What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You
Imagine you go to the doctor and learn that you might have cancer. You are sent home and told to come back next week to find out. You don’t know if you have cancer, what kind, or your prognosis. Suddenly you don’t know what your future looks like or how much of a future you even have. As you look at your kids, you’ll wonder if they will have to grow up without a mom or dad. You don’t know your own reality anymore.
What will you focus on during that next week? Will the fear of having cancer dominate all your thoughts? How well will you function at work while wondering if your immediate future involves chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery?
You might even find that you are willing to do whatever it takes to find out the truth sooner. Your truth. Maybe your kids play with the kids of someone who works in the doctor’s office. Would you go so far as to ask them to take a glance in your file? Would you be calling the office long before your scheduled appointment to to find out if your results are in and if you can get them sooner??
As human beings, when we don’t know our own personal truth, we feel like we have no solid ground to stand on. It can feel like we are suffocating, spinning out of control. We just need to know the truth.
Many of us know this feeling all too well—except, for the partner of a sex addict, the truth is often purposely withheld by the one we should be able to trust the most.
How Secrets Can Impact Relationships
They say we are only as sick as our secrets. But what does this mean? This means that when we purposely hold information inside, information others should know, it fills us with shame. Shame is defined as, “A painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.”
Why else keep a secret unless you are ashamed of the truth? And living a life filled with shame is a miserable way to live. No one can know the real us that way, so we have no real connections or real intimacy with another person. Because of this, someone carrying around the burden of secrets is often not a fun person to be around. They create a façade well enough to have a few people in their lives. Some create that persona so well that they seem charming and delightful…at first. Then, once you get to know them well enough, often after making a life commitment to them, you see the anger, the lies, and the selfishness. You see the ugly reality that comes from living an inauthentic life. To save face, the secret keeper has to get better and better at covering his tracks. This can become quite overwhelming and leads to all kinds of manipulation and crazy-making (gaslighting), inevitably only making the problem worse.
When my husband speaks to a sexually addicted client, the client often points out his wife’s faults, such as not being affectionate enough, being too busy with the kids and not focused on him, spending too much time at work or shopping, etc. Jeff describes that the sex addict’s secrets affect the spouse regardless of whether or not the spouse is aware there are any secrets. First of all, he explains, now is not the time to be focused on traditional couple’s counseling issues. The compulsive sexual betrayal, regardless what the behavior was (porn, chronic masturbation, prostitution, hook-ups, affairs, etc.), is the bleeding heart that will kill the marriage while you waste time talking about other things. But more importantly, Jeff shares, we have no way of knowing how much of the partner’s distance or sexual unavailability, for example, was because her body knew something wasn’t right long before her mind knew what it was.
What Is a Therapeutic Disclosure?
This brings us to a crucial part of couple’s sex addiction treatment. Therapeutic disclosure. Not to be confused with discovery or “d-day” as some call it, a therapeutic disclosure (or clinical disclosure) is a factual account of the addict’s sexual history, prepared in advance with the guidance of a sex addiction counselor.
Some counselors go back to when the current relationship began and some go back to the age of 18. For various reasons, we go back to childhood or the earliest sexual memory. The addict reads the disclosure to the partner in a therapist’s office. Ideally, this either takes place in the partner’s therapist’s office, with the addict’s therapist present, or in the context of a couple’s intensive.
A couple’s intensive, like the one Jeff and I facilitate, is a period of usually three days where a couple comes to focus on healing from the sex addiction. The couple prepares for this time beforehand with some readings and assignments, as well group and individual support. Not to be confused with a retreat or other program for couples, our intensives have only one couple in attendance for the entire three days and the focus is on helping the couple find healing from the havoc sex addiction has wreaked in their relationship. A big part of the intensive is a therapeutic disclosure, prepared in advance of the intensive.
Today most all sex addiction professionals agree on the importance of therapeutic disclosure. In their book, Surviving Disclosure, Jennifer Schneider, PH.D. and Deborah Corley, PH.D., state, “The American public has been taught over and over again that although misconduct is bad, the deception that it often engenders in an attempt to avoid discovery is worse.”
Unfortunately, therapists don’t agree on much else in this area. Clinicians often handle the following important details differently:
- When to do the therapeutic disclosure
- Where to do the therapeutic disclosure
- How far back to go
- How much detail to include
- The format of the therapeutic disclosure
- Whether polygraph should be used
There’s no way to address all issues pertaining to a therapeutic disclosure here. My purpose today is to focus on a few areas that are especially important to me after eight years of conducting therapeutic disclosures with couples. These are when a therapeutic disclosure should happen, how much detail to include, and the use of the polygraph.
When Should a Therapeutic Disclosure Happen?
Talk to most partners of sex addicts and they will tell you they want to know everything now! They often spend hours begging and pleading with their spouse to give them all the information about his acting out. Due to the addict’s fear and shame, this inevitably ends up with a staggered disclosure, over months or years, filled with lies and half-truths. Each time new information is revealed it magnifies the trauma caused to the partner after the initial discovery of the addiction.
Because the partner knows her spouse is still lying she often goes to extreme lengths to get to the truth. This might include following him, calling and texting repeatedly, searching his phone and computer history, and even hiring a private detective. Some call this “policing.” I call it truth-seeking. And I call it normal.
