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The Anatomy of Disclosure: Breaking the News of Sex Addiction to a Spouse or Partner

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By Marty Simpson Revell, MA, CSAT-2
Addiction Specialist, Sexual Recovery Institute

Though a sex addict may want to withhold information from his partner in order to avoid hurting her, omitting certain facts can be more damaging than telling hurtful information. For some sex addicts and their spouses or partners, disclosure is an important part of the healing process, but if not handled with the help of therapeutic professionals and timed correctly, coming forward can actually make matters worse.

Disclosure is traumatic for both parties (especially the spouse) and should only happen in the presence of a well-trained clinician who is experienced in the disclosure of sexually compulsive behavior. Additionally, disclosure should only occur if there is a commitment to reconciliation. Simply put, it’s not worth going through the disclosure process unless both parties can hold an intention for healing the relationship.

At the Sexual Recovery Institute, we have specific guidelines in place to ensure that the disclosure session is as productive and healing as possible:

Therapeutic Support for Both Partners. It’s extremely risky for a disclosure to take place without therapeutic support. At the Sexual Recovery Institute, both partners must have their own therapist, preferably not the same person, and be working a program of recovery. This ensures that the partner has a therapeutic advocate in the room and that they both have avenues to safely process their feelings.

The sex addict’s therapist will ensure that he shares all of the necessary information in a way that is rigorously honest, accepts responsibility for the behavior and furthers the healing process. The partner’s therapist acts as her advocate and is a resource to help her manage the intense and volatile feelings that often arise during and after a disclosure session.

Prior to the session, the partner will work with their therapist to prepare for what they expect to hear, what they might actually hear and what they hope to get out of the session. This allows the partner to process some of the shock and fear ahead of time. It is also helpful if the partner of the sex addict attends S-Anon or COSA meetings, partner support groups and practices healthy self-care. I facilitate the weekly partner’s support groups at SRI which involve education, healing exercises, and therapeutic group process empowering partners to support each other in recovery.

Full Disclosure Only. One of the most common mistakes people make in this emotionally charged situation is to disclose (or push the sex addict to disclose) before they are ready to admit the full truth in a productive way. Although this may sound overly deferential to the sex addict’s needs, waiting until the addict is ready to disclose is actually a recommendation that benefits the partner.

If the sex addict discloses too soon, he will likely make only a partial disclosure, leaving out important details that emerge later only to retraumatize the partner. A partial disclosure undermines the partner’s efforts to rebuild trust and repair the relationship. Alternatively, in a moment of crisis, when the sex addict is overcome with shame or the partner is threatening to leave unless he reveals everything, the addict may end up “dumping” too many details on the partner or disclosing when the partner doesn’t have the resources to handle such details.

Like partial disclosure, non-disclosure can also be extremely damaging. If sex addicts and their partners avoid the issue without asking any questions or giving any answers, the shamefully held secrets are never revealed. Although in AA it is suggested that alcoholics not tell their spouse about affairs, in sex addiction recovery we have found that this tradition simply allows the addict to keep on lying. In fact, not telling the spouse about affairs can be more damaging than telling the spouse.

Admitting wrongdoing is particularly important in the case of sex addiction because there is an offended party – the partner – who, maybe for the first time, gets to make choices about the information she receives. Releasing secrets and shame is also a powerful part of the healing process for the sex addict, and the only way bonds of trust and commitment can be restored in the relationship.

Appropriate Detail. With guidance from a therapist, the sex addict will describe the addictive behaviors that occurred during the relationship, eliminating only those details that would be harmful or unnecessary (such as revealing every fantasy the sex addict has ever had). Exactly how much detail is provided must be worked out in advance with a therapist.

Hearing the addict accept responsibility for the acting out behaviors can be deeply validating for the partner, who has likely felt for a very long time that something wasn’t right and questioned whether it was their imagination or something they did to push the sex addict away. Many partners begin to feel “crazy,” wondering if they are just paranoid or out of touch. The disclosure makes clear that the partner’s intuition was intact, even though the sex addict likely denied any wrongdoing, deflected any suspicions and turned the blame back around on the partner.

No Excuses. Throughout a disclosure session, we direct our sex-addicted clients to focus on just the facts and what they have learned about their addiction. They make clear that their partner did not cause this problem, and that they are taking full responsibility for their actions.

We encourage our clients to explain what they’ve learned about themselves and their behavior concisely, without making excuses or justifications for their sexual acting out. Following the disclosure, partners have the opportunity to share how they are feeling, which can range from angry and heartbroken to emotionally numb and shut down.

There are specific situations in which disclosure is not advised:

  • If the partner is not in good health
  • If the partner had threatened divorce or either party has seen a divorce attorney

I can’t stress enough how important it is to seek the advice of a therapist experienced with sex addiction disclosure before attempting a disclosure session on your own!

Clearing the slate in a disclosure process can set the process of healing in motion, but this is just the beginning. Rebuilding trust takes time. The process of amends happens as the addict actively and consistently works a program of recovery (e.g., 12-Step meetings, Step work with a sponsor, reaching out for emotional support), continuing to be rigorously honest even when facing disapproval, staying “present” in the relationship, going to therapy and looking inward, practicing good self-care, and living in his integrity. As the addict practices this new way of operating with consistency over time, he rebuilds his own self-respect and repairs the trust of others.

(The use of gender specific pronouns is for concise wording and in no way implies that sex addiction is a gender or orientation specific issue.)