Whether you’re conscious of it or not, you are continually scanning people, places, and situations to determine your relative level of safety.
As a partner of a sex addict, you may feel that there is no safe place to turn. Much of what you assumed to be true about your partner and your relationship has been called into question or worse, proven to be a lie. The person you once turned to for comfort and reassurance is now the source of profound pain.
To compound the sense of betrayal and isolation, you may be (understandably) reluctant to talk to family and friends about your situation. You may have chosen to keep your pain to yourself for fear of being judged, believing that the sex addict’s behavior is somehow your fault, to protect yourself from unsolicited and hurtful advice, or to protect yourself from financial or other devastating consequences.
How can you create a safe haven in the midst of turmoil and trauma?
Safety is created by the effective use of boundaries. It’s important for you to understand the four types of boundaries so that you can determine where you’re vulnerable or uncomfortable.
The four primary boundaries are physical, sexual, talking, and listening. Below are some common boundaries established by partners in the first year.
Physical boundaries are about how close you allow others to get to you and your personal property.
Physical boundaries are non-negotiable boundaries which means that when someone says “no” to physical touch or access to their personal property, their boundary must be accepted without question.
Examples of physical boundaries set by partners include:
- limiting and/or eliminating physical touch with the sex addict for a period of time
- therapeutic separation (in-house or separate housing)
- sleeping in separate bedrooms
- limiting time spent together as a couple or family
- separating bank accounts/finances
- limiting or eliminating contact with family, friends, co-workers or acquaintances who have participated in the addict’s secret life
Sexual boundaries are about the ability to choose with whom, when, where, and how you will be sexual. Sexual boundaries, like physical boundaries, are non-negotiable. Examples of sexual boundaries set by partners include:
- requesting that her partner be tested for sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
- completing her own STI testing
- refraining from sexual contact until tests for STIs have been completed and formal therapeutic disclosure has taken place
- 90 days of celibacy/abstinence from all sexual activity
- choosing not to engage in sexual activities with partner that are uncomfortable and/or triggering
- after the crisis and repair stage, requesting a couples “sexual reintegration” process facilitated by a trained couples’ therapist, workshop or use of written guidelines such as Erotic Intelligence (Katehakis) or The Couples Guide to Intimacy (Bercaw & Bercaw)
The talking boundary is about the ability to share one’s thoughts and emotions in a relational manner. The talking boundary also includes making relational requests. Examples of talking boundaries used by partners include:
- deciding with whom and how much to share about her situation
- being honest with her sex addict partner about how his behavior has impacted her while doing her best to avoid being abusive or shaming (e.g., yelling, cursing, name-calling)
- making requests of the sex addict for trust-building behaviors (e.g., recovery work, weekly check-ins, transparency regarding his whereabouts, access to financial information, bank and email accounts)
Listening is the most difficult of the four primary boundaries. The listening boundary is about taking in what you hear and deciding whether you have the same perception, a different perception, or you’re not sure and need more information.
When the listening boundary is weak, you are vulnerable to painful feelings as a result of taking in information that may not be true for your.
Examples of listening boundaries established by partners:
- taking a time-out from conversations with the addict that are experienced as deceptive, crazy-making or manipulative
- making conscious choices about protecting herself from material (print, video, etc.) that is unnecessarily triggering at a time when she feels deeply vulnerable
- noticing when other’s words and actions don’t match
- noticing when she has received too much detailed and/or graphic information about the addict’s acting out behavior and making a conscious decision to protect herself in the future from harmful details
Most partners have been lied to, gaslighted, deceived and otherwise verbally manipulated. There is a difficult period of time between discovery and formal therapeutic disclosure where the partner deserves information that she is being asked to wait until disclosure to receive. During this time, I recommend that partners trust their intuition and do what is needed for their self-protection (e.g., refraining from sexual contact with the addict) rather than look to the addict to answer all her questions.
Provided that there is commitment for therapeutic disclosure, partners often find that when they begin limiting the amount of time spent talking to the sex addict about past behaviors and spend more time reflecting on their own reality and intuition and seeking support and guidance from trusted others, they feel more empowered and at peace.
Sometimes it’s necessary and healthy to establish a wall as a boundary (physical, sexual, talking or listening). This is especially true when you’re dealing with a person and/or behaviors that are offensive, including ongoing deception and lying.
With these basic boundaries in place, partners can create a much needed haven of safety to begin the process of healing and repair. Take a few minutes to reflect on your current needs for safety.
What are the top 2-3 actions you can take today to create a greater sense of safety in your life?
(Boundaries information adapted from the work of Pia Mellody)
©Vicki Tidwell Palmer, LCSW (2014)