8 minute read

Therapeutic Disclosure: How It Can Help Your Marriage Heal

Last Updated: November 1, 2021

Ella Hutchinson
Ella Hutchinson

Ella Hutchinson is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Certified Sex Addiction Therapist (CSAT) who is passionate about advocating for partners of sex addicts by helping them to find their voice. She served for three years as a founding board member of the Association for Partners of Sex Addicts Trauma Specialists (APSATS). Today, she proudly serves on the board of directors for the organization, Certified Sex Addiction Specialists-International (CSASI). Ella and her husband, Jeff, work together helping couples whose marriages have been invaded by sexual addiction.

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.

Related: 3 Reasons Decepton Is More Destructive Than Porn For Your Wife

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!

  • Comments on: Therapeutic Disclosure: How It Can Help Your Marriage Heal
    1. GREAT job on this one, Ella! Can’t wait to hear your Covenant Eyes Live Interview on 9/12!

    2. Hanna

      I’m so glad I stumbled across this website I believe me and my spouse will find it very informative and helpful. Keep up the good work!

    3. Terry Vander Molen

      Very good!

    4. Joan moen

      I have been really struggling with this issue ever since discovery 2 1/2 years ago. I wanted a full disclosure followed by a polygraph which was done 4 months later. He failed that one. Due to the unprofessional way it was handled by his therapist I found another therapist who was more experienced with the process. He suggested and I totally agreed, my husband should wait 6 months and go through intensive therapy before going through the process again. Just before our disclosure meeting his therapist had a stroke so it was turned over to another therapist. We still completed the process, which my husband put very little time and effort into the writings, and then the polygraph was administered by a highly respected administrator. He failed that one on all three questions highly deceptive. So, with nowhere to start regarding truthfulness and honesty, I shut down and six months later, after he lied again when I discovered he relapsed and inquired about it, I filed for divorce. Then a few days ago, in a last ditch attempt to save (?) the marriage, he scheduled a polygraph without informing me or his therapist and took another one. Have you ever heard of that? Without a disclosure how effective could that be and what polygrapher would do that?

      • Kay Bruner

        Yeah, Joan, whatever the polygraph shows, I think you know the truth here. It sounds to me like he’s trying to save himself, not so much the marriage, given his history. Your boundaries are yours. You know the truth. Let it set you free. Here, here, here, and here and some article sthat might help. Peace, Kay

      • Jessica

        I have my disclosure with my husband tomorrow morning and I am very anxious and scared.

      • Moriah Bowman


        I am praying for you! May God give you peace and clarity as you discuss this with your husband!


    5. Concerned Person

      Ms. Hutchinson,

      Please read the seminal 2003 National Academies Press meta study on polygraphs (https://www.nap.edu/read/10420/chapter/7#122) and the 2018 update on that definitive study in the well respected Journal of Law and Human Behavior (43 Law & Hum. Behav. 86), and the numerous court decisions and congressional committees that have rejected this junk science. Your article seems to differentiate between competent polygraph examiners and other polygraph examiners and this is way off base. The test itself has no scientific basis or validity, so it is irrelevant how experienced the test administrator is. It is true a bad polygraph examiner can make the test even worse, but a good one can’t make it any better. As you do your own research, which I hope you would as a responsible clinician, take care to note that any study that claims that polygraphs can accurately detect deception are very likely sponsored by a polygraph industry group and are not peer reviewed or conducted with any scientific rigor. Polygraph industry groups have a long and documented history of highly questionable statements about the findings of the 2003 NAP study and other studies, so please read with a critical eye. It is very concerning that you have not done any of this research before subjecting vulnerable people who are in your care to this inherently deceptive test and industry. If you can find a single credible study supporting the scientific validly of these tests, please reply and post it here, and I will be happy to point out the inherent flaws in that study, as well as the likely suspect nature of the source of the study. Further, polygraphs have slightly better accuracy rates (although still likely in the range of 60% accuracy, which is essentially a worthless improvement over 50% random chance) in controlled laboratory settings when the stakes are low for the examinees . Because the tests at best measure physiological responses associated with stress, anxiety, or fear it is very likely that questions regarding past illicit sexual practices will in and of themselves trigger stress, anxiety and fear in many subjects regardless of whether their responses are truthful or deceptive. There not a shred of legitimate science that can support a method to control for this, so please take care in the advice you give to clients about these tests.

      • RationalThought

        Really glad someone posted this. Anyone who recommends a polygraph has obviously done zero research on the matter. If anyone calling themselves a “clinician” recommend such quackery, I’d run the other way.

