Why Sexual Addiction Leads Couples into Communication Confusion

Married couple

If you let me stay for the weekend in your home whilst you were out of town you might lay down some ground rules (often these are implied by culture). For example, you might assume I wouldn’t drive your car, or sleep in your bed, or take your favorite cookies with me when I leave.

If on your return home from your weekend away you found your bed used, your car with 1000 extra miles on it, and your favorite shoes with new scuffs on them, you would likely feel many things. Amongst those feelings would be confusion, alarm and betrayal! Would you be happy with me, or hurt? Would you lash out or pull away?

Discovering a Sexual Addiction

Amplify the example above to multiple sexual breaches within a trusting relationship and you have serious betrayal. This is what happens when a sexual addiction is discovered. The response to which can be a swirl of profound emotions.

When a spouse is hurt in this way it is common for them to withdraw and turn away from their partner. Often both sides respond this way in a cyclical manner and a chasm of hurt remains in the middle. It is incredibly hard to communicate when you are stunned, baffled and cannot believe the actions of someone you had trusted. It makes hearing them almost impossible.

To make matters worse, a couple often continues to turn away from each other, not responding to small gestures or affections, and they can move into a state named by John Gottman as “negative sentiment override”. [1]

What Gottman suggests is that the pain, frustration and experience of being ignored by our partner evolves into a negative lens that clouds all of our later interactions with our partner.

A couple can move into a state where they are unable to hear or respond to one another without the negative filter shaping all of their interactions—this is a terribly confusing and painful experience because olive branches are received as if they were snakes.

Finding a good sexual addiction treatment program can help in breaking down the barriers between the spouses. The treatment center can help the couple start to heal by helping them address the sex addiction and express their fears, hurts, anger, etc. in a safe and constructive setting.

Adding Fuel To the Fire

Married couple's handsWhen we feel hurt and hostile towards one another, we then start using what Gottman calls the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” in our communication. [2]

These include criticism (attacking complaints), contempt (putting yourself above the other), defensiveness and stonewalling (withdrawing emotionally). These styles of communicating further isolate the couple and add fuel to the fire.

In case this wasn’t problematic enough; couples commonly experience a discrepancy in their understanding of a partner’s sexual addiction. Once in recovery this problem doesn’t disappear quickly—in fact it can increase!

For example, the recovering spouse might think, “I am doing so well, I have given up those bad behaviors”, and the other is thinking, “How long do I have to watch out for this behavior? How can I ever trust them again?

This is an almighty problem because the hurt partner will struggle to feel heard and cared for by the offending spouse if they cannot start to appreciate the long-term impact of betrayal. Remember, the negative override may also be coloring interactions, and unkind methods of communicating may be creeping in to keep tempers frayed.

Finding Clarify and Grounds For Communication

A common problem for couples is entering a “he says—she says” debate about whose experience is accurate. The issue is that BOTH experiences are accurate because we have fundamentally different experiences and understandings of events.

The art to finding clarity and communication is to accept that your partner can hold an extremely different experience—and it is true—whilst also having your experience be true for you.

Once you appreciate that you will be at different positions in the recovery and trust process, you can start to offer the care and support that your partner needs. This starts with learning to validate the hurt partner. Here is an example of statements that can often be made around sexual addiction:

Married couple smiling

She says: “I can’t believe you looked at porn, it is so humiliating to me!”
He says: “It’s just online stuff, it’s not about you, and I’ve stopped anyway.”

His response misses the emotional energy behind her comment. A validating alternative would be this:

She says: “I can’t believe you looked at porn, it is so humiliating to me!”
He says: “You feel humiliated, that makes sense—I remember how you said you just want me to want you. Is that right?”

Not only is that response validating, but also it takes seriously her concerns and shows that he has listened to her previously. In Gottman’s language, this is “turning towards” her and looking past the “negative override” filter.

In summary, it is vital for couples where someone is embroiled in sexual addiction to remember that they will have vastly different experiences of the same instances.

That they need to continue communicating honestly about how they feel without attacking, being contemptuous or ignoring the other. And that the offender (and often the betrayed) needs to work at validating the concerns and experience of the other. These are key building blocks to recovering communication and starting a healing process.


Paul LoosemoreAbout the author: Paul Loosemore, MA PLPC, author of “21 Movements Towards Life” – The step-by-step guide to recovering from sexual addiction or pornography. Paul works as a mental health counselor, and consults with those who wish to recover from Sexual Addiction—both individuals and couples. He is the founder of www.stopsexualaddiction.com where you can find his guide, or contact him.


[1]: Gottman (2012) The science of trust.
[2]: Gottman (2012) The science of trust.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on April 9, 2017.
Published on AddictionHope.com

About Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC

Jacquelyn Ekern founded Addiction Hope in January, 2013, after experiencing years of inquiries for addiction help by visitors to our well regarded sister site, Eating Disorder Hope. Many of the eating disorder sufferers that contact Eating Disorder Hope also had a co-occurring issue of addiction to alcohol, drugs, and process addictions.