The Partner’s Primer

Sexual addiction does not just touch the one who struggles with the addiction. Partners suffer as well. A primer on sexual addiction is incomplete unless it includes the partner’s/spouse’s experience. Unless they are included in the beginning of the treatment and assessment process they can feel marginalized and left out at a time of real crisis. All the attention seems to be going to the addict. But the partner has real mental health needs as well that may get overlooked.

It is common for a partner to make an appointment with a therapist to explore issues that she does not know are related to an unconscious response to an undisclosed sexual addiction in the life of her partner. She may come wanting to address a personal mood disorder like depression or anxiety. She may come seeking help for “couples counseling”. The couple may present with communication challenges, avoidance issues, or anger management problems.

These are just a few of the presenting symptoms that a therapist may hear from a partner who may not know that she is struggling with the relational betrayal trauma related to an as yet undisclosed sexual addiction in the life of her partner. She may well be living with a nagging suspicion that something is just not right.

This situation, obviously, requires more than the traditional brief intervention or couples counseling approach.

“Gas lighting” describes an abusive pattern in a relationship in which a sex addict creates a false perception of reality through lies, manipulations, and deceit. This is very common with sexual addiction. A sex addict lives in hiding. He projects an idealized image of himself as a means to avoid dealing with his addiction.

Despite having been “gas lighted”, a partner nevertheless has a deeper intuition of the truth. But she struggles to face it. The truth is that the man she loves is lying to her.

If a therapist suspects a sexual addiction may be behind relational problems, he or she makes a provisional diagnosis.  This provisional diagnosis, however, is sensitive. The reason is that if the sexual addiction has not yet been uncovered, a clumsy disclosure of a sexual addiction is traumatizing.

Discovery of betrayal shocks the system. The therapeutic goal is to address an undisclosed betrayal in a way that mitigates harm. Therapists who lack training or experience with sexual addiction treatment and therapeutic disclosure risk causing lasting damage.

A therapeutic disclosure is a planned event in which both parties agree to work with trained professionals. The goal is to plan and prepare each for a formal disclosure that mitigates harm and provides a good foundation for recovery. It stops potential for “dribble disclosures” or the “death by a thousand cuts”. Both parties commit to specific guidelines. The process is therapeutically informed and structured.

Partners of sexual addicts often present with symptoms of PTSD including: elevated heart rate, panic and anxiety, hyper-vigilance, depression, change in sleep and appetite, lack of motivation, intolerance, nightmares, intrusive thoughts and other distressing emotions.

The presentation of PTSD is contributed by unsupported disclosure. Most often this happens because the partner discovers the betrayal accidentally. An accidental disclosure should never happen in the course of a therapeutic relationship with a professional.

Even under the best of circumstances, partners are likely to feel shame. If they are not already seeing a counselor, this may undermine their willingness to seek help.

Shame is not the same as guilt. One can feel shame without responsibility for bad behavior. Shame is a perception that one is somehow flawed. Unlike guilt, which is something one can take responsibility for, shame leaves one feeling powerless.

Shame also supports partner denial. Denial is a defense mechanism that allows us to avoid a painful reality. Shame-fed denial delays or even complicates the journey to recovery.

Finally, partners experience a failure of trust. Where once they could relax in the confident security that their partner would care for them. Now they feel abandoned and betrayed. They feel at risk in the relationship. They have lost their sense of safety.

When partners take time to address the challenges of disclosure with an experienced therapist, the trauma of disclosure — though painful — can contribute to the healing process rather than undermine it. Without support, and without a complete disclosure, partners risk being re-traumatized as new disclosures follow one upon the other as the depth of the sexual addiction is revealed over time.

The partner experience must not be neglected in the treatment of sexual addiction. After all, the partner may be the one who suffers the most.

Image by Jimmy McIntyre