Telling a partner their sexual secrets is the last thing that most sex addicts want to do. Yet it is considered a vital part of sex addiction recovery for the addict and not just for the partner or spouse.
Disclosing everything about the addict’s secret life is important in finding or maintaining intimacy and yet it seldom happens all at once. Despite the fact that sex addiction therapists and sex addiction support groups stress honesty and coming clean with your spouse or partner, addicts fear it like the plague. (For additional information about the process of disclosure and planned disclosure in therapy see my post “Partners Need to Know the Secrets and Lies of Sex Addiction”.)
Trickling or staggered disclosure
It is normal for sex addicts to want to hold back as much about their addiction as they think they can get away with. So initially, they are likely to disclose only the minimum they think they need to. As treatment progresses and the partner or spouse gets more involved, additional sexual behaviors or additional details about the sexual activities may come out or be discovered. Staggered disclosure is considered by therapists to be the norm (see Corley and Schneider, Disclosing Secrets, 2002).
The resistance to revealing everything
There are a number of reasons why addicts find it so hard to just tell it all; some have to do with overt manipulation and some are more psychological.
- Wanting to contain the problem and avoid the risk of turmoil or divorce. Disclosure does cause turmoil but it does not necessarily cause divorce. Addicts are often justifiably afraid that honesty may result in a break-up. They have in effect made a bargain: they are giving up the possibility for real intimacy in their relationship in order to maintain the relationship. This is probably a long-standing bargain so it is hard to see it as such. It is based on the addict’s insecurity, abandonment fear and negative core beliefs about him/her self.
- Wanting to “protect” the partner or spouse. Yes, disclosure is hurtful to spouses and partners of the addict. But here again the addict is making a trade off: they are saying in effect ‘Hurting my partner by keeping sexual secrets and sacrificing a closer bond is better than hurting my partner by telling the truth.’ Better for who? In most cases the wish to protect the partner is a rationalization
- Thinking that certain facts don’t count. Addicts in early recovery may not really understand the many ways, large and small, that they have acted out their sexual compulsivity. It is typical in recovery for addicts to add things to the list of sexually addictive behaviors as they gain greater self awareness. A porn addict may not be thinking that his sporadic affairs were part of an “addiction.” Another addict may not immediately realize that coming on to a friend’s wife at a party was related to his addiction to extramarital hook-ups.
- Wanting to be able to continue the undisclosed behavior. This is not necessarily a conscious wish to be devious. It may be that the addict stays in denial about a particular behavior, believing it to be innocent or irrelevant because of an unconscious motivation to cling to the behavior and a fear of having to give it up. Such is the compulsive and deluded nature of addictive behavior.
Honesty, remorse and empathy
Addicts hold the core belief that they are unworthy of love. They avoid intimacy by losing themselves in their addictive behavior which not only serves to “medicate” anxiety, depression and other negative emotions but also serves to avoid the risk of rejection by an intimate partner.
As addicts recover, they gradually let go of long-standing feelings of shame, fear and inadequacy. They are more willing to risk real intimacy and let go of their sexual fantasy life. As they gain a stronger sense of self they become more courageous as well as more genuinely remorseful and empathic.
Honesty with oneself and one’s partner is considered to be an indication of progress in recovery. It is evidence of a new-found ability to connect. It is both a cause and effect of the healing process. The addict demonstrates a new more integrated self by being honest with himself and others—even when it’s scary.
In this sense the growing ability to tell our secrets is part of the process of trauma and addiction recovery. It doesn’t happen all at once.