Isabella: 47, Interior Designer
Scott: 52, Advertising Executive
Married: 21 years
Kid: Beau, 15
Abbé Barclay, Orlando, Florida
Isabella is in complete denial about the lack of intimacy in her marriage. Scott has been struggling with a secret sex addiction for years and can't figure out how to stop — or how to tell his wife.
Isabella: Scott and I are both very busy, and our son, Beau — who is physically disabled — takes up most of my free time. Our sex life is pretty much nonexistent, which is okay with me. I'm not that into it, and it seems like Scott checked out a long time ago, too. My priority for basically the last 15 years has been taking care of Beau. He requires around-the-clock care. Plus I figure that Scott will always be there, and when the time is right we'll reconnect. Scott's major beef with me has always been that I don't spend enough time with him. I tell him, "Help me take care of Beau more and then I'll have more time for you."
Scott: I started cheating on Isabella about 15 years ago, around the time we had our son. We love Beau but raising him has been a challenge. Nothing can prepare you for having a disabled child. Isabella's completely focused on finding the right care and treatments for him, and to distract myself, I dug into my job and became a total workaholic.
I think the combination of making a good salary, traveling so much, and having a wife who was always preoccupied led me to cheat. After Beau was born we stopped having sex, and all we talked about was him. I thought, "Isabella can't give me the attention I want, so I'll get it elsewhere."
That was the way I was able to justify it in my head. It seems like every day the news headlines are about politicians or sports figures being unfaithful. And I just thought, "This is what men do. It's acceptable behavior." I figured having an affair was too risky and complicated, so I turned to escort services. There's no emotional attachment to these women. It's just sex. I get off on the anticipation of being with a beautiful woman who showers me with praise. So I go on the Internet to find them. It's all so easy, and I'm very good at covering my tracks. Isabella had no idea this was going on.
Isabella: That's not entirely true. I noticed he was taking lots of money out of our bank account, so I knew something was up, but I never would have imagined that it was to pay prostitutes. I'm very good at denial. It's easier for me to pretend that everything is okay than to deal with my emotions.
But yes, there have been many times over the years when my intuition told me something wasn't right. One time Scott went away for a few days on a business trip to Chicago. Beau woke up in the middle of the night and wanted to call his daddy. He was really insistent so I kept calling until Scott finally picked up. He said he was sleeping, but I could tell he wasn't alone. He was whispering. Who was he afraid he'd wake up? But as usual, he had an excuse.
Then one night a few months ago a text message flashed up on his cell phone while he was in the bathroom. It was from a number I didn't recognize and had all these acronyms and codes like "dfk" and "dde." Later, I googled the terms and found out they meant "deep french kissing" and "doesn't do extras" and my heart just sank. She was definitely a prostitute. I knew I had to confront him but I was scared.
Scott: By this point I was seeing girls two or three times a week. I was taking them with me on business trips. Every time I saw a prostitute I told myself afterward, "This is the last time." But I was addicted. I'd get upset about something Isabella said, like if she told me I was being a bad father, and I'd go right back online looking for a quick way to medicate myself. I don't drink or do drugs. Sex is my drug.
Isabella: When I asked Scott about the texts, he admitted that they were from a prostitute but swore he hadn't had sex with her. He told me he was just testing the waters but would never in a million years go through with it. And I sort of believed him. I know it sounds crazy but talking myself into believing lies is second nature.
Scott: At this point I said to myself, "I almost got caught so this is the last time." I made a plea with God: "Just get me out of this and I'll never do it again." Yet I was right back at it two weeks later.
Isabella: I might have let the whole thing slide but I got a call from a guy claiming to be a prostitute's father. He said, "Do you know your husband is sleeping with my daughter?" He was calling all the wives of the men his daughter was seeing and blowing their cover. I just totally lost it.
When Scott got home I confronted him. He tried to lie at first by saying the guy was out to get him, but this time there was no way I could believe him.
Scott: Isabella said something like, "If you continue to lie, Beau and I are leaving. Or you can tell me the truth and maybe there'll still be hope for us." That's when something snapped in me. I just couldn't do it anymore. I was so tired of living this way. I told her it was true and I just started sobbing. I got so hysterical that I actually threw up.
