Frequently Asked Questions by Partners of Sex Addicts
By Marty A. Simpson, LMFT, CSAT, CDWF, APSATS and PACT-1 trained
Every couple’s experience of sex addiction and recovery is deeply personal and depends on their unique situation. Still, there are a few concerns shared among many of the couples we treat at the Sexual Recovery Institute:
My Spouse Is a Sex Addict. Is My Marriage Doomed?
If the sex addict is willing to work a program of recovery, there’s great hope for these relationships.
When you think about how prevalent sexual compulsivity is in our society (porn is a 13 billion dollar business, 40% of Internet searches are sex-related, and 30% of Craigslist revenue is related to adult services), it’s clear that a significant number of people have sex, porn and intimacy problems. Most are not dealing with them.
Couples that do walk through this experience together and have an interest in reconciling actually give themselves a great opportunity for a whole new kind of intimacy in their relationship. Intimacy involves sharing yourself with another person and having them fully know you, and also being willing to see and accept your partner in the same way – the good, the bad and the ugly.
Although many people think intimacy means sex, physical intimacy is just one piece. When a couple goes through something that hits at such a tender level, they gain intimacy with themselves as well as each other. They learn how to look inward and identify what they really feel and need in any given moment rather than compulsively turning to sex or any other addictive behavior. They also learn how to start talking about the difficult topics.
Those partners who are willing to get treatment learn a great deal about themselves and what attracted them to a sex addicted partner. Whether or not they decide to work on the relationship, the process can be deeply healing on a personal level.
Is My Spouse’s Sex Addiction My Fault? Did I Do Something to Make This Happen?
Your spouse’s sex addiction is not your fault. Most sex addicts struggled with sexual compulsivity long before they got married.
The causes of sex addiction are poorly understood, though a combination of genetic and environmental factors are likely involved. Research suggests that sex (and the pursuit of sex) affects the reward centers of the brain in similar ways as food, drugs and alcohol, making it exceedingly difficult for a sex addict to stop acting out without treatment. It is also important to note that a significant number of sex addicts experienced childhood trauma, often in the form of physical, emotional or sexual abuse, neglect, or growing up in a dysfunctional or addicted home.
Just as you did not cause your spouse’s sex addiction, you cannot cure it. The best way to support recovery (yours and theirs) is to focus on meeting your own needs and setting healthy boundaries. Getting involved in S-Anon or COSA 12-Step groups for partners of sex addicts and participating in both individual and couples counseling can help both partners address the issues underlying sex addiction and the trauma spouses of sex addicts experience.
What Should I Tell Other People About My Spouse’s Sex Addiction?
There is still a great deal of stigma surrounding sex addiction. Sex addiction is about 50 years behind alcoholism in terms of social understanding, awareness and stigma. For this reason, spouses should exercise discretion in deciding with whom they will share this very personal information, especially in sensitive settings such as the workplace. You can freely share and receive support in 12-Step groups for partners for sex addicts, or talk with a spiritual advisor or therapist.
If you decide to share with family and friends, only share with supportive, understanding people you know you can trust with your confidentiality. When in doubt, remain vague. For example, if asked a direct question you can simply reply, “We’re having trouble in our marriage and aren’t quite ready to talk about it yet.” This is your marriage, your personal and sexual life, and it’s really no one else’s business.
How Do I Explain My Spouse’s Sex Addiction to My Kids?
Although it may come as a surprise, discussing a spouse’s addiction can be a teachable moment for children. There is a way to be honest without oversharing or frightening the child. Of course, any conversation must take into account the age and best interests of the child. In general, it is wise not to offer more information that the child is requesting.
Rather than basing the conversation around sex (most kids don’t want to know about their parents’ sex life anyway), parents can say, “Dad lied to mom and is getting some help to figure out how to keep from lying again. Mom is feeling sad but she’s talking to people who are helping her feel better, too.”
There are a number of important considerations when talking with a child about a parent’s sex addiction. Stay tuned for another blog post dedicated specifically to this topic.
The Anatomy of Disclosure: Breaking the News of Sex Addiction to a Spouse or Partner
By Marty A. Simpson, LMFT, CSAT, CDWF,
(The use of gender specific pronouns is for concise wording and in no way implies that sex addiction is a gender or orientation specific issue.)
Though a sex addict may want to withhold information from his partner in order to avoid hurting her, omitting certain facts can be more damaging than telling hurtful information. For some sex addicts and their spouses or partners, disclosure is an important part of the healing process, but if not handled with the help of therapeutic professionals and timed correctly, coming forward can actually make matters worse.
Disclosure is traumatic for both parties (especially the partner) and should only happen in the presence of a well-trained clinician who is experienced in the disclosure of sexually compulsive behavior. Additionally, disclosure should only occur if there is a commitment to reconciliation. Simply put, it’s not worth going through the disclosure process unless both parties can hold an intention for healing the relationship.