      • Sam

        Man, “Concerned Person,” I agree with concerns about polygraphs. I am also having concerns about your response.

        You write: “It is very concerning that you have not done any of this research before subjecting vulnerable people who are in your care to this inherently deceptive test and industry.” Why do you assume that she has not done research? Because she recommends it?

        Further, you say you will shoot down whatever article she finds to support any scientific basis for polygraphs. Yet then you say that polys have better results when in controlled situations and their percentages are thus higher. That’s a scientific study… So there ARE some shreds of legitimate science to support it.

        I read a lot of fear and hurt in your response. I get it. I face that as well. I did a poly myself (two actually) and will continue to do them in the future to prove my sobriety. While polygraphs aren’t infallible, they are helpful. I would suggest further research yourself and I will do my own research as you suggested.

        If you’re on here, as I am, to be free of porn, I hope you find that.

    6. Pursuing wholeness

      I’m thinking this is the point that we’re at in our recovery, it has been many months of victory he’s drawing close to me & together and I see lots of that healing happening that you’ve described in another article, praise God! But every now & then I just keep coming up against, I don’t know exactly what it was that he was searching out, I don’t know the type, the times, the reason, and he’s reluctant to share because he doesn’t believe it will help me, but somehow to me it still feels like there’s that one part he’s holding back. I know this has been an incredibly difficult process for me and all that trying not to feel like I’m not good enough for him. I know it’s embarrassing, but like I said it’s just a huge unknown in my mind and would it not be helpful for me to hear it, forgive it, and be able to lay it to rest? Council? Thank you!

      • Kay Bruner

        You have the right to any and all information. If information that you need is withheld from you, that is not trustworthy behavior.

      • Sam

        I agree that “You have the right to any and all information” as long as it is helpful to you. I will post a separate comment below, but I hope you do not ask for things that will later hurt you. Do you really want to know what hair color, bust size, etc. was your husband’s searched out characteristic in porn? I have heard of many women who have been haunted by graphic details from therapeutic disclosures and I urge caution and talking with a CSAT counselor.

    7. Happily rebuilding our marriage

      I am thinking this is the next step in our healing process. We are quite a few months into recovery and are definitely pulling for each other and opening up that deep emotional connection with each other that we’ve never had before, so I am very encouraged that this is going to be an 180* change in our marriage! Basically leaning into each other and towards each other as you spoke about in another article so that was very encouraging. My question is though, it seems that every few weeks these questions come up in my mind again of not knowing specifics like what type, when, where, etc. and my husband doesn’t see the benefit in me knowing that, thinking it would make it harder for me. He has been very gracious and kind and calm in responding to any questions I do have, so I know that the repentance and change is there I see it every day, it just seems like not quite a full disclosure. It seems like an unknown to me and I can’t quite put it to rest because I don’t know what it is I’m putting to rest does that make sense? I’d love your council and advice for this type of situation.

      • Kay Bruner

        It sounds like your husband is very gracious and kind, as long as he is in control of the information. He needs to learn how to be gracious and kind enough to stop controlling the information, and to allow you to understand what has been going on here. As long as he is controlling the information, he is really not fully trustworthy. Being fully trustworthy means that he will put the information in your hands, and trust you to make the right decisions once you are fully apprise of the entire situation. I hope that helps, Kay

      • Sam

        Hello, I hope you have continued to find healing and leaning into each other in your marriage.

        While I agree that withholding details can be hurtful, but many details are harmful to the spouse. Contrary to what Kay posted, I would urge getting wisdom from a CSAT therapist and not finding out what characteristic your husband sought out in porn, etc. If the issue is, as Kay put, controlling the information and then he is not trustworthy, you demanding the information is controlling it and the problem would then be on your side of the street.

        You deserve to know the timeframe of your husband’s issue with porn, where he has been sexually inappropriate, with whom he has been sexually inappropriate, and broad strokes such as that. The head of the American Association of Sex Addiction Therapists does not recommend graphic details. Why would you want to be triggered each time you see a woman with X color hair or wearing X color clothes?

        Just a thought.

        I agree that “You have the right to any and all information” as long as it is helpful to you. I will post a separate comment below, but I hope you do not ask for things that will later hurt you. Do you really want to know what hair color, bust size, etc. was your husband’s searched out characteristic in porn? I have heard of many women who have been haunted by graphic details from therapeutic disclosures and I urge caution and talking with a CSAT counselor.

    8. Mindy Arps

      Who is the therapist in Houston?

    9. Lisa P.

      Thank you, this article was very helpful!

