I’ve been seeing that question pop up a lot lately in news, blogs, and articles as we continue to sort through the “Tiger Story” and its a question I hear almost every day. My answer? Maybe, maybe not- but no matter what we call it, the effect is the same. It brings about damage to the individual and to those who are close by. The ripple effects of the compulsion touch every part of the life of the addict and those around him/her.
For me and many like me, “sex addiction” is a short-hand term for a complicated and confusing set of behaviors and personality traits that seemly take hold of a person and lead them into incredibly risky and out of control places. Its the “out of control” nature of this thing that leads us to the term “addiction” or compulsion. It takes on a life of its own. But mental health professionals have not come to consensus on what this is- so we are left with the term “sex addiction” because it works and seems to fit.
What I tell my clients (the wife or partner of this “addicted” person) is that it probably doesn’t really matter for them if this is truly an addiction; what matters is that the actions of their loved one has left incredible damage and has wounded anyone with whom they have a relationship. Especially the spouse. We give names to things or conditions to try to understand them or to bring sense to a situation. For a wife of a “sex addict”, there is no understanding. It will never make sense.
Unlike other addictions, this one is personal. The sexual behavior that becomes the focus and compulsion of a loved one breaks bonds of trust and fidelity. These behaviors are held safe in a separate compartment of life and the person with the “addiction” works hard to keep it that way. Until they are caught. Until the secret gets too big or cumbersome to maintain. Or until it so erodes the character that it leads to other problems that get the attention of others, like losing a job or getting arrested.
Like any addiction, we would make a grave mistake if all we focus on in treatment is the behavior. For anyone affected by this compulsion, real healing comes in being honest, humble, taking responsibility, and learning to cope with and heal from life’s hurts. The behavior is what we see. The real work is in those deeper places, and that takes time and great courage.
I hope the past several weeks will have been less about Tiger, and more about bringing into the light the reality of this problem, no matter we call it, and helps us on the way to bring hope to those caught in its wake, including the partner or spouse.