Disclosure of extra-marital sexual activity to spouses

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.

9 thoughts on “Disclosure of extra-marital sexual activity to spouses”

  1. Mark,

    I click on the link to see When disclosure conversations don’t go well at markbrouwer.com and I was sent to a page stating page not found. I sure would like to see it.

    I want to tell you how grateful I am to God and you and Mark and Greg for the Intensive I just completed. For the first time in my life I have hope that I will be healed and transformed so that I can stay stopped. I now have a sponsor. I am doing the 90 days abstinence.

  2. I do agree with you mark. It is most important that the partner of an addict stays beside him to give moral support and inspiration to continue on his way to recovery. though it’s been quite tough to become a partner of a SA but for me it’s my duty to stay with him no matter what, because i do believe that an addict did not choose to be an addict.

  3. Thanks for your comments Eva … and I appreciate your heart in wanting to stay with your spouse. I agree with you that an addict did not choose to be an addict, and wish that more partners would have that attitude. Nobody wants this struggle. When you say it’s your duty to stay with him no matter what, I assume that has some limitations though, yes? If there is abuse, ongoing unrecovering sexual sin, hatred / violence … I would think there is a point where a spouse says “enough.” But of course, hopefully it never comes to that. Blessings!

  4. Hi there, I wish this site had been around ten years ago – and I wish I’d had the presence of mind back then to look for something like this. About ten years ago something in me snapped, and I suddenly started looking at porn online.

    Prior to this it had never, ever been a problem for me, and I believe I had a pretty healthy attitiude towards sex and sexuality. But something snapped, I crossed the line and for a period of some weeks I found myself battling it almost daily. I realised that I was losing the fight, and went and ‘fessed up to my small group leader who is also a highly regarded counsellor locally.

    We talked, we prayed, and it ceased to be an issue. The thought that I could possibly be addicted never crosssed my mind. I never told my wife about it at the time, as I believed it had been dealt with, and I’d left it behind me in the past. It was dead to me. I was “sober” for a good number of years after this.

    Even when I dicovered porn on the server at my new job I felt no temptation or desire to look at it. However, in the past couple of years there have been a few relapses – a quick sneak peek here and there on the very rare occasion. However, because of the rarity of these ocurrances and their short duration it didn’t occur to me I might have a problem – I just put it down to having a brain fart and giving in to temptation; I asked God to forgive me and moved on.

    Just recently my wife and I started having some issues, and I blurted out in a letter that I’d had a skirmish with porn. Things went downhill from there, and we have now separated and she has indicated that she does not want to return to the relationship, and wants to divorce. This of coure has been a devastating blow to me.

    I am praying that she will change her mind but there’s no guarantee that will happen.

    I think if I’d realised all thoe years ago that there might be a problem, I mightn’t be in thi awful situation I’m in now. In retrospect it affected my relational intimacy with her quite badly, which has compounded the problem.

    So thanks for what appears to be (at last!) a source of sound, sensible, practical information and help – there’s a lot of rubbish out there in internet land and one has to tread wisely and carefully.

    1. Michael,

      Thanks for the comment, and I’m sorry to hear about your struggle. I hope that you’re getting the support your need for your own well-being in the midst of this, and of course hope that things improve between you and your wife. For a partner to be using pornography creates a tremendously wide range of responses, and is often very hard for spouses to deal with. Blessings to you both.
      – Mark

      1. Hi Mark
        I have got good friends around me, even if their advice does need to be taken with a grain of salt or caution sometimes 😀

        At present the relation is amicable but slightly strained due to a number of issues related to the house etc.

        I’m hoping for reconciliation although I don’t think that’s on her radar at all sadly.

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