Is it cheating or sex addiction? I get this question a lot, often from spouses who have been betrayed and are trying to understand their partner’s behaviors. It’s a complex question, with an even more complex answer. The diagnosis of a sex addiction is controversial both in the field of sex therapy and mental health therapy, as well as in pop culture and mainstream opinion. There’s no doubt in my mind that sex addiction exists, and sometimes I find it interesting that people are so adamant about insisting that it does not exist. Sometimes I wonder if those who insist that it doesn’t exist have ever struggled with sex and love addiction or have ever worked with clients that have struggled with sex and love addiction. It isn’t my style to debate controversial issues on my blog or  in public forums, so I’m just going to present my views on this topic based on my experience, training, and knowledge.

As complex as this question is, so are the two types of behaviors that we are discussing. “Cheating” can be defined in a million different ways  and is often highly individualized and based on what the individuals and the couple constructs as the boundaries of their relationships.  These boundaries can be affected by many socio-cultural factors such as culture, ethnicity, geography, religion, age, generation, time period, gender, sexual orientation, social group, and on and on.

For the purpose of this article I will just simply define cheating as having relationships, either sexual, emotional, or both, outside a committed relationship where monogamy and exclusivity is either implied or explicitly expected. This is important because often times people will insist that it wasn’t “cheating”, because they were on a break, or they were just starting to date. But if exclusivity was implied at any point during the time in question, either verbally, nonverbally, physically, or non-physically, then it likely could still be considered cheating.  Another question I always ask is “Did it feel like cheating?” Even if something falls in the gray area of cheating or not, if it feels like cheating, it likely should be treated like cheating.

Another important thing to note is that different relationships define “cheating” differently. It would be important to determine what the relationship considers cheating before assigning someone the label as a “cheater”. For example, does the relationship consider watching pornography cheating? Does the relationship consider going to an adult film store and watching a private movie cheating? Does the relationship consider going to a strip club cheating? What about sensual massages (happy endings)?  Prostitutes?

While in most relationships cheating is often defined as being sexual with other people, there’s a lot of gray area in defining what cheating is and is not.

Sex Addiction
There are many definitions of what a “sex addiction” is and generally the definitions involve some problematic sexual behaviors with an inability/unwillingness to stop despite consequences.  While people commonly use the term “sex addiction”, I usually like to allow my clients to define for themselves when we discuss the issues.  I often use “compulsive sexual behavior”, “problematic sexual behavior”, “unhealthy sexual behavior”, etc. as ways to describe behaviors that my clients present with.  Not all problematic sexual behavior falls into the definition of addiction, but the treatment is often similar.   However I’m not afraid to call a spade a spade and if it walks like a duck, looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then sometimes I will just tell the client it is a duck.

What I don’t encourage is having other people make that diagnosis for the client.  Often times another therapist, a spouse, a partner, family, and friends will assign the client a diagnosis in efforts to understand the behavior. A diagnosis should be a collaborative decision, between a qualified professional who has experience diagnosis and working with clients with sex and love addiction and the client and, if appropriate, the partner.  The goal of a diagnosis or label is to help the client gain awareness and understanding and eventually healing from the issues they are struggling with.  I often cringe at the word “diagnosis” as I sometimes feel that diagnosing or labeling a client is sometimes counterproductive, but many times offering a label or diagnosis can get the client started on a path to recovery through resources, meetings, groups, and other things that have an immense therapeutic value.

Diagnoses or labels should not be used for the purpose of understanding someone’s behavior, to make excuses for that person, or blame that person or something beside that persons for what is happening.   I sometimes see partners of those who had cheated or who have a sex addiction looking for a label as a way to understand their partner’s behaviors. For example, it is not uncommon for a partner to want to label their partner as a cheater rather than a sex addict because the label of a sex addict seems so much more negative or severe than a cheater. On the other hand, some partners want the diagnosis of a sex addiction because it’s easier to understand it as a disease rather than a choice.    A diagnosis and/or label of sex addiction or cheating should be one that is collaboratively made between a client and their therapist and can  involve the partner as long as it is appropriate to include the partner in this process.  A time when including the partner in the diagnosis would be contraindicated is when the partner attempts to skew the diagnosis for their own understanding or if the partner is more concerned about their needs for a certain diagnosis than for the needs of the client who is attempting to receive treatment for their behavior.  This is a fine and delicate line and should not be addressed without the consultation of a qualified professional who specializes in infidelity, affairs, cheating, and sex addiction.

Denial and Compartmentalizing
Denial and compartmentalizing are back-up dancers to the leads of sex addiction and cheating.  Without denial or compartmentalizing behaviors, neither cheating or sex addiction would be able to exist in the context of problematic sexual behavior.  Very rarely do I see cheating and sex addiction without some form of denial and compartmentalizing of behavior.  While denial is defined as not facing a fact because it is too uncomfortable to accept, compartmentalizing is an unconscious (or conscious) psychological defense mechanism used to avoid the discomfort of anxiety and discomfort caused by conflicting values, behaviors, thoughts, and actions.  Both run rampant in these situations and are often part of the first stage of treatment for sex addiction and cheating.

Is it cheating or sex addiction? No Internet resources would truly be able to point you in a  definitive answer. You should consult with a qualified sex therapist for sex addiction therapist before trying to self diagnose. I’d be happy to help you with this. Please feel free to call or email me for more information or to set up an appointment.  I can be reached at rhiannon[at] or 603.770.5099 or 512.765-4741.  Or you can fill out the form below and I will contact you!