For couples who want to overcome the devastating impact of chronic sexual betrayal or sex addiction, the goal is to heal, rebuild trust, and restore their relationship.
It may seem counter-productive, or even harmful, for a couple who wants to rebuild their relationship to limit or stop having contact for a period of time. However, there are times when having no contact is beneficial—and even vital—to restoring a relationship.
A period of no contact may be initiated in several ways:
- A therapist may recommend that the couple go on no contact for a set amount of time for one—or several—of the reasons listed below.
- One member of the couple wants a period of no contact. Choosing to have no contact is a physical boundary, and therefore no agreement is needed by the other person. When one person in a relationship wants no contact, it is a non-negotiable personal boundary.
- Both members of the couple may want to enter into a period of no contact, and create an agreement to do so.
Here are 5 reasons a couple should initiate a period of no contact.
There is a high degree of emotional and/or physical volatility in the relationship.
If one or both members of the couple regularly rage or engage in threatening or intimidating behavior, a period of no contact provides a cooling off period for each person to work on their own boundary issues and learn how to re-engage with one another with greater safety and respect.
A partner has requested that the addict complete formal therapeutic disclosure, engage in 12-step work, or therapy, and the request hasn’t been fulfilled in a reasonable timeframe.
Although I don’t recommend this approach for a first request, there are times when a partner has repeatedly asked for meaningful engagement in recovery, but her request hasn’t been honored. Partners will sometimes say they made a request or set a boundary but it “didn’t work.” Often, it’s not that it didn’t work, but that there is more boundary work to do.
Going on a period of no contact until a request is fulfilled is a good example of how to increase your level of self-care and protection when boundaries “don’t work” or are broken or violated.
The couple’s relationship is highly enmeshed.
Enmeshment is a lack of appropriate emotional, physical, sexual, or intellectual boundaries. Signs that you may have problems with enmeshment in adult-adult relationships include:
- Feeling highly anxious if your partner doesn’t behave, think, or feel how you would like them to, and/or attempting to get them to behave, think, or feel the way you want them to.
- Seeing your partner as an extension of you, and attempting to manage their behavior so that others don’t perceive you in a “negative” way.
- Believing that another person is responsible for making you feel good about yourself.
- Becoming distressed or angry when your partner disagrees with or has a different opinion from yours.
When a couple is highly enmeshed, a period of no contact provides an opportunity to begin learning boundary work, and to learn differentiation. David Schnarch, author of Passionate Marriage: Keeping Love and Intimacy Alive in Committed Relationships defines differentiation as:
The ability to balance humankind’s two most fundamental drives. One is our urge to be connected with other people, and the other is the urge to be free and autonomous and direct the course of our life. Differentiation is the ability to have both: to be very much involved in a relationship and also be able to be your own person within that relationship.
(Read more about David Schnarch’s approach to couples and differentiation here.)
A period of no contact often helps partners gain clarity.
The gaslighting that goes hand-in-hand with active addiction and early recovery makes it extremely difficult for partners to see their situation clearly and to trust their reality. A period of no contact helps partners get out from behind the fog of addiction so that they can take meaningful action toward their healing and empowerment.
If either member of the couple struggles with love addiction, a period of no contact will bring the issue to light so that it can be addressed.
When someone struggles with love addiction, or being too dependent in a relationship, no contact brings up intense feelings of abandonment that are often rooted in childhood trauma. Most people who struggle with love addiction aren’t able to follow through with a period of no contact—or reducing contact—due to their anxiety.
(If you’re wondering whether you struggle with love addiction, read my article Are You a Love Addict? 10 Questions to Ask.)
If you decide to embark on a period of no contact, here are 4 guidelines to follow:
1. Define what “no contact” means.
No contact typically means no contact of any kind—in-person meetings, phone conversations, texting, or email. However, if you have minor children in the home, you will probably need to have contact to coordinate childcare, children’s events, and/or visitation. Most couples committed to a period of no contact find that they can easily accomplish coordinating parental responsibilities via texting.
Some couples have an occasional therapy session during a period of no contact. It’s best to decide in advance if/when any couples’ sessions will happen.
2. Decide on the length of time you want to have no contact.
If you go into a no contact agreement without specifying when it will end, it is highly likely it won’t last long. Most couples who don’t agree in advance on time parameters revert to their established patterns of communication, and the no contact agreement falls apart.
I sometimes recommend that couples agree to re-connect on a certain date to decide whether or not either or both of them wants to continue with no contact. This works well in situations where the partner has made a request for certain milestones to be completed by the addict before ending a no contact period.
3. If one person breaks contact, you can still maintain it.
If you’re in a period of no contact and your partner texts you or leaves a voicemail about a non-urgent, non-emergency matter that doesn’t require a response, you can maintain your agreement for no contact simply by not responding.
4. Reach out to your community of support when you’re tempted to break no contact.
You will probably be tempted at least once to break your no contact agreement. And when you are, reach out to others for connection and to remind you of why you made the commitment.
Remember that you have an agreement with your partner, and that agreement is a boundary. Holding to the agreement helps your relationship. And if you’re the one who betrayed your partner, you are demonstrating your ability to honor agreements, keep your word, and to be trustworthy.
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© Vicki Tidwell Palmer, LCSW (2017)
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