The Good Wife, starring Julianna Margulies and Chris Noth has captured the attention of many TV viewers due to both the talent of the actors as well as the content. The writers have captured many of the subtle nuances experienced by both the person who acts out and the partner. Having worked with individuals and couples impacted by sexual duplicity, and writing Deceived specifically for partners, I’ve been following this show closely.
Today in every neighborhood throughout every community, people are being challenged by the addictive nature of their partner’s sexual behavior. For Alicia on The Good Wife, her husband’s sexual acting out was made public through the media. While they had been married several years she had not suspected his behavior. For others, it may be the young bride who just discovered her husband was with another woman within days of their wedding. It could be the mother of two young children whose boyfriend has just lost his job due to engaging in Internet sex during work hours, or the partner who has masked her shame and confusion about her husband’s chronic pornographic activity, and is now horrified at the thought that her children are going to find out. It may be the man who recently discovered hidden computer files of sexually explicit photos his girlfriend has been emailing to a great number of men. It could be the wife of 40 years, husband soon to retire, who has known about his affairs from the beginning of their marriage; there’s nothing particularly different about the current affair that she just discovered; it’s just the ‘straw that breaks the camel’s back.’
Influenced by both culture and family, my professional experience tells me that coaddictive behavior was well learned long before their partner came into their life. As much as the socialization and empowerment of women in Western industrialized culture has changed, women are still more apt to defer to men by giving them the benefit of the doubt; take on false guilt, believe they need a man to be okay, prioritize his needs over their own, acquiesce, be polite, refrain from showing anger, feel inadequate about their sexuality, and have a distorted and shame based body image
Yet this socialization of women, by itself, is not the strongest factor in their coupling with a sex addict. For both men and women far more influential is their family history. Whether or not the writers of the Good Wife get to this depth, looking at family history and dynamics will be significant in the healing process for those in the real world. It’s critical to examine the beliefs developed about themselves and others, the ways learned to experience connection and/or protect self, and the behaviors that helped to garner esteem.
The behaviors and belief systems of both partners and those who act out sexually in repetitive ways are strongly influenced by individual childhood experiences. It is common that one or both parents were addicts themselves, alcoholics or sex addicts in particular. It may not have been called addiction, but they often say their father was a womanizer, or their mother had lots of affairs, drank a lot, etc. There may have been a history of extreme parental rigidity, strict all-or-nothing parental codes. Messages about sex were shaming or distorted, creating confusion as a child.
Kate was raised in an alcoholic and violent family. She is divorced from two different alcoholic men, and is now married to an active sex addict. Her husband has had multiple relationships with other women and now he is flagrantly acting out in a manner that she cannot totally deny. She knows he visits pornographic bookstores, but on a recent visit he had their four year old son with him. Yet she still had the ability to rationalize. He is stressed by our two young children. He wouldn’t do this if he wasn’t on drugs. She would deliberately not ask questions. If she didn’t ask, then it was as if she wouldn’t have to know. She wouldn’t ask for help, because as she said − I just need him to stop. She wouldn’t assert any limits because her fear is he would leave her. In ultimate desperation she found herself left alone in a hotel room with a baby just a few weeks old and a four-year-old, no car, no food and no money while he went to get more drugs and meet up with a girlfriend; and she just wanted him back.
Kate didn’t get to this place overnight. Her childhood history was her training ground long before she entered any of her three addictive relationships. Dysfunction ruled her original family. As a child, she learned to:
- Overlook (deny, rationalize, minimize) behavior which hurt her deeply
- Appear cheerful when she was hurting
- Make excuses for the hurtful behavior
- Avoid conflict to minimize further anger
- Tolerate inappropriate and hurtful behavior
- Prioritize the needs of others over her own
- Caretake others
- Fault herself for her family’s problems
- Discount her own perceptions, give others the benefit of the doubt
- Believe she had no options available
- Believe she is at fault, it is her job to find the answers
- Not ask for help
She was reared to be the perfect candidate for partnering with an addict, one whose codependent traits enable him to act out his behavior with little disruption.
While the names change, the stories of repetitively partnering with an addict are common and span generations. What Kate and other coaddicts experience is referred to as trauma repetition. Trauma repetition means you create behaviors and situations similar to those you experienced earlier in life. You are reliving a story out of your painful history. Replaying your past trauma is often repeating what you know, the familiar.