Recovery for Partners of Sex Addicts

Posted on June 4th, 2015

Recovery for Partners of Sex AddictsUnderstanding and working through the stages of recovery, from crisis to growth, can lead couple to a future of wisdom and strength.

Kim still wonders how she could have been so clueless. Her husband’s cheating had been going on for four solid years—two of them while married, the other two while dating—before she began to put things together. At first she thought maybe she was just going a little crazy. He’d always stayed up late on the computer and had spent a lot of time checking and sending messages on his phone, but his job had required these things. She was being paranoid. But he’d grown even more detached, careless. She needed to use his laptop one morning because hers had crashed; that’s when she saw the IM:

krista21: Hey, sexy. I dreamed about u last night.

Her world changed after that. She became her own investigator, judge and jury. She could not believe the things she discovered, but she knew what they meant: her marriage had been a lie. Her husband surely had not loved her. There was the crush of discovery, the shock of confrontation, her husband’s begging, pleading, and then the terrible fights. Brad swore he loved only her and that he simply couldn’t control himself; that he needed help.

“You’re right about that,” she spat.

They teetered on the verge of divorce. Their counselor recommended treatment for Brad, for sex addiction. In the beginning, Kim was disgusted, bitter. She rolled her eyes. But treatment had been recommended for her, too, and what the hell, she thought? She didn’t have anything more to lose. She went. In her first COSA meeting (codependents of sex addicts), she felt uncomfortable and uncertain, but the readings began to sink in. The behaviors being discussed described her, and they offered practical steps for healing, for change. She kept going. There was still anger, sure, and grief and confusion, but afterward, a sense of calm, clarity. Kim says she’s a new person today.

Stages of Recovery for Partners of Sex Addicts

As with any other person who’s undergone a painful experience, an individual who has discovered his or her partner’s sex addiction is likely to go through stages of grief. These stages usually maintain a pattern, which is useful because it lets partners know they are not alone.

Dr. Stefanie Carnes, certified sex therapist and author (and daughter of international sex addiction expert Dr. Patrick Carnes), defined through her research the six identifiable stages of recovery for sex addicts’ partners. They are:

  1. Developing/pre-discovery
  2. Crisis/decision/information-gathering
  3. Shock
  4. Grief/ambivalence
  5. Repair
  6. Growth

Stages of Recovery for Sex Addicts’ Partners

The first stage, developing/pre-discovery, occurs before the partner is aware of the addict’s behaviors. When the partner brings up concerns in areas such as intimacy, parenting or finances, the addict denies a problem and may blame the partner. The addict does not address her or his addiction or acknowledge its role in the relationship’s breakdown (if she or he is even aware).

The second stage, crisis/decision/information-gathering, occurs when a partner first discovers the acting-out behaviors. Partners may begin searching for more evidence, probing and questioning the addict or attempting to micromanage the addict’s whereabouts and behaviors. With the second stage, the partner may begin to reach for resources, such as attending COSA or S-Anon groups.

The third stage is shock. This stage involves powerful feelings that may come in cycles: anger, resentment and despair, followed by numbness and avoidance. When the shock surfaces, it is wise to have support—a group of fellow partners, a therapist or empathetic friends on hand to lend a shoulder

Grief and ambivalence, the fourth stage, naturally follows after the emotional chaos of the previous stages. The partner begins to look inward more, grieving the things she or he has lost. Focus is less on the addict’s past behavior and more on the self and on healing.

In the fifth stage, repair, the partner has learned to erect boundaries and has successfully maintained them. She or he has grieved and is moving on with lessons learned. Self-care is the new order of the day. If the partner remains with the addict, it will be because both have committed to recovery. These can become quite happy and fulfilling relationships.

The final stage, growth, takes the partner into a future with wisdom and strength. The partner is no longer a victim, but a resilient survivor capable of being an equal partner.

From shame & pain to resilience & joy.

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