My Boyfriend is Addicted to Paying for Sex

My significant other is addicted to paying for sex. He has been sober for about 2 years. Because we were friends first, I knew about the addiction before we began dating. The addiction stems from trauma and a shitty, shitty childhood.

This relationship has been hard. I knew so little about addiction, but I am learning. I am learning where to have empathy and where to set boundaries. What follows are steps I’ve taken that have helped keep me stable. I write this piece for readers who may one day make the discovery or make the choice to be in a relationship with an addict.

1. Learning about addiction

The short answer here is that addiction is a disease. It is a mentally pervasive and unhealthy coping strategy. My partner’s brain goes to addiction when the stressors of his life exceed his ability to cope in positive, life-affirming ways. Addiction runs in his family, and so his brain is wired to fall into negative patterns quicker than mine might. I do not blame my partner for his addiction and I try not to shame him for the things he has done.

2. Learning about co-addiction

Co-addicts are most often friends, family, and significant others. Co-addiction refers to behaviours on our part to try and control our loved one’s addiction. It’s called co-addiction because these behaviours can become as compulsive and obsessive as addiction itself.

By learning about co-addiction, I have been able to monitor my own behaviours. The reality is, I think about my partner’s addiction all the time. I fight the urge to check his text messages and review his call log. I want to know where he’s at when he goes out at night, and if he really is with the people he says he’s going to be with. I want to know if the people he’s out with are friends that can be trusted, or if they’ll take him back to his addiction.

If I had access to his bank account, I would be tempted to watch his spending. I refrain from acting on these thoughts, because I know they are unhealthy – both for myself and for my relationship. I cannot control my partner’s sobriety and any attempt to do so will drive me insane.

3. Attending support group

I attend a 12-step partner support group. At first, the 12 steps seemed preachy, and I didn’t resonate with anything we discussed. Monday after Monday, I forced myself to go back.

Last week, I realized how happy I am to be there. My support group is a space where I don’t have to explain myself or my circumstance. It feels easy to be understood. Some days we find ourselves giggling for no particular reason. Those days, I celebrate getting to feel normal. That experience is both rare and special in the context of this addiction – getting to feel normal.

4. Setting boundaries

My own individual therapist is an amazing woman, and she helped me establish guidelines that support my relationship. I shared these with my partner as boundaries that helped me feel safe. They weren’t demands. He had (and continues to have) the right to agree, disagree, or change his mind – at which point, I can similarly decide what my next step will be.

  • Prioritizing honesty. I deserve honesty. This is one place where my boundary is hard AF. I understand that my partner feels a great deal of shame around his addiction and that this shame impact his ability to be vulnerable and open with me at times. I don’t care. He doesn’t get to lie to me. Period. (Note: I do not ask questions about his past that are irrelevant to our present relationship. I strive to be kind and non-judgmental with whatever he shares.)
  • Working our programs. I am lucky that my partner is amazingly self-motivated. He sought healing long before I was in the picture. With that said, a relationship brings up its own natural stressors and therefore demands a more consistent attention to well-being. My partner currently attends individual therapy and 2 support groups per week. He has a sponsor and is “working his program” (a process which refers to completing the 12 steps). I am responsible for attending my support group as well as individual therapy (something I was already doing anyways). At some point, I will seek my own sponsor and ideally, we would like to be in couples’ therapy.
  • Call your sponsor. The way my therapist put it, when addicts experience overwhelming, difficult emotions (anxiety, sadness, stress), they often consider engaging in addictive behaviours to soothe the pain. My partner is allowed to call me if he wants to talk about those emotions – if he’s having a terrible day at work, if he’s feeling lonely, etc. If he finds himself in the struggle of whether or not to engage in the addiction – he needs to call his sponsor. (I’ve also encouraged my partner to disclose his story to more friends and family, so that he has a wider base of support.)
  • Eat healthy, sleep well, drink water, and exercise. These are so obvious they’re easy to forget. My partner had his first almost-relapse a few weeks after we committed to a serious relationship. His work schedule started ramping up, leaving him less time to replenish. I noticed him going to therapy less often and skipping out on activities that used to keep him energized in healthy ways (yoga, the gym, dance). Sometimes you can’t predict the relapse crack – but sometimes you can. My partner will literally have days when he’s feeling super disregulated and then realize that all he needs is water. Both he and I have noticed that he is happier and healthier when he’s addressed the basics of self-care.
  • Romance and partnership. Conversations about addiction have become an almost daily occurrence. I deserve romance and true partnership, and so does he. I can’t really say how we monitor and ensure this, but we’re trying, and I think we’re doing okay.
  • 5. Telling my story

    I wish I could attach my name to this story. My partner is not public with his story, and it isn’t my place to out him. I have opened up to loved ones on an individual basis about what’s happening in my life. Too often, I have learned that close family members and friends have had equally intimate experiences with addiction – without ever telling a soul. The more I share, the more I realize how common this experience is. It’s a good feeling – to know you’re not crazy and to know you’re not alone.

    6. Deepening my self-care and self-awareness

    I enjoyed introspection a great deal before this relationship. It’s become necessary within my current context. Ultimately, I am responsible for my own mental health and well being. I’ve got to know myself to know what my boundaries are, what I can handle, and what I cannot.

    Resource: A Gentle Path through the Twelve Steps: The Classic Guide for All People in the Process of Recovery by Patrick Carnes,

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