When is infidelity a sex addiction?
Updated: Mar 10
As a marriage counselor and an addictions counselor, I’ve worked with hundreds of couples dealing with infidelity, sex addiction, or both. Not everyone who cheats is a sex addict, and not all sex addicts are cheaters. Most people who come to infidelity counseling – and even many marriage counselors - don’t know when infidelity is, in fact, part of a sex addiction. So, let’s start by simply defining terms.
What is infidelity?
Infidelity is the violation of a bond or agreement with one’s romantic partner. Not all couples define this in the same way or define the boundaries of their relationship in the same way. While most couples are clear that having sex with someone other than their spouse is infidelity, some couples also consider behavior like looking at pornography or going to strip clubs to also be cheating. As an infidelity counselor, I define cheating in the context of whatever the agreed-upon boundaries are for a particular couple.
What is sex addiction?
Sexual addiction is a pattern of sexual behavior that either causes the sex addict to feel badly about themselves or causes problems in one or more areas of their life. Sex addicts usually will experience some of the following: repeated failed attempts to stop or reduce the frequency of the behavior; over time the behavior happens more frequently or with greater intensity; spending more and more time either thinking about the behavior or engaging in the behavior; and the sexual behavior creates problems in one or more area of their lives – financial problems, legal problems, relationship problems, or problems at work.
The most common type of story I hear when couples first meet with me for infidelity counseling looks something like this: At some point in the relationship, usually after a long period of growing less and less connected emotionally and physically, one of the partners cheats. Their affair provided them with feelings and experiences they hadn’t been having in their marriage: attention, love, sex, someone who listened to them, etc. For these couples, the affair was an anomaly. It wasn’t part of a long-standing pattern. This is not sex addiction.
When I see sexual addiction show up in infidelity counseling (sometimes called affair recovery counseling), I see a pattern of repeated boundary violations that occur regardless of the overall health of the marriage. I’ve had many clients over the years who’ve been in long-term relationships and have never been faithful. I’ve had men who’ve been married for 20 years tell me they’ve been cheating on their wives since their wedding night. Infidelity as part of a sexual addiction, unlike more generic infidelity, is also going to show up even when things are going well in the marriage. Sex addicts will cheat or flirt or otherwise act out sexually even when they feel connected with their wives and when their marital sex lives are firing on all cylinders.
What recovery looks like
Affair recovery can look very different depending on whether or not sex addiction is part of the picture, though some of the work is the same. In both cases healing can only happen with total honesty and a gradual rebuilding of trust. But with cheaters who are also sex addicts, additional help is necessary, either in the form of counseling with an experienced sex addiction counselor and / or attendance at 12-Step meetings like Sex Addicts Anonymous. For people who cheat but aren’t sex addicts, generally we can expect to put cheating in the past provided the marriage stays healthy, that lines of communication stay open, and that both partners are able to get most of their important needs met. With cheaters who are also sex addicts, this is usually not enough to ensure ongoing fidelity. Continuing treatment of some kind is often what is required.
For more information, visit my Infidelity Counseling page.