One of my favorite definitions of intimacy comes from the work of Pia Mellody. Pia defines intimacy as:
The experience of knowing—and being known by—another person.
We can know another person in many ways—intellectually, emotionally, physically, sexually, and spiritually. And intimacy can be experienced on each of these levels.
Our boundaries determine how close we let others get to us—and how close we get to others—in each of these dimensions. For example, when a person’s boundaries are relatively healthy, they don’t seek physical or sexual intimacy with a stranger or someone they’ve just met for the first time.
In long-term committed relationships, intimacy ebbs and flows. Couples go through periods of very close physical, emotional, or sexual intimacy followed by times of less intimacy in one or more of these areas. Geographical separation, illness, parenting, health challenges, work or school commitments, and many other factors impact the level of intimacy a couple has at any given time.
In relationships impacted by chronic sexual betrayal or sex addiction, when the addict has a “slip” or a relapse, the couples’ intimacy usually suffers. A slip is a one-time breach of a sex addict’s recovery plan or Three Circle Plan.
(If you’re not familiar with recovery slips and relapses, see Chapter 2 of my book, Moving Beyond Betrayal: The 5-Step Boundary Solution for Partners of Sex Addicts, or use the search box on the home page of my blog here to search for any articles about recovery slips.)
It’s important to keep in mind that the revelation of a slip is not only new, painful information, it is also a reminder of a prior trauma—the original discovery or disclosure of sexual betrayal. Sadly—for both the partner and addict—slips and relapses are not uncommon, and not just in sex addiction recovery.
Five ways recovery slips impact intimacy:
Depending on the how the slip was discovered or shared with the partner, the partner may become highly triggered. She may protectively withdraw emotionally, physically, and sexually.
If the slip was discovered by the partner—rather than disclosed by the addict—the partner’s instinct for protection will be much greater. This is one of the reasons it is strongly advised that addicts disclose slips as soon as possible—typically within 24 to 48 hours after the slip occurs.
Although slips and relapses aren’t due to any fault or deficiency of the partner, partners often feel wounded on a deeply personal level that impacts their self-esteem. When your partner chooses to be sexual with others, or with images of others, you may feel less-than or inferior, and you may instinctively pull back to protect yourself from further pain.
Repeated slips damage a partner’s esteem because she will often tell herself that she was “stupid” or inferior for staying, or for tolerating ongoing disappointment.
Some partners respond to slips by seeking reassurance from the addict that she is enough and that she matters to him. If the slip is disclosed quickly—with a high degree of accountability and minimal defensiveness—a slip can become an opportunity for deeper intimacy and trust, especially if the addict is able to reassure his partner in a way that is meaningful to her.
If there are repeated slips, partners may live in a near-constant state of hyper-vigilance, waiting for the next disclosure. In this heightened state, it will be difficult for her to let down her guard with the addict. She may struggle to engage authentically in simple, casual conversations or in activities as a couple that she once enjoyed for fear of being “duped” again.
If slips become routine, they erode a partner’s hope and optimism about the future. Over time, you may become so disconnected from the addict that the two of you live together more as roommates and less like romantic partners.
Addicts, here are 4 ways you can minimize the painful impact of slips:
- Immediately after a slip, contact your sponsor, an accountability partner, therapist, or recovery coach to process what happened and create a plan to tell your partner. The reason it’s important for addicts to get outside support before sharing a slip with their partner is to minimize any additional and unnecessary pain created by sharing the information in a way that is not helpful to your partner.
- Commit to your partner that you will tell her within 24-48 hours if you have a slip. Don’t wait until a weekly recovery check-in to disclose a slip unless your partner has specifically requested you do so.
- After you have shared a slip, do whatever you need to do to avoid becoming defensive, rationalizing, or minimizing your behavior. These kinds of reactions will only prolong the pain and give your partner the impression that you are avoiding accountability, or that you aren’t remorseful.
- Share with your partner what you plan to do to re-commit to your recovery.
- After your partner has had an opportunity to respond to what you’ve shared, ask her if there is anything she would like from you to repair the breach in trust. For more information about trust-building and repair read my article Beginning Anew and Rebuilding Trust.
Are you a clinician, counselor, or coach working with partners of sex addicts? My Moving Beyond Betrayal Clinicians & Coaches Online Course starts Thursday, April 20. For more information, visit here.
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© Vicki Tidwell Palmer, LCSW (2017)
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