In the early stages of discovery and disclosure, you may wonder, “will I ever trust again?”
The simple answer is yes . . . but the path to trusting again is far from simple.
When it comes to relationship repair and rehabilitation, the two most common mistakes partners of sex addicts make are taking an ostrich in the sand approach or creating a kind of sex addiction police state inside their relationship.
In other words, they ask for either too little or too much.
If you take an ostrich in the sand approach, you believe that:
- It’s the addict’s recovery and you don’t need to know anything about it
- It’s his problem and he needs to fix it on his own – it has nothing to do with you
- You don’t need (or want) to know about his recovery plan
- He needs to talk to his therapist, sponsor, or others about his struggles and his program – not you
- You shouldn’t ask him to go to meetings or therapy because he’ll do it just to placate you.
- If you “have to” ask for trust-building or relationship repair behaviors, then his recovery isn’t real or genuine. (If you identify with this one, read doesn’t he have to want it [recovery] for himself?)
Sometimes partners aren’t necessarily opposed to knowing about the sex addict’s recovery activities – it just doesn’t occur to them to ask for the information.
While I would never tell a partner that she must be informed or aware of the sex addict’s recovery, there are definite problems to the ostrich in the sand approach.
First, in many ways this hands-off approach mimics your pre-discovery relationship. The sex addict was leading a secret life of addiction of which you had no awareness. The difference now is that the “secret” life is his recovery.
When you choose to let the addict’s recovery and growth remain in a separate compartment from your connection as a couple, you miss a significant opportunity for relationship repair, healing, and intimacy.
You also miss the opportunity to experience what it feels like to own your right — your authentic power — to ask for what you want.
When partners want little or no information, there are usually underlying reasons such as depression, learned helplessness, fear of intimacy, avoidance, high levels of generalized anxiety, childhood neglect or abandonment, or in some cases, a secret romantic or sexual relationship.
The other extreme – the sex addiction police state – happens when a partner goes to great lengths to monitor the sex addict.
This can take the form of:
- Being the accountability partner who monitors the addict’s online activities (this is better handled by a sponsor, program accountability partner, or therapist)
- Demanding that the addict respond immediately to texts, phone calls, etc. at unreasonable times such as business meetings, while driving, sleeping, attending family events, or taking care of young children
- Monitoring or following the addict – in real time or online (on social media, phone records, email accounts, etc.)
- Demanding that the addict give detailed or graphic descriptions of his thoughts, fantasies, and triggers
The biggest problem with this approach is that it doesn’t accomplish what the partner hopes it will. Even if you set up every available means of monitoring, you realize that there is always the possibility that the addict has managed to avoid detection. And that is the truth.
The other major problem with excessive monitoring is that it sets up an unhealthy and toxic power dynamic between you and the sex addict. Your role in his life is now authority figure, consequence maker, and adversary.
If your goal is to have a healthy, connected, and intimate relationship, you won’t get there through hyper-vigilance, attempts to control, or punishment.
So, what’s the solution?
The solution, and the middle ground between the ostrich in the sand approach and the sex addiction police state is what I call collaborative transparency.
Collaborate transparency happens when the sex addict is forthcoming and transparent about his activities and behaviors based on agreements made between the addict and the partner. Collaborative transparency means that the partner and sex addict work together to create a framework for rebuilding trust and repairing the relationship.
4 steps for collaborative transparency:
- The partner identifies – specifically – what she wants the addict to do to repair the damage and to help her begin to trust him again. These actions may include attending 12-step meetings, sharing passwords for email, phone, and credit card accounts, formal therapeutic disclosure, or taking a baseline polygraph or follow-up polygraphs (after formal therapeutic disclosure).
- If the addict isn’t already engaged in the activities the partner identifies in #1, the partner makes specific requests to the addict for trust-building behaviors.
- The addict honestly assesses whether he can agree to what his partner requests, and either agrees to the requests, doesn’t agree, or offers an alternative solution that he can agree to. Keep in mind that if you can’t accept “no” from the addict, then his “yes” will have little meaning at best, or will become a future broken agreement at worst.
- Once the agreements are made, the couple writes down their agreements in an agreement or contract journal, signs, and dates them. This creates clear communication, accountability, and a resource for future reference if needed.
As you read these steps, you’re probably wondering, “What happens if he doesn’t agree to my requests?” or, “What if he agrees to my requests but then breaks the agreement?”
This is where the deeper, more complex boundary work begins.
In future posts, I’ll talk about how to make relational requests, what to do when the sex addict wants to negotiate a request, as well as how to handle broken contracts, agreements, and boundary violations.
© Vicki Tidwell Palmer, LCSW (2015)
All submitted comments are subject to editing to protect confidentiality and maintain anonymity.