Telling Your Partner: The Disclosure Process in Recovery from Sex Addiction
By: Alexandra Katehakis, Ph.D., MFT, CST, CSAT
Sex addiction is an escalating state of dysfunction affecting body, mind and spirit. It is a series of sexual acting-out behaviors that are kept secret and are abusive to self or others.
Sex addiction is used to avoid painful feelings, but often can be the source of such feelings.
Acting out sexually for a sex addict alters consciousness and feelings. It is a mental preoccupation which includes obsession and compulsion, and is devoid of a caring relationship. Sex addicts are unable to stop their behaviors on their own, but can be responsive to the recovery process using a 12-step model such as Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA).
A formal disclosure is an important piece when putting together the recovery puzzle. It involves the sex addict and his or her partner meeting with a therapist trained in sex and love addiction issues.
The disclosure process is a structured confession wherein the addict takes full responsibility for everything that he or she has done in the way of acting out sexually. The addict can then be accountable face-to-face with his or her partner. It is also an opportunity for the sex addict to demonstrate genuine remorse and transparency — two crucial components if the relationship is to continue — and for trust to be reestablished.
Typically, the addict will prepare for disclosure by writing a letter or an outline. In conjunction with a therapist’s presence, this provides a structure, so that getting off track is less likely to occur.
During this process, it is important for the addict to demonstrate empathy for the experience his or her partner is having, and being willing to listen to how the addict’s partner has been affected by the behavior can be very validating for a partner. It is also important to remain authentic.
Often when a sex addict’s partner discovers the addict’s behavior, the partner struggles with an intense feeling of emotional betrayal. The partner may experience shock, confusion, anger, and feelings of hopelessness and humiliation. Their world is forever changed in an instant, and they experience the symptoms of trauma. Living with an addict who engages in behaviors such as lying, discounting his or her partner’s intuitions and observations, and who may even display verbally abusive behaviors is traumatic for a sex addict’s partner.
Often after the initial discovery, the addict engages in what is called ‘staggered disclosure.’ Staggered disclosure is a term coined by Dr. Jennifer Schneider and Dr. Deborah Corley. It usually occurs after a partner has made an initial discovery of the sexual betrayal, and the sex addict makes an attempt at damage control by initially disclosing only some of the acting-out behaviors.
This type of disclosure can have a very damaging effect on the addict’s partner. By partially revealing information incrementally about the sexual acting out behaviors, the partner loses their already damaged ability to trust both their own intuition and feelings, and it results in great difficulty restoring trust in the sex addict and in rebuilding the relationship. While a staggered disclosure does much to further decrease trust within a relationship, a complete, well thought-out and structured disclosure can have the opposite effect.
There is no set time the disclosure should happen, but generally, 90 days after both partner and sex addict make an earnest commitment to individual recovery and therapy is a good time to schedule a disclosure.
It is also important for the partner to ask themselves what their goal is with disclosure. The idea is that knowing the truth regarding what has happened can help facilitate the healing process.
The sex addict and his or her partner can benefit greatly from professional assistance to help with the trauma of discovery, and to unpack the difficult feelings accompanying it. A solid relationship with a skilled therapist trained in love and sex addiction can help guide the sex addict and their partner through this process.