At the Sexual Recovery Institute, we have specific guidelines in place to ensure that the disclosure session is as productive and healing as possible:
Therapeutic Support for Both Partners. It’s extremely risky for a disclosure to take place without therapeutic support. At the Sexual Recovery Institute, both partners must have their own therapist, preferably not the same person, and be working a program of recovery. This ensures that the partner has a therapeutic advocate in the room and that they both have avenues to safely process their feelings.
Beforehand, the partner will work with her therapist to prepare for what she expects to hear, what she might actually hear, and what she hopes to get out of the session. This allows the partner to process some of the shock and fear ahead of time. It is also helpful if the partner of the sex addict attends S-Anon or COSA meetings, partner support groups and practices healthy self-care. I facilitate the weekly partner’s support groups for men and women at SRI which involve education, healing exercises, and therapeutic group process empowering partners to support each other in recovery.
In the disclosure session, the sex addict’s therapist will ensure that he shares all of the necessary information, in a way that is rigorously honest, accepts responsibility for the behavior and furthers the healing process. The partner’s therapist acts as her advocate and is a resource to help her manage the intense and volatile feelings that often arise during and after the disclosure.
Full Disclosure Only. One of the most common mistakes people make in this emotionally charged situation is to disclose (or push the sex addict to disclose) before he is ready to admit the full truth in a productive way. Although this may sound overly deferential to the addict’s needs, waiting until he is ready to disclose is actually a recommendation that benefits the partner.
If the sex addict discloses too soon, he will likely make only a partial disclosure, leaving out important details that emerge later only to retraumatize his partner. A partial disclosure undermines the partner’s efforts to rebuild trust and repair the relationship. Alternatively, in a moment of crisis, when the sex addict is overcome with shame or his partner is threatening to leave unless he reveals everything, the sex addict may end up ”dumping” too many details on the partner or disclosing when the partner doesn’t have the resources to handle such details.
Like partial disclosure, non-disclosure can also be extremely damaging. If sex addicts and their partners avoid the issue without asking any questions or giving any answers, the shamefully held secrets are never revealed. Although in AA it is suggested that alcoholics not tell their spouses about affairs, in sex addiction recovery we have found that this tradition simply allows the addict to keep on lying. In fact, not telling the spouse about affairs can be more damaging than telling the spouse. Admitting wrongdoing is particularly important in the case of sex addiction because there is an offended party – the partner – who, maybe for the first time, gets to make choices about the information she receives. Releasing secrets and shame is also a powerful part of the healing process for the sex addict, and the only way bonds of trust and commitment can be restored in the relationship.
Appropriate Detail. With guidance from his therapist, the sex addict will describe the addictive behaviors that occurred during the relationship, eliminating only those details that would be harmful or unnecessary (such as revealing every fantasy the sex addict has ever had). Exactly how much detail is provided must be worked out in advance with a therapist.
Hearing the addict accept responsibility for the acting-out behaviors can be deeply validating for the partner, who has likely felt for a very long time that something wasn’t right and questioned whether it was her imagination or something she did to push the sex addict away. Many partners begin to feel crazy, wondering if they are just paranoid or out of touch. The disclosure makes clear that the partner’s intuition was intact, even though the sex addict likely denied any wrongdoing, deflected any suspicions and turned the blame back around on the partner.
No Excuses. Throughout a disclosure session, we direct our sex-addicted client to focus on just the facts and what he has learned about his addiction. He makes clear that his partner did not cause this problem, and that he is taking full responsibility for his actions.
We encourage him to explain what he’s learned about himself and his behavior concisely, without making excuses or justifications for his sexual acting out. Following the disclosure, his partner has the opportunity to share how she is feeling, which can range from angry and heartbroken to emotionally numb and shut down.
There are specific situations in which disclosure is not advised:
· If the partner is not in good health
· If the partner had threatened divorce or either party has seen a divorce attorney.
I can’t stress enough, how important it is to seek the advice of a therapist experienced with sex addiction disclosure before attempting a disclosure session on your own!
Clearing the slate in a disclosure process can set the process of healing in motion, but this is just the beginning. Rebuilding trust takes time. The process of amends happens as the addict actively and consistently works a program of recovery (12 step meetings, step work with a sponsor, reaching out for emotional support) continuing to be rigorously honest even when facing disapproval, staying “present” in the relationship, going to therapy and looking inward, practicing good self-care, and living in his integrity. As the addict practices this new way of operating, with consistency over time, he rebuilds his own self-respect and repairs the trust of others.
When Sex Addiction Strikes the Family: Whether to Tell the Kids
By Marty A. Simpson LMFT, CSAT, CDWF,
APSATS and PACT-1 trained
(The use of gender specific pronouns is for concise wording and in no way implies that sex addiction is a gender or orientation specific issue.)
Disclosing one’s struggles with sex addiction can be a difficult task – one that isn’t made any easier when considering whether to tell the kids. Should they know? Is it the right time? How much should you say?
