Working with partners and sex addicts over the past 11 years, I’ve been told, and witnessed, many examples of successful—and less than successful—dialogues between addicts and partners.
Successful couples’ conversations usually have the following characteristics:
- Listening with curiosity and openness
- Minimal defensiveness
- Willingness to attempt to understand the other person’s perspective (also known as empathy)
- The ability to admit being wrong or engaging in behaviors that harm the relationship (accountability)
Unproductive conversations are the opposite, where one or both members of the couple:
- Are unable to listen, or take in the reality of the other person
- Are defensive, or engage in rationalization or minimization
- Are self-centered, or unwilling to try to understand the other
- Lack accountability or the willingness to admit that they made a mistake, broke a boundary, or acted in a hurtful way
I’ve identified five Dos & Don’ts sex addicts can learn and put into practice immediately to improve communication—and connection—with their partner.
Addicts, for each Do, keep in mind that it won’t be effective— or even believable—if you simply repeat the Dos on this list if they aren’t true for you. Practice these tips only if you can do so from a place of authenticity and honesty. Otherwise, you’ll just be repeating old, inauthentic, and deceptive behavior.
“I understand why you don’t trust me.“
Addicts sometimes have difficulty with this one. Typically it’s shame that’s in your way, rather than truly not understanding why your partner doesn’t trust you. If you’d been lied to and deceived for months, years, or even decades, you know you’d struggle to trust the person who deceived you . . . . until they prove—through trust-building behaviors—that they’re trustworthy. As difficult as it may be to tell your partner that you understand why she doesn’t trust you, it will go a long way toward healing your relationship.
“What can I do to repair what I’ve done?“
This may sound simple, but it’s one of the most powerful questions you can ask your partner. This question can be used for something as simple as being late, forgetting to do something you said you’d do, or for a more serious matter such as having a slip or a relapse.
You may be reluctant to ask your partner what you can do to repair because you’re worried about what she/he will ask for. However, a request is not the same as a demand. You have a right to agree to the request, say “no,” or negotiate an agreement you’re comfortable with. You might even be surprised by how simple—and easy—the request may be.
Lead with agreement
Leading with agreement is a powerful communication tool everyone should master. Leading with agreement is the ability to sort through everything someone says to you, identify what you agree with about what they’ve said, and then start with what you agree with.
For example, let’s say you came home 30 minutes late (without letting your partner know you’d be late) and when you got home, your partner told you how upset she is that you didn’t call, and that every time this happens she worries you’re acting out or that you’re with a former affair partner, etc., etc.
Leading with agreement would sound something like:
I’m so sorry (accountability). You’re right, I was late and I didn’t let you know that I would be late (validating her reality). Is there anything I can do to make it up to you? (offer to repair)
This is a very effective statement (and question) that goes well beyond leading with agreement since it includes accountability and an offer to repair.
The opposite of leading with agreement is defensiveness or outright ignoring what the other person said. In the example above, a defensive response might be:
- I was home on time yesterday.
- But you were late yesterday picking up the kids for school.
- Why are you always on my case?
Notice that defensive statements like these change the subject, don’t address the immediate issue, and create more disconnection and upset.
“I’ve told you everything”
Addicts, never—and I mean never—say “I’ve told you everything.” Even if you’ve gone through formal therapeutic disclosure, taken a polygraph (or more than one polygraph), I repeat, never, ever say “I’ve told you everything.”
The simple truth is that your partner doesn’t know everything about your acting out behavior. In fact, you probably don’t remember everything about your acting out history. Sex addicts have been known to find stashes of money, for example, in a hidden place in their home many years into their recovery and sobriety. They simply forgot they had it.
And then there are the granular details of some of your past activities that you haven’t—and shouldn’t—disclose. As I write that last sentence I can literally hear partners asking, “Why not? Don’t I have a right to know everything (s)he’s done?”
Yes, you have a right to know the behaviors, the frequency of the behaviors, the last time your partner engaged in the behavior (or had contact with an affair partner), how much money he spent, and many other facts about his acting out behaviors.
However, there are some details that should not be disclosed because they serve no useful purpose and ultimately create more unnecessary pain and anxiety for partners. Examples of these types of details are:
- Most thoughts/fantasies
- Graphic details of sexual encounters
- What affair partners said
- The identity of affair partners (when the betrayed partner hasn’t and won’t ever have contact with her/him)
Ask (or expect) your partner to congratulate you
on your sobriety or recovery activities
This can be a tough pill for addicts to swallow. Change is challenging, and fighting a long-standing pattern of compulsive or addictive behavior is extremely difficult.
As you’re working diligently on your recovery and rebuilding trust, you would probably like your partner’s support, encouragement, and maybe even enthusiasm. But looking to your partner to meet these needs is unrealistic, and frankly, unfair.
Partners are sometimes highly offended when the addict expects them to acknowledge and thank them for something (fidelity) that is a basic, fundamental, and expected quality in long-term committed relationships.
Partners have a similar experience in the early stages of discovery. The person they most need—and want—to turn to for comfort and support is you. Unfortunately, at that time, the addict isn’t the person who can best support her. She must reach out to others to get her needs met.
Addicts need a solid system of support from 12-step communities, peer support groups, clergy, therapists, mentors, and others who can give them the unconditional encouragement and validation they need.
Partners, are there Dos & Dont’s you’d like to add to this list? Leave a comment below with other communication “best practices” that have been particularly helpful for you and your relationship.
(Listen to Nate, Aaron and Mark discuss 5 Things Addicts Should (& Shouldn’t) Say to Partners on the Pirate Monk Podcast here.)
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© Vicki Tidwell Palmer, LCSW (2016)
All submitted comments are subject to editing to protect confidentiality and maintain anonymity.
