When sex addicts are in early recovery, their wives (if they have chosen to stay in the marriage) live in fear. Fear that you will relapse. Fear that you will cheat again. Fear that you may lose your job because of a slip at work. There are more fears than I can list here.
Bottom line: They fear of being hurt again. Even wives of sex addicts farther along in recovery may still be living in fear, or that old fear may creep up again, if you aren’t keeping her in the know about your recovery.
But you are supposed to be in control of your recovery, right? Your wife learned early on that she “didn’t cause it, can’t change it, and can’t control it.” So where’s the balance? Can you be in charge of your own recovery and help your wife feel safe at the same time?
You Might Have Received Some Bad Advice
If you are one of those who is taking recovery seriously you have probably received guidance from many individuals: therapists, sponsors, coaches, books, meetings, etc. Some of this guidance may have been conflicting. It is important to remember that those who are there to help you through your personal recovery are not often marriage experts and some of their well-meaning marriage advice may hurt more than help.
It is likely that you have been told by some—if not most—of those guiding you in recovery that your wife needs to “stay on her side of the street.” (This was a quote used in a recent movie about sex addiction, referring to a popular belief about what recovery should look like for a couple.)
Now, think about how many guys you hear in your recovery group say, “I am doing everything right, I am going to meetings, therapy, staying sober, but she is still angry!” You might even be one of the guys saying this. How frustrating it must be to be working so hard and go home to someone who may yell, throw things, blame, and not even trust that you are doing what you say you are doing. And what are these guys usually told? “This is about her, not you. By putting your recovery first you are doing what is best for her. This is the best way you can love her and if she can’t see that she is being selfish. She needs to work her program and let you work yours. Don’t let her hold you back.” Men tell me all the time that this is the kind of advice they are being given.
In the famous words of Dr. Phil, “How’s that working for you?”
You Are Still the Problem
Considering the unstable state your wife may appear to be in, or the stonewalling you may be having to endure, the advice mentioned above might seem to make a lot of sense. And it can feel like such a relief to hear that her rage and withdrawal and mood swings are not your fault. You’re dealing with enough shame already.
But here’s the cold, harsh reality. You are the reason your wife is in pain. There is no doubt your wife had some degree of dysfunction in her past (please find me someone who hasn’t), and this current situation might have brought up some of these issues for her. But no matter how you look at it, with rare exception, your actions are the primary reason she is feeling what she is feeling now. I say this not to shame you, but to hopefully help make all this a little easier on you.
Don’t Neglect Your Marriage for the Sake of Your Recovery
One way you can make your relationship with your wife go a little more smoothly is to keep her informed of what your recovery looks like and even allow her to be involved. Consider this: Your actions put her where she is. Your story is now her story too. She is doubting everything because you gave her reason to. Put yourself in her shoes. Her world has been turned upside down. Does she deserve to be told to butt out and wait for you to be ready to be there for her? Of course not. But chances are that is what has happened.
My advice? Ignore all advice that sounds anything like what I mentioned above–that “her side of the street” stuff. Should your individual recovery be a priority? Absolutely! Does that mean you can’t focus on your marriage at the same time? No. But some will tell you this. Some will tell you that is just too much. What do you think? Are you incapable of being present in your marriage while doing recovery? Maybe not, and your marriage will suffer–or end–if this is the case.
But if you can get rid of those toxic ideas, and recognize you are stronger than some may want you to think you are, your marriage can survive and even thrive! I’ve seen it happen enough to know it is possible, even in the direst of circumstances.
Letting Your Wife Into Your Recovery Process
So, how do you let your wife in while respecting the anonymity of the group, while being able to feel safe in your counseling sessions without having to worry about having to go back and report everything that was said? How do you allow her to be involved while not feeling controlled and remaining in charge of your own recovery?
You take control! Don’t wait for the questions. Give her so much information that she doesn’t have to ask. (But know she probably still will and that’s okay.) In my extensive experience working with wives of sex addicts, here are some of the things they want to know and have a right to know:
- What happens in 12 step groups? What is the format? How does it start? How does it end? Is there discussion? What kinds of things do people talk about? What happens before and after? Are there any women in the group (I am not a fan of this practice)? If so, are they a threat to your sobriety? Do you get ideas about acting out from hearing the other guys? Do you get triggered? How is the group helpful for you?
- What are the 12 steps? How long are they supposed to take on average? What step are you on? How is it going?
- Do you have a sponsor? How often do you meet? What do you talk about? If not, are you looking for one?
- What is in that book (the green book or the white book…)? Can I look at it?
- What do you and your therapist talk about? How often do you go to therapy? Do you talk about me? What has he told you that you need to be doing? Are you doing it?
