spiral staircase © by gfoster67

I mentioned in a recent post that my husband and I are presently enduring a relapse of his sex addiction.  It seems to have been going on for several months now, and I am struggling to remember that I should not feel guilty for not catching it sooner.  The things I have found over the last couple of months, the things I realize in hindsight that I should have paid more attention to, and my husband’s responses to my concerns, fit the pattern I have observed during other episodes and relapses of my husband’s sex addiction.

Addictive behaviors typically occur in a cycle, which Alex explained here, and that cycle tends to happen in an escalating spiral as the behavior gets more and more out of control.  The addiction cycle can be harder to recognize from the outside, however.  Although I had a basic understanding of the addiction, I had to experience a few rounds in my own marriage before I learned to associate with the pattern I observed.

In the early stages of addiction or relapse, it may be very difficult to tell the difference between this phase of the cycle and a time when your partner is actually clean.  The addict is engaging in the addictive behavior, but it may be relatively infrequent or a mild version of the behavior.  Your spouse is still mostly in control of his or her urges and his or her own mind.  These factors make it easier for the addict to keep the behavior discreet and conceal his or her activities.

From time to time, you may notice something that feels “off,” seems suspicious, or does not quite add up.  This may be as subtle as a change in your partner’s habits or level of sexual interest (either an increase or a decrease may be a warning sign), or a sudden defensiveness or secretiveness about anything on a cell phone or computer.  It may be as blatant as a suspicious site in your spouse’s internet browser history or suspicious charges on a bank statement or credit card bill.

If questioned about these things, the addict can usually explain them away.  Sometimes this takes the form of a plausible, reasonable explanation, and other times it may take the form of a defensive or angry response, depending on your partner’s temperament.  He or she may also admit to having had an isolated relapse in the hope of steering you away from what may actually be an ongoing habit.

In any case, trust your instincts.  Every time I have suspected a serious problem in my husband’s activities, I have eventually been proven correct, and many other spouses and addicts alike on the forums here have made the same observation; spouses usually know.  If something looks or feels wrong, it usually is.

Looking back from our current situation, I can now identify several incidents that should have been warning signs of a previously hidden problem.  Last Christmas, for example, my husband was deployed overseas, so most of our communication was internet-based.  That morning, he sent me a screenshot of something on his computer, and when I received it, I noticed that one of the browser windows visible in his taskbar had a strange-looking title.  I did a quick Google search and discovered that, although it was not actually a porn site, it did feature scantily-clad women in provocative poses.

A diligent and resourceful spouse or accountability partner, with the right tools, might be able to discover the addiction’s relapse and intervene before the behavior gets completely out of control.  If not, as the cycle of addiction progresses, the brain develops a chemical tolerance for the pleasure-stimulating chemicals such as dopamine released during pornography viewing and/or masturbation.  The addictive behavior escalates, becoming more extreme and more frequent as the addict’s brain chemistry causes him or her to seek more and stronger stimuli.

As this “acting out” becomes more extreme and more frequent, it also becomes more self-destructive for your partner and more hurtful to you.  In the case of my own marriage, this has meant that my husband’s behavior escalated to the point of creating an online fantasy female alter-ego.  At the nadir of his illness in the past, this escalation has gone as far as posting pictures of me on a pornographic image-sharing site and attempting to arrange a threesome with a former partner.

As the situation escalates, the slips that allow you a chance to detect a potential problem often become more frequent and more obvious.  This is partially because the behavior itself is more frequent.  You find evidence of your partner’s behavior more often because there is more to be found.

In part, however, as an addiction cycle progresses, the behavior gets out of control and the addict becomes more careless.  At this stage of the cycle, the addiction is becoming a more dominant factor in your spouse’s life and thought processes.  He or she may become so caught up in the behavior that he or she loses track of external factors like other people’s access to the computer or your potential awareness of his activities.

Sometimes the results of this increasing carelessness can be so absurd that they might almost be funny if they were not so painful.  During my husband’s last major episode, while he was deployed overseas, he signed up for several paid-subscription pornography sites.  One of them apparently included a free DVD as part of the signup offer; since my husband failed to add his overseas mailing address in addition to our billing address, I received a porn DVD in the mail about a week before he came home on leave for our wedding.

At this point in the addiction cycle, you should be concerned about your spouse’s mental well-being, in addition to the damage he or she is doing to the marriage and to your feelings.  Addicts in general tend to be very protective of their habits.  Often, the addictive behavior is a (very unhealthy) attempt at self-medication for underlying depression or other mental health issues, and the addict is usually very determined to preserve what he or she may see as his or her only coping mechanism.  Most addicts will go to great lengths to prevent the discovery and or loss of their habits, including lying, deflection, and other common tactics.  With this in mind, if your partner is this careless with a habit that he or she is hardwired to protect, how functional can this person be in other areas of his or her life?

My husband told me, in a candid moment, that he believes and hopes that these slips are an addict’s subconscious attempt to signal that he or she needs help.  I asked him, if he were capable of being lucid enough to do so at the worst point of his addiction, what he would say to me- what insight, advice, comfort, or explanation he would offer.  He looked me in the eye, his jaw clenched and his eyes full of tears, and whispered, “I would beg you to help me.”