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The “Honesty Problem” in Early Recovery

By: Vicki Tidwell Palmer



Working with partners of sex addicts over the past 8 years, I’ve found that the greatest need they have is for honesty.


As difficult as it is for sex addicts to believe, most partners can deal with almost any sexual acting out behavior but they can’t tolerate dishonesty.


As a partner, you know in your heart that this is a deep truth. Honesty is the foundation of all intimate relationships, yet it’s invariably a casualty in relationships where addiction is present.


How do you, as a partner, get this fundamental need met during the addict’s unpredictable and often turbulent transition from secrecy and deception to transparency and honesty?


The first step is to discover what you need in order to rebuild trust in the addict’s word. This step usually includes a variety of actions that demonstrate transparency and accountability on the addict’s part.


In the beginning, you will need to rely more on your own perceptions and reality and less on the addict’s words and promises. However, you can start noticing right now whether his words and actions match. Saying one thing and doing another damages the trust rebuilding process.


Tolerating the Intolerable:


When it comes to addressing the needs of partners of sex addicts, it’s important to acknowledge that there is a period of time in early discovery when basic relationship needs such as trust and honesty are simply non-existent.


Although these needs are fundamental to any intimate relationship, the reality is that partners must endure a period of time where they simply don’t know if their need for honesty will get met. I refer to this period of time as tolerating the intolerable.


The book Between a Rock and a Hard Place chronicles the grueling account of Aron Ralston, an avid outdoorsman who was trapped by an 800-pound boulder in a Utah canyon in April 2003.


He was unable to sit, lie down, or move his right arm for six days. Running out of food and water, he eventually resorted to drinking his own urine to stave off dehydration. Ultimately, he was forced to amputate his arm with a dull, dirty pocketknife in order to escape and ultimately save his life.


As horrific and as graphic as Aron’s story is, it contains many parallels to a partner’s experience of feeling trapped in an unbearable predicament – tolerating the intolerable.


Like Aron, you have experienced an unexpected and powerful trauma that likely came out of nowhere. You may have the ability to walk away from the situation, but many partners don’t make that choice for a variety of good reasons. A long relationship history with the addict, a desire not to divorce, dependent children, financial vulnerability, and the hope that the relationship can be salvaged are some of the most common and compelling reasons partners choose to stay.


When you consider that honesty and trust are fundamental relationship needs, you may wonder how you can justify (to yourself) staying in a relationship that doesn’t meet even the most basic of needs?


As difficult as it is, there is a period of time when partners must tolerate the intolerable if they want to find out whether their relationship is salvageable.


There is no way around this part of your healing process and it can be extremely trying. You’re between a rock and a hard place. It’s excruciating, brutal, and it’s survivable.

I like to use the metaphor of a funnel to describe the process addicts go through as they engage in healthier behaviors and become more transparent and honest.


Imagine that the wide part at the top of the funnel is the time of early discovery and disclosure. During this time, the addict is dishonest and lies about many important things on a regular basis. He may also still be engaged in some, if not most, of his acting out behaviors.


Moving down to the spout of the funnel the path becomes narrower – meaning the behaviors lessen and so does the dishonesty. The addict may not be honest 100% of the time, but the lies decrease and they’re typically about issues that are less critical for the partner. Granted, it’s still not the ideal situation – but greatly improved. As the popular 12-step slogan says, “Progress, not perfection.”


As you navigate this painful phase, it’s important to trust your intuition and surround yourself with supportive people who can help you maintain a sense of calm in the storm.


Take good care.

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