- What else are you doing for recovery?
- What are some tools you have learned to manage triggers?
These are just a few examples. Your wife can clue you in to what she needs to know. Ask her how you can help her feel safer about your recovery. Ask her what you can do to make her feel like she is a part of your recovery. Chances are she will be blown away.
If your wife is the one who sent you this article, don’t get upset or feel like she is trying to control you. She has given you a gift. She is extending an olive branch. Instead of being frustrated that she is not where you would like her to be in her healing process, consider how blessed you are that she is still here at all!
A Sample Conversation
The above examples of what wives want and deserve to know can feel daunting. It may feel like she is trying to take charge of your recovery. In a minute I’ll explain what she doesn’t need to know. Hopefully that will help both you and her to have more productive conversations. But first, here is an example of how you can address some of the above questions:
Honey, I have realized that you must feel pretty left out of my recovery. I know I am gone so much with meetings and therapy and that must be so hard for you after all you have been through. I can’t even imagine how painful this has been for you. I don’t know how much you know about 12 step programs like the one I am involved in. I printed out the steps so you can read them in case you don’t know what they are. I finally found a sponsor, and we will start meeting once a week on Tuesdays for lunch. He will be helping me work through the steps. He said they should take about a year to complete on average, but this can vary from person to person. I am currently on step four and am finding it to be a struggle, but it is important to me so I am not giving up even though sometimes I feel tempted to. Fortunately my sponsor is there to talk to me when I am feeling overwhelmed. Is there anything else you want to know about my recovery? I really don’t want you to feel like I am purposely keeping anything from you. I know you have dealt with that enough.
What is Okay to Keep Private?
Here are some things that are okay and even important to keep private. When I explain this to wives they are almost always very receptive and understanding about this:
- First, of course, the identity of those in your group. Be careful about even giving information that could clue her in to someone in the group. She might be in a support group with his wife. This is common.
- The specifics about what you talk about in group. This can be shared if you want, but you should never feel pressured to tell your wife what you shared in group. If she asks for this information, remember, she is just afraid. Explain gently that you need to feel safe to share openly and that you don’t want to hide anything from her. If she is struggling with this, suggest discussing it with a therapist. Above all else, be patient with her about these kinds of things.
- The specifics about what you talk about in therapy. You can tell her you are working on family of origin issues, self-esteem issues, or automatic thoughts, for example, without going into more detail than that. This is enough information for her to feel safe that you are working through the issues that contributed to your addiction. Remember, that’s what this is all about. She wants to know you are doing all you can do to keep from hurting her again.
Boundaries vs. Responsibilities
While it is okay for your wife to set a boundary that you get involved in a 12 step program and therapy (remember, this is about her feelings of safety, not control) you should be the one finding the therapist and meetings.
If she is doing this, lovingly tell her that you want to be the one to do these things because it shouldn’t be her responsibility and isn’t fair to her. If she is resistant, don’t let it turn into an argument. Get help from a professional who specializes in working with partners of sex addicts from a sex addiction-induced trauma perspective.
The kind of conversation outlined in italics above will not save your marriage, but it could be what gets the ball rolling in the right direction. Be prepared for things not to go as planned. Depending on where you all are, your wife may even get angry or skeptical about why you are suddenly doing this. She may refuse to listen. But you tried and that’s what counts.
Even though she may be afraid to believe anything you tell her or show any vulnerability, she does notice these things, and they do make a difference. Consistency over time is what she needs to see. Don’t give up. Keep trying. If she won’t have this conversation with you, make sure she knows you are there when she is ready to talk, and remind her of this often.
If there are still secrets in the marriage, your wife probably senses this and this will hinder any effort you take to improve your marriage. Even if there are no more secrets she will still doubt because of the years of lying that have given her no reason to trust. A formal or clinical disclosure, done with the guidance of a skilled therapist, is a crucial first step to finding recovery in your marriage. I find these are much more successful when done in the context of a couple’s three day intensive. Click here to learn more about what an intensive is and how it can help save your marriage.
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Ella Hutchinson is a Licensed Professional Counselor, Certified Clinical Sexual Addiction Specialist, Certified Clinical Partner Specialist, and Certified Clinical Trauma Professional. Ella has been trained directly under Barbara Steffens and Marsha Means in the treatment of partners of sex addicts. She now serves with Barbara Steffens, Richard Blankenship, as well as six other experienced and gifted sex addiction specialists, on the executive board for the Association for Partners of Sex Addicts Trauma Specialists. She also is a board member of the International Association for Certified Clinical Sex Addiction Specialists. Ella and her husband, Jeff, work together helping couples find healing from sexual addiction.