Traditionally, men with a history of problematic sexual behaviors would be treated within the scope of the Sexual Addiction Model. Subsequently, partners of sexual addicts would be treated with the Co-Sex Addiction Model, which is similar to Co-Dependency. But is this the most appropriate and helpful model to use in these situations? What about when abuse is involved and the partner is a trauma survivor?
This is a controversial topic lately, as many professionals have opinions all on sides of this issue. Dr. Omar Minwalla, a clinical sexologist and founder of The Institute for Sexual Health, explains, ” I decided to create a support group for partners and in working with partners directly I started to notice a lot of trauma symptoms. So, I started to do research on partner symptoms, through qualitative research and gathering written narratives. I was really overwhelmed by the descriptions in my research, which consistently appeared to describe symptoms of trauma and I noticed that many of the symptoms appeared similar to rape trauma syndrome and symptoms of sexual trauma. I started to consider that maybe partners were actually trauma survivors rather than codependents, and I presented this idea at a national sex addiction conference for professionals.”
Dr. Minwalla describes the impacts of that initial presentation among the field of sex addiction professionals, “There was a strong show of support and a lot of emotional resonance from women and some of the female therapists or some of the younger professionals, and then definitely from partners themselves who would come up to me after I talked and really share how much they felt validated.”
But he goes to say, “At the same time, there was also a strong push back and rejection of my work by many male therapists and sex addicts themselves and those professionals that maybe had been using a co-sex addiction model for many years. This reaction, this controversy, and just the intensity of all the different reactions really peaked my interest and kind of pulled me in more and made me more curious as to what this was all about and why was it so controversial.”
So what are the problems with the traditional sex addiction models? Dr. Minwalla clarifies these points:
“The first major problem is that it’s actually a form of diagnostic mislabeling. It’s taking someone who’s been abused and has trauma symptoms and mischaracterizing it as codependency and as a disease called co-sex addiction. Remember: lying outright or by omission, deflecting and diverting, finding fault with the relationship or the partner, anger, intimidation, or threats are all cover-up behaviors utilized to maintain a secret sexual life and abusive to partners.”
“The second major problem with that besides just a diagnostic mislabeling is that it actually blames a victim of abuse which ends up being harmful.”
A more accurate and scientific understanding is that partners and spouses are actually victims of lies, deception, and psychological manipulation which does constitute a form of emotional and psychological abuse and that their reactions are actually symptoms of trauma rather than codependency or co-sex addiction. from a trauma perspective someone who does really understand abuse, any abused person will attempt to try and stop the abuse and will attempt to try and protect themselves. So, to view the attempt to control the abuser or to protect against harm as being a problem, particularly to characterize that as a disease, is a real mischaracterization of just basic human instincts and norms.
Anne, founder of Betrayal Trauma Recovery, explains her experience with the some within the professional community, “I’m getting a lot of push back for saying that pornography use and infidelity are abusive to wives. Many people can agree that partners experienced trauma. Naturally the implication is, If you can agree that they experienced trauma then why is it so hard for you to wrap your head around the fact that they’re a victim of abuse?”
Minwalla expounds, “Through my work it became more and more clear to me, and I became more confident that the idea of viewing the partner or spouse of the sex addict as someone whose experienced trauma was right on and that the idea of codependency was at least inadequate if not really missing the mark. So, I continued to do workshops and then I actually decided to practice using a trauma model.”
This led to Minwalla founding the Institute for Sexual Health in 2009, where he continued to use a trauma model applied in practice. He shares the results he began to observe, “That work implementing the trauma model really seemed to resonate with partners. It also seemed to really help couples and it seemed to be much more effective than the codependency model.”