Is there a difference between just plain adultery and sexual addiction? Yes, without doubt. An individual can be an adulterer without being a sex addict. Another individual can be a sex addict without engaging in adultery. Yet another person could be both a sex addict and an adulterer. To clarify, the following definitions, provided by Dr. Robert Weiss in his books Out of the Doghouse and Sex Addiction 101, may help.
- Adultery (also referred to as infidelity and cheating) is the breaking of trust that occurs when you keep sexual and/or romantic secrets from your primary romantic partner.
- Sexual addiction involves (1) preoccupation to the point of obsession with sexual fantasies and behaviors, (2) loss of control over sexual fantasies and behaviors (usually evidenced by failed attempts to quit or cut back), and (3) negative life consequences related to out-of-control sexual fantasies and behaviors.
As stated above, an individual can be one, the other, or both. If a person is keeping important sexual and romantic secrets from his or her spouse or partner, that person is cheating. The cheater may (or may not) also be preoccupied to the point of obsession, out of control, and experiencing negative consequences related to the behaviors he or she is keeping secret. If so, the cheater is also sexually addicted. If not, there is no sexual addiction. Meanwhile, a person who is clearly sexually addicted may not be cheating. Either the addict is single and therefore can’t engage in infidelity, or the addict is not violating relationship boundaries or keeping sexual secrets.
Unfortunately, a lot of people who’ve been caught cheating will plead “sexual addiction” as justification for their behavior. Typically, they’re hoping to avoid or at least minimize the consequences they might experience related to their sextracurricular behavior. Sometimes these folks really are sexually addicted; other times they aren’t. Either way, a compulsive sexual behavior diagnosis does not let an individual off the hook for his or her behavior. So, whether it’s run of the mill adultery or sexual addiction, the perpetrator is responsible for his or her actions.
NOTE: Neither adultery nor sexual addiction is defined by the type of behaviors a person engages in, or even how long or how often those behaviors take place. LGBTQ, kink, and other non-traditional sexual and romantic behaviors are non-factors in defining infidelity and diagnosing compulsive sexual behavior. Similarly, engaging in purely online behaviors vs. in-person behaviors is a non-factor in the assessment of both infidelity and sexual addiction.
If you’re a betrayed partner, a cheater, or a sex addict, you might be asking if the distinction between adultery and compulsive sexual behavior disorder matters. The damage to your life and relationship is significant either way, right? From a treatment perspective, however, the distinction does matter. Just as a medical doctor would not want to use medication for cancer to treat high blood pressure, a psychotherapist would not want to use methods that are proven to work with sex addiction to treat adultery without an element of addiction.
Sexual infidelity without sexual addiction is best addressed in treatment by an experienced couple’s counselor, preferably a Marriage and Family Therapist (an MFT) who is certified by the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy. Issues related to sexual addiction are best handled by a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist (a CSAT) who is trained and certified by the International Institute of Trauma and Addiction Professionals. When there is overlap (both infidelity and sexual addiction), the treatment approaches utilized should also overlap, possibly requiring the services of both an MFT and a CSAT. (Many therapists are trained as both MFTs and CSATs.)