Over the last decade, there have been a handful of professionals in the sex addiction treatment community who are trying to change the treatment of partners of sex addicts. This group is growing and has been joined by other therapists, life coaches, and pastoral counselors. It is exciting to see how much change has taken place and how many have adjusted their views to a more “partner-sensitive” approach.
Unfortunately, it isn’t enough. Too many partners of sex addicts are still being abused, mistreated, and neglected by those they should be able to feel safest with. Is it not enough that the person a woman trusted more than anyone in the world has betrayed her in the worst way possible, over and over again? Now she must cope with being misunderstood and disregarded by professionals and pastors as well.
Further, what she reads in many books and Internet articles deceives her into believing something is wrong with her as she desperately seeks guidance and understanding. Wives of sex addicts are left feeling confused and invalidated.
“Stop Bringing Up the Past”
Yesterday a woman who completed a couple’s intensive with me a few months ago contacted me, completely distraught. Her current therapist, who works closely with her husband’s therapist, informed her that her husband simply isn’t currently capable of handling anything beyond his own personal recovery. (In other words, she can’t expect him to be supportive of her.) She was basically told to stop asking questions about his past acting out and to stop bringing up the past, because it was too difficult for him.
I was shocked because my work with this couple was so positive. He really seemed to get what his wife was going through. He took responsibility for his actions and how he hurt her by his multiple affairs and infidelities. It was a great intensive, and this couple had so much potential.
Now the wife is being told to be more “Christlike” and just be patient with her husband. Sadly, this story is not the exception, but the norm. Is it Christlike not to feel? Is it Christlike not to grieve? That certainly isn’t my interpretation.
The “Stifle Your Feelings” Approach
It’s a common approach in many circles to use scare tactics to try to get wives to stifle their feelings, ignore their gut, and avoid setting healthy boundaries. Popular books have even told wives not to get upset by their husband doing a “double-take” at another woman in front of her, but instead to realize this is to be expected. (One of these book titles was originally included, but removed at the request of the author of the book.)
In addition, some books have even encouraged women not to ask their husband to leave the home because of sexual indiscretion, but instead to be supportive and loving with him as much as possible. Further, they’ll sometimes use the classic blame the victim technique by telling readers how they are just as unhealthy as their husband because they married him. Apparently this means they don’t have a right to be upset by his infidelity.
Some Christian leaders even warn wives that expressing any negative emotion or setting healthy boundaries will cause their husbands to, “stop sharing his struggles,” “return to his sexual sin,” and ultimately may be the cause of the end of the marriage. One leader explains that, “Many salvageable marriages have been destroyed by a husband’s poor choices and a wife’s intolerance.”
Instead of allowing themselves to feel sad or angry, this type of teaching tells wives to, “Help your husband to feel safe and secure in the marriage.” While this may sound appalling, it is a position taken (often in a less overt way) by many in helping roles such as counselors and pastors.
Dr. Doug Weiss, who has been treating sexual addiction for over twenty years shared his opinion on this topic with me by stating, “Therapists babysit the addict to the point where he relapses. Once an addict realizes he is in a system where he can lie, he will. The therapist creates the system. The therapist is colluding with the addict. Why should an addict have that power? He is the perpetrator. She is not the perpetrator. People are suffering because of this paradigm.” Therapists aren’t the only ones creating this system, but they may be some of the most damaging.
Recognizing the Loss Partners Have Suffered
My purpose here is not to vilify sex addicts. Those active in their addiction don’t enjoy their lifestyle and usually make multiple attempts to stop on their own to no avail. A true sex addict, versus a “philanderer,” “player,” or someone lacking a moral compass, does not intend to hurt anyone by his actions.
However, just like the alcoholic who kills someone while drinking and driving, a sex addict must take responsibility for his actions and deal with the natural consequences. One of those consequences is that, if he is married, he has traumatized his wife beyond words.
I feel we, as therapists, have to recognize the loss partners of addicts have suffered and that each time their feelings are not validated they feel even more disempowered.
Partners are told what they can and can’t say, what they can and can’t handle, and what they can and can’t do. Instead, with gentle guidance, a partner should be allowed to decide what they can handle. I find partners usually make wise choices and are very reasonable in expressing their needs when their feelings, fears, and opinions are validated and they are treated with the patience and respect one would treat any other trauma victim, instead of being dictated to (no matter how nice someone may try to be about it).
My clients who are partners of sex addicts feel so relieved and empowered when I tell them they are not sick, they are not a co-sex addict, and they can set boundaries that most other therapists say are too extreme.
An example may be demanding a full clinical disclosure with polygraph (which should NEVER be attempted without the guidance of a skilled therapist) and insisting their spouse participate in recovery activities. What I have seen is women expressing immense gratitude that, often after negative experiences with other sex addiction therapists, I recognize their unique needs and respect those needs.
Why Embrace the Trauma Model
Just because most therapists agree on a certain topic does not automatically mean they are right. In fact it is my opinion that most therapists do not have adequate training or understanding on how to treat partners, no matter how long they have been doing it. I know this by the horror stories I hear from clients or through emails after partners find my website and feel validated for the first time.
