The topic that generates the most discussion – and anxiety – in our workshops is that of disclosure. Sex addicts who are in relationships need to come clean with their partners, but they are afraid that doing so will cost them the relationship. Knowing this, many addicts disclose the truth of their activities to their partners in stages. We call this “the installment plan” of disclosure, and it’s an exceedingly bad idea. Many wives I talk to are frustrated and confused because their husbands had used the “installment plan,” and they worry that they still don’t have the full story. “I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop,” they say. “I always wonder if there’s something more that he’s been holding back from me.”
Here is a link to an academic article by Jennifer Schneider on a study she did with sex addicts and their spouses. There is some great wisdom here. In the abstract of the article, she lists the conclusions she came to as a result of the study, which I will list, along with my added thoughts:
1) Disclosure is often a process, not a one-time event, even in the absence of relapse; withholding of information is common. This relates to the intense fear and core belief of all sex addicts: “If people knew the truth about me, they wouldn’t love me.” In relationships with partners, this translates into the fear that if my spouse knows all that I’ve done, she will leave me. This relates to the codependent tendency that addicts demonstrate: they act out of fear of losing relationships … so they manipulate and lie to their spouses because they are deathly afraid of losing them.
(2) Initial disclosure usually is most conducive to healing the relationship in the long-run when it includes all the major elements of the acting-out behaviors but avoids the “gory details”. This relates to something pointed out below (#7). We believe that disclosure should be done with a therapist, who is able to provide support and guide the discussion to keep it from getting destructive. We point out that spouses have a right to know the exact nature of the acting out, but that some of the intimate details may be damaging. Our rule of thumb is that spouses have a right to ask as many questions as they want, but they should think and talk through their reasons for wanting to know and the potential downsides of having that information before they ask.
Here is an extended quote from Schneider on this subject: “Partners often began by demanding complete disclosure, which was for them a way to make sense of the past, to validate their suspicions and the reality they had experienced which had often been denied by the addict, to have a sense of control of the situation, to assess their risk of having been exposed to sexually transmitted diseases, and to evaluate the committedness of their partner to the future of the relationship. A common theme was anger over step-wise disclosure in which significant information was initially kept hidden. Disclosure of various details, however, often turned out to be ‘devastating’ and ‘traumatic’ and left them with unpleasant memories and associations which were difficult to ignore.”
(3) Over half the partners threatened to leave the relationship after disclosure, but only one-quarter of couples actually separated. I should also add that form the surveys Schneider got back, only 3% of the couples who had done full disclosure were divorced. That is truly amazing. One caveat is that it’s possible that more couples than that statistic indicates did indeed divorce … they just were less likely to return the surveys. Still, it’s an important reminder of the hope that is there for renewed trust and rebuilding, when spouses are actually given the whole picture.
(4) Half the sex addicts reported one or more major slips or relapses, which necessitated additional decisions about disclosure. I found this to a sobering part of the research. When asked if they had had a “relapse or significant slip,” 30% of addicts with up to two years of sobriety said yes, 60% with up to five years of sobriety said yes, and 64% of addicts with more than five years said yes.
(5) Neither disclosure nor threats to leave prevents relapse. Schneider found no correlation between whether someone disclosed or not to whether or not they stayed sober. Similarly, there was no correlation between threats by the spouse to leave the relationship and relapse.
(6) With time, 96% of addicts and 93% of partners come to believe that disclosure had been the right thing to do. Once again, this testifies to the value of disclosure to marriage restoration. It’s interesting to note that, shortly after the disclosure, 58% of addicts and 81% of spouses thought it had been the right thing to do. That makes sense. At first, some of the addicts might have regretted being fully honest, especially if their spouse was threatening to leave as a consequence. But over time peoples’ perspectives changed … and almost all addicts and spouses felt that it had been the right thing to do.
(7) Partners need more support from professionals and peers during the process of disclosure. One of the sad realities I observe in working with addicts is that the spouses of addicts often need tremendous support, and relatively few get it. Sometimes this is the result of the attitude that “it’s his problem … he’s the one who needs help.” That is true, of course … but the spouse of an addict needs someone to talk to, and to process their own hurt and pain. Spouses also need great wisdom, as they’re often faced with important decisions about how to work with their addicted spouse to help him get proper treatment, what to tell children who sense something is going on in the marriage, and sometimes whether or not to separate. Many spouses are averse to seeing counselors or attending support groups, because it’s a reminder of their pain and their spouses’ addiction. But they need this help.
(8) Honesty is a crucial healing characteristic. Nothing more needs to be said. I agree.
(9) The most helpful tools for coping with the consequences of sexual addiction are counseling and the 12-step programs. Schneider’s point here is that counseling and 12-step programs are not only helpful in finding recovery from addiction, but also for healing for the spouse and for the marriage.