CNM 041: What To Do About Cheating & Infidelity – with Sandra Lax, MSW, RSW, CDWF, CSAT, CMAT

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Today’s guest is Toronoto-based therapist Sandra Lax.

Let’s get right to it.

Here’s the interview!

Interview with Therapist Sandra Lax

Brian: Sandra, welcome to the show. We’re so glad to have you today.

Sandra: Thanks, Brian. It’s great to be here.

Brian: Absolutely. I’m going to get right to the first question. I want people to understand more about you and your work.

Questions: Can you please describe to us what your area of expertise is, and what types of problems do you typically help your clients with?

Sandra: Yeah. I began my career working at The Meadows, which is an in-patient residential facility for trauma, mood disorders, and addictions. What I really found was that I love working with sex addiction. I specialize now in working with spouses and partners who are impacted by the trauma of betrayal. My other area which goes really well with that is being a certified Daring Way facilitator which means that I teach the research and the work of a woman named Brené Brown, who many people are familiar with.

The work around sex addiction and Brené Brown’s work – which is centered around wholehearted living – go really well together. I look at myself as a vulnerability warrior, which means that I’m passionate about working with people so that they move from shame to wholeheartedness and construct their lives in a really bold and courageous way.

I have a friend who says, “Life really starts when we begin to get uncomfortable.” I think that shows up a lot in my work and specialization. That’s what really draws me and that’s what I’m super passionate about.

Brian: Excellent. I usually save this question towards the end of the interview but I’d love to know – given that you’re teaching the work of Brené Brown…

Questions: Could you give us the big bottom line? What’s the big takeaway that you’ve learned from this work that’s really going to revolutionize people’s lives, if there is something?

Sandra: I think that life really begins when we get uncomfortable, and the way that we connect in life to ourselves and to others is through vulnerability, and the only way to do vulnerability is to be courageous. I really think that those three things shape how we live our lives best. Those are some of the biggest things that I walk around the world with. I also work with people to adapt these into their lives. I think that’s the “one-two-three punch”.

Brian: Okay, great. I’d love to unpack that a little bit as we go through the interview today. I do have some prepared questions, and I’ll start asking you those. I assume some of the gold nuggets (about Brene Brown’s work) will also come out of this conversation.

Back to the mention about working with sex addiction; we’ve only had one person on the show talk about that, but I think you’ll have some unique things to bring to the table with that.

Question: If somebody – or maybe a couple – comes into your office and one of them is a sex addict, how do you start working with them in order to help them heal? How is it that you actually treat that?

Sandra: The first part of it is through education. There are so many misconceptions about what sex addiction is and what it isn’t. Most people hear sex addiction and they think of perverts and pedophiles. Sex addiction is really rooted in addiction that almost looks like a substance addiction, much like alcoholism or drug addiction. It has certain qualities to it, so I try and do a lot of education around that.

Let me break that down for a moment. Addiction is rooted in preoccupation, having a lot of thoughts about something like alcohol – in this case, it’s particularly sex, being unable to resist the urge. That preoccupation comes with that nervous system escalation and sole focus. You can’t focus on anything else in this particular addiction. It’s rooted in objectifying, it’s rooted in looking around at – what are the ways that someone can get that sexual hit (almost for survival) – the same way that someone might think that they need that drink in order to survive. Sex addicts believe that they need that hit of sex in order to do the same.

The third thing that we tend to look at within the addiction field is our escalation. If we compare sex addiction to drug addiction it’s like someone may start with marijuana, and someone may start viewing pornography. Then all of a sudden, they’re at the massage parlor. Similar to someone who starts with marijuana, they’ve now graduated to cocaine and then heroine. The sex addict can look similar in the sex arena. They start perhaps with viewing pornography, they’re next at a massage parlor, they are then engaging in a more high-risk sex such as sex with prostitutes and anonymous partners. There’s usually a continuation of this despite negative consequences.