Thank you Vicki for the way you dissect helpful vs. non-helpful communication for couples in the struggle of battling sex addiction. I love how much you break it down to the finest details. One thing my SA spouse has done a lot that has NOT helped me is related to his utter inability to understand the pain this has caused me. Instead of ‘hearing’ me, he wants me to talk about his pain, his stress, his fears about me leaving him. His needs are all he seems to be able to see & talk about…..no matter how much I share with him my heart.
Vicki Tidwell Palmer says
Kirsten, thanks for adding to the conversation!
Yes, I’ve heard this from other partners and it can be a real problem because it not only leaves you feeling that your pain is unheard, but also adds to it. Although I do think there’s a time for addicts to express their pain and fear to their partner, in the beginning it is far more helpful for them to validate and be accountable (“I’m so sorry for the pain I’ve caused you,” for example), and then do whatever they need to do to keep their own pain/fear/shame to themselves and process those feelings with a sponsor, therapist, or their group. It does get easier for them to listen and validate once they’ve done good work around reducing shame and utilizing a solid support system to process their own feelings.
Received my first email news letter tonight~Thank You~
Vicki Tidwell Palmer says
Glad to hear Gayle, hope you enjoyed the info!
“I am not responsible for your feelings.”
The SA is most definitely responsible for the feelings (especially trauma) that the acting out and subsequent obscuring and lying about same has caused.
“Stop living in the past. You should be over it by now.”
The truth of the past is my reality of today and I must take time to sort through the past. Much like sorting through the rubble of a tornado after it has passed. Everything has been cast with the ugly shadow of the dark cloud of sex addiction. I must sort through the wreckage to find what, if anything, is real and true.
“I’m not doing any of that anymore; why don’t you trust me?”
Vicki Tidwell Palmer says
Christine, thanks for adding to the conversation. My heart goes out to you as these are painful things to hear – and unfortunately not uncommon. I often tell addicts that they must keep in mind that their partner is several steps behind them in terms of knowing whether or not they (the addict) is trustworthy. Even when the addict knows he’s in integrity, the partner must see a pattern of consistent transparency and honesty before she/he can have confidence in the progress he’s made.
Take good care.
Good stuff Ms. Palmer. I’ve learned a few new things, recognized some things that I was doing but really love how you packaged everything together. Thanks for writing this!
Question about not sharing the identity of an affair partner: do you mean not telling the name? Or, in what way can I admit who a person was that I had an affair with without disclosing their identity?
Vicki Tidwell Palmer says
Thanks KJ. Quick answer to your question: In general, the name of an affair partner is never disclosed unless the betrayed partner knows the person, will have contact with them in the future (for example, a co-worker), or otherwise would come into contact with the affair partner. However, if the betrayed partner asks a specific question like, “Did you have an affair with [specific person’s name]?” even if that person is not known by the betrayed partner, the information should be provided since there is only one truthful answer—either yes or no.
Hello, I have to say I disagreed with your assessment that there is no useful purpose in knowing the identities of affair partners you are not likely to meet. Let me explain; my husband, a criminal defense Attorney, procured women with violent and/or criminal backgrounds from a “dating” site and brought them into our home. Being able to run criminal background checks and take appropriate steps to protect myself and my children from possible further harm from these women was very empowering!
Vicki Tidwell Palmer says
Hi Julia, what an awful situation to be in. My heart goes out to you.
Like most rules and guidelines, there are exceptions. That is one of the reasons I highly recommend that all betrayed partners get individualized and specific guidance/recommendations about their situation. What is standard in mosts cases does not necessarily work well for all.
I agree that in your case there may have been a benefit to knowing the identity of the affair partners since they were brought to your home. At the same time, most sex workers fall into the criminal background category, and I do not recommend that their names be shared unless there are compelling reasons to do so.
I’m glad the steps you took to protect yourself and your children gave you a sense of empowerment!
I have a question about SA’s not having to share thoughts/fantasies.
Long after disclosure (multiple affairs, online activities, porn etc etc), and all throughout his recovery, my partner has very recently admitted to having overwhelming fantasies about other women; who he worked with, knew from long ago, old friends, people on the street, girls he sees on Instagram.
He told me that he would masturbate over them in the early days, but more recently after he managed to stop masturbating, he would just “indulge” in the fantasies on their own.
This for me, was as much a betrayal as everything else he had done. Even after all these years of “working on his recovery”, he was taking pride in the fact that he wasn’t watching porn, or hooking up with girls, and that these fantasies were just harmless. (Not helped by the fact that a counsellor told him that was perfectly normal and not to tell me about them).
So my question is this: if an SA is using fantasies to still escape into his private world of indulgence, then isn’t that really just perpetuating the addiction?
Am I wrong for saying to him that I don’t want to be with someone who fantasizes about other women?
Vicki Tidwell Palmer says
Hi Cher, I totally understand how painful it is to think about your partner fantasizing about other people. There is an expression in the 12-step sexual addiction community, “Lust of the mind is the last to go,” which speaks to the challenges around thoughts and fantasies.
The simple answer is that you have a right to choose the kind of person you want to be in relationship with. If being with a partner who sometimes fantasizes about other people (or looks at porn, or is unfaithful, for example) is not acceptable to you, then you have a right to choose not to be with that person.
None of us has control over all of our thoughts (including fantasies), and there are many factors that contribute to how much a person struggles with unwanted or intrusive thoughts, including betrayed partners. There is a big difference between having an unwanted or intrusive thought and indulging in fantasy. It is also true that all of us, including unfaithful spouses, have a right to privacy around our thoughts.
This is such a common question for betrayed partners and it deserves a more thorough response. I will write an article about it next week on the blog. Please stay tuned!