Sex addiction and divorce

14 November 2019

Sex and porn addiction are devastating conditions that affect many millions of innocent people. Not just those who personally struggle with them, but also those who love them. Relationships and families can be torn apart, jobs lost, health and personal values compromised and self-esteem left in tatters[1]

So says Paula Hall, a UKCP registered psychotherapist specialising in sex and porn addiction, in her book Understanding and Treating Sex and Pornography Addiction (2nd edition, 2018).

If you are coming to terms with you or your partner being a sex or porn addict, you may be wrestling with what your future looks like and considering separation or divorce. My colleagues and I advise people facing this decision every day. We can help connect you with the right specialists and, if you decide to separate, we will support you through the legal process and help you understand the role sex addiction might play.

What is sex addiction?  

A diagnosis of sex or porn addiction can still be seen as controversial but the idea of a behaviour being addictive is gaining acceptance. The World Health Organisation (WHO) added compulsive sexual behaviour as an impulse control disorder to the International Classification of Diseases, Eleventh Revision (ICD 11), accepted by WHO’s World Health Assembly in May 2019. ICD 11 says:

Compulsive sexual behaviour disorder is characterized by a persistent pattern of failure to control intense, repetitive sexual impulses or urges resulting in repetitive sexual behaviour. Symptoms may include repetitive sexual activities becoming a central focus of the person’s life to the point of neglecting health and personal care or other interests, activities and responsibilities; numerous unsuccessful efforts to significantly reduce repetitive sexual behaviour; and continued repetitive sexual behaviour despite adverse consequences or deriving little or no satisfaction from it. The pattern of failure to control intense, sexual impulses or urges and resulting repetitive sexual behaviour is manifested over an extended period of time (e.g., 6 months or more), and causes marked distress or significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational, or other important areas of functioning. Distress that is entirely related to moral judgments and disapproval about sexual impulses, urges, or behaviours is not sufficient to meet this requirement.”

The distinction drawn in this definition is also made clear in Paula Hall’s book:

The sense of loss or destruction that people with sex addiction feel is key to the definition. If there are no negative consequences, then the behaviour may simply be a lifestyle choice. But if life is becoming increasingly unmanageable and unbearable, then the behaviour is more likely to be experienced as a compulsion or an addiction rather than a choice that comes from free will[2]

Seeking help

If you believe that you are suffering with sex addiction (a term I am using here to cover both sex and porn addiction) or have discovered that your partner is, the first step is to find the right support. That can come from professionals, friends or family. The early days are likely to be turbulent and feelings of shame, betrayal and loss of self-esteem could be overwhelming. It will take time to decide what your future may look like.

If you choose not to stay with your partner, I can guide you through the legal process of separation.

Divorce and finances

Divorce and sorting out your finances after divorce are separate but connected things. We can help you deal with them creatively to make sure that your particular needs are addressed. For example, you may feel that you do not want to divorce, or are not sure that you do, but your partner’s addiction has involved financial deceit and debt. In that case, it may help to have a post-nuptial agreement setting out how your finances will be dealt with going forward and what would happen if you divorce in the future. Agreements like this, sometimes known as reconciliation contracts, can also include promises to each other about future behaviour and seeking professional help. In my experience, having a written agreement in place can make partners struggling with feelings of betrayal feel more secure and able to invest in the relationship again.

If you do want to divorce, your partner’s acting out may mean that you could file based on their adultery or give shocking details of unreasonable behaviour – but the specific circumstances you are in should be carefully considered before any divorce petition is filed. Paula Hall says that

having worked as a couple counsellor for nearly 25 years, I can honestly say that nothing impacts a couple relationship in such a devastating way as sex and porn addiction…Both feel exposed, vulnerable and bewildered[3]

If you are filing for divorce, it is natural to want to record the perhaps brutal truth about your partner’s shortcomings and how they caused the breakdown of your marriage. Whilst sometimes it is essential to include particular details in the petition, I find reducing the temperature, particularly at the beginning of proceedings, is usually best for both partners and certainly for any children of the family. You are hurting and although you may want to wound your partner, that could be counter-productive. Being a good lawyer means understanding your experience and empathising with you – but also providing objective advice that takes to you a better future.


Paula Hall says:

One of the saddest things I have heard in therapy is how the escalation of addiction has created more and more invisible barriers between loved ones, especially between a parent and children. As the shame increases, the sense of hypocrisy grows and parents with addiction often find themselves withdrawing more and more from intimate connection with their children[4] 

It may also be the case that your addiction or your partner’s became so unmanageable that it resulted in missing important events for your children or in time being spent satisfying cravings rather than being with them.

You will not need to go to Court about your children, even if you divorce in England or Wales, unless you cannot agree the arrangements for them and either you or your partner asks the Court to intervene. There are many ways you can resolve issues like where your children should live and when they should see their parents without going to Court. You can attend mediation with the other parent, with or without the support of lawyers, you could attend family therapy or you could try to reach an agreement via solicitors. We can advise on the best approach for your family and help make sure that the focus stays on what is best for your child.

Next steps

The vast majority of people find it hard to cope with the breakdown of a relationship and issues relating to sex addiction are likely to make it even harder. You may feel embarrassed or ashamed or just not know how to talk to family and friends about it. We are here to help.

We can advise on the best strategy for dealing with financial and family issues arising from your separation and we frequently work with other specialists assisting your family. We offer a 360 degree approach which means that your case is run to get the best result for you.

If you are affected by any of the issues covered in this blog, please contact Cady Pearce or another member of our team of family and divorce lawyers .

About the authors

Cady Pearce


Cady Pearce is a Senior Associate in the family and divorce team. She works on complex financial cases and difficult cases involving children. Cady has many connections with therapeutic professionals and is committed to ensuring that her clients have the right support throughout their separation.



Paula Hall is a UKCP registered psychotherapist, specialising in sex and porn addiction. She is Clinical Director of the Laurel Centre which provides treatment services around the UK and accredited diploma level training to professionals. See her website for further details.

[1] Hall, P. (2019) Understanding and Treating Sex and Pornography Addiction, A Comprehensive Guide for People Who Struggle with Sex Addiction and Those Who Want to Help Them, Routledge, London, p.190

[2] Hall, P. (2019), Understanding and Treating Sex and Pornography Addiction, Routledge, London, p.15

[3] Hall, P. (2019), Understanding and Treating Sex and Pornography Addiction, Routledge, London, p. 65

[4] Hall, P. (2019), Understanding and Treating Sex and Pornography Addiction, Routledge, London, p. 171

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