[Read Negotiating Non-Negotiables for Addicts Part 1 here.]
Of all the topics I cover on my blog, non-negotiable boundaries tends to push the most buttons—for betrayed partners and unfaithful spouses alike.
Betrayed partners sometimes mis-use non-negotiables to gain a sense of safety or control. Or they use them as a way to avoid the painful work of self-soothing, self-care, and the difficult (and messy) process of boundary-setting in relationships impacted by serial infidelity.
To be clear: You cannot establish a boundary for another person. An adult cannot tell another adult what they will—or won’t—do. You can make requests, and the person to whom you make the request can agree, disagree, or negotiate a compromise agreement.
A non-negotiable (relationship) boundary* says:
If __________ happens, I can no longer stay in this relationship.
I need _________ in order to stay in this relationship. If _________ doesn’t happen, I can no longer stay in this relationship.
Note that neither of these statements requires an action on the other person’s part. It is simply a statement of what the person stating the non-negotiable boundary will do if certain actions do—or don’t—happen.
As the unfaithful spouse, you are probably confused, frustrated, and perhaps even infuriated about your partner’s non-negotiable boundaries. And if your partner doesn’t understand the way non-negotiables work, or uses them as a weapon, you may have very understandable reasons for feeling the way you do.
Unfortunately, most unfaithful spouses see themselves as victims of their partner’s non-negotiables—further adding to the problem. And when you see yourself as a victim, you’re going to feel resentful. And resentment leads to disconnection, pain, and eventually slips and relapses.
Here are some common perceptions—and misunderstandings—from the unfaithful partner’s perspective about non-negotiables:
My partner’s non-negotiable boundaries are one of the reasons we’re now getting divorced.
Is this really true?
If your partner presents you with a laundry list of non-negotiables like attending seven 12-step meetings a week or going to individual therapy every week for 5 years, or having a polygraph every 3 months for 3 years (see my article Verify for Trust for some excellent information about the use of polygraph in restoring relationships impacted by serial infidelity), then these boundaries—which are actually demands—required your participation.
As an adult, you have the ability to say that you are not willing to agree to these demands, or that you see them as a set up—because eventually even with good intentions one will likely be broken and if your partner follows through with her non-negotiables, the relationship will be over.
Betrayed partners use non-negotiable boundaries as a power play.
Sometimes, they do.
As I’ve said many times, it is often irresistibly tempting for a betrayed partner to want to establish a long list of non-negotiable boundaries for the purpose of feeling safer or to gain control. And sometimes they’re used with ill intent to punish or shame the unfaithful spouse.
Most addicts don’t have the ability to disagree with anything their partner tells them to do. Unfaithful spouses will say yes to almost anything.
Well, they actually do have the ability, but they make another choice.
And yet, it’s true that they often say yes to almost everything. But is it in the best interest of the unfaithful spouse? Or the betrayed partner? And if he/she agrees to everything, who is responsible?
These are painful questions. It is a simple fact that most of us have a tendency to see ourselves as the victim of our partner, and other people in general. When you agree or say yes to a request, you lose claim to victimhood. You have made a free choice as an adult, and you cannot be a victim when you are free to choose to agree, disagree, or to engage in a conversation of compromise.
When a relationship is on the line, unfaithful spouses feel compelled to say yes.
As an unfaithful spouse, you do need to engage in acts of contrition, but a “feeling” of being compelled is not the same as having no choice. To believe otherwise disempowers you, and makes you a victim.
People who struggle with addiction are not mature. Addicts are not adults.
Addiction does cause arrested development both intellectually and emotionally. However, an addict’s delayed development doesn’t exempt them from adult responsibilities, or give them license to show up in relationships as adolescents.
To think otherwise is the same as saying that a person who is not of sound mind—either due to medical issues or being under the influence of a substance—is not responsible for their boundary-less or even criminal behavior.
Believing that addicts are immature, and therefore not capable of standing up for themselves in the face of a betrayed partner’s demands—or even boundary-violating behavior—is a dangerous thought distortion and profoundly disempowering. Holding this view places the addict in the position of being a child to the betrayed partner, and this kind of parent-child dynamic in any relationship is toxic.
If you’re the unfaithful spouse, the best thing you can do to help yourself and your partner navigate the perilous journey between addicts and partners after discovery of sexual betrayal is:
- Get the most qualified guidance and support you can
- Give your partner a full disclosure, with polygraph (if she wants one)
- Be as transparent, honest, and forthcoming as you possibly can
- Do everything you can do to reduce shame and defensiveness
- Join, participate, and process your frustration and resentment in a community of support
*There are 2 types of non-negotiable boundaries: non-negotiable relationship boundaries and non-negotiable personal boundaries (regarding physical and/or sexual touch).
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© Vicki Tidwell Palmer, LCSW (2017)
All submitted comments are subject to editing to protect confidentiality and maintain anonymity. Submitted comments containing profanity, offensive language, or otherwise objectionable material will not be published.
Vicki, I am currently reading and getting so much from your book Moving Beyond Betrayal. Thank you.
My situation with my spouse of 28 years is a little different from most and I have not found much advice on this situation. I wonder if you can recommend any resources? My husband has admitted to being a sex addict but has justified it all these years because he physically acted out only (according to him) with me through nightly marital rape. He fully admits my “no” meant nothing and he would force sex and sexual behaviors that were sick and dangerous for me. How can our marriage survive if I can not accept even one slip or relapse because of its ramifications on my personal health? How can I ever entrust again my heart to the one and only man I ever trusted with it and he was willing to literally sacrifice my life to appease his addiction? He forced sex even when the consequence to me could have been death
Vicki Tidwell Palmer says
Michelle, I am so deeply saddened by your story. And I’m also sad to say that marital rape is more common than most people realize.
Your situation is important and complex, and deserves all of the time and attention you need to heal. For you, my recommendation is to build a team of support around you. If you would like to work with me, I invite you to join my Partner’s Healing & Empowerment Online Community where you can connect with other partners and me for support, validation, and information. You can find all the information about membership and join online here.
I also recommend that you find a therapist to work with who can help with the complex trauma you’re dealing with. A Certified Sex Addiction Therapist (CSAT) who also has training in treating trauma is a good option, or someone who is certified by the Association of Partners of Sex Addicts Trauma Specialists (APSATS). Their respective websites are http://www.iitap.com and http://www.apsats.org.
If your husband has admitted that he is a sex addict and he is not in therapy, he needs to find a therapist who has special training to address his issues. Certified Sex Addiction Therapists (CSATs) have this training and you can find a therapist in your area at http://www.iitap.com. If he will not go to therapy, you can make a request that he do so, following the guidelines for making requests in Moving Beyond Betrayal. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for men to receive the message directly or indirectly from the culture and even religious organizations that they have a right to their partner’s body. This is distorted and abusive thinking. No person has a right to another person’s body. Ever.
And finally, have you read my article about consent—No Means No? You can find it here.
The bottom line is that you have a right to decide when and how you are touched, physically and sexually. My wish for you is that you get the support you need so that you can feel safe and protected.