People generally do not want to disclose their sex addiction to their intimate partner. And yet in sex addiction treatment we believe that couples cannot begin the process of recovery as long as the addict is still keeping secrets or telling lies. Hence the saying in treatment circles:
“Tell it all, tell it soon!”
This is not to say that we cannot have a private inner life or that we have to tell our spouse or partner everything we think or do. But telling the truth about sex addiction is an essential part of recovery. It is essential for the addict, for the partner and for the relationship.
When disclosure is not necessary
Disclosing the full extent of a sex addiction is not generally advised when the couple are planning to divorce or separate. Couples in the process of separation and divorce are dealing with a lot of emotional and real life upheaval. The disclosure of the details of sexual betrayal may be detrimental to the process of separating. It can fan the fires of resentment and conflict around settlement and custody issues. Often a partial disclosure has taken place which is part of the reason for the divorce. Disclosure can add to the traumatization of the partner who already feels betrayed, without serving any useful purpose.
Disclosing to a partner is often partial and disorganized
Partial disclosure, or disclosing in “stages,” is the norm although it is not considered a good idea. The addict feels the pressure to come clean but wants to hold back some facts about the sex addiction, usually those that are most damaging or shameful. The addict who has been partially found out is in a crisis state and is most often very afraid of abandonment by a partner. The feeling is that if the spouse or partner knew everything they would surely leave. This is not necessarily a true or rational idea.
However, full disclosure sets the stage not only for the addict to begin a new way of living but for the relationship to begin on a new basis of honesty and trust. Every time another little piece of information about the addict’s past behavior trickles out it makes the partner feel like it is just more than they can take. This is because the partner feels the dishonesty may have no end.
The commitment to truthfulness going forward
Holding on to secrets is a sign that the addict is not in very good recovery. “Rigorous honesty” is considered to be at the heart of the 12-step model of addiction recovery. There is a level of self hate and shame in the addict who feels he cannot be honest. He is continuing to act on the core belief that if someone really knew him they could never love him. It is a way to hang onto control but it is unfair.
Dishonesty about who we are sexually is a way to keep ourselves apart from our partner. It is a fatal barrier to true intimacy, which involves allowing ourselves to be known. It also gives the addict unequal power.
To the partner, the fact that they do not know what is going on or has gone on means that not only do they not know their addict partner very well but they do not have a view of their life that is based in reality. Partners cannot find contentment and happiness if their reality is being manipulated by someone else.
What not to disclose
The optimal way to disclose the facts of a sex addiction to a partner is thought to be through a “planned disclosure.” This is one where the couple prepare separately with their counselors and carry out the disclosure in the presence of a treating professional.
As part of the preparation, the partner or spouse will decide what it is they want to hear. This is very important. The addict may want to tell more than the partner wants to know. The addict will have to take direction from the partner as to what to disclose. For example, the partner may or may not want to know how many times the addict did a certain thing, or with whom, or what the details of the act were.
Planned full disclosure may be the ideal, but people are human and it is often not that neat. We need to accept that both people may be afraid and mistrustful. The addict may try to get away with holding onto a few key pieces of information our of fear, and the partner may resort to spying on the addict’s email in order to deal with the crazy-making feelings of mistrust.
But even if it is not perfect, the disclosure must take place for the relationship to survive and thrive.