People also ask me, “Does someone have to be having sex all the time for it to be considered sex addiction?” No. We look at the consequences much like if someone’s drinking; is there an impact on their work? Are their relationships crumbled as a result of it? What’s the impact to their own sense of self-worth and self-esteem? Are they experiencing distress because of this? There’s a lot of shame that surrounds that addiction. That shame is also what contributes to the cycle continuing. That’s usually where I hold the space with people in the first session around, “Let’s talk about what it is so that we know what we’re dealing with here.” So, I’d say the first step is education.

In my practice now, I’ve started to work exclusively with betrayed spouses. I will often refer the person struggling with addiction to a sex addict-specific counselor and I will do the work with the spouse. That’s as much work is I’m doing with the individual sex addict at this point.

Brian: I have a curious question after that.

Questions: Let’s say that somebody has a spouse who they know has been cheating and having sex outside of the marriage. Is there some sort of level of grace that they should have with that partner?

I have a wife and neither of us are sex addicts. I would be pretty upset if I found out that she was having sex outside of our marriage, obviously. But, if she had sex addiction, is there some extra level of grace that she should get (or the spouse should get) in that situation?

How do you go about determining if that’s what the issue is, and then being able to deal with it rather than just saying, “Oh, you cheated on me? We’re through.”

Sandra: It’s a great question. I think the answer for that is that you deal with the truth. All addictions lie in secrecy and silence. There’s a double life that happens anytime you’re bringing truth to it and saying, “This is what I see happening,” or “This is what I found in your phone,” or “Someone left a message,” or “I was viewing our emails and saw that this is happening.” I think the first step is to meet untruth with truth.

First, you have to unpack, “This is what’s really happening,” then get support. Contacting someone who is trained to work in this area is a way to unpack. Then assess for, “Is this a sex addiction? Is this infidelity?” Because it can look the same initially until there’s further assessment. I think those two steps are really important to working through and to getting on working on it.

Brian: Okay great.

Question: Now, if you are in the situation where you have a spouse that’s cheating and both are willing to work on it – it takes two to tango, so they say – what’s the difference between treating the individual – and that could be the individual with the addiction or the betrayed spouse as you work with – versus treating the couple together?

Sandra: I think all elements are equally important. We have something called a three-legged stool in this field, and particularly sex addiction therapists use it quite often. The greatest ability for a full, sustained recovery, and changing the nature of the dynamics in the relationship – in a way that is guided towards a really fulfilling, loving, and connected relationship – is something that we call the three-legged stool. Both individuals are in counseling and there’s also a couple’s counselor.

If you think of it, it’s three-legged; the individual counselor, the counselor for the spouse, and then the couple-ship work. It tends to yield the best results because, like many addictions, it takes some time to work through and heal. Actually, the research says it takes three to five years of pretty intensive work getting to sobriety, healing from betrayal, and then bringing the relationship to a place that is really sustaining and fulfilling.

Brian: Yeah, absolutely.

Question: About going through the healing process on the part of the betrayed spouse, what is it they’re typically dealing with?

I have a fair amount of folks I hear from that say, “Yeah, I have a spouse that cheats. They’ve been cheating for a long time.” These people just put up with it because they don’t want to leave their relationship. There is some codependency involved in the relationship. They’re either financially dependent on the person or they’ve got children and they don’t want to separate the family. There are all sorts of reasons why people choose to stay. What is it that the folks who are betrayed by the – let’s just say ‘cheater’ – are typically dealing with? What do they have to sort through?

Sandra: I will say eighty percent of the betrayed partners typically remain with their spouses who have either been unfaithful or struggling with sex addiction. They typically show up in my office as trauma survivors. They have the symptoms of PTSD emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Their whole world has been shattered in many instances, so they’re looking to gain a new grounding to find a safe place to stand because the place that they’ve been living in has been unsafe.

The most profound impact that I’ve seen in working with spouses is actually not the betrayal of sex, it’s the breakdown of trust. The questions that can come up around that are, “Was my whole life a lie? Was anything ever real? Who am I now?” If they’ve been defining themselves as, “I’m a wife of this person,” “I’m a husband of this person” – there are female sex addicts as well – they have to ask themselves like, “How do I now define myself being that? That wasn’t what I had signed-up for and what we had agreed upon.” There can be a lot of shame and stigma. There are lots of struggle with, “What will it mean about me if I stay? What will it mean about me if I leave?” They have to also contend with the isolation that can come along with the stigma of sex addiction.

Brian: I think you might have touched on this a little bit earlier but I want to ask the question in a slightly different way to see if there’s anything else to add.

Questions: Should all “cheating” be considered equal? Do sex addicts have a different motivation for the cheating? Could you explain if there’s anything else to add to that?

Sandra: Yeah, that’s a great question. I get asked that a lot. There’s a difference between a sex addict and a cheater. Sex addicts are generally not being unfaithful because they aren’t happy with their partner or with the relationship. I think that’s really important for any spouse who has a sex-addict husband to know because there can be so much insecurity, self-image destruction, and body-image issues that come up, “Was I not a good enough partner?” I really try to drive that point home that the addiction was likely present before you and it’s not dependent on satisfaction in the relationship usually.

On the other hand, someone who’s cheating may also not engage in other things that the sex addict does. For example, sex addicts can often use infidelity, but they’re also viewing pornography, engaging in cybersex, going anonymously to massage parlors, hiring prostitutes, and that may include a relationship with someone at work or someone that they’ve met just being out. We usually see other behaviors associated with the sex addict cheater versus the person who is unfaithful.

The other thing that we see is that sex addicts usually have one or more other addictions present where someone who’s unfaithful may not. That’s really important to note because the research has shown that there’s a neurophysiological and sometimes even genetic base towards the addiction. We’re probably going to see this in the future through brain scans and other mechanisms, to understand and unpack the brain and the systems that govern these addiction pathways that are different from someone who is a cheater.

What also shows up is that cheaters who aren’t addicts may also cheat in other areas of their lives, like at work. They don’t typically get obsessed with sex in the same way a sex addict would. Sex addicts look through life through the lens of sexuality whereas a cheater may not. They may be emotionally connected to the person that they’re unfaithful with versus sex addicts. Going back to what we said earlier, it’s really looking at sex as a mechanism for survival to getting out of the pain, to get high outside of one’s reality. People who engage in infidelity don’t typically take that kind of extreme approach to it.

Brian: That makes a lot of sense. There are some ways you can try to determine for yourself what it is that’s causing it (the cheating), which can help you take the next best course of action.

Questions: With that said, if somebody has a cheating spouse, what should they do to approach that person? How should they go to them and have the conversation to address that? What should they do if the spouse isn’t remorseful or not interested in changing?

Sandra: It goes back to the statement that you said earlier, “It takes two to tango.” You can’t clap with one hand. I love that quote that my chiropractor actually shared with me one day, he said, “You know you can’t clap with one hand.” I thought, “Wow, yeah. You got it, you can’t do that.”

If someone’s not remorseful or not willing to do the work, then the work really gets centered on yourself; putting your own oxygen mask on, getting connected to the pain of betrayal, getting support for that, reaching out to your support system, and really focusing on yourself. You can’t change someone else. If someone’s not going to be remorseful and not willing to get support, the work for you to do is to help heal yourself and also make yourself as strong as possible so that you can make whatever decision you want to make about whether to stay or go.

Brian: Excellent. Okay, now another question and changing gears a little bit, as far as treatment of sex addiction, I think I have gotten a good sense of the answer from what you’ve said so far, but I wonder what you’d say.

Question: Should sex addiction be treated like alcoholism (or other types of addictions)? Can you explain?

Sandra: Yeah, absolutely. There is a lot of work by a man named Patrick Carnes, who is the grandfather of sex addiction who coined the term back in the ‘70s or ‘80s. There’s been a push that he’s wanted to have sex addiction be a DSM diagnosis – the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual – which a lot of psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers use. What he has found and why he’s been pushing for it to get in the DSM is because it meets all the criteria of other addictions.

We said earlier that there’s a preoccupation to it, an inability to resist, escalation, and consequences. Someone can really be in extreme emotional distress. That shows up in other addictions as well. It’s no different in that way.

Addictions are divided in two groups. One is substance-based addiction. What that means is anything that we ingest. Think about drugs and alcohol. It can be food in a lot of ways. Then there’s process-based addiction, things that are done in behavior. These are things like gambling and work addiction. Sex addiction falls right into that category.

