As a betrayed partner, you want your unfaithful spouse to want to change . . . . from the inside out.
Changing from the inside out means he wants to get better for himself — not because you, or anyone else, are breathing down his neck. You’d like to know that he would commit to changing his behavior even if he wasn’t in a relationship with you.
Unfortunately, this is rarely the case for sex addicts—or any addict—in the aftermath of discovery.
Addicts usually attempt to bargain with the addiction and the people in their life who are unhappy about it by engaging in a few half-hearted new behaviors while simultaneously holding on to the old, addictive ones.
It’s completely understandable that you, as a partner, long to know that your spouse genuinely wants to get better for his own sake. However, I encourage you to focus on his actions rather than his level of motivation, reasons for change, or his words.
Think of a time in your life when you wanted to change a behavior. Maybe you wanted to lose weight, exercise more regularly, change your eating habits, or just wanted to learn a new skill. Did you always want to go to the gym, make the healthy food choice, or sit down to practice the guitar? Probably not.
Changing an addictive behavior is a series of minute-by-minute—sometimes second-by-second—decisions.
The internal pull toward an ingrained, addictive habit that’s been years in the making takes an intense level of focus, determination, and effort. An addict must replace his addictive pattern with new, healthy, and life-affirming habits and behaviors.
The experience of addiction recovery is similar to the stages of grief formulated by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. The 5 stages are:
Notice that acceptance is the last stage.
For an addict, acceptance comes when he is at peace with the reality that he will be engaged in a recovery process for the rest of his life. He is no longer burdened with frequent and intense feelings of shame, and no longer perceives himself as a victim for “having” to be in recovery.
When an addict reaches acceptance, he enjoys attending 12-step meetings, meeting with his sponsor, and engaging in fellowship with other recovering addicts. He answers your questions and listens to how his actions impact you with little or no defensiveness.
You will know when your spouse has changed—at the core—by his attitude toward recovery activities and the lessening of his overall defensiveness about the need to engage in ongoing repair and rehabilitation of your relationship.
These changes take time.
The common wisdom about recovery from sex addiction is that it takes 3 to 5 years for an addict to get grounded in a good, solid recovery plan. My experience working with sex addicts and their partners for more than a decade confirms this piece of common wisdom.
If you related to the examples I mentioned earlier about changing an old, bad habit or creating a new one in your own life, I’d like you to ask yourself what motivated you to begin?
People often embark on a new exercise program or a change in their eating habits because they think it will cause others to feel or think differently about them. We’re often initially motivated by external factors like getting someone’s approval, avoiding judgment, or trying to prove to others—or maybe even ourselves—that we’re worthy.
But what we usually find—if we stick to our new, healthier habit long enough—is that we feel better because of the sense of accomplishment, increased confidence, and overall good feeling we get as a result of our efforts. The goal that initially motivated us becomes a by-product rather than the driving force behind our new behavior.
It’s the same with addiction recovery. Addicts rarely seek help on their own without the motivation of external pressure. They typically begin their recovery journey to avoid conflict, placate, or simply get someone off their back.
But take heart. I encourage you to focus on what your spouse is doing rather than on how he feels about it or what he says about it, especially in the first year of recovery.
If your unfaithful spouse follows a recovery path—even if it’s kicking, screaming, and full of unattractive self-pity in the beginning—he will find over time that a life unburdened by guilt, shame, and deception is worth the effort.
As you navigate through this painful and difficult process, I encourage you to seek support and encouragement from trusted friends, groups specifically for betrayed partners, online communities, your counselor or therapist, and other helpful resources.
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© Vicki Tidwell Palmer, LCSW (2015)