Staggered disclosure is an unfortunate—yet extremely common—experience for betrayed partners.
Staggered disclosure is when a betrayed partner receives repeated and incomplete information about her spouse’s unfaithful actions or sexual acting out either directly from him (or her) or indirectly through intentional or unintentional discovery.
For example, her spouse may tell her a story about a particular event one day, and then one or two weeks later he adds other important information to the story that wasn’t included the first time around. Or, her spouse tells her he participated in a certain activity less than a handful of times, but she later discovers or is told that the real number is much higher than originally disclosed.
Staggered disclosure is profoundly damaging and hurtful not only to betrayed partners, but also to the restoration of the couples’ relationship if they choose to stay together.
Betrayed partners are repeatedly traumatized when they receive additional information about how their spouse was unfaithful after they believed they had the whole story, or thought they had received complete information. Partners often describe the experience of staggered disclosure or discovery as feeling as though the rug is repeatedly pulled out from under them.
If you’re a betrayed partner, you know that one of the primary reasons it is so difficult for you to protect yourself from staggered disclosure is that your spouse has information you need, want, and deserve. Because of the deception and gaslighting inherent in chronic betrayal and addiction, you have many unanswered questions about what your spouse has been up to. And the only way to get that information is to ask for it.
As difficult as it can be, I recommend that betrayed partners and unfaithful spouses alike do everything they can to minimize or eliminate staggered disclosure.
Here are 3 reasons to avoid staggered disclosure to lessen the traumatic impact on you and your relationship:
Unless your unfaithful spouse is getting therapeutic help and professional guidance, he (or she) is not yet capable of giving you “the whole truth.”
He is probably still trying to protect himself, and has likely not accepted that transparency is the only viable path forward for healing and restoring trust. He is also, no doubt, terrified of the consequences of telling the truth. He will give you bits and pieces of information, and tell you that he has told you everything. Unfortunately, when you are repeatedly told that you have been told “everything” only to learn that you haven’t, you will eventually stop believing most of what your spouse tells you.
Asking for information when your spouse is not yet ready to be forthcoming and transparent means that you are more likely to get information from him that is not helpful—and is actually hurtful—to you.
Examples include thoughts your spouse was having at the time he was unfaithful, or graphic details about sexual encounters or experiences. While part of you may want this information or believe that it is vital for you to move forward, often the information is based on delusional, addictive thinking, and creates confusion or more unnecessary and painful thoughts, questions, and triggers. Most partners will tell you that in the long run this kind of information serves no useful purpose and was unnecessarily harmful to them.
As an unfaithful spouse, you harm yourself and your relationship by engaging in staggered disclosure because it further erodes what little trust your partner may still have in you. Repeated disclosures dig an even deeper hole from which you must climb out of to prove your honesty and trustworthiness, causing you even more shame and guilt.
Here are 4 ways betrayed partners can protect themselves from staggered disclosure:
- Before asking your spouse more questions about past indiscretions and infidelity, ask yourself how the information will help you move toward healing. If you’re not sure, write your question down and revisit it later to see if you have more clarity.
- Honestly assess your spouse’s current capacity for honesty. If you don’t believe he is capable of being honest with you, his answers to your questions may have little or no meaning for you.
- Write down all of the questions you would like to ask your spouse and process them with your therapist, a member of your support community, or a trusted mentor. Sharing your questions with someone else and getting feedback will help you determine which questions are truly essential.
- If you haven’t already, request that your spouse work with a trained therapist to prepare a Formal Therapeutic Disclosure (FTD) document to present to you. Partners often find that knowing they will receive FTD in the near future helps decrease or eliminate the urgency to get certain questions answered.
For unfaithful spouses, the best course of action is to begin diligently preparing a Formal Therapeutic Disclosure document with a qualified therapist. Once you’ve begun the FTD process, your partner can submit all of her questions to your therapist so that you can incorporate the answers into your FTD document.
If there are important or urgent questions (the most common being an imminent public disclosure or serious financial or health information) that can’t wait until FTD, arrange with your therapist(s) to have an interim, topic-specific disclosure held in a therapy session to share that information.
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© Vicki Tidwell Palmer, LCSW (2018)
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