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

They find that for those who believe in a just world,

the most threatening victim is the innocent victim whose suffering persists.

Victim-blaming persists in a wide variety of contexts, including the Christian church, directed towards, for example, such victims as sexually abused women and children and women battling other forms of domestic violence. For the majority of these women and children, their suffering persists because the violence is still ongoing and/or the physical and psychological aftermath of such violence continues to cause suffering.

Those who have endured victim-blaming often report that such secondary victimization is even worse than the initial abuse itself. Confirming the significance of secondary victimization are studies which have demonstrated that rape survivors who suffer victim-blaming, for example, have much higher levels of PTSD than do those who are not re-victimized in such ways. In short, victim-blaming is itself a form of violence. Though it would require fuller development elsewhere I suggest, too, that it is rooted in a belief about the world that is not found in Scripture, where God, in His great mercy, demonstrates that

He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.

Victim-Blaming in Sex Addiction Therapy

While victim-blaming has attracted worthy attention by those examining the forms of abuse mentioned above, comparable research and discussion, among Christians and otherwise, about the primary and secondary victimization (often by therapists) of spouses and partners of sex addicts is noticeably absent.

My interest in the topic of compulsive sexual behavior (often called sex addiction) began a year and a half ago when a friend mentioned to me, off-hand, that I might want to look at the literature on sex addiction therapy. I asked what he meant, and he explained that it had something to do with how such literature talked about women. He couldn’t put his finger on it, he said, but something wasn’t right. At that time, I did a little looking around and read a few articles which piqued my interest. I was busy with other projects, though, and had to put it aside.

But a few months ago, hoping to further my understanding, I read Ashamed No More, by T. C. Ryan. I was surprised by how little Ryan–a Christian, a recovering sex addict, and a leader of a ministry for sex addicts–talks about the spouses and partners of sex addicts. I paid attention to the few instances where Ryan mentions those he hurt with his addiction, noting that his descriptions of such wrongdoing were remarkably vague and brief, particularly in comparison to his lengthy and thorough discussion of himself, his personal history, and his own suffering. I took copious notes on his book and compiled and examined word lists and keyword lists as well as key semantic domains, noting the prominence of, for example, first person pronouns and other inward-focused language (self-destructive, self-loathing, self-worthlessness, etc).

I looked for other books written by Christians against which to compare it, compiled some lists, read a few, and began to notice and understand the pervasiveness and potential destructiveness of the concept of the co-addict and the way this label influences language about spouses/partners of sex addicts. I learned that T. C. Ryan is far from alone in his language about spouses/partners. Celebrate Recovery, for instance, the ministry I mentioned at the start of this post, publishes an informational pamphlet for spouses entitled ‘Co-dependent Women in a Relationship with Sexually Addicted Men’. And lest you think this is aimed at a subset of female spouses, the checklist of ‘symptoms’ contained in the pamphlet specifies that a woman need only have a spouse who exhibits compulsive sexual behavior.

Stephanie Carnes, fellow proponent of the co-addict model and writer of Mending A Shattered Heart: A Guide for Partners of Sex Addicts, explains the concept of co-addict.

A co-sex addict is someone who is married to, or in a significant relationship with a sex addict and demonstrates a common set of behavioral characteristics.  These characteristics include: denial, preoccupation, enabling, rescuing, taking excessive responsibility, emotional turmoil, efforts to control, compromise of self, anger, and sexual issues.

Many have credited Dr. Patrick Carnes (father of Stephanie Carnes) both with the identification of compulsive sexual behavior as an addiction and with the now widespread labeling of partners and spouses of sex addicts as co-addicts. Carnes’ model is based on the 12 steps and 12 traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous, which has itself been criticized by Christians and non-Christians alike. Carnes writes in his 1983 book Out of the Shadows that his 12-step model for sex addiction therapy, now espoused by T. C. Ryan as well as countless others,

can restore the capacity for meaningful relationships by developing in addicts and co-addicts new beliefs to replace dysfunctional or faulty beliefs.

Note the language ‘dysfunctional’ and ‘faulty’. The co-addict model frequently paints the spouse/partner as (often purposely) enmeshed in an abusive relationship, needy, controlling, fearful of being alone. Spouses who protest against such broad-stroke characterizations are simply in denial. Speaking about so-called co-addicts, the International Service Organization of COSA puts it this way,

One of the most difficult aspects of what we call co-sex addiction or sexual codependency, is grasping and facing the truth of our own condition. Another is admitting our powerlessness over the addict. The continual attempt to affect or control the sex addict renders our lives unmanageable.

A growing number of spouses of sex addicts have publicly described the co-addict model and its approaches to therapy as a type of secondary abuse, a re-traumatization of already victimized individuals. Some critics have gone so far as to describe it as patriarchal and narcissistic in scope (remember the inward-focused language I mention above?).

Likewise, a small but increasing number of both Christian and non-Christian psychologists, counselors, and therapists have challenged the prevalent addict/co-addict model. Among these is Omar Minwalla, who argues instead for a model that acknowledges more consistently the trauma that sex addicts have inflicted on their spouses/partners. Minwalla writes,

Sexual acting out disorders are not just sexual behaviors (Minwalla, O., 2012), but are also abusive behaviors, which include deceptive compartmentalized sexual-relational realities and systems of abusive covert management (Jason, S., 2008; Minwalla, O., 2012).  These are patterns of methodical planning over time, careful constructions of manipulation of others, and thought systems well maintained in order to keep a compartmentalized reality protected from discovery (Jason, S., 2008).  Managing a secret sexual life and reality takes profound energy to maintain, requiring pre-meditation and an ongoing commitment and intent to deceive, hide and violate others.

Though Minwalla writes from a non-Christian perspective, his views are echoed by Christian critics of co-addiction as well. Dr. Barbara Steffans, for example, notes the misunderstanding and victim-blaming she has witnessed in the co-addiction model, which she argues disrespects the mental health and experience of the spouse/partner.

Let me be clear. The many Christians among us struggling against sex addiction require our love, our time, and our compassion as fellow sinners in need of Christ’s saving grace. However, in my view, this cannot come at the expense of our acknowledgement

  1. of the traumatic effects of sex addiction on the addict’s partner or spouse and
  2. that one of the prevalent models of sex addiction therapy involves victim-blaming, a form of secondary abuse.

As a linguist, I am of course primarily interested in the ways in which language both reflects and perpetuates various perspectives on the spouses of sex addicts (addict/co-addict model vs. trauma model) and the extent to which such language victim-blames spouses. At the moment, there is evidence that victim-blaming does indeed happen in this context.

However,  I start this new series on language surrounding spouses and partners of sex addicts with some trepidation since I presently have far more questions than answers. All that said, please watch this space. There is a pressing need to examine the literature of the addict/co-addict movement, given both the scope of compulsive sexual behavior and the power that language has in facilitating or preventing the repentance, forgiveness, and healing of all parties involved.