Multiple Affairs & Sexual Addiction: Is There a Difference?
Amanda: My first question is, in your clinical experience, what is the difference (if any), between multiple affairs and sexual addiction?
MJ: A way to examine the difference between multiple affairs and sexual addiction is to look at the criteria for sex addiction. Using the criteria set forth in the DSM-5, Hyperactive Sexual Desire Disorder presents as a set of behaviors indicated by:
1. Out-of-control behavior
2. Severe adverse consequences (medical, legal, and/or interpersonal) due to sexual behavior
3. Persistent pursuit of self-destructive or high-risk sexual behavior
4. Repeated attempts to limit or stop sexual behavior
5. Sexual obsession and fantasy as a primary coping mechanism
6. The need for increasing amounts of sexual activity
By examining these criteria, could it be possible that a person who participates in multiple affairs does not engage in out-of-control or high-risk sexual behavior that results in interpersonal adverse consequences? I’m not sure if that is possible. Perhaps they don’t experience medical or legal consequences, but it is a stretch for me to consider that multiple affairs wouldn’t cause adverse interpersonal consequences.
Affairs are relationships that are secretive in nature. They are satellite relationships outside of a committed relationship’s boundaries of fidelity. Even if we considered a scenario in which someone who participated in multiple affairs believed their behavior was deliberate and not out-of-control, and they believe they did not experience adverse interpersonal consequences from their sexual actions, then I would wonder if they were in relationship with committed partners who affirm external or satellite relationships.
If that were the case, then those relationships wouldn’t be named as affairs. Instead they would be multiple simultaneous relationships. If that was the case, then we might shift our conversation and talk about polyamory.
One defining feature of this disorder includes a person making multiple unsuccessful attempts to control or diminish the amount of time that individual engages in sexual fantasies, urges, and behavior. Affairs often function on a foundation of fantasy, and at times, obsession.
If a person has participated in a committed relationship with a partner who has an expectation of fidelity, yet that person repeatedly has affairs, then we can deduce that person has spent a considerable amount of time thinking about or pursuing those fantasies through behavior tied to satisfying those urges.
Is it possible for that person to repetitively betray their committed partner and never make attempts to never limit or stop sexual behavior? Perhaps, but I don’t believe that person’s lack of conscience would negate a Hyperactive Sexual Desire Disorder or a Sex Addiction diagnosis if the other criteria are met.
Therefore it is highly likely that a person who participates in multiple affairs would receive a diagnosis of Hyperactive Sexual Desire Disorder or Sexual Addiction.
The Top 3 Reasons the Betrayed Forgive Multiple Affairs
Amanda: Sometimes, or maybe a lot of times, those outside looking in can’t conceive why any betrayed spouse would forgive one affair, let alone forgive many affairs. In your experience, what are the top three reasons or motivations a betrayed spouse has for forgiving multiple affairs?
MJ: Although many people set a relationship boundary that states if an affair or betrayal happens, the relationship is over, sometimes people do choose to stay in relationship after betrayal has happened. Three of the most common reasons people stay are:
1. To align with their values (such as maintaining an intact family unit, or not divorcing because they believe staying married will honor God),
2. Because of a list of fears (such as fear of not maintaining financial security, fear of judgment by support system, fear of ability to care for oneself and survive in a traumatized state), and
3. As a result of a cost-benefit analysis. Betrayed partners will think about how much time they have invested in the relationship already, then will weigh out the costs and benefits of staying with the cost and benefits of leaving. The longer someone has been in relationship corresponds with choosing to stay in the relationship as people will often stay because they’ve invested so much. People often hope to get a return on their investment and will stay in a painful and unsafe relationships in hope that the relationship will become safe and honoring, thinking, “Any minute now my person will learn to love me well!”. Betrayed partners sometimes don’t want to end relationships after betrayal as they don’t want the person who “replaces” them to get the good, safe, honoring version of their unfaithful partner they believe is possible.
What Makes a Hurt Partner More Likely to End Things?
Amanda: On the opposite side of the equation, what variables or factors do you see come into play for those hurt spouses who decide to call it quits?
MJ: I often see Betrayed Spouses call it quits when a Betraying Spouse continues to betray through more infidelity or when the Betraying Spouse continues to function independently and with limited empathy.
In order for relationships to heal and thrive after betrayal, the Offending Partner must learn to speak and behave openly, transparently, and non-defensively with the Hurt Partner. A Betraying Partner must learn how to be intimate emotionally with the Hurt Partner, know what safety looks and sounds like to the Hurt Partner, and then make efforts to create a relationship culture of respect, trust, and safety.
That is what we mean by loving someone well. I see many relationships break up because of the length of time it takes some Betraying Partners to learn to be honest, transparent, empathetic, compassionate, connected and faithful.
Some Hurt Partners experience continued wounding from their Betraying Partner while they are learning how to love them well, and for some Hurt Partners, it is just too painful. I’ve heard many people say they would rather be alone and lonely than alone in relationship with a person who doesn’t love them well.
What is the Hardest Thing to Watch in Couples from a Therapist’s Perspective?
Amanda: We know that working in an intense field such as affair recovery, we as infidelity recovery counselors can experience secondary trauma. Can you share a couple situations that are the most difficult to bear witness to when dealing with multiple affairs and infidelity reocovery?
MJ: One of the most challenging tasks in infidelity recovery for counselors to bear witness to is walking a couple through a formal disclosure. During disclosure therapists have a front row seat to the intensity of the couples’ emotions as the Betraying Spouse reveals the types, frequency and duration of their betrayal behaviors to their partner.
Therapists must be vigilant in managing their own reactions and responses to what they hear to maintain a neutral, respectful and non-biased stance at every moment. That takes tremendous attention and takes a toll on therapists.
Another difficult situation when helping clients impacted by multiple affairs is to bear witness to the depth and intensity of their trauma. Healing from Betrayal Trauma takes years, and walking that road with clients is heart-wrenching and can at times cause secondary trauma. B
Because this work impacts counselors, they must learn self-care rituals and routines to care for themselves on a daily basis and they must often commit to their own counseling and trauma treatment. In my opinion, it is vital therapists participate in ETT or EMDR to quickly and effectively resolve the negative impact working in this field might have on them.