In recovery, disclosure is an important and difficult undertaking for the addict, the partner, and the relationship. For the partner, disclosure is often traumatic to varying degrees. As the addict, there are things you can do to make the disclosure process easier and there are things you can do that make the disclosure process more traumatic for your partner. One thing that often makes the disclosure process more traumatic for the partner is reassuring them about the content of the disclosure.
It can seem reasonable to reassure your partner prior to a formal therapeutic disclosure that they know everything about your past behaviors and that there are no new behaviors to disclose. Couples sometimes refer to these unknown behaviors as "bombs." Sometimes this reassurance is offered by the addict when they believe there are no “bombs” coming. Sometimes this reassurance is asked for when the partner experiences anxiety about what they might not know. On the surface, reassurance seems like a reasonable thing to offer or request. So, why is providing this reassurance to your partner problematic? It is problematic because you are reassuring your partner about something is that typically untrue and, additionally, it is manipulative.
In recovery, assumptions are always problematic. If you assume your partner knows everything and reassure them that there are no “bombs,” you are playing with fire. When (not if) your partner learns something new about some of your past behaviors in disclosure and if you have reassured them that they knew everything, it will be more traumatic to your partner. In my clinical experience, partners almost always learn about new behaviors or they learn new information about behaviors. This may include behaviors that the partner genuinely did not know about, behaviors the partner knew at one time but had forgotten, or nuances of behaviors the partner was unaware of.
People forget things. And having previously known about something does not eliminate the trauma of remembering. This is similar to you, as an addict, being in an environment that beings up memories of a past addictive situation or trigger and again feeling shame, guilt, or an addictive urge. The feeling may be less intense than it was originally but it has not gone away. If someone who knew about your addiction had reassured you that there was nothing to be worried about, you would likely feel some level of resentment regardless of whether the person was intentionally lying or honestly believed everything was safe. Likewise, if your partner previously knew about a behavior but has forgotten about it, it will still be traumatic for them to be reminded of the behavior. Also, if you have reassured them there would not be any “bombs” in the disclosure, they will likely feel resentment toward you whether or not you were completely honest in your reassurance. A similar pattern plays out if your partner had not previously framed a behavior as part of your addiction. Again, it does not seem to matter that your partner had previously known about the behavior. Cognitive knowledge does not protect your partner from a traumatic experience. Having this known behavior shared as an aspect of your addiction can still be traumatic. If you have reassured your partner there would be no “bombs” in your disclosure, the trauma will be worse.
Sometimes the addict forgets. While working with your therapist to prepare disclosure, you might remember a behavior that was linked to your addiction that you had honestly forgotten about. Or, you might realize a past or present behavior you had never considered part of your addiction is actually important to disclosure and, for whatever reason, your partner is unaware of this behavior. This constitutes new information for your partner.
More often than addicts care to admit, they have lied about or not shared some sexual behavior with their partner, their recovery community, and their therapist. While significant omissions are not an every time occurrence, I am no longer surprised when this comes up in disclosure preparation. If the addict holds onto secrets and does not include them in disclosure, they undermine the point of disclosure, minimize the potential healing disclosure offers to them and their partner, or, worst of all, further damages their partner and their relationship. Disclosing hidden behaviors is essential. This is one of the reasons we recommend a polygraph in conjunction with a formal therapeutic disclosure. If you have reassured your partner they know everything only to disclose something you have been holding as a secret, you have just further traumatized your partner.
Part of the reason we recommend disclosure is that by providing your partner with a full account of your past behavior, you are providing them with all the information available to choose what to do with the relationship. Repairing the attachment bond in your relationship can only happen with rigorous honesty. Withholding information or refusing to provide a disclosure leaves doubt, which interferes with rebuilding trust and healing the relationship attachment. Reassuring your partner that there are no “bombs” creates the potential for further damage to your relationship’s attachment and your partner’s trust.
When you reassure your partner that there will be no “bombs” in your disclosure, you are performing a manipulative act. This is true no matter how altruistic you claim your reassurance is. You are an addict. Your behavior has had an impact on your partner. And, your partner has a right to their emotions about this, which may very well include anger, pain (sadness), and fear. These emotions may be uncomfortable for your partner but are almost assuredly uncomfortable for you. When you reassure your partner there will be no “bombs,” you are taking away their right to have their own emotional reaction about your addiction, the information in the disclosure, or the disclosure process itself. Your partner may experience positive growth from having and exploring these emotional experiences. Your reassurance robs your partner of this potential growth. In reality, when you reassure your partner there will be no “bombs,” you are actually manipulating your partner so their emotional experience is more comfortable for you.
If your partner is angry, afraid, hurting, or overwhelmed, please do not reassure them there will be no “bombs” in your disclosure. Instead, tell them you are committed to making sure they get all the information about your addiction and your behavior in order to support them in their own healing process. Tell them you are committed to seeing this full therapeutic disclosure process through to the end. Then dig in with your therapist and work to provide your partner with a full therapeutic disclosure as soon as possible so your partner can continue their own healing process with a clear understanding of the reality of your addiction. You cannot eliminate your partner’s trauma. That was created by your past behavior, which you cannot change. But, by committing to provide a full therapeutic disclosure as soon as possible instead of reassuring your partner about the contents of the disclosure, you can minimize their disclosure trauma.
Tim Stein is a well-known expert in the field of sex addiction. His work as a clinician, lecturer, consultant, supervisor and author keeps him on the cutting edge of sex addiction treatment. Tim is a regular presenter at national and international conferences and is dedicated to offering information, providing clinical and recovery guidance, and advocating for the understanding and treatment of sex addicts and their partners. Tim’s professional life is guided by his passion to heal the lives and relationships of individuals and families impacted by sex addiction. Through his writing, lecturing, and clinical work, Tim strives to help those impacted by sex addiction to find self-love, emotional resilience, integrity and joy in recovery whether this is through personal insight or information and tools Tim provides to other professionals. Tim is a co-founder of Willow Tree Counseling in Santa Rosa, CA and was integral in the development and evolution of their treatment programs for sex addicts and partners of sex addicts.
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