Do you remember the days, weeks, and even months after you discovered the full extent of your partner’s sexual addiction history? Almost all of the women I have worked with have said something like this:
When I finally realized that he had been lying to me for so long, I was totally devastated. I thought I knew him. I thought I could trust our history together. After I found out, I started uncovering his lies and the more I learned, the more I started to question everything. I suddenly wondered if I could trust anything he had ever told me.
Your fears quickly bleed into your sexual relationship. To you, sexual intimacy is emotional and vulnerable. It requires trust.. When you’re not even sure you can believe the reason he gave for coming home late from work today, you quickly recognize that sex is no longer safe for you.
In early recovery, you will wonder how you can feel safe engaging sexually with your partner. You may be afraid that he’s using you to numb out or to indulge in lust. You may worry about becoming a sexual object. On the other hand, you may feel that your partner avoids person-to-person sexuality entirely. You may feel sexually rejected and that he prefers his addiction over you. Managing a healthy sexual relationship during early recovery is difficult, but not impossible. May I share some insights to help you work toward that goal.
Before I begin, I want to note that this article is focused primarily on women whose partners are overly aggressive and objectifying, and who often use sex with their partner as a way to self-medicate and as part of the addiction. In a future article, I will address sexual avoidance in addicts, or what has been called sexual anorexia.
Defining Your Sexual Rights
Sadly, for many women it takes getting into recovery to learn this important truth: you never have to have sex. You actually have sexual rights.
Women often feel obligated to engage sexually with their partners, and when I tell these women in therapy that they have every right to say no, they all express audible relief. Some even cry. Too many married women never once were given permission by a single person to say no in their own marriages.
There are a lot of reasons this might be true. Some of you grew up with role models that taught you to say yes to keep the peace or to fulfill some expectation of how wives are “supposed” to be. Many women have also believed their addict partner’s stories about sexual “needs” or about issues of fairness around sexuality. At some point, you may have even believed that sex would prevent him from acting out in other ways.
However you came to believe that ‘no’ is not an option, let’s discuss a new approach.
Help your partner understand that your willingness to engage in sex is dependent upon his understanding of and commitment to honoring your sexual rights. Write these rights down. Share them as often as you need. Here are some ideas to help provide a starting point as you explore your rights:
- I have a right to say no without feeling guilty and without having to defend myself or my choice
- I have a right to have sex with a man who is sober and in recovery
- I will not have sex with you when you have recently acted out
- I can choose when I feel safe enough to re-engage
- I have a right to not be manipulated into sexual activity. Manipulation tactics include
- threatening relapse
- comparing “needs” (e.g. “my need to have sex is as important as your needs”)
- I have a right to not be responsible for your triggers or feelings of withdrawal due to our sexual inactivity or low frequency
- I have a right to feel emotionally and sexually safe in our relationship
- I have a right to not participate in sexual behaviors that make me feel uncomfortable or afraid
Enforcing Sexual Boundaries
Even in recovery, addicts tend to push the limits placed on them. Your boundaries are only as good as your ability to stick to them and be strong when he tests them.
Probably the most common boundary I encourage in early recovery is this: all physical touch in the relationship is by permission only. I know this might feel a bit over the top at times (especially to addicts!) but consider this: if you’re like most women I work with in early recovery, when your partner walks into the room, you tense up. There is a good chance that if you’ve been together awhile, he has a pretty long history of touching you sexually by surprise. You feel like you have to watch your back at all times to keep yourself safe.
Women experience immense relief when their partners commit to ask permission to touch them. I even recommend asking permission for hugs. If he’s serious about creating safety for you, there is no better way than to help you know that you are in charge of your own body and sexuality. Asking permission provides this safety.
You need to know that enforcing your boundaries requires first that you believe in your own inherent value as a person. Often, this becomes a key task in therapy during early recovery. Boundaries are best enforced by a calm, collected, and confident person who simply will not settle for anything less than being treated like a human being.
For more information on boundaries, please see my presentation called How Do I Set Boundaries in Recovery?
Please note that you may also need to set boundaries for yourself around sexuality. These include:
- I will not use sex as a tool to get something I want from my partner
- I will not withhold sex to intentionally hurt or punish him
- I will not selfishly engage in sex when it may cause harm or damage our recoveries
Changing the Meaning of Sex
In the process of becoming healthy, addicts must change what sex means to them. This is not something you can control, but if he understands that this is important to you, this can provide guidance for his goals.
He has to transition from…
- lust (mood altering) to love (commitment and connection)
- trying to create a connection via sex to validating existing connection via intimacy
- needing sex to wanting closeness
- a focus on self to a focus on the relationship
Trusting his Motivation
How can you trust that his motivation for sexual engagement is healthy? Of course, you can’t know for sure, but these are things you can watch for as good indicators that he’s in a stable mental and emotional place:
- he handles “no” well, without anger or resentment
- he asks permission for physical touch and respects your body
- you see visible signs of a daily commitment to recovery
- he his emotionally “soft”
- his focus is on all types of connection, not just sex
- sex feels natural and spontaneous, rather than forced or planned
Knowing If You Are Prepared
Even if he is doing well, you may not be ready for sexual intimacy yet. Your work and healing will not always parallel his. Go slowly. It’s better to err on the side of caution here. Before engaging in sex, you will want to feel emotionally safe, vulnerable, connected, valued, and mentally and emotionally present. Above all you should feel you have a choice. If you can’t say no, then you can’t truly say yes.
May I suggest some warning signs to pay attention to. If these are true for you, give yourself permission to take more time before you engage sexually.
- You have to convince yourself to engage in sex
- You feel you have to engage in order to keep him from relapsing
- You are engaging out of a sense of duty
- You are seeking sexual release for yourself without regard for possible negative consequences
- You are trying to validate your worth through sex
Abstaining as Part of Recovery
I often get asked if a sexual fast or a period of abstinence in marriage is necessary or beneficial for recovery. It depends. I don’t know if it’s necessary for everyone, but if you need a break for your own healing don’t hesitate to bring it up.
It’s not common for recovering addicts to jump at the chance to participate in a sexual fast. But his willingness to do so without resentment or defensiveness can be a sign that he is taking your healing seriously. Sexual abstinence can have one or more of these purposes:
- breaking unhealthy sexual patterns in the relationship
- creating safety for you in early recovery
- helping jump start his sobriety if sex consistently triggers relapse
- solidifying a marital separation if one becomes necessary
After I presented on this topic once, I had a woman teach me something important. She said that for women who struggle to stick to a proposed sexual fast and who give in too soon, a set period of time can relieve the stress of having to respond to pressure to re-engage sexually. I agree. You will need to assess what will work best for you and your situation.
A healthy sexual relationship is the desire of most people, even in the face of addiction recovery. Not all relationships can tolerate sex during early recovery. However, I hope the recommendations in this article will help you navigate the complexities of evaluating your safety and readiness for sexual intimacy in recovery.
- Question: What are the main issues that keep you from enforcing your sexual boundaries?
- Question: What signs does your partner exhibit that indicate that he is ready for healthy sexuality? What signs does he exhibit that indicate a lack of readiness?
- Question: Are there times that you engage sexually against your better judgment? What motivates you to make those decisions? How can you confront those motivators?
- Task: Write a list of your sexual rights and boundaries, and share them with your partner
- Task: Discuss a possible sexual fast with your partner and evaluate both of your responses together. What might your feelings or thoughts mean about your personal or couple recovery processes?