Let’s think back to the cancer analogy. When we don’t know our own reality, we feel crazy. We can’t focus. We forget things more easily. We suffer mood swings, crying spells, depression, anger, and a myriad of other trauma symptoms. But we aren’t crazy. We are acting like anyone would who had both been betrayed in the worst way possible and then had the truth withheld from them.
The betrayal hurts more than we can ever put into words. But partners of sex addicts, including myself, agree almost unanimously, the only thing that hurts worse are the lies. This is why I advocate for a therapeutic disclosure to be done sooner rather than later, assuming certain criteria are met. These are that acting out has stopped, recovery activities have begun, and the couple wants to try to save the relationship. There are some rare exceptions to this, but they are beyond the scope of this article.
Many therapists believe in waiting six months to a year for a therapeutic disclosure. I respectfully disagree with this approach for two main reasons.
First, it is withholding information from the partner that she deserves to know. How can a partner work toward forgiveness if she doesn’t know what she is forgiving? How can she heal if she doesn’t know from what she is healing?
And second, the longer the addict waits, the longer he has to carry around secrets that harm his recovery and his relationship, and the longer he has to live with the anxiety of revealing the information that she needs to heal and to make decisions about her future.
Although there are cons to doing an earlier disclosure (e.g., the addict hasn’t made as much progress in recovery and may not show as much empathy, the partner may still be in shock and unable to hear or recall much of the therapeutic disclosure), I see the cons outweighed by the pros for many couples. The longer the couple stays in a state of turmoil from the anticipation of the therapeutic disclosure, the longer they will stay stuck. Eventually, there may not be any marriage left.
With proper preparation and encouragement from the therapists (versus the therapist colluding with the addict who is petrified of “telling it all”), for both the addict and partner, as well as with the use of polygraph which I will touch on later, a disclosure can be done as soon as one to three months post discovery.
How Much Detail Should a Therapeutic Disclosure Include?
In terms of how much detail to include in the disclosure, this should be up to the partner. I tell clients our disclosure is detailed, but not graphic. However, if the partner wants more graphic details, I allow it.
This is not the case for most therapists, but as a parter myself, I know what it’s like to feel you’ve had everything taken from you, only to be told you don’t have a right to know whatever you need to know. Not once has a partner told me she regretted finding the answer to a question she had, no matter how painful. I wish I didn’t know certain details about my husband’s acting out, but that is only because I wish they hadn’t happened.
If a certain question isn’t allowed in a therapeutic disclosure, after discussion with the therapist on whether it is really something they want, it will keep partners up nights obsessing. She will go home and beg for answers again. She won’t be able to experience the sigh of relief that at least now she knows.
My experience shows that partners know what they can handle, and generally make wise choices about what they do and don’t want to know when given the freedom to do so.
Should Polygraph Be Used in a Therapeutic Disclosure?
This brings us to what might be the most controversial subject of all–the polygraph. Otherwise known as a lie detector, polygraph is sometimes used with therapeutic disclosure to verify the addict has been truthful, thorough, and not purposely omitted any information.
In his book, Stop Sex Addiction, Dr. Milton Magness explains, “Polygraph exams are necessary to ensure that complete and true recovery are taking place.” Jeff and I agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment. Based on our experience, we will not conduct a therapeutic disclosure without polygraph. Instead, we will refer couples to another program if they prefer not to use polygraph. However, this is almost never the case.
In Surviving Disclosure, Schneider and Corley explain, “While our research has shown that partners who requested polygraph to verify the addict’s report of his or her behavior also report it as helpful to increase trust, polygraphs needs to be used with caution.” This couldn’t be more true. The two biggest mistakes I see couples make with polygraphs are going directly to an examiner without going through a therapist experienced in using polygraph with disclosure and using the wrong examiner.
Polygraph examiners are not trained in sex addiction or in therapeutic disclosures. They will most likely treat the addict like a criminal and the partner won’t get all the information she needs. It is important to find someone with experience working with sex addiction clients and a good reputation amongst local therapists. Trying to go it alone will almost undoubtedly be a disaster. It is difficult to find a good polygraph examiner for the specific purpose of TD. I often say, “Polygraph is only as good as the polygraph examiner.” We are blessed to have a renowned examiner here in Houston who contracts with us and several other sex addiction counselors. In communications with other Certified Sex Addiction Therapists (CSAT), I have heard from about ten who say they work with polygraph examiner who they like and trust implicitly, as we do ours. I’m sure there are more, but they are few and far between.
If coming to Houston isn’t an option for you, contact a CSAT or a APSATS (The Association for Partners of Sex Addicts Trauma Specialists) trained counselor in your area and ask if they use polygraphs, what their relationship with their examiner is like (if there isn’t good rapport and communication between them, how can you expect to get all the information you need?) and how polygraphs fits in to their disclosure process. We recommend the first two or three follow-up polygraphs be done every three to six months after the initial one and at least yearly after that. Jeff says it is the best accountability tool he has and a great opportunity to show me he has been doing (and not doing) what he has told me.
I realize I have covered a lot of ground here and each of my topics could probably be it’s own article or book! This article may have left you with more questions than answers. There will be more to come!