Can Couples Therapy Fix Our Relationship?

I’ll never forget the day I walked out of therapy during early recovery. I left our therapist’s office crying, screaming, and slamming the door, vowing never to return. It’s safe to assume I was not pleased with how the session was going. At the time, I had not yet learned that what I was experiencing in relation to discovering my husband’s pornography addiction was betrayal trauma. Looking back, I realize my therapist had not yet learned that either.

The scene just prior to my outburst had unfolded like this:

Me: I wish I knew what was in his journal. He left it on his desk, and I was tempted to read it.

Therapist: You know, Laura, you have a real problem with boundaries.

Me: I have a problem with boundaries? (This is where my ranting began.)

In all honesty, I’m not sure what came out of the therapist’s mouth after that. I was finished listening. I couldn’t have explained to him then why I was having such a visceral reaction. I’m sure he labeled me all sorts of things in that moment, but never had he, in our one year of counseling, acknowledged my trauma or even mentioned the word “betrayed.” As a partner of a sex addict, and now as an APSATS  trained betrayal trauma specialist, I now know how that scene should have played out. It should have gone something like this:

Me: I wish I knew what was in his journal. He left it on his desk, and I was tempted to read it.

Therapist: That’s understandable. He’s lied to you for nine years. The truth lies within those pages. You need answers, and some of those answers are in that book.

Me: So why shouldn’t I look at it?

Therapist: Because you told me you want your marriage to make it. For your marriage to make it, he needs to be honest. But before he can be honest with you, he needs to get honest with himself. If he knows you’re reading it, he’ll stop writing the truth. My goal is that the day will come when he’ll be able to tell you that truth, himself.

One obvious truth that our counselor had overlooked was that I did, in fact, have very strong boundaries. I didn’t read his journal. I had practiced incredible restraint in order to give my husband the space he needed to recover. I had done the right thing, and I was still being attacked.

Our counselor was supposedly the sex addiction specialist in our area. He came highly recommended by a pastor who told me “you have the right to have every question answered.” And yet answers were not coming.

This therapist may have understood what it took for my husband to recover from addiction, but he had no clue about my experience as a betrayed partner. Our entire year of counseling, he was trying to provide traditional couples counseling. It wasn’t working, and somehow I was the problem.

Two factors should play into your decision whether to see a specialist as a couple:

  1. The training and qualifications of the specialist
  2. The timing of the couple’s work

Training of the Couples Therapy Specialist

According to Dr. Jill Manning, traditional couples therapy assumes two things are present in the relationship: safety and equality. Unfortunately, neither of these is present when dealing in a relationship impacted by sex addiction.

There is no emotional safety when one’s spouse is still acting out and still actively lying. And addiction is NOT a couple issue. The betrayed is NOT equally responsible for the disintegration of the relationship. Even if the betrayed partner “could have been a better wife,” research is clear that this is not what “causes” addiction.  And betrayal, at any level, addiction or not, is 100% the choice and responsibility of the betrayer.

This is not to say that there are not things the partner could have done better or that she doesn’t have her own issues to work on. What this does suggest is that working on those things will in no way improve the relationship as long as the addict is still acting out.

Safety in a relationship with a porn or sex addict is only possible when the addict obtains sobriety.

Equality in the relationship comes only after the addict fully owns responsibility for his addiction and betrayal and works to rebuild trust. It can only happen if he is 100% honest, with himself and everyone else.

A therapist trained specifically in sex addiction and betrayal trauma knows these things. So when looking for someone to help, make sure the specialist carries these credentials.

Related: Stop the Abuse of Partners of Sex Addicts

Timing of Couples Therapy

Another complication of couples therapy early on is that most addicts are unable to be honest. What’s the point in spending hours and money talking with a counselor if that counselor is not getting the truth. How can a counselor help problem solve situations under these circumstances? The addict needs to be in a place where he can be brutally honest about his history, his triggers, and his acting out behaviors.

Traditional counseling also tends to encourage couples to build closeness while they’re in counseling.

But closeness–also known as intimacy–requires safety and trust, which are not possible until sobriety, ownership of responsibility, and honesty are present.

Jill Manning points out five requirements that set the stage for good couples work. They are:

  1. Sobriety
  2. Full disclosure of all acting out behaviors and sexual/marital history, followed by a polygraph
  3. Trauma and mental illness (depression, anxiety, etc.) need to be addressed
  4. Empathy
  5. Desire to reconcile

Let’s look at these one by one.

  1. Sobriety: It goes without saying that early recovery is about “getting sober.” Rarely does an addict enter counseling already sober.
  2. Disclosure: It would be unreasonable to ask any woman to engage in traditional couples therapy when she has no idea what has happened or is happening in her relationship.
  3. Trauma and mental health issues: These are not managed overnight, and aren’t fixed quickly.
  4. Empathy: Along with addiction comes emotional immaturity, and empathy is one of the higher levels of emotional development. Sex addiction is most always accompanied by a lack of empathy. How else can an addict fall into the habits of gaslighting and blame and habitual betrayal? In addition, empathy happens to be one of the last traits to be developed in recovery.
  5. Desire to reconcile: Most partners and addicts are unsure in early recovery whether or not they truly desire to reconcile. Because when first starting out, there’s no way to know if recovery will “stick.” A wise decision to reconcile can only come after the previous four things have been achieved.

Related: How to Tell If Your Husband Is Really in Recovery? 

So, What Can Couples Do?

All this previous information has been in reference to traditional couples counseling. This is not to say the couples cannot see a specialist together.

What it does suggest is that the specialist you choose should be trained in sex addiction and betrayal trauma. That specialist should understand the patterns of dishonesty, gaslighting, and emotional abuse that come with addiction. That specialist should understand the deep trauma that the partner has experienced, and they should be familiar with the tools and strategies that keep the betrayed partner safe and that hold the addict accountable and responsible.

These sessions can serve several helpful purposes for the couple in recovery. These are:

  1. To provide psychoeducation regarding addiction and betrayal trauma to help each individual understand their own process as well as their partner’s.
  2. To provide strategies to support the couple in creating healthy boundaries for each and agree to the consequences that will arise from violating these boundaries.
  3. To provide strategies for maintaining accountability of the addict to his partner whether this be daily check in reports, the monitoring of technology, etc.

The best formula I’ve seen for couples in early recovery is for the betrayed partner to work on healing with her own APSATS betrayal trauma coach and the addict to work individually with a certified sex addiction therapist (C-SAT). Then occasionally, perhaps once per month, engage in a joint session with both coach and therapist for the purpose of clarifying the strategies each are implementing and to help problem-solve those areas where her healing and his recovery seem to conflict.

Healing a relationship damaged by sex and pornography addiction is hard. And it takes time. But for those who put in the hard work and who team up with trained specialists, it can be effective. Don’t undermine your efforts and risk further trauma by working on the right things at the wrong time.