Sex addiction, even though the DSM hasn’t really identified it that way, has a lot of organizations – like the World Health Organization – that is really fighting to get it as a legitimate addiction because it meets all the other criteria that the other ones do.

Question: Is it possible for one person in a marriage to heal independent of their partner? Can you elaborate on that?

Sandra: Yes. I think that goes back to what we spoke about just a couple of minutes ago, it’s up to all of us to take on our own individual healing and be responsible for our happiness in our lives. If one person is doing the work and they’re really doing the work, what’s usually going to happen is either it’s going to inspire the other person to do the work, or they’re going to get healthy enough by a person that is not doing the work if they just don’t have a place in their lives anymore. I think it’s completely necessary for one person in the marriage to heal independently of their partner. But I don’t think that also goes well for the couple-ship.

Brian: Just to elaborate or dig in to that a little bit more. Let’s say there’s a person who has a cheating spouse who feels connected to the spouse in such a way that they’re scared to leave –  maybe they are having some major codependency symptoms, feeling very attached to that person, or maybe even dependent on that person in a lot of ways, like financially and self-worth…

Questions: When you talk about doing the work, can you lay out the steps that they would go through to heal? What it might look like as they heal?

There are a lot of folks that say, “As you get better, you’ll notice that the other person seems to get sicker.” What is it that someone should expect to go through if they’re going to try to do this work that you’re talking about and then evaluate?

If they don’t feel strong enough to do something about the cheating now, what is it that they need to go through in order to really make the decision and come to that fork in the road where it’s like, “You know what? I’m either going to stay or I’m going to go,” or “I’m going to motivate my partner to heal along with me.” What does that look like?

Sandra: It’s such an important question because this can happen for so many people. As I said, the first step is to work through the trauma of betrayal. Nothing else can be built unless someone works through that process and puts their feet back on the ground in a place where it feels right and safe for them. Then, they need to look at how to connect or reconnect with themselves which means also focusing on boundaries, looking at what boundaries they do have in life that are fractured and need to strengthen up, and boundaries that are invisible that they need to make visible. I love Brené Brown’s definition of boundaries. It’s as simple as, “What’s okay and what’s not okay for me.” I do a lot of work with clients around what their personal boundaries are.

The next step around that is, ‘Now that this has happened, how do we get in touch with who you really are?’ So many people have adapted all these roles in their lives. They’ve adapted the role of a mom, a dad, a good daughter, a good friend, or a good sister, whatever it is. So who are you? We need to really reconnect within.

What values do you hold most sacred? I think people need to take the time to reflect on, “Who am I? What lights up my soul? How do I want to navigate through this world? What’s my north star? What are my guiding principles?” Then, keep a close group of people around them that can hold the mirror of, “This doesn’t feel like you. Are going along with this because you think that’s the right thing to do? Does it feel like that fits with what you’re actually wanting?”

We need to look at how we’re aligning our lives – what is in alignment and what’s not in alignment – and really get a sense of once we’ve figured out who we are, starting to do things that are in line with trusting ourselves because trust has been eroded with infidelity and with sex addiction. It’s, “How do I navigate my life so that I become my most trusted person? I trust myself to make decisions that are in line with highest good. I trust myself to speak my mind when that doesn’t feel right. I trust myself to engage with things I feel soothing and nurturing rather than take me out of my experiences.” Those are some of the ways that we typically work to move towards living a real, whole, authentic life.

Brian:  I talked about the ‘fork in the road’ in my last question, where some might think, “Should I stay or should I go? If I’m ready to go, am I strong enough to survive on my own and get along okay?”

Question: But what about for the person who is not interested in going? Not everybody who has a cheating spouse is necessarily looking to leave the relationship.

What if someone wants to stay, but the partner isn’t willing to make any changes? They haven’t been able to motivate them to do that, or the partner just hasn’t seen that they should, need, or want to change.

Is there a way to cope with the relationship where you have a spouse who’s breaking the boundaries that you might have, but still stay in that and not be dragged down into the emotional depths of despair that a lot of folks find themselves in, but just be able to stay even keel in that?