    10. Danielle

      Hi Kay, just read this article, and it’s so refreshing! Thank you for validating and giving voice to the betrayed partner in all respects of learning their truth, the truth that’s been withheld from them, and especially in knowing what level of detail they want from their partners in the disclosure. I see that I’ve come late to the messages here, but hoping you see this, and can answer some questions for me. My husband’s therapist wants to do a polygraph pre-disclosure, and I feel that’s backwards. Isn’t it better to do a polygraph after the formal disclosure, when I’ve had a chance to ask questions about it that arise during the actual disclosure session itself? Don’t we want to validate the truthfulness of the answers given verbally by my husband during that session in addition to the formal disclosure document he’s written to read? What’s your recommendation, and what do you do in your practice, poly before or after disclosure, and why?
      Thank you in advance.

      • Kay Bruner

        Hey Danielle,

        These are great questions, and I think you need to direct them to your husband’s therapist, so that you are clear on the process and how it works in this specific instance. It may well be that issues will arise that are new to the therapist and do need to be addressed. I think you ought to ask the therapist how these will be handled.

        Whatever happens, you should always feel safe, heard, and respected. The therapist should be able to answer every question to your satisfaction. If those things are not true, you always have the option of filing a complaint with that therapist’s licensing board.

        Peace to you in this tough time,
        Kay Bruner

    11. Sam

      I am late to the game on this article. Still figured I’d toss in a few thoughts on this good article. My replies above and the post here are to share what I have found helpful from research and from life. The hurt that partners of sex addicts have experienced is immense and needs to be treated delicately and brought to restoration.

      Therapeutic disclosures are key – I have seen in my own life and in the lives of many, many families I know. Having proper handling by a CSAT therapist really makes them flow.

      I was alarmed by this article calling seemingly all levels of “policing” normal as I would hope that a partner of an addict would have put in place healthy boundaries before the hiring of a private detective would be considered necessary. Technology checks, checking in via text or calls or email are valid. But hurt leading to suspicion should be addressed in more boundary appropriate and healthy ways instead of following the addict or hiring a PI. Before it gets there, partners of addicts can request a therapeutic disclosure, for example.

      As seen above in my replies about details in the disclosure, I disagree with this article where graphic details are allowed. Many partners want the “whole truth” and, considering how wounded their feelings are, that desire is valid. But just because a desire is valid does not make it right. That’s the whole case of sex addiction, isn’t it?

      In the moment, details of what positions or characteristics or clothing or whatever seems pertinent to the disclosure. But Dr. Weiss of the American Association of Sex Addiction Therapists recommends, and I have seen the benefit of this in many family’s lives, that graphic details will just be a hurt that goes on. While one’s spouse lied and needs to stop lying, not all information is helpful for the healing of the partner or the couple.

      As this article said that the betrayal puts someone into a crazed mind, how can the partner then trust that they know how much they can handle? This article puts too much weight on the emotion of needing to know “everything” in the present when, in the future, the graphic details that the partner thought were so necessary will be triggers when he sees a man wearing a certain type of suit or having a type of facial hair or something that was his wife’s go-to and he demanded to know.

      I am just hoping to urge longevity of restoration being the mindset here. So if betrayal happens, get a CSAT counselor, do a therapeutic disclosure where you find out who, how many partners/times/money, where, what happened, and has it stopped. Then do the poly. Then move on accordingly. Don’t taint the well water with graphic details.

    12. Sara

      I just had a therapeutic disclosure with my husband. It was rough hearing about everything. He had to make changes and he’s extremely angry about it. For example he has to find a new office because he acted out in his office and he’s so angry, he actually said he feels as though I don’t care about him or what he’s going through and it’s just about me. Is this normal behaviour after the disclosure? I would really love to talk to someone because I feel so lost and I feel so much pain. I actually regret doing the disclosure because of how he is behaving, I expected empathy and humility after disclosing everything but he’s so passive aggressive. How do I work on healing with him when he has disconnected from me and I am feeling so much pain from his disclosure?

      • Moriah Bowman

        Hi Sara,

        Thank you for opening up and sharing a bit of your story. I think it is most definitely normal for there to be heightened emotions after a therapeutic disclosure, though that doesn’t make experiencing those emotions any easier! Does your husband have any positive male influences in his life? Is he a part of a church? Oftentimes, it takes other men “calling him out” in order for a man to see the error in his ways and seek change.

        As for yourself, I would encourage you to see a counselor on a regular basis to help you process the emotions you are feeling. I will be praying that you and your husband are able to find healing together, as one. Cling to Christ, for in Him you will find your ultimate strength!


    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *