(The information contained in this post is for informational purposes only. Because of the serious nature of the disclosure process and the significant potential for harm due to improper use, this information should be used only in the context of a therapeutic process facilitated by a mental health professional trained in the use of formal therapeutic disclosure, and not as a self-help or do-it-yourself tool.)
Sadly, most partners of sex addicts experience what is commonly referred to as “staggered disclosure.”
Staggered disclosure is when a partner repeatedly discovers information about the sex addict’s infidelity either by accident, investigation, or by the sex addict’s own admission.
Staggered disclosure is painful and traumatic for partners.
To make matters worse, after sex addicts disclose incomplete or even misleading information. they often tell their partner, “I’ve told you everything.”
Prior to formal therapeutic disclosure, the statement “I’ve told you everything,” is almost always a further deception on the part of the addict.
For this reason, I encourage both the sex addict and her/his partner to refrain from having detailed conversations about the addict’s behaviors prior to formal disclosure.
As a partner, your initial response to being told that you can’t ask questions about the sex addict’s behavior may spark outrage. After all, you’ve been intentionally and repeatedly deceived and lied to, possibly for years. Why should you have to wait even longer for the truth? You may also wonder how you’re supposed to protect yourself if you don’t have information. Your questions are completely reasonable and understandable.
The truth is that unless there is an imminent risk of harm to you, your reputation (due to a public disclosure of the sex addict’s behavior), or to your children, it is more harmful than helpful for you and the sex addict to have unmediated and unfacilitated conversations about his/her history of infidelity prior to formal therapeutic disclosure.
However, you do need to protect yourself sexually and emotionally during this time. Boundary work at this stage is crucial. If you’re concerned that the sex addict may have exposed you to a sexually transmitted infection, for example, you need to get tested and refrain from sexual contact with the addict until after formal therapeutic disclosure (and polygraph, if applicable).
Formal therapeutic disclosure (“FTD”) is a mutual, planned, and professionally facilitated event where the sex addict reads a document prepared in advance describing his/her history of sexual infidelity.
FTD provides a foundation to begin the process of repairing the damage done to the relationship and to rebuild trust.
FTD typically happens in one of two ways: 1) after the sex addict has worked with an individual therapist over a period of months to prepare the document; or 2) in an intensive format of 3-4 days facilitated by a trained mental health professional.
While it can be frustrating for partners to wait for several months for a disclosure, the reality is that the disclosure process helps sex addicts emerge from denial, gain a better understanding of their behaviors, and become more forthcoming and honest.
If a disclosure process is rushed, the potential for omissions, attempts at further deception, and failed polygraphs is higher.
FTD should include the following components:
- The sex addict and partner are in agreement about participating in the formal disclosure process
- Both parties (with the agreement of their therapist(s)) are in agreement about the timing of the disclosure session
- Neither partner has initiated legal divorce proceedings or has recently stated that they plan to initiate divorce
- Partner is given an opportunity both before and after the reading of the FTD to ask questions of the addict
- The sex addict has worked with a therapist trained in facilitating disclosures to prepare the written document that will be read to the partner during the FTD
- At least one professional trained in facilitating FTD is present for the disclosure session
- Therapeutic and/or peer support is available to the partner both during and immediately after FTD
In addition, due to the level of deception inherent in sex addiction, a polygraph with an experienced polygraph examiner familiar with FTD is highly recommended, although optional. Polygraph is typically done immediately following disclosure — usually on the same day — and should be completed as soon as possible following a FTD.
Generally speaking, FTD should include the following information:
- Types of sexual acting out behaviors
- Approximate time frames of behaviors
- Approximately frequency of behaviors
- Approximate number of sexual partners
- The date of last contact with any affair partners and/or the last date addict engaged in behaviors
- Approximate amount of money spent on behaviors or activities related to behaviors, including source and location of funds
- Names of acting out partners known by partner of sex addict
- Health issues (sexually transmitted infections, etc.)
- Legal issues (e.g., arrests, lawsuits, and any children fathered by sex addict with affair partner)
- Incidents that may have directly or indirectly impacted the couples’ children (including exposure to pornography, affair partners, or the sharing of photos, etc. with affair partners or online)
- Brief sexual autobiography (optional, but may be particularly helpful in understanding the roots of addiction and its progression)
The following information should NOT be included in a FTD:
- Graphic details of sexual behaviors
- Names of affair partners not known by partner
- Locations of sexual acting out (other than the couple’s home or other property owned by couple)
- Addict’s thoughts or feelings about acting out partners
- Fantasies, unless they directly impacted partner (e.g., sex addict’s chronic use of fantasy during sex with partner or addict’s chronic inability to remain present in daily activities such as work, couples’ relationship, or parenting due to fantasy)
In the same session that a FTD occurs, the sex addict should present his/her sex plan or “inner circle” if the partner doesn’t already know it. The addict should also commit to telling his partner of any “slips” (engaging in any bottom line or inner circle behaviors) within a specific timeframe — typically 24-72 hours.
The combination of the FTD, polygraph (if applicable), sharing of sex plan, and commitment to disclose future acting out behaviors, provides the foundation for the repair of the relationship and the beginnings of rebuilding trust.
As a partner, you have a right to request a FTD. You also have a right not to receive a disclosure if you don’t want one.
If you’ve been wanting a disclosure for some time and the sex addict has been unwilling or has repeatedly stalled in following through, it is completely reasonable for you to request to join him at his next individual session with his therapist to discuss your requests and ask any questions you may have. (Read my article: How Long Should it Take to Prepare a Disclosure? here.)
If you’re a partner who’s been through disclosure and would like to share your experience, strength, and hope, please leave a comment below.*
© Vicki Tidwell Palmer, LCSW (2015)
*All submitted comments are subject to editing to protect confidentiality and maintain anonymity.