Co-Addict or Trauma Victim? Secondary abuse of spouses and partners of sex addicts

Sometimes the best-intentioned efforts to help one spouse hurt the other.

Hundreds of thousands of individuals struggling with drug and alcohol abuse, compulsive sexual behavior, compulsive gambling, and other serious problems, have benefited from Christian support groups, websites, articles, pamphlets, and books offering encouragement, exhortation, and advice. Many of these materials are written by recovering addicts themselves, who talk openly about their process of recovery. However, in many circles, those advocating for addicts are excluding and harming some of addiction’s other victims: the spouses and partners of addicts.

 

I wish someone had warned me that both COSA (Co-dependents of Sex Addicts) and S-Anon (a sister organization to Sexaholics Anonymous), the two largest 12-Step programs supporting the partners of sex addicts, subscribe to the notion that we partners are “co-addicts” or “codependents.”  The emphasis of their programs is our “recovery” from co-addiction. If you tell them that you are not a co-addict or codependent you are told that this is a typical response from a co-addict, as we are always in denial to begin with. In other words, we have no insight into our behavior and are blind to our illness.

Living with a Sex Addict

Not all help is helpful. Sometimes the best-intentioned efforts to help one spouse hurt the other. This is especially true for the surreptitious yet destructive phenomenon of victim-blaming.

On 6 August, The Grand Opera House in Oshkosh, Wisconsin aired a documentary entitled The Heart of the Matter about Christians addicted to pornography. Describing it as ‘a film documentary offering a compassionate response to Christians addicted to pornography and sex’, Chelsen Vicari writes,

The issue of pornography and its devastating impacts has certainly gained wider attention in our culture. From the pulpit to the blogosphere, we’re hearing more and more conversations about how porn harms people.

In a similar vein, this past Friday, Christianity Today published a piece singing the praises of ‘Celebrate Recovery,’ a Christian program for addicts developed 25 years ago by John Baker. According to CT, 29,000 churches host CR meetings, and 100,000 pastors have been trained in its 12-step recovery process.

These two recent examples are part of a growing effort to raise awareness about addiction among Christians and to combat the culture of shame that surrounds it. Hundreds of thousands of individuals struggling with drug and alcohol abuse, compulsive sexual behavior, compulsive gambling, and other serious problems, have benefited from Christian support groups, websites, articles, pamphlets, and books offering encouragement, exhortation, and advice. Many of these materials are written by recovering addicts themselves, who talk openly about their process of recovery. However, in many circles, those advocating for addicts are excluding and harming some of addiction’s other victims: the spouses and partners of addicts.

Blaming the Victim

… very often innocent victims are treated as if they were responsible for the situation in which they find themselves. This means that, besides having to deal with the negative consequences arising from the event that victimized them (primary victimization… ), they are victimized once again (secondary victimization… ), which also implies an absence of the social support which research has shown to be so crucial for the victims’ physical and psychological well-being.

Isabel Correia and Jorge Vala

Victim-blaming is both widespread and deeply anti-Christian in its philosophy. The number of studies documenting its nature, causes, and pervasiveness exploded after Melvin Lerner and Carolyn Simmons published their seminal 1966 work, ‘Observer’s Reaction to the “Innocent Victim”: Compassion or Rejection’. In it, Lerner and Simmons provide compelling evidence that we have a propensity to believe in a just world, where the innocent do not suffer unjustly and where the guilty get their due punishment. When faced with injustice, they argue, many of us are tempted to devalue and reject innocent victims to maintain our belief in a just world. This secondary victimization is particularly exacerbated when an innocent victim’s suffering is ongoing, with no end in sight (see here).

Cited by nearly 1,000 studies to date, Lerner’s and Simmons’ findings were more recently re-confirmed and extended by a study by Isabel Correia and Jorge Vala entitled ‘When Will a Victim Be Secondarily Victimized? The Effect of Observer’s Belief in a Just World, Victim’s Innocence and Persistence of Suffering’. Correia and Vala examine the relationship of three factors which existing research has demonstrated tend to influence reaction to a victim:

  • the observer’s belief in a just world,
  • the innocence of the victim, and
  • the persistence of the victim’s suffering.

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