The massive Ashley Madison data hack, which released identifying information of more than 30 million subscribers seeking extramarital partners, is severely testing countless marriages. The site’s motto is “Life is short. Have an affair,” but it could just as easily be “Life is short. Implode your marriage.”
Men and women who thought they were in a monogamous relationship are suddenly struggling with a tangle of emotions and asking wrenching questions about their partners and their marriage. Shall we divorce? Does my spouse have a sex addiction? Will therapy help?
Most mental health professionals caution against making rash decisions after discovery of infidelity. “Even though you might be overwhelmed by the deceit and betrayal you’ve discovered, you’ve experienced trauma and it’s very important to step back before making any decisions,” says Karen Brownd, MA, program director for the Center for Relationship and Sexual Recovery at The Ranch, in Nunnelly, Tennessee. Brownd is certified as both a sex addiction therapist and as a supervisor of sex addiction therapists. Here are some of her suggestions:
The first thing you need to do is get support, ideally from a mental health professional and perhaps from nonjudgmental friends or loved ones. “You will need to prepare for this as you would prepare for a journey into the unknown,” Brownd says. “Before making any decisions, you will likely need to look into your spouse’s past behavior, but you don’t know what you’re going to find, and the information you unearth could be as traumatic as the Ashley Madison revelation.” In short, you will need support as the information comes out.
You need to determine whether your spouse’s participation on the site was just curiosity, a limited one-time occurrence, or a pattern of behavior that points to sexual addition. If you have evidence that your spouse cheated, and he or she strongly denies it, you may be tempted to look into his or her Internet use, bank statements, credit card expenses and phone use. But if you do this, plan it out. Seek support beforehand and have someone lined up that you can call if you find something disturbing. Most important, only do it when you’re calm and prepared for what you might discover. If you find that your spouse has been living a secret life, your spouse most likely has a sexual addiction, and it’s time to bring in professional help.
Confronting Your Spouse or Partner
It’s important to keep in mind that some individuals suffering from sex addiction tend to respond to questions or accusations in ways similar to individuals suffering from drug or alcohol addiction. When confronted, the sexually addicted spouse’s first reaction is often denial and anger. “Often they’ll say, ‘Oh you’re crazy,’ no matter how clear the evidence is,” says Brownd. “It’s important to have someone work with them who won’t be easily brushed off.”
Learn About Sexual Addiction
Sexual addiction is similar to alcohol or drug addiction in that it tends to escalate over time; individuals suffering from sexual addiction are nearly always seeking intensity rather than intimacy. “As soon as they have the intensity, they need a bigger rush,” says Brownd. Sexual addiction often includes a loss of control and a pattern of continuing the behavior at the expense of one’s job and family. In addition, similar to alcohol or drug addiction, sex addicts, when pressed, nearly always report a history of childhood trauma, such as physical or emotional abuse. “We try to dig into the past to see how they got here, because that’s usually the fundamental problem fueling the sexual addiction,” says Brownd. “Our goal is to help get to truth out, so that they don’t have to medicate the trauma by having affairs, one-night stands and hookups on sites like Ashley Madison.”
Treatment for Sexual Addiction
Treatment for sexual addiction usually involves a mix of group and individual psychotherapy, couples therapy, education, and 12-step support or some other form of supportive group. Healing from sexual addiction is an ongoing process. “Individuals suffering from sexual addiction have to learn how to heal and how to stay in a supportive sobriety group, because acting out sexually is their drug of choice,” says Brownd. “We also provide extensive support for the partner or spouse.”
Can This Marriage Be Saved?
An individual who is capable of intimacy tends to fare better at saving a broken marriage than someone who is not, says Brownd. “Two people can be very compatible, but if they don’t share what they think, or who they really are — usually because early trauma taught them to hide emotionally and to not use their voice — then it’s harder to make a marriage work,” she says. “If you want to stay in the marriage, you have to begin by sharing what you’re thinking and feeling.”
Will Life Ever Be Normal Again?
Yes and no, says Brownd. Although experiencing betrayal can be intensely traumatic, there’s a benefit in getting the secrets out. “The hurt may never go away,” she says, “but seeking support and help does make you stronger and may help you rebuild trust and intimacy.” In fact, she says, “After therapy, many will come back and say, ‘I want you to know that it was very rough in the beginning, but now we talk in a completely different way, because there’s nothing to hide anymore.’ I see a lot of hope,” she says.