In my 27 years working with addicts and codependents, I rarely have come across a completely healthy partner of an addict, who did not carry some responsibility for the state of their relationship. Although the partners of the addict are unequivocally not to blame for the addiction, and most certainly the consequences of it, they certainly carry responsibility for the shared relationship problems that contributed to the addiction. The nature of shared relational responsibility is even more pronounced in the sex addict/co-addict (partner) relationship.
Addiction psychotherapists have all experienced how both the addict and his/her partner participate, either actively or passively, in their dysfunctional relationship. This is not a new idea; for over 40 years, the pioneers of Family Systems and Adult Child of Alcoholics (ACOA) theories have espoused the various relational systems at play in an addictive relationship (or family).
The sex addict/co-addict relationship is a closed system in which two people voluntarily participate. Even if the co-addict partner denies culpability in the addiction, a detailed social history will ferret out his/her long history with narcissists or addicts. It seems factual to me that healthy lovers rarely fall in love and commit themselves to an addict. The two are brought together by the dynamic I refer to as the "Human Magnet Syndrome." Both participate in a relationship dance of sorts. Each person needs the other to feel complete in the shared dysfunctional relationship. More about this can be found in my essay, Codependency, Don't Dance.
According to my theories included in my book, The Human Magnet Syndrome: Why We Love People Who Hurt Us, codependents and narcissists always come together in a relationship. Conversely, narcissistic sex addicts are attracted to codependents. If one accepts this statement as valid, then it is logical to assume that codependent sex addicts are attracted to narcissists. According to the Human Magnet Syndrome theory, all people, healthy or not (or in between) are magnetically draws us to a personality type that fits their relational template — over and over again. These dysfunctionally compatible partners "dance" together because their personalities fit like a hand in glove. The care-needer needs a care-giver and the care-giver needs a care-needer.
The concurrence of sex addiction and codependency can be traced back to a person's childhood. A codependent sex addict was once a child of a pathologically narcissistic parent. This child, a prospective codependent, endured childhood trauma during which a form of detachment or self-medication was needed to cope. The child who developed a compulsive self-soothing or detaching strategy to cope with their harmful childhood environment will likely develop sex addiction in his/her adulthood. Further, if this child developed along the pathway of becoming a codependent (explained in The Human Magnet Syndrome and Alice Miller's Drama Of The Gifted Child), then the adult he or she will seek someone who matches up with their pleasing and self-sacrificing relationship orientation.
The codependent sex addict, or all codependents, naturally feel resentful, angry and unloved in their relationship with their narcissistic partner. Hence, they will rely on drug of choice, sex, to self-medicate their experience of emotional isolation and deprivation and the power and control disparity experienced with their narcissist spouse. When the sexual acting out progresses into an addiction, then we have the concurrent disorders of sex addiction and codependency.
With this type of sex addict, the codependency isn't obvious because it is masked behind the narcissistic pursuit of the addict's compulsive pursuit of their preferred sexual acting out. As such, the addiction takes on the appearance of full-blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder. However, as with any addiction, you cannot diagnose a concurrent disorder until a significant recovery period has elapsed. It is during a recovery (sobriety) period that we see the sex addict as either a narcissistic sex addict or a codependent sex addict.
What throws off an accurate statistical representation of these two possibilities (codependent sex addict versus narcissistic sex addict) is that most of the sex addicts who remain in treatment tend to be of the codependent variety. As most clinicians are well aware, those with NPD or severe narcissistic traits tend to neither recognize that they need help nor are motivated to seek psychotherapy and/or treatment. This is explains why at least 75% of all of my sexually addicted clientele have also been concurrently codependent.
In sexual addiction recovery, the sex addict's codependency surfaces midway in their recovery process, usually in six months or longer. When the recovering addict learns that the cycle of their sexual acting out is directly impacted by their feelings of being neglected, invisible, powerless and ignored, they start to assert themselves through direct communication and reasonable boundaries. Therefore, simultaneous sex addiction and codependency recovery empowers the addict to be empathetic, while asserting basic and reasonable boundaries. Consequently, the dysfunctional unconscious equilibrium of their relationship is threatened.
According to my Continuum of Self Theory and my Zero Sum Balance concept (Human Magnet Syndrome, 2013), these relationships struggle to overcome the stress that the recovering codependent places on the relationship. Because the narcissistic partner often is angrily reactive (narcissistic injury) about their contributions to the relationship problems, the relationship becomes naturally unstable. These narcissistic injuries are especially evident in marital therapy.
Speaking their truth and setting boundaries is intolerable to the pathologically narcissistic partner. This codependent/narcissistic dynamic is especially complicated by the trauma the partner experienced at the hands of their sexually addicted partner. As the recovering codependent sex addict continues to empathically and fairly set boundaries, the relationship starts to implode; the codependent no longer backs down or extinguishes their reality in favor of their partner’s.
In conclusion, the sex addict is completely to blame for the consequences/harm caused to others because of their sex addiction. However, with the codependent sex addict, there is a myriad of factors to consider when treating their primary relationships. My theories regarding dysfunctional attraction or the Human Magnet Syndrome, account for the shared responsibilities for the impaired relationship.
Ross Rosenberg, M.Ed., LCPC, CADC, CSAT Candidate
Author of the "Human Magnet Syndrome: Why We Love People Who Hurt Us"
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