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"Imagine that your husband cheated on you with one woman. Now imagine that it was with dozens of women," said Kathy, 43, a nutritionist. "Sounds like Tiger Woods, right? Well, Brad was the Tiger Woods of the Internet. He'd get incredibly graphic photos of women online and then engage in smutty sex talk with them. And he used our credit card to pay for it! I feel-betrayed on so many levels -- not only was Brad unfaithful but he lied to me.
"This isn't the man I fell in love with. Brad and I met at a party seven years ago and instantly hit it off. He was handsome, funny, and interesting. And our upbringings were similar. We both had parents who made us feel worthless. My mother was too self-centered to pay any attention to me, and my dad was hypercritical. The men I dated before Brad were either indifferent or constantly put me down -- treatment I was used to from my parents. Brad was different. He and I had a comfortable, easy relationship, and after two years we got married. We decided not to have children because our own parental role models were so poor.
"About a year and a half into our marriage, Brad became withdrawn and sullen. He stopped kidding around and wasn't affectionate. Our sex life had always been great, but suddenly he wasn't interested. He'd spend hours tinkering in the basement. I had no idea what was going on but hoped it was just a temporary midlife crisis.
"One day I went down to our basement to use the computer. I hit a key and up came a photo of a naked woman on her back with her legs spread open. I was horrified. At first I thought it was some random pop-up ad, but then I clicked around and found dozens of other images of women engaged in all kinds of unbelievable sex acts. I snooped a bit more and found erotic e-mails he'd written and even more photos. I felt as if I was married to a stranger. A perverted stranger.
"When I confronted Brad, he said, 'My friends and I goof around and sometimes exchange photos. We're just having fun.' I wanted to believe him. We'd had a good marriage and I couldn't bear the thought of ending it.
"I lay in bed for three days, crying. I called in sick to work. I couldn't talk to my friends because I was too ashamed. Meanwhile, Brad kept insisting that I was overreacting. 'You're blowing things out of proportion,' he said.
"I worried that it was my fault, that he wasn't attracted to me anymore. I'd put on weight since our marriage, and even before that I didn't have a body like the ones those online women have. But they're in their 20s, and I'm 43!
"I decided to try to get him interested again. I lost some weight and bought sexy lingerie. Nothing has worked. In fact, Brad avoids me even more. We never have sex. We barely talk, not even about what I caught him doing. It's like neither of us can bear to mention it. Mostly, we fight. I am so disgusted by his porn problem that I wonder if I can ever trust him again."
"I'm so ashamed of what I've done and how badly I've hurt Kathy," said Brad, 43, an X-ray technician. "She doesn't even know how bad my habit really is, or how much money I've spent on it. Cybersex is a sickness. I've stopped since she caught me, but it's a constant struggle to resist.
"I've been into porn since I was a teenager, when I'd sneak my dad's Playboys from his closet. He and I had a terrible relationship. The only emotion he ever expressed was anger, and he was abusive, emotionally and physically. My mother was a total doormat. Even on the rare occasions when she'd object to something he did to me, he'd shoot her a dirty look and she'd back off.
"Dating was hard for me. I never connected with anyone, and none of my relationships lasted long. I began dabbling in cybersex about a year before I met Kathy, after a friend told me there were lots of hot women online who'd talk to me. So I started going on adult sites and looking at photos of naked women. Sometimes I'd e-mail back and forth with them. Then I moved on to the telephone. I'd meet a woman online, I'd type in my credit card information, she'd give me her phone number and we'd talk for an hour or two -- for $12 a minute. She'd ask me what kind of panties and perfume I'd like her to wear and what I wanted her to do to me. As she'd talk, I'd masturbate. This happened about twice a week. Eventually I started watching women performing sex acts on my computer via live webcams.
"Then I fell in love with Kathy. She understood me, and together we laughed, went to movies, had fantastic sex. I felt more comfortable with her than with anyone I'd ever known. But after we'd been married a year or so I started feeling out of sorts. I'd wake up anxious for no reason. Being married felt like a burden. Basically I shut down.
"That's when I turned to cybersex again -- my easy outlet, my quick fix. Only this time I got more sucked in than ever. I'd be in the basement four, five times a week. Sometimes I'd hear Kathy's footsteps on the stairs and I'd shut down the computer. Once she said, 'You're spending a lot of time online -- what's going on?' I said I was trying to sell stuff on eBay. Cybersex became the most important thing in my life. Kathy and I were like roommates -- the kind who barely talk to each other.
"When Kathy discovered what I was up to, I tried to worm my way out of it. But I feel horrible. I've been living in fantasyland, and I'm not sure I can stop. Kathy deserves better."
"Not all experts believe that sex addiction is real," said the counselor. "I do, and in Brad I saw the classic case. He could not control his sexual thoughts and impulses and felt compelled to act on them. His porn habit had taken over his life and he was lying about it.
"My first goal with this couple was to air the porn issue. Before coming to me they'd barely discussed it. Instead they fought about things like who left the coffeemaker on. Neither had a clue how to deal with the elephant in the room.
"In their first session Brad admitted to all that he'd been up to in the basement while Kathy read or watched TV upstairs. 'How could you?' she wanted to know. He also confessed to squandering nearly $25,000 on his habit in the past year, which he hid by snatching the credit card bill as soon as it arrived. Shocked and enraged at all this, Kathy sobbed for most of the hour.
"Even so, I could see the couple loved each other and wanted to save their marriage. I explained the concept of sex addiction and urged Kathy to see Brad as a human being with a problem, not a pervert. But her self-esteem had been battered and she needed to feel secure. At my suggestion they moved their computer into the family room and installed parental locks on adult sites.
"I also felt each of them would benefit from individual counseling. During my sessions with Brad, we explored how his compulsion stemmed from his childhood inability to please his father. After he married Kathy, similar anxieties surfaced: that he could never satisfy her, emotionally or sexually. Instead of trying to understand his feelings, he escaped to cyberspace, where he didn't have to deal with a real-world woman or please anyone but himself. As time went on he needed more and more intensity to get the same high.
"By always keeping in mind the devastating marital damage that would result if he gave in to temptation, Brad was able to control his impulses. He also joined Sex Addicts Anonymous [SAA], where he had a 'buddy' to call for support.
"With Kathy, I helped her understand how her unhappy childhood had cast a shadow on her adult life. She freely expressed both her bitterness about her past and her rage at Brad but realized she had to move past them. I encouraged her to pursue activities that made her happy, such as taking a writing course. Putting her feelings on paper boosted her confidence, enabling her to empathize with Brad and to finally grasp that his cybersex habit had nothing to do with who she was or how she looked. This breakthrough was key to repairing their marriage.
"After a year of individual therapy the couple resumed joint counseling. This time we focused on what was going right in their relationship. Kathy needed to see that Brad was committed to reforming himself, and his hard work reassured her: He never missed a therapy session or SAA meeting, and he not only pitched in more around the house but he also began wooing her with flowers and date nights.
"Slowly their romance blossomed again. Today Kathy and Brad are transformed. They enjoy each other's company, go on weekend trips and have a robust sex life. 'We have a new closeness, deeper than before,' Kathy said.
"Brad still gets the occasional urge for cybersex, but he knows better than to act on it. He's taken on a leadership role at SAA, where he works with newcomers. 'I counsel men who pull over to the side of the road to watch porn on their laptops,' he said. 'I feel so lucky I was saved -- and our marriage, too.'"
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, October 2010.