“I am a recovering sex addict” is something you may or may not feel comfortable saying to people. On one hand, you may feel guarded about telling people anything, partly because you know that sexually compulsive behavior carries so much stigma and shame. On the other hand, you may decide you want to be open about your recovery. This openness may be received in a variety of ways, and you may find that people’s response is unpredictable; some may feel sex addiction is a joke, while others may react with extreme fear.
I had a client who came from Ohio for an intensive workshop in California. He was worried about what to tell others regarding his addiction. I naively suggested he could tell his colleagues that he’d been to “rehab.” After all, I said, “everybody goes to rehab nowadays.” His answer: “Not in Toledo they don’t.” Attitudes vary, but in general it’s still the case that talking about alcoholism is a piece of cake compared to the embarrassment and anxiety surrounding sex addiction.
Everyone’s situation is different but I’d like to offer some basic ideas about who should know what and when they should know it.
Telling immediate family
If you have a spouse or partner they will have to know at least the basic truths, preferably in a planned disclosure with therapist(s) structuring and supporting the process. Sometimes spouses uncover the addiction on their own, but blurting stuff out is never a good idea.
Apart from the initial disclosure process, spouses and partners need to know whatever they want to know as soon as possible in order to rebuild trust. However, if you’re seriously considering divorce, then formal disclosure is often discouraged.
Anybody close to you who is directly impacted will probably have to be told sooner or later. Young children will wonder what’s going on and need to be given the general answers (“Daddy’s had some problems and needs to get help to learn to be better, not hurt mommy’s feelings,” etc.) Older adolescents and adult children can be given more information, but it may not be appropriate to give all the details.
What to tell friends and associates
The hard part is deciding what to tell friends and other family members. Resist the temptation to confess until you’ve thought about the situation and the consequences to both yourself and the other persons. Here are some dos and don’ts.
- Don’t tell acquaintances, neighbors etc. You cannot assume that people will be able to understand sex addiction, and if they can’t understand it, they will be unable to contain it.
- Don’t tell anyone you don’t feel safe with emotionally. This may change over time but it means feeling that the person will still respect you and care about you; that they will not judge you or shun you.
- Don’t tell anyone if it could endanger your livelihood. This often includes people you work with.
- Don’t tell people who aren’t ready, meaning even extended family if it is outside their universe and if they can’t assimilate this information. This is a personal judgment call on your part.
- Do tell your doctor as it may be relevant (and might help him or her learn more about the issue).
- Do tell trusted friends and relatives including recovery friends from other 12-step programs. This helps fight the stigma that exists even in programs like AA.
- Do tell anyone whom you could’ve exposed to a sexually transmitted disease or any other disease.
- Do tell people to whom you are making verbal (9th step) amends. This can be in a general form such as, “I had a problem with sexual behavior and I’ve been working on it” etc. Your sponsor will help you with this.
- Do tell adult children and other close family members about your journey when it will help them understand their family and make sense out of their own experience. Seeing you grow and change is extremely powerful in helping adult children grow.
This process is never neat, and never goes perfectly according to plan. Anyone who’s ever been through it will have their own amazing stories to share.