Oddly enough many addicts look forward to disclosure. They see it as a new beginning and a clean start on a fresh new way of life. Other addicts want to get honest but they’re afraid to tell the worst stuff, fearing that they’ll be left all alone. Since fear of abandonment is pretty much a standard fear for all addicts – it’s so bad we use sex to avoid feeling it – it’s understandable why addicts do this. As they’re better able to manage their fear, they’re better able to tell the whole truth.
Either which way, what is a scary but healing experience for addicts is almost always a severely painful experience for their partner. Think root canal. No. It’s worse than that. Sometimes we hurt them so badly, so deeply that they have to leave.
Here’s how it was for me. After sinking to astonishing new lows, I was lucky enough to land in a treatment facility for sex addicts. During family week, as part of my treatment I have to make a full disclosure to my husband about my behavior. He went to a few classes on addiction and how the addict is the most visible part of a dysfunctional family system, as well as an orientation class about what to expect during disclosure. But there’s no amount of preparation that lessens the pain of betrayal our spouses feel when we tell the truth.
The experience of the treatment staff was that people who didn’t make a full disclosure didn’t recover. They said that recovery had to be based on honesty and that we addicts could not afford a lie in our most intimate relationship. We could choose to participate or not, but they would not “collude” in lying to a spouse by helping with a partial disclosure. Besides, the staff pointed out, our spouses have the right to decide if they want to be with us. Our fear that they will be hurt and angry enough to leave us does not give us the right to manipulate them into staying. It’s not a loving or respectful thing to do.
That four or five minutes was without a doubt the most painful thing I’ve ever done and even with counselors there, it was much, much worse than I expected. I was stunned at how deeply he was hurt. A counselor led him to another room and basically sat with him as his world shattered. He says now that the rest of the day was a blur, most of which he can’t remember. He was just overloaded and in too much pain to think. For the rest of the day he couldn’t look at me or talk to me. He wouldn’t sit by me. When all the other families went out for lunch, I was taken back to the cafeteria in the van. Clearly, my marriage was over. Some thing are just too big to say sorry for.
Later in the evening he did some reading in a well known book on sex addiction. He couldn’t sleep and sometime in the middle of the night, while he was walking in the parking lot of the hotel, things clicked and he got it – that it’s not about him. The stuff I did is not about how good he is in bed, his looks, how much money he makes, how well he listens, his weight, none of that. It’s about me being sexually compulsive and misusing my sexuality to deal with life.
Nothing I did was his “fault” and I was trying to learn how to live a different way. That gave him some hope that things could change. But regardless of what I did, at least now he knew the truth, and could decide where he wanted to go from here. He decided that he’d like to try and stay together to see if we could make our marriage work, and we’ve definitely been amazed, even before we were half way through. I wish we could have gotten here with less pain, but I’m glad we’re here.
The recommendation from the treatment staff for when we went home was that any loss of sobriety had to be disclosed to our spouse. Lapses had to be disclosed too, stuff like googling a former acting out partner, or cruising past an adult bookstore. I have had two lapses (not losses of sobriety) in the last year and a half and for all this blather here in this post, I was too ashamed and too scared to tell my husband. If I hadn’t had good help, I would definitely NOT have disclosed my lapses to him, rationalizing that I was sparing him from unnecessary pain. That would have been the beginning of living a lie again, and that’s not a road I can afford to take. But again, if I hadn’t had good help from a sober sponsor, a strong group, and a certified sex addiction therapist, I would have done the wrong thing. And even with all that great help, if I wasn’t in a “fit spiritual condition” I wouldn’t have listened.
Both times, my husband was hurt. But he understands the disease of addiction and he has compassion for how difficult recovery can be. I have a lifetime habit of misusing my sexuality and only a year and a half or so of sobriety. Knowing that it isn’t about him, that he can’t save me, and that he can and will make choices to protect himself really helps. He knows that if I start acting out again, he will leave me. That’s scary for me, but it’s been a huge comfort to him. He knows whatever happens, he can live a happy, meaningful life without being married to me. He stays with me because he loves me. It’s his choice. He doesn’t have to be afraid that I will take him on a ride through hell any more because he can stop the train and get off before it goes over the cliff.
Disclosure, as painful as it was, helped rebuild the trust that’s necessary in marriage. My husband has experienced that I will be honest about my behavior when I disclosed my lapses. Because I worked the steps and stayed honest, I did not go on to lose my sobriety. And there’s no doubt that sobriety is the most important thing in my life since losing sobriety would be kind of like losing oxygen: nothing much good is going to happen after that.
His withdrawal from me right after disclosure was a natural reaction to severe emotional shock. But I’m very lucky. Because we have both had good help. Even before he returned home, my husband really got it. He knows it’s not a matter of bad me and good him. Because of his profession, he understands more clearly than most that what happened to me was criminal. It was painful for him to know that I saw myself as the perpetrator and my therapist as the victim. He felt bad that he hadn’t protected me. That’s a lot of shit to deal with. Plus he was going to work and taking care of the kids.
My husband is a strong, strong man and he needed the help of a good therapist. When your spouse discloses their addictive sexual behaviors, all the current landmarks get moved around. It’s disorienting. You run into stuff. You can’t trust your map and everything hurts.
Don’t force your loved one to go through a psychological and emotional root canal without novacaine. It’s cruel and unnecessary. And when they insist they don’t need help, tell them they really don’t have a clue how much it’s going to hurt.
Disclosure hurts much worse than a root canal. But done by an experienced dentist, root canals heal well and function properly and without pain. The same is true with disclosure. And we addicts owe it to our loved ones to insist on having good help.