I highly recommend that anyone in this position consult with a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist (CSAT) before attempting disclosure to children about sex addiction. The decision to disclose to children or not is one that needs careful consideration, even if the children are adults. For some, it can be part of the healing process. Others may prefer to keep their marital issues to themselves, particularly if the kids are very young and unaware of any acting out by the addict. Every situation is different and should be carefully evaluated with guidance from a CSAT professional.
Author Stefanie Carnes, PhD, CSAT-S, has done significant research on the impact of sex addiction on spouses and family members. In her book, Mending a Shattered Heart: A Guide for Partners of Sex Addicts, she donates a chapter to this topic. The book is an excellent resource for those recovering from sex addiction.
Who Should Disclose
Ideally, both the sex addict and the partner should be present for disclosure to the children, though it is the sex addict who should make the disclosure in an age-appropriate way. This puts the addict in a position to accept responsibility for his behaviors and move forward in his process of making amends.
When to Start the Conversation
Only approach the kids when both partners can convey a message of hope. Children need reassurance that this is the adults’ problem and nothing they did caused it. They also need a clear message that it is the adults’ job to work on the problem; the child does not need to “do” anything.
It is important not to begin the conversation too early, but rather to wait until the initial shock and crisis have passed. The first few weeks or months following disclosure can be a volatile time for the sex addict and spouse.
When the addict is out of denial, willing to accept responsibility for his actions and exhibiting behavioral changes – and both partners are involved in a treatment and a recovery program – the conversation is most productive. If both partners are not in a recovery program, there is a higher risk of a repeating pattern of disclosure and relapse that can be extremely damaging to the partner and children.
How to Disclose
Disclosure can happen in any number of ways, some of which are more productive than others. Here are the five primary types of disclosure:
· Forced Disclosure – A forced disclosure occurs when news of an individual’s sex addiction is going to come out anyway, often because of a legal issue or an angry partner threatening to tell the child. Unfortunately, this type of disclosure forces the addict to come forward before he’s ready to share the whole truth, which is often more damaging to everyone involved.
· Softened Disclosure – Most kids, even adult children, don’t want to hear about parents’ sex lives. With younger kids, it is generally sufficient to say something they can understand like, “Daddy lied to mommy.” With older children, parents can sometimes explain that there has been a betrayal of trust or simply say there are problems in the marriage.
Since children typically won’t ask for information they don’t want to hear or aren’t ready to hear, let them ask questions and set the pace of the conversation. In many cases, they already know there’s a problem and it’s validating for their feelings to be confirmed.
If the parents are planning to separate or divorce, they may explain to younger children that, “Mommy and daddy can’t live together and get along,” whereas older children may be able to understand that there are problems in the marriage that the parents couldn’t reconcile despite their best efforts.
· Delayed Disclosure – Often, delayed disclosure comes about after first providing a softened disclosure and later, as the child matures, giving a more thorough explanation that there are problems in the marriage.
· Unbalanced Disclosure – Unbalanced disclosure occurs when one parent tells the child without the other parent’s agreement or participation. Because this often does not occur in the spirit of hope and healing, it is not as healthy or productive as softened or delayed disclosure.
· Discovery – It is not unusual for children, especially tech-savvy teenagers, to discover pornography on the sex-addicted parent’s computer or an explicit email from an acting out partner. If the child knows, it is better to talk about it honestly, in an age-appropriate way, than to sweep it under the rug.
Other important considerations when talking to your kids are:
· Your reasons for disclosing (never use a child as a way to retaliate against your partner)
· The child’s health or other situations that put the child at risk
· The child’s developmental maturity and understanding of relationships, lying and related issues
· Family dynamics and concurrent issues
In families with both older and younger children, it’s typically advisable to disclose based on the younger child’s ability to understand. Telling the older children more and asking them to keep secrets from their younger sibling(s) creates an unhealthy family dynamic.
Parents should always consider what is in the best interest of the child and refrain from divulging information the child isn’t asking for or doesn’t already know. Under no circumstances should detailed or explicit information (such as the type of behavior or number of sexual partners) be provided to a child, even an adult child.
When in doubt, talk it out with a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist. It is also beneficial for the children to speak with a therapist who specializes in child psychology and can work through the issues on their level. Family therapy, conducted by a professional with family systems expertise, can also provide healing.
Carl Jung instructs us to embrace our “shadow.” By acknowledging their struggles, parents can draw upon a number of teachable moments. Some of the lessons children can learn from this type of discussion are:
· The importance of commitment and intimacy in a relationship (for older children).
· No one is perfect, including their parents. This sends a powerful message that the child can make and admit mistakes and work through them as well.
· Even when grown-ups don’t know what to do about a problem, they can reach out for help. They don’t have all the answers, but they are not alone (and by extension, neither is the child).
· The parents recognized a problem (which is validating for children because chances are they already sensed that something was wrong) and are taking care of it. This bolsters the child’s sense of security.
Talking to your children about a parent’s sex addiction can be an opportunity for personal growth for each individual family member but should be given careful consideration. By following these guidelines and working with a CSAT, you can work toward making this difficult process as honest and productive as possible.