Partners of Sex Addicts: What’s in a name? Just ask a ‘Co-Sex Addict’

Upset partner/wife with her hands on her forehead.
What’s in a name matters to partners of sex addicts.

Co-sex addiction, or co-addiction, is a term coined to describe the behavior of person addicted to a sex addict: in theory, the addict is addicted to sex, and the co-sex addict is addicted to the addict. In practice, how is the co-sex addiction or ‘addiction to the sex addict’ determined?  In many cases, the diagnosis appears to have been presumed based on checking off the word “married” on a counselor’s paperwork. In my own psychotherapy practice I prefer to use the term partner of a sex addict in response to the preferences of the partners, mostly women, with whom I counsel.

The partners of sex addicts I work with have strong feelings – strong, negative feelings – about the term co-sex addict. Unfortunately, many of them also have negative feelings about the co-sex addiction recovery literature in general and the attitudes of some of the professional community, including many of my colleagues who, like myself, are Certified Sex Addiction Therapists. In addition to an objection to the diagnosis-by-marriage approach, the arguments against the co-sex addiction label from the partners with whom I work fall into two general categories: a) the pathologizing nature of the label itself, and b) the insensitivity in the timing of when the label is received.

The most frequent response I hear from the women I work with is, “I hate the term co-sex addict!” In our current culture the term sex addict is a stigma. It’s one thing to be defined by a label that describes a behavior you actually engage in. It’s quite another to be defined by a label for the behavior your spouse engages in. When is the last time you heard someone introduce themselves as a co-bank robber or a co-smoker? The term co-sex addict is perceived as demeaning and blaming to partners who are often simultaneously struggling with being demeaned and blamed by their sexually addicted spouse.

Furthermore, partners of sex addicts are often confused by what they perceived as mixed messages from the co-addiction literature. On the one hand, they are encouraged to accept the 3 Cs of recovery: they didn’t cause their spouse’s addiction; they can’t control it; and they can’t cure it. On the other hand, they are asked to gracefully accept a label that seems to imply that they do, in fact, bear some responsibility.

That doesn’t present the picture of a safe therapeutic atmosphere for healing. This is especially true if the sexually addicted spouse latches onto the co-sex addiction label to confirm his distorted perception that someone other than himself is responsible for his behavior choices or the resulting consequences, a frequent early recovery phenomenon. A partner label that reinforces the sex addict’s projected blame, actually further erodes her sense of emotional safety in the relationship.

Unfortunately, most encounter the co-sex addict label, and corresponding codependency focus, early in recovery when they are still in shock or being buffeted by active trauma symptoms. The partners I work with ultimately have little difficulty acknowledging coping behaviors that may have inadvertently reinforced their mate’s addictive behavior or family of origin issues that contribute to their coping choices and perception of pain. They are open, and even eager, to learn more effective boundaries for reinforcing their own and their mate’s recovery.

However, many believe that the co-addict label reflects a underlying assumption that partner issues are an afterthought to the sex addict’s treatment. This invalidates the partner’s experience of trauma and ignores the more immediate need to stabilize the crisis and re-establish emotional safety before addressing underlying issues that may be a necessary focus for an optimal recovery. I’ve heard too many stories from partners of sex addicts who report that the initial response from the professional community was harmful and became a barrier to their willingness to seeking help.

Whether it be from counselors or clergy with no training in the dynamics of sex addiction, or sex addiction specialists who failed to recognize the underlying trauma, partners have felt marginalized. We’ve learned in the case of child sexual abuse and rape trauma that the initial response of the community, judicial system and helping professionals can either alleviate or intensify the trauma. In my experience the term co-sex addiction is perceived as offensive by many, harmful by some, and an obstacle to help seeking by others.

Sometimes what’s in a name really is important.


Dr. Janice Caudill is the founder and Clinical Director of McKinney Counseling & Recovery. MCR offers individual, couples, group therapy and multi-day intensives for partners of sex addicts and wounded hearts struggling with sex addiction, infidelity, love addiction or love avoidance, intimacy anorexia, or relational trauma in the McKinney, Plano, Allen, Richardson, Frisco, Carrollton, Lewisville, Dallas and surrounding areas.

All content provided on this blog is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition, does not create a client-therapist relationship, and is not a substitute for care by a trained professional. The owner of this blog makes no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of any information on this site or found by following any link on this site. The owner will not be liable for any errors, omissions, losses, injuries, or damages from the display or use of this information.

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