Sandra: I think that’s a great question. It’s a really personal preference. That lends itself to a more broad question of, “What do we want from our lives? Do we want to have to deal with someone that is not engaging in the process of growing, changing, adapting, and enhancing?”

Absolutely, people stay with people for all sorts of reasons. I think that person would probably need to do a lot of work on continuing to fill up their own tank, looking at themselves, really filling themselves up because it sounds like in that case, they’re probably not getting a lot of intimacy. What I mean by that is emotional or physical connection within that relationship. That intimacy is really rooted in fulfilling relationships.

When someone is not working on something that is dysfunctional or maybe getting in the way of real intimate-authentic connections, then it’s important to recognize that and make an individual decision around, “What do I want for my life? What do I want to do? If I’m going to do this, what do I need so that I can keep my oxygen mask going through this?”

Brian: Excellent. Okay.

Question: What’s your biggest piece of advice for a codependent person?

Sandra: There’s an experience I had that really impacted me in my journey. I myself am a recovering codependent. On my first day of working at The Meadows, I walked into my office and the way a colleague describes it, it looks like a magazine exploded. There were artworks all over the walls and things written all over the walls. I was just wanting to really start over and just have a fresh office that I inherited from another great counselor. So I started ripping things off the wall and I came to this one piece of artwork that had one word on it. I remember it was navy blue with gold sparkles all around it. The one word was “Value.” And I couldn’t take it off the wall. I looked at it and had a moment with it. I said to myself, “If everyone who comes here only gets one thing out of this, may it be this word.”

I think when we connect with our own sense of value and we recognize that we are worthy, that can shape all our decisions. I often encourage my clients to go to that place of, “I’m no better or less than anyone else. I am worthy and I matter.” We start to develop behaviors that are really in-line with that. “If I feel valued and valuable, I’m going to make decisions that are in highest good.” I think I just had the image of the word value imprinted on my mind. I talk about it a lot. I think that’s the biggest takeaway.

I have a mentor of mine, she knows that she’s my mentor but we’re not in constant communication, her name is Sheri Salata. She was the executive producer of the Oprah Winfrey show. I had a chance to sit down and interview her back a year ago and I said, “What do you think the whole secret is? What do think of the things that we need to really work on?” She said, “I think benevolent consciousness is probably the answer.” I think that’s it, Brian. I don’t think it gets better than that.

Brian: Benevolent consciousness. That’s wonderful. I haven’t known if I’ve heard those two words together before, but that does really stir-up something. It’s something to ponder on.

Sandra: Yeah, being consciously kind to ourselves. What a way to live life.

Brian: Yeah. Thank you for that.

Question: If somebody wants to know more about you, maybe even contact you, or just follow your work, where could they find out more and start following you?

Sandra: Yeah. You can find me at my website at sandralax.com. I’d be happy to connect with you so please reach out.

Brian: Excellent.

Question: Is there anything else that you would like to share before we wrap-up for good today?

Sandra: I don’t know if I can do better than the Sheri quote. That’s all I got. I am really inspired to connect with people because I think that we all deserve to live a life that we are really meant to live. Anyway that people do that is I think the work of our lives.

Brian: Excellent. I am thinking, since we were about at time here and at the very beginning of the episode you mentioned some work from Brené Brown which I think could have some more room for discussion.

Question: Would you be open to maybe doing another episode in the near or distant future unpacking some more about vulnerability?

Sandra: I would love that. I call myself a vulnerability warrior. I think that is the hallmark feature that can help us with the lives that really bring us into our skin and really bring them most fulfillments. I am honored and I would be so happy to have a talk around that.

Brian: Okay good. It just occurred to me at the beginning. We started talking about that a little bit and I hope the folks listening weren’t waiting for a whole lot more about that. We talked about a lot of great things on this show. I may even change the original title of the episode that I had planned but I think it’d be really great to make sure we can cover that too for the folks who want more on that. Thank you for that.

Sandra, thank you for being on the show. It was such a pleasure to have you on and we’ll look forward to talking again.

Sandra: Thanks Brian. It’s such an honor to be here.

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2 Comments
  1. Wow what an enlightening interview. Thank you.