While it’s true that a diagnosis of sexual compulsivity—another term for sex addiction—is generally only self-ascribed (arrived at by the addict him or herself) or with the help of a trained therapist, it can be important for loved ones to understand the signs. When we find ourselves romantically involved with a sex addict, our lives can begin to feel just as unmanageable, just as painful as the addict’s may feel to them. There is generally a blissful stage in every partner’s life where he or she remains unaware of the addict’s patterns, and happily the two exist in unawareness and denial, respectively. But soon enough, the suspicion sneaks up. Eventually full recognition dawns, and the painful process of grieving must begin.
Below you will find some behaviors that may indicate sex addiction, though none of them taken alone qualify as a diagnostic tool. They are offered here with the understanding that recognizing a partner’s sexual addiction can help both partners to grow and heal. Sex addiction is an intimacy disorder. If your partner is in fact a sex addict, his or her job will be to uncover the foundation of this painful problem—issues that usually go back to childhood, and are often rooted in trauma.
Behaviors Common to Sex Addicts
- Hiding sexual activities out of a feeling of shame — Hiding sexual behaviors, such as pornography use, is a sign that he feels “bad,” “wrong,” or ashamed. For example, if you discover that your partner is viewing pornography consistently, but he tries to deny it, it may be because he feels ashamed. It’s easy to make this one about you. You may assume he thinks you’ll be angry (even if you have open views about pornography), and can’t understand his need to hide the truth. The lying likely will make you angry, but if your partner is addicted to pornography—a kind of sex addiction—remember that his denial is about shame, not about you.
- Dramatically increased or decreased desire for sex — If you notice that your partner wants sex—especially intense or aggressive sex—frequently and suddenly, and that her focus is heavily on sexual topics, she may be experiencing sex addiction. Likewise, if her desire for sex dramatically shifts and she does not desire to be sexual at all (called sexual anorexia), this too, paradoxically, could be a sign of sexual addiction.
- Seems to use sex as a means of connecting; unable to open up — If you feel your partner resists talking about feelings and only shows his affection for you by having sex, it may be that you’re dealing with someone who is unable to connect through authentic emotional intimacy. This is not necessarily a measure of how your partner feels about you, but it can mean, in a sexually addicted partner, that his cues for emotional intimacy are broken or were never learned. This is the part of sex addiction referred to as disordered intimacy, and is the root of the problem for sex addicts. Learning to connect in healthy emotional ways is an important part of recovery for sex addicts, though it can be frightening initially, particularly when the problem is rooted in past trauma or abandonment by early caregivers.
- Repeated pattern of cheating — Not all cheating is a sign of sex addiction, but a compulsive pattern of infidelity appears in many relationships with a sex-addicted partner. This can be some of the most devastating news to a partner, and it can be quite difficult to regain trust after such a breach, especially when the cheating happens more than once. But sex addiction can be treated, and many sex addicts and their partners have benefited from recovery where not just the addict seeks support, but the partner as well—perhaps through therapy or in a 12-step group like COSA (codependents of sex addicts) or S-Anon (family and friends of sexaholics), or a combination of both.
Many recovered sex addicts find they have more honest, more intimate and more genuinely connected relationships with the partners who chose to go through recovery alongside them, and are deeply grateful for their partner’s openness. Not all relationships can survive such a painful addiction, of course, but of those that do, a willingness to remain aware and to heal—on both sides—continues to be a common factor.