I used to think a sex addict’s marriage must be full of passionate adventures. My imagination pictured these couples experimenting with fun sex positions and escapades in exciting locations — like doing it on the kitchen island with plenty of whipped cream. I had no idea that it is most often a sexless marriage.
Sex addicts must be having more frequent orgasms than the average American, I thought. A 2017 study that appeared in Archives of Sexual Behavior reported that the average adult enjoys sex 54 times a year, or about once a week. Surely, someone obsessed with sex would be doing it more often than the rest of us.
And, isn’t lots of practice supposed to make someone an expert? I figured sex addicts would be masterful and possess great technique. In my mind, such a person would be the modern-day equivalent of Don Juan or Marilyn Monroe — charismatic, romantic, and sizzling hot.
I know I’m not alone in making these assumptions. I’ve read and heard comments from others along similar lines. Honestly, it makes sense, but it’s far from the truth.
I first met partners of a sex addict in my private counseling practice, although I didn’t know it at the time. I noticed an odd trend among some married women seeking treatment. They came in and complained they were experiencing a loss of libido. Sexual intimacy rarely occurred, often less than once a month, yet they described their marriage as healthy. These women claimed their relationship with their husbands was good, like friends.
They couldn’t explain their disinterest. For some unknown reason, sexual intimacy became less critical. These women blamed it on their busy lives, the challenges that came with raising children, or midlife hormonal fluctuations, despite having no medical evidence of this.
“How’s your husband dealing with this?” I’d ask, figuring these men must be upset if my clients were habitually turning down their requests for sex.
“Fine,” my clients would say, “In fact, very understanding.”
What? That made no sense. Every man I knew or counseled would have been frustrated by their wife’s lack of interest. Why were these guys so supportive?
Something was wrong; these women’s husbands’ responses provided a clue. In the course of treatment, my clients often made the discovery that their partner was involved with someone else. Their loss of libido was a systemic issue. Like the death of canary in a coal mine, it signaled that their marriages were in trouble.
Never did I dream that a few years later, this would be me.
I have always had a pretty high sex drive. I’m game several times a week. Thankfully my late first husband and I had a matching libido, leaving both of us happy with our sex life. As a young 52-year-old woman when he died, I hoped I would meet someone equally compatible. It was one of my non-negotiables once I started dating.
My second husband and I seemed to be a match in the sex department. Initially, our intimate life was great, other than when he struggled with some sexual performance issues. A bit odd, I thought, since those problems tend to be more common among older men, but something I was willing to overlook. Outside of that issue, there were no other clues that this man was deeply engaged in severe sexual acting out.
I fell in love hard, and we set a date to marry. As the wedding approached, my soon-to-be husband’s interest in sex waned. He looked tired and blamed it on his long work hours. It was much later that I would discover he used the excuse of overtime to see other women. This man had gone to great lengths to create a secret double life. I had no clue of his deception until he slipped up on our honeymoon.
I still remember that night. As a special surprise, I bought a see-through negligee. I dressed in the bathroom and then sauntered out and struck a pose. My husband seemed bored and tried to look around me to see the TV screen. Deciding I didn’t want to ruin the night with a fight, I crawled in bed next to him and promptly fell asleep on his chest. I awoke a while later to find him watching porn on his phone. He had passed over making love to me in favor of viewing strangers performing sex acts.
There could have been a couple of explanations. It would have made sense if my husband was tired. Maybe he would have preferred if we postponed our special night until we’d rested. Or, perhaps, he wanted to include pornography as part of our sexual life, but he never brought it up.
Neither of these reasons was true. That night was the first of many more painful discoveries. I soon learned my new husband had a hidden sexual life — something he kept separate, just for himself. The man I thought I married never existed.
For a long time I felt like a human version of a paper-doll. I dressed, walked, and talked, yet was barely alive. Emotionally numb, I survived in a frozen state of shock. His betrayals had ripped my guts out, yet I believed him when he said he wanted help. I stayed, hoping things would get better.
My ex-husband is a self-proclaimed sex addict. For a while, he half-heartedly attempted recovery. The betrayals never stopped; he just got better at hiding them. Our marriage lasted two years before it ended in divorce.
Why hadn’t this man been upfront with me? Why not admit he wasn’t interested in a monogamous lifestyle? In the recent years there has been a growing acceptance of polyamory.
My ex wanted the woman he married to have limited sexual experience and spoke openly about this preference. I kept my contact with other men to a limited or nonexistent level. He once blew up because I was texting a fellow male colleague about a business issue. He wanted me all to himself. An open marriage was out of the question.
Since meeting many other former partners of sex addicts, I’ve discovered this double standard is common. Some refer to it as the Madonna-Whore Complex. Those with this syndrome, usually men, are drawn to degrade their sexual partners (the whore), while feeling no physical attraction for their respective companion, often a spouse (the Madonna). Sigmund Freud described the state as, “Where such men love they have no desire and where they desire they cannot love.”
Once married, our sexual relationship withered. Unaware that my then-husband was having sex with risky partners, my desire for him remained strong. For a while I continued to hold out hope that we could heal. Despite my keen interest, the frequency I’d enjoyed in my previous relationship disappeared. I was lucky if we were intimate once or twice a month.
My husband came up with lots of reasons for his disinterest. He complained he was tired, too busy, or his back ached. He accused me of being thoughtless or selfish for wanting to be sexually intimate.
Near the end of the relationship, my husband started to complain about his loss of sexual interest. “What’s wrong with me?” he’d say. “What don’t I desire my wife?” He’d put on a show, in which he was the victim, to explain his lack of attraction.
I would later learn this guy was sending love notes and messages to another woman and pursuing contact with escorts. He had plenty of sexual energy. There wasn’t a disinterest in sex; he just didn’t want to have sex with me. Without telling me, he had stopped investing in our relationship.
His behavior, of course, deeply hurt me. It didn’t help that he used shame to discourage me. I soon grew hesitant and nervous about approaching him sexually. It became more comfortable to just be friends and to stop looking at him as a lover.
To my shock, my life now resembled those women clients I had counseled years earlier. We had become a platonic couple with a sexless marriage. It took me learning he was still involved with someone he supposedly had disavowed for me to be able to walk away.
My story is all too common. I suspect many marriages to sex addicts mirror mine. I wish I had the statistics to support these claims. Since sexual addiction is still an unrecognized mental disorder in the United States, there is limited to no funding for research or treatment. As a result, I can’t back this assertion with data.
I’m hoping that will change. On May 29, 2019, the World Health Organization included Compulsive Sexual Behavior Disorder in the International Statistical Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), which Wikipedia defines as a global standard for coding health information and causes of death.
This inclusion is a significant step forward, but we have much further to go. Maybe someday, partners like me won’t have to survive a sexless marriage to a sex addict. Instead, these relationships will receive the funded treatment they need.
Dr. Kerry McAvoy is a clinical psychologist, mother of three grown sons, writer, and author of the devotionals: Jesus, The Ultimate Therapist: Bringing Hope and Healing, Jesus, The Ultimate Therapist: Healing Without Limits, and Pain as a Starting Point.
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