to move forward.
“Ideally, partners get their own therapy,” says Hall. “The problem is that all the assumptions made by well-meaning friends about sex addiction are also shared by many therapists who are untrained in this area. Some relationship therapists work with the partner’s pain by treating it as an infidelity, for example, but it’s so much more than that – and sometimes it isn’t even that at all, with some people not actually having sex elsewhere, but using porn instead.”
No wonder Hall’s therapeutic practice, which recognises the uniqueness of the partner’s pain, has gone from strength to strength. Also providing a haven of hope is the small, but growing, number of support groups. Joy Rosendale, a sex-addiction therapist specialising in partner work, instigated the first one in the UK back in 2005, following her own experiences. “Although there is usually huge reluctance for partners to seek help, let alone come into a group, because of the privacy and shame, something happens in these groups that liberates these women – and I say women because in my experience, it is usually women who access them,” says Rosendale, who still runs the group at the Marylebone Centre, London.
Rosendale starts each 12-week support group by educating the women about sex addiction. “One of the points of this group is to depersonalise it. Sex addiction for a partner brings up feelings of ‘I’m not good enough’ and ‘He doesn’t want me’, but it’s not about the sex, it’s about the dopamine fix. Once they understand the nature of the addictive drive, sometimes they’re able to move into self-care.”
Rosendale’s anecdotal research reveals that a third of those partners seeking help decide to stay in the relationship, while a further third leave and the final third “remain stuck”.
Couples who make it work generally take a three-pronged approach, says Hall. “First, the addict goes into recovery on their own to work out causes and develop relapse prevention strategies. Second, the partner has to feel stable again, as well as understanding the addiction and working out what they want the relationship to look like in the future. Third, the couple works together on the renegotiation of the boundaries in the relationship.”
While some sex addicts move on, other partners must recognise that they’ll be living with someone in recovery for the rest of their life, says Hall. Nobody is suggesting partners should stay, she stresses. “For some partners, leaving is the right decision. But even then, they need support with rebuilding trust and reclaiming their sexuality.”
Rachel agrees. “Much as my husband tried to stop his behaviours by understanding the nature of sex addiction, he wasn’t willing to delve into the cause. I felt that meant the risk of relapse was too great, so I left. But without help of my own, I wouldn’t have been able to let go and move on with my life.” µ
Sex Addiction: The Partner’s Perspective by Paula Hall (Routledge £19.99) is out nowReuse content