A partner is simply one who is (or has been) in a significant relationship with an addict. The partner of a sex addict has been deeply betrayed by the addict’s behavior and usually feels extraordinary hurt and anger. Bethesda Workshops incorporates the principles of the “trauma model” when working with partners. We believe that sexual betrayal is the deepest wound to a relationship and cuts at the heart of everything that should be sacred.
A partner deserves a dedicated treatment focus to get help for the pain of the betrayal, to restore self-worth, and to learn tools and skills of self-care.
Nothing a partner did or didn’t do is the reason behind the addict’s behavior. The addict is completely responsible for his/her acting out. It is not the partner’s fault! Neither is the partner responsible for helping the addict heal. That is solely the addict’s responsibility, too.
Trauma of Discovery or Disclosure
Discovering or hearing about a loved one’s inappropriate sexual or relationship behavior is devastating. You didn’t sign up for this pain! It’s normal to feel whatever you’re feeling, which usually is a painful mix of anger, hurt, fear and sadness – along with a good dose of disappointment, confusion or embarrassment.
It’s also normal to react in a myriad of ways. You might lash out in anger or withdraw in pain or try to be a detective and figure out exactly what you’re dealing with. You replay conversations and situations in your mind and reframe the history of your relationship.
Take the time you need to deal with the trauma of discovering your loved one’s acting out or the pain of hearing a disclosure. Unfortunately, unless the addict is getting appropriate help, disclosure is often unguided and incomplete, which only adds to your pain.
Reach out to safe people who can support you during this difficult time. Find a counselor who specializes in helping partners of sex addicts find their way through this maze of betrayal and confusion. Take comfort in the fact that your loved one’s acting out is not your fault. Be gentle with yourself.
Consider attending a Healing for Partners workshop to get the support, information, and direction you deserve.
Because partners live in a crazy-making environment of addiction, they often doubt their own reality. And it’s no wonder because most sex addicts are masters at attempting to alter it! This practice is called gaslighting, and it’s totally destabilizing for the partner.
We call it the “grass is red” syndrome. If you’re told long enough or loudly enough that the grass is red, eventually you’ll come to doubt your own perception of green. You start to question your gut, intuition, and own view of reality. Who would want to think that the person you love the most – the one you thought would always have your back – has betrayed you? Believing the addict long after he or she has become untrustworthy is a way of protecting yourself from facing a terrible truth.
Sometimes a partner is especially susceptible to believing the addict’s explanations, accusations, and promises. Usually this happens when the partner unconsciously learned early in life to lose herself (or himself) in other people. Maybe she had to fend for herself because caregivers weren’t healthy enough to nurture her. Perhaps he had to always be alert for danger from others and adjust to their version of reality.
A partner deserves to be told the truth simply, clearly, and consistently. You deserve to see what you see, know what you know, and think what you think. An important part of your healing journey is to learn how to trust yourself and stand on your own truth, regardless of what the addict tells you. That’s much easier said than done.
Coping with Addiction
In an unhealthy, crazy-making situation like living with an addict, partners are forced to cope the best way they know how. They try to gain safety in the middle of such a distressing situation. Sometimes they are anxious to please, help, or not rock the boat. They may focus on the addict and be more attuned to the addict’s behavior and needs than to their own. In a different scenario, the partner may detach from the addict and withdraw into her (or his) own world of children, work, or other interests.
In some situations, the partner isn’t aware of the addict’s behavior or at least not the depth of the problem. (Remember, addicts are great deceivers, and no one wants to consider the possibility of such egregious conduct as infidelity.) These partners may have had a nagging sense that something wasn’t right with the addict and the relationship, but they couldn’t identify the root cause. Sadly, addicts may have blamed them for any issues in the relationship, or the partners may have blamed themselves.
Partners sometimes get caught up in their own unhealthy behaviors when they discover or learn about the addict’s betrayal. They may play detective (after an expected period of investigation to find out the truth of about the addict’s behavior), rage, shut down, become more sexual, abuse alcohol or other drugs, eat, shop, or settle for the status quo.
Sometimes partners try to manage or manipulate the addict’s behavior, control the addict, or make threats if things don’t change. It’s reasonable to try to stop behavior that is unacceptable!
At Bethesda Workshops, we don’t pathologize these reactions. They are normal attempts to find safety or to cope with the desperate pain of betrayal. While completely understandable, these reactions rarely help the situation, and unfortunately, they often make it worse.
Bethesda Workshops believes that partners deserve effective solutions that honor self and hold the addict fully accountable. The Healing for Partners Workshops teaches helpful principles and enforceable boundaries for those who are dealing with intimate betrayal.
Influence of a Partner's Personal History
Because Bethesda Workshops uses a comprehensive model, we also explore the woundedness that partners have experienced personally (usually in their family of origin or some other trauma) that pre-date the relationship with the addict. We find that partners are best helped by receiving an understanding of their own history and the beginning tools for healing about it.
Unhelpful methods of coping are largely unconscious and were often developed as survival techniques in the partner’s family of origin. When a family struggles with addiction, secrets, deprivation, perfectionism, or other dysfunction, the child must learn ways to survive. These strategies were invaluable when they were originally discovered and put into place. The difficulty is that healthy adult relationships aren’t well served by many forms of coping that may have worked in a different situation.
People who are wounded in this way tend to gravitate toward others who are emotionally unavailable or needy, even though they often don’t appear that way on the outside. That kind of relationship dance feels unconsciously familiar and may mirror (or be the opposite of) dynamics from the family of origin. Unfortunately, if a partner didn’t learn in her or his family how to address personal feelings and needs, she often becomes involved in an adult relationship that is chronically unfulfilling.
Please be assured that statement doesn’t mean that a partner willingly “chose” an addict. No one would consciously sign up for this pain! The principle here is that all individuals are strongly influenced by their upbringing and their culture. These unconscious forces shape a person’s belief systems and interactions – and affect their relationships.
The Path to Healing
Healing for partners, then, involves two parallel tracks: healing from the trauma of being betrayed by a sex addict; and healing from earlier wounds that spawned belief systems and coping techniques that no longer are helpful. From a theoretical standpoint, Bethesda Workshops combines the best of the trauma model for treating partners with a systemic perspective that also explores the partner’s personal history. We truly believe that the partner’s healing journey is more difficult than the addict’s because of this double-whammy of wounding. Partners deserve complete healing and empowerment as individuals and within their intimate relationships.
Healing for PartnersWorkshop
for individuals who are in significant relationship with someone who struggles with sex and love addiction.Learn More
Reasons for Partners to Seek Help
Like most addicts, partners have usually experienced some form of abuse or abandonment. Many are adult children of an addicted parent. The reality is that many partners learned unhealthy ways of coping long before getting involved with the sex addict, and those patterns are being played out in the current relationship. Sometimes, the sex addict is just the latest of a string of dysfunctional people in the partner’s life. She or he unconsciously keeps picking addicts in relationship after relationship.
This reality is why it’s important for a partner to get help personally whether the addict does or not. You’ve probably heard about the wife who prayed for years that her husband would stop drinking, and when he finally did, she was surprised to discover that his sobriety didn’t fix everything wrong in their marriage. She didn’t know how to relate to this now-sober alcoholic, and in fact, she didn’t necessarily like him any better – or herself.
First Steps for Partners
If you believe someone you care about has a problem with sexual addiction, or you’re already certain you need help yourself even if your person doesn’t admit to a problem, here are some first steps you can take.
Detachment with Love
The idea of detaching with love is usually hard for partners to grasp. You’ve been so affected and hurt by the addict’s behavior, and your life has become entwined with the addict’s. To step back from the situation is difficult.
Self-Test for Partners
This self-test was developed by S-Anon, a 12 Step fellowship for people in relationship with a sexual addict.
- Do you have money problems because of someone else’s sexual behavior?
- Do you tell lies to cover up for someone else’s sexual behavior?
- Do you think that your loved one’s behavior is caused by his or her companions?
- Do you make threats such as, “If you don’t stop, I’ll leave you,” but you don’t follow through?
- Are you afraid to upset your partner for fear that he or she will leave you?
- Have you been hurt or embarrassed by the addict’s behavior?
- Do you find yourself searching for hidden clues that might be related to the sexual behavior of a loved one?
- Do you feel alone in your problem?
- Have you gotten someone out of jail as a result of his or her sexual behavior?
- Does sex play an all-consuming role in your relationship?
- Do you feel responsible for the addict’s behavior?
- Are you preoccupied or obsessed by the addict’s problems?
- Do you find yourself being sexual with the addict to prevent him or her from being sexual with others?
- Do you find yourself engaging in self-defeating or degrading behavior?
- Have you thought about or attempted suicide because of someone’s sexual behavior?
If you answered yes to even one or two of these questions, you would benefit from getting help.
What should I do first if I suspect my person is a sex addict?
The first step is to admit there is a serious problem with your partner and the relationship. Refuse to remain in denial. Take action to learn about sexual addiction and to get help for yourself as the partner of an addict. Begin by telling a safe person the truth about what’s going on in your family.
What do I tell my family and friends? My addict refuses to let me talk to anyone and insists it’s nobody’s business.
It’s not unusual for addicts to insist that their spouses keep the secret. He or she may use threats or control to keep you quiet. The truth is that you have a right to talk about what’s going on in your life. Your spouse’s addiction affects you, too. You can tell your story about what’s going on with you – the pain, the fear, the shame, the confusion. You don’t owe any loyalty to your spouse’s sinful behaviors.
If you fear your spouse may become violent or harm you in some significant way, it’s crucial that you develop a safety plan. Learn about the resources in your area. Make arrangements with a trusted person for help in an emergency. Ask for legal advice, if necessary.
My addict won’t tell me the truth about his/her acting out. How do I get him/her to disclose his secrets?
Bethesda Workshops teaches addicts that their secrets are harming their relationships, even if they believe their spouse doesn’t know. It’s impossible to have true intimacy unless it’s built on honesty. Sadly, addicts have gotten very good at deception, and they are afraid you will leave if you know the truth. Unfortunately, addicts typically practice staggered disclosure and continue lying, which only increases your pain.
At the same time, we don’t recommend that addicts immediately confess everything to their spouse, especially without professional help. In fact, that approach isn’t a good plan! Consultation with a trained clinician is strongly recommended. This structured approach ensures you have adequate resources in place for yourself as a partner. It also greatly increases the likelihood that you’ll receive the complete information you deserve.
Bethesda Workshops covers disclosure in every individual intensive. You can also access our two-part podcast on disclosure.
What do I tell my children?
Professionals in the field generally agree that children, both minors and adults, have a need and right to know (to varying degrees) about a parent’s addiction. Even young children are very much aware of what’s going on in a family, despite how well you may have tried to hide it. Talking honestly about the family situation can be a relief for children.
You should consider your children’s ages, maturity, and personality when discussing sensitive information. The primary thing to consider is your motive for telling your children: Is it to promote honesty and healing within the family, or is to seek support for yourself, get your children to take side, or manipulate the children into comforting you? None of those are healthy reasons for talking with your children about the situation.
It is vitally important that you reassure children that any problems in the family are not their fault and are not their responsibility to solve. Be clear that you will take care of them and get the family whatever help is needed. We’ll provide resources about disclosure to family at the Healing for Partners workshop.
Are my children safe if my person is sexually addicted? Will he/she sexually abuse the children?
Living in a home where sexual addiction is present is clearly a less than healthy environment for children for a variety of reasons. However, don’t automatically assume that a sex addict is at risk of sexually abusing children. Sexual addiction and pedophilia (being sexually attracted to children) are two different things. Most sex addicts are not inappropriate with children. Unless you have some specific reason to suspect otherwise, your children aren’t at increased risk of sexual abuse by an addicted parent. Even addicts who access child oriented pornography don’t necessarily go on to commit a contact offense, though evaluation by a clinical professional is definitely warranted. It’s always wise, however, to be aware of others’ interactions with your children and to have healthy conversations about concepts like safe touch and personal privacy.
How do I know my addict really arrived at the workshop? What keeps him/her from acting out during the workshop?
It’s the participant’s responsibility to alert you that he/she has arrived before the workshop starts. We take up cell phones and other electronic devices at the start of the workshop, and after that point, we have a strict policy of no contact with people at home until the workshop ends. (This policy also covers any contact at all with the outside world, including with work. We provide emergency contact information for the participant to share with family members.)
If someone fails to show up for a workshop, we contact the person listed as the emergency contact to report that the expected participant isn’t here. Similarly, we contact the emergency contact if a participant leaves the workshop before it’s over.
Every participant has a roommate and is not allowed to leave the workshop site or the hotel without receiving permission from a staff member and unless accompanied by another person. No one goes anywhere alone, including driving back and forth from the hotel. Remember, you can’t control the addict’s behavior. If he/she is willing to attend a Healing Workshop, that’s an important first step.