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Therapeutic Disclosure: How It Can Help Your Marriage Heal

By: Ella Hutchinson



Imagine you go to the doctor and learn that you might have cancer. You are sent home and told to come back next week to find out. You don’t know if you have cancer, what kind, or your prognosis. Suddenly you don’t know what your future looks like or how much of a future you even have. As you look at your kids, you’ll wonder if they will have to grow up without a mom or dad. You don’t know your own reality anymore.


What will you focus on during that next week? Will the fear of having cancer dominate all your thoughts? How well will you function at work while wondering if your immediate future involves chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery?


You might even find that you are willing to do whatever it takes to find out the truth sooner. Your truth. Maybe your kids play with the kids of someone who works in the doctor’s office. Would you go so far as to ask them to take a glance in your file? Would you be calling the office long before your scheduled appointment to to find out if your results are in and if you can get them sooner??


As human beings, when we don’t know our own personal truth, we feel like we have no solid ground to stand on. It can feel like we are suffocating, spinning out of control. We just need to know the truth.


Many of us know this feeling all too well—except, for the partner of a sex addict, the truth is often purposely withheld by the one we should be able to trust the most.


How Secrets Can Impact Relationships


They say we are only as sick as our secrets. But what does this mean? This means that when we purposely hold information inside, information others should know, it fills us with shame. Shame is defined as, “A painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.”


Why else keep a secret unless you are ashamed of the truth? And living a life filled with shame is a miserable way to live. No one can know the real us that way, so we have no real connections or real intimacy with another person. Because of this, someone carrying around the burden of secrets is often not a fun person to be around. They create a façade well enough to have a few people in their lives. Some create that persona so well that they seem charming and delightful…at first. Then, once you get to know them well enough, often after making a life commitment to them, you see the anger, the lies, and the selfishness. You see the ugly reality that comes from living an inauthentic life. To save face, the secret keeper has to get better and better at covering his tracks. This can become quite overwhelming and leads to all kinds of manipulation and crazy-making (gaslighting), inevitably only making the problem worse.


When my husband speaks to a sexually addicted client, the client often points out his wife’s faults, such as not being affectionate enough, being too busy with the kids and not focused on him, spending too much time at work or shopping, etc. Jeff describes that the sex addict’s secrets affect the spouse regardless of whether or not the spouse is aware there are any secrets. First of all, he explains, now is not the time to be focused on traditional couple’s counseling issues. The compulsive sexual betrayal, regardless what the behavior was (porn, chronic masturbation, prostitution, hook-ups, affairs, etc.), is the bleeding heart that will kill the marriage while you waste time talking about other things. But more importantly, Jeff shares, we have no way of knowing how much of the partner’s distance or sexual unavailability, for example, was because her body knew something wasn’t right long before her mind knew what it was.


What Is a Therapeutic Disclosure?


This brings us to a crucial part of couple’s sex addiction treatment. Therapeutic disclosure. Not to be confused with discovery or “d-day” as some call it, a therapeutic disclosure (or clinical disclosure) is a factual account of the addict’s sexual history, prepared in advance with the guidance of a sex addiction counselor.


Some counselors go back to when the current relationship began and some go back to the age of 18. For various reasons, we go back to childhood or the earliest sexual memory. The addict reads the disclosure to the partner in a therapist’s office. Ideally, this either takes place in the partner’s therapist’s office, with the addict’s therapist present, or in the context of a couple’s intensive.


A couple’s intensive, like the one Jeff and I facilitate, is a period of usually three days where a couple comes to focus on healing from the sex addiction. The couple prepares for this time beforehand with some readings and assignments, as well group and individual support. Not to be confused with a retreat or other program for couples, our intensives have only one couple in attendance for the entire three days and the focus is on helping the couple find healing from the havoc sex addiction has wreaked in their relationship. A big part of the intensive is a therapeutic disclosure, prepared in advance of the intensive.


Today most all sex addiction professionals agree on the importance of therapeutic disclosure. In their book, Surviving Disclosure, Jennifer Schneider, PH.D. and Deborah Corley, PH.D., state, “The American public has been taught over and over again that although misconduct is bad, the deception that it often engenders in an attempt to avoid discovery is worse.”


When Should a Therapeutic Disclosure Happen?


Talk to most partners of sex addicts and they will tell you they want to know everything now!


They often spend hours begging and pleading with their spouse to give them all the information about his acting out. Due to the addict’s fear and shame, this inevitably ends up with a staggered disclosure, over months or years, filled with lies and half-truths. Each time new information is revealed it magnifies the trauma caused to the partner after the initial discovery of the addiction.


Because the partner knows her spouse is still lying she often goes to extreme lengths to get to the truth. This might include following him, calling and texting repeatedly, searching his phone and computer history, and even hiring a private detective. Some call this “policing.” I call it truth-seeking. And I call it normal.


Let’s think back to the cancer analogy. When we don’t know our own reality, we feel crazy. We can’t focus. We forget things more easily. We suffer mood swings, crying spells, depression, anger, and a myriad of other trauma symptoms. But we aren’t crazy. We are acting like anyone would who had both been betrayed in the worst way possible and then had the truth withheld from them.


The betrayal hurts more than we can ever put into words. But partners of sex addicts, including myself, agree almost unanimously, the only thing that hurts worse are the lies. This is why I advocate for a therapeutic disclosure to be done sooner rather than later, assuming certain criteria are met. These are that acting out has stopped, recovery activities have begun, and the couple wants to try to save the relationship.


How Much Detail Should a Therapeutic Disclosure Include?


In terms of how much detail to include in the disclosure, this should be up to the partner. I tell clients our disclosure is detailed, but not graphic.


My experience shows that partners know what they can handle, and generally make wise choices about what they do and don’t want to know when given the freedom to do so.

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