Infidelity vs. Sex/Porn Addiction: What are the Differences? Robert Weiss PhD, MSW

As the author of ten books on sex/porn addiction, infidelity, and relationships, I am asked relatively often if all sex/porn addicts are cheaters and all cheaters are sex/porn addicts. The answer is no. Plenty of cheaters are not sex/porn addicted, and plenty of sex/porn addicts are not cheaters (usually because they’re not in a relationship). Moreover, the criteria for cheating and the criteria for sexual addiction are very different.

In my book Out of the Doghouse I define infidelity as follows:

  • Infidelity (aka: cheating, adultery) is the breaking of trust that occurs when you keep intimate, meaningful sexual and/or romantic secrets from your primary romantic partner.

Please notice that this definition does not talk specifically about affairs, porn, strip clubs, hookup apps, or any other specific sexual or romantic act. Instead, it focuses on what typically matters most to a betrayed partner—the loss of relationship trust. For betrayed partners, it’s usually not any specific sexual or romantic act that causes the most pain. Instead, it’s the lying, the secret keeping, the lies of omission, the manipulation, and the fact that they can no longer trust a single thing their partner says or does (or anything their partner has said and done in the past).

This is not the same thing as sex/porn addiction (officially referred to as Compulsive Sexual Behavior Disorder). In my book Sex Addiction 101 and in various other writings, I state that the criteria for sex and porn addiction boil down to the following:

  • Preoccupation to the point of obsession with sexual fantasy and/or activity (including porn).
  • Loss of control over sexual activity (including porn), typically evidenced by failed attempts to quit or cut back.
  • Negative consequences linked to compulsive sexual activity (including porn)—relationship troubles, issues at work or in school, declining physical health, depression, anxiety, diminished self-esteem, social isolation, financial woes, loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities, legal trouble, etc.

Furthermore, sex/porn addicts, like alcoholics and drug addicts, use their behavior to “numb out” and to escape from stress and other forms of emotional (and sometimes physical) discomfort, including the pain of things like unresolved early-life trauma.

Can You Be a Cheater and a Sex/Porn Addict?

The short answer to this question is yes. But, as stated above, not all cheaters are sex/porn addicts, and not all sex/porn addicts are cheaters. If a person is keeping important sexual and romantic secrets from his or her significant other, that person is cheating. That person might also be preoccupied to the point of obsession with his or her sextracurricular behaviors, unable to quit even though he or she would like to, and experiencing all sorts of consequences as a result. If so, there is a good chance that person is both cheating and sex/porn addicted. But plenty of men and woman cheat, even regularly, without meeting any of the criteria for sex/porn addiction. And plenty of sex/porn addicts are not in relationships and therefore can’t cheat.

Unfortunately, those who’ve been caught cheating will sometimes plead “sex/porn addiction” as an excuse for their behavior, hoping to avoid or at least to minimize the judgment and reprisals they experience related to their infidelity. And yes, sometimes these men and women really are sex/porn addicts. But just as often they are not. Either way, a diagnosis of sex/porn addiction does not let the addict off the hook for what he or she has done.

So, infidelity and sex/porn addiction are not mutually exclusive, but neither are they automatically linked. Infidelity occurs when a person engages in sexual and/or romantic activity outside the boundaries of his or her relationship and keeps this secret, lies about it, and otherwise covers it up. Sex/porn addiction is a dysfunctional preoccupation with sexual urges, fantasies, and behaviors that continues despite failed attempts to quit or cut back and directly related negative consequences.

Infidelity without sex/porn addiction is best addressed in treatment with an experienced couple’s counselor, preferably a Marriage and Family Therapist (an MFT) certified by the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy. Issues related to sex and porn addiction are best handled by a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist (a CSAT) certified by the International Institute of Trauma and Addiction Professionals. When there is overlap (both infidelity and sexual addiction), the treatment approaches utilized will also tend to overlap, possibly requiring the services of both a CSAT and an MFT. (Many therapists are trained as both CSATs and MFTs.) Referrals for MFTs can be found at this link. Referrals for CSATs can be found at this link.

For more information about infidelity and how couples can heal from it, I recommend my recently published book Out of the Doghouse. For more information about sexual addiction, check out the website SexandRelationshipHealing.com (all the webinars, discussion groups, podcasts, and articles there are free) as well as my book Sex Addiction 101.

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About Robert Weiss

Robert Weiss PhD, MSW, CEO of Seeking Integrity LLC, is a digital-age sex, intimacy, and relationship specialist. Dr. Weiss has spent more than 25 years developing treatment programs, educating clinicians, writing, and providing direct care to those challenged by digital-age infidelity, sexual addiction/compulsivity, and other addictive disorders. He is the author of several highly regarded books on sex and intimacy disorders including Prodependence, Out of the Doghouse, Sex Addiction 101, and Cruise Control, among others. He also podcasts (Sex, Love, & Addiction 101) and hosts a free, weekly interactive sex and intimacy webinar via SexandRelationshipHealing.com. His current projects are:SexandRelationshipHealing.com, an extensive online resource for recovery from sex and intimacy disorders. Seeking Integrity Los Angeles, an Integrated Intensive Program for Sex and Intimacy Disorders (Opening in Feb, 2019). For more information or to reach Dr. Weiss, please visit his websites, RobertWeissMSW.com and SexandRelationshipHealing.com, or follow him on Twitter (@RobWeissMSW), LinkedIn (Robert Weiss LCSW), and Facebook (Rob Weiss MSW).
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