I was such a wreck that Isabella drove me to the hospital, where they put me on suicide watch. I honestly think I would have killed myself if she hadn't taken me to get help. I hit rock bottom.
Isabella: I was so worried about him even though I had just found out this awful thing. So typical — it was still all about him! At the hospital, a therapist said, "He told me about the prostitutes. I think your husband is a sex addict." I was like, "Prostitutes? There was more than one?" That just floored me.
Scott: Most women would've left me at that point. Isabella hasn't forgiven me, but she's agreed to see a therapist who specializes in sex addiction.
Isabella: I'm still unbelievably upset but something the hospital therapist said stuck with me. She told me, "Some of the most wonderful, kind people I know are sex addicts in recovery." If I hadn't heard that, I think I would have walked away. But knowing that Scott is not necessarily a terrible person, but a person doing terrible things, makes me willing to try therapy.
The Counselor: When I first met them, Isabella was hurt and angry beyond words and Scott was paralyzed by the shame of what he'd done yet somewhat defensive about why he'd done it. Right off the bat I told them that the recovery process could take three to five years — it's intensive work that requires sacrifices on both sides. Our ultimate goal is to reestablish trust in their relationship. There has been so much dishonesty and deception that they have lost the ability to communicate or resolve any of their problems.
I advised them to do both individual therapy and couples' therapy with me once a week. Also, part of the recovery process for both of them is to connect with people who understand what they're going through. So Scott joined Sexaholics Anonymous (SA), where he goes to group therapy and has a sponsor, and Isabella attends Codependents of Sex Addicts meetings (COSA).
One of my first tasks in my one-on-one sessions with Scott was to help him accept responsibility. Addicts often believe that their unique situation justifies their actions. They think, "I have such important sexual needs that I deserve to get them met elsewhere." Scott felt a level of entitlement to cheat on his wife and he used that as an excuse to do something that was clearly wrong. I had him create lists of all the secrets and excuses he'd made so that he could see how he has deluded himself.
Scott used sex with prostitutes to soothe his stress about his intimacy problems and it became addictive. We did an exercise to help him break the stress-sex-guilt cycle. I asked him to draw a large circle with two smaller circles inside. In the smallest circle, Scott listed all the things he needs to completely abstain from — like seeing prostitutes. In the next circle he listed all the things, people, and situations he needs to avoid because they may jeopardize his abstinence. The Internet was one obvious problem, so he put safeguards on his computer that block escort sites. In the outermost circle we listed things he can do when he's feeling the urge to contact a prostitute — like calling his sponsor or attending an SA meeting.
For Isabella, we've worked hard on educating her about sex addiction and on analyzing her feelings. She's beginning to understand how and why she and Scott grew so far apart. She had become so consumed with her son that it broke down her self-esteem and damaged her relationship with Scott. Plus she was so afraid of learning the truth that she was in complete denial about what was going on. An important part of the recovery process is for her to understand her codependent role in Scott's addiction. The COSA meetings have been invaluable for her. There is comfort in talking to others who have been lied to and manipulated.
As far as Scott and Isabella's work as a couple, they recently took a major step by doing what is called "disclosure." Because sex addiction thrives on secrets, recovery addicts need to own up to their behavior as part of their recovery. The rules of disclosure allowed Isabella to ask Scott anything she wanted about his addiction and he had to answer truthfully. She wanted to know numbers — how many women there were, how much he spent. It was a real breakthrough for them. They talked for more than four hours. Scott let go of the lies that had been weighing him down and Isabella was finally able to face the truth.
Despite all the progress they've made, Scott and Isabella still struggle with sexual intimacy. Scott has shut down sexually and Isabella doesn't feel attracted to him. To help them connect emotionally and physically, I have them doing a series of specific exercises together. For example, every day they must commit to a five-minute check-in conversation with each other to share a compliment or talk about something that happened that day. Giving each other massages in the bedroom makes them feel connected and helps them understand that they can be intimate without being sexual. For Scott this is a new concept.
What makes them different from so many other couples struggling with sex addiction is that they've taken the time and made the effort to get through this — and it's paying off. Isabella told me recently, "I have a healthier relationship with Scott today than I've ever had in my entire life." She's so happy to be done with all the lies and deceit. Scott has been diligent about his recovery and is thankful that Isabella is staying with him. "Not many people would have given me another chance," he told me. "She's amazing."