I have been worried for some time about my husband's activities in adult bookstores. Before we met, he went to the booths in the back to watch porn and masturbate and act as a voyeur with the other people there. At one point, years ago, he actually participated in some of the sexual activity there through "glory holes" some of the customers had made in the walls of the booths. He has a lot of shame about the behaviors and I am very upset to find out that he still goes to those places, though he claims he stays away from the other people there now. Other than this, we are a very happy couple and have a lot of fun together. Is he a sex addict? Am I overreacting? Is there any kind of guidance you can give me about this? I am really hurting about his continued use of the porn booths in the back of the adult bookstores. - Hurting
Hello, thank you for writing. First of all let me say that you sound like a very supportive, caring wife. You are not “doing” anything to make the situation worse; if anything, you are supporting your husband and trying very valiantly to be understanding. You are acting quite gracefully under pressure, I think.
Addiction is self-diagnosed, which makes it something of an anomaly. But only the actual person doing the behavior can say yes or no as to whether they truly have an addiction. However, I am hearing some red flags that make me think what your husband is experiencing is in the ballpark, or somewhere along the spectrum. (Just as someone who drinks heavily every weekend may not be a full-blown alcoholic but does show tendencies.) So let me just suppose for a moment that we’re talking about either a compulsion or something on the “addictive spectrum.” Treating it like an addiction is probably most helpful to address the problem behaviorally and emotionally, even if it is more like an addictive “pattern” or low on the scale. (Just like cancer, if you have a low-stage problem, you want to address it sooner rather than later!)
So, having made this caveat, I’ll start by saying that, addictive/compulsive behaviors affect the entire family. If you consider addiction an illness (which I do), then it wouldn’t be surprising for you to be feeling stress; just imagine if your husband had another type of illness, like depression, or an anxiety disorder, then of course you would be strongly affected. You’re only human.
And of course you’re going to have strong feelings about something as intimate as sex; sexuality is extremely private and intimate, and your partner is engaging in behaviors that are probably pretty puzzling. He knows it hurts you, and it probably hurts him, too, yet it continues. How strange is that?! This is the tragedy of these kinds of behaviors; the person engaging in them truly does not mean to hurt anyone, but it ends up doing just that.
There is nothing you can do to stop your husband from doing this. You can support his efforts to get help and tell him how it affects you (which I encourage), or you can suggest and support his taking proactive measures (group support, therapy, spiritual counseling, psychiatry, etc.), but you cannot “do” anything that will get him to take decisive action. You can drive him to a therapist’s office, but you cannot go in and talk for him. In fact, it’ll only make things worse if you try to act “for” him. It’s up to him to want to get help; if he doesn’t, then feel free to let him know how that hurts and/or concerns you.
The bad news is, those struggling with addiction cannot stop on willpower alone—usually. The other bad news is that this will most likely not just “go away” or get better on its own. The good news is, both of you can be proactive. There are resources out there that are very helpful if one makes use of them. I find both husband and wife need support in a situation like this. Your husband sounds like a good guy who wants to do the right thing, but his compulsive urges have hijacked his nervous system and decision-making processes. (Addictive or compulsive urges or impulses override the “executive” functioning and logical part of the brain, in favor of more primal, fear-based mechanisms; this is not a choice, it just is. Good therapy and other professional help can help redirect those urges and feelings into healthier behaviors.)
Most importantly, I urge you to get help for yourself, for your own stress and anxiety and confusion. I would at least try some one-on-one therapy. So often, partners are more upset about this than they’re even conscious of, until they start talking about it. Also, “the problem” takes up so much room that there’s little left for the partner’s issues or feelings, which seem “so trifling” in comparison with the big, dramatic issues (behaviors). But your feelings about all this are crucial and need to be heard. This is why I urge partners of those who are struggling to start with their own therapy for a month or two before seeking couples counseling.
This is not a hard and fast rule by any means, just a suggestion. The reason is, you likely need a safe place to vent about your frustration, sadness, anger, etc., stuff you might want to process or expunge before facing your husband. Without support, we often stuff hurtful feelings until we explode and then ruminate with guilt, then stuff it again, become resentful, or withdraw/withhold (isolate), and the cycle continues. Thus I suggest seeking out a therapist who understands addiction and can empathically educate you on what you can and can’t do for your husband and what might or might not be helpful to support yourself and to just listen openly to your experience. Having a witness to all this, to confirm, validate, and empathize, will likely help a lot.
I also recommend seeking out, either in person or online, a support group such as S-Anon, which provides group education and support to partners of those who struggle with sexual compulsivity. I will provide a link at the end of this paragraph that takes you to their main website, which offers general information, literature, meeting info, and so forth. It is a very valuable resource: http://www.sanon.org/
Al-Anon is another terrific resource if no S-Anon meetings are available in your area. True, al-Anon is technically for partners of alcoholics, but if you attend a meeting you can always say someone you know “might be an addict” and you’ll be welcomed. (Try a few meetings in either program before deciding to stay with it or not; some are better than others.) Of course, your participation in all of this is completely anonymous. (Sometimes folks say, “I can’t go because I don’t want to embarrass my spouse.” You don’t have to say it’s your spouse with the problem, in fact you don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to. )
I commend you for writing; it is a brave first step and takes courage. Clearly you are a caring person and want to do right by your husband and your marriage. Taking care of yourself will help both of you; it’s good role modeling, first of all, and we always make better decisions and communicate more clearly when we are feeling supported and taken care of. Whatever you do, try not to “figure it out” alone. Addiction (or afflictions that are similar) create isolation and fragmentation in families and marriages and are unbearably painful. Connecting with another human who provides help and an open ear, and heart, can be an invaluable way to start to feel like yourself again. I wish you the best of luck finding solution, and thank you again for writing.