Today many counselors say they work from the “trauma model” (explained in the book Your Sexually Addicted Spouse by Barbara Steffens and Marsha Means). Unfortunately, most still don’t really know what that means and still see partners as sick, “out of control,” and label them as co-addicts. These therapists see partners as needing to be protected from themselves.
The reality, based on clinical research and experience, has shown that most partners are healthy women who are trying their best to cope with the discovery that their husband has repeatedly sexually betrayed them. They should be treated as such.
An addict must be reminded his fellow 12-step members and his sponsor are not experts, especially in marriage. Many addicts are told his wife is trying to punish or control him when she expresses her feelings. This is simply not usually the case.
Partners are simply trying to feel safe in a world that suddenly feels very scary and unsafe. Partners who do not feel shut down when they try to express themselves or ask questions usually feel more empowered and tend to fare better and heal more quickly. This is especially true if their husband is their main supporter, instead of justifying, rationalizing, defending, and minimizing his behavior.
Many partners have endured so much treatment-induced trauma that to be told they can ask what they want to ask, feel what they want to feel, and say what they want to say is a breath of fresh air.
A partner can be privately discouraged by their therapist or helping professional from attacking their spouse’s character. When she’s encouraged to instead focus on expressing how his behavior hurt her, he will hear and respond more positively. This will be effective especially if his therapist is helping him to understand his wife is not necessarily attacking him by expressing her feelings.
An addict can and should be taught how to support and listen to his wife. Often this simply involves asking what she needs and being prepared to either give her space or hold her. Her needs will change from day to day, if not moment to moment. He can be taught she will heal more quickly when she is allowed to grieve at her own pace.
If a partner feels rushed to “get over it” or “stop living in the past,” she will remain stuck. Intimacy will not be allowed to be built. His past is her present.
Moving On From a Co-Sex Addict Model
In the book, Your Sexually Addicted Spouse, Steffens tells of an occurrence at the annual conference in 2007 for the Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health (SASH). Robert Weiss, CSAT, author, speaker and director of the Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles, shared that much of his thinking about partners of sex addicts had formerly been based on what he learned as he worked with sex addicts. He said he compared the “out of control” behaviors he sees in addicts to the “out of control” behaviors in partners. Weiss stated,
“My thought was when I first started doing the work (with partners) was, ‘Well, these spouses are out of control. They’re doing detective work, they’re eating, they’re spending his money, they’re furious – they need confronting, containing, managing, too.’ That’s my lack of empathy…and that’s why the trauma issues weren’t addressed: because we just wanted to control all that anger and didn’t really understand it. I think collectively that they had a right to it. And I think it’s really good news to have the experience of both in our clinic for the last year…because I see spouses de-escalated, you know–feeling validated, feeling supported, feeling understood, being given the space to do what they need to do to take care of themselves and not be called crazy because they are so out of control.”
Unfortunately, while some are beginning to get it, the co-sex addict model is still the prevailing paradigm by sex addiction professionals. This model assumes all partners of sex addicts fit a certain mold. It says she is partially responsible for the problem. This is a way of shifting blame away from the addict.
Partners are still being sent to 12-step programs where they are told to accept their part, look at the “nature of their wrongs,” their “defects of character,” and their “shortcomings.” They are also told to make a “list of those they have wronged and make amends.” This is not working. This leaves partners feeling wounded, attacked, blamed, and shamed.
How Are We Treating the Spouses?
Can anyone make a sane argument that immediately after discovering a spouse’s multiple infidelities, compulsive pornography use and/or various other betrayals, the best course of action is to start telling her what she has done wrong?
But this is what is happening, and it has to stop.
Yes, some partners of sex addicts have enabled behavior and even done things such as put their children in harm’s way to protect their spouse and hide his addiction. When that is happening, it should be addressed appropriately. But, in Dr. Steffens words, “In my experience, most of these women are very healthy women.”
Please visit my website for partner-sensitive resources. You can also read about the Association of Partners of Sex Addiction Specialists (APSATS), of which I am a member and former board member, created to advocate for partners. One of their biggest missions is to train and certify therapists in the proper treatment of partners of sex addicts. They offer several trainings throughout the year in person or online. If you are a therapist or life coach, please check it out and sign up. If you are a partner of a sex addict, encourage your therapist to attend the training. As new therapists are trained and certified, they will be listed on the APSATS website.
It can feel like an uphill battle when the wife of a sex addict is trying to heal but feels like her voice is being silenced by everyone around her. To that wife I say, be your own advocate. Trust your gut and do not back down. Pray for God to guide you to supportive people who recognize your need to feel safe and can help you get there. Pray for God to guide your husband to people who will help him understand your needs and teach him how to be a safe person for you.
The biggest way to get through to those in helping roles is for partners of sex addicts to demand to be treated better. Eventually, others will have to start listening, as I gratefully already see happening.