Partner's Workshop: Stage One; Lesson Three
Your Partner's Path to RecoveryThe purpose of this lesson isn't to teach you the path from addiction to health. To do so would require the regurgitation of the entire Recovery Workshop. Instead, it is to provide you with a summary of the typical path that is followed in a healthy recovery process. As well, you will be introduced to some of the key warning signs of someone on an unhealthy path. Brace yourself, this lesson will likely trigger more questions about your partner's recovery than answers. More insecurity than confidence. And that's okay. What's important is that you expose yourself to the reality of sexual addiction recovery and not the unachievable ideal.
Discovery, Disclosure and Deception
As traumatic as the discovery of your partner's addiction may be, it is often equally traumatic to your partner — but for different reasons. To your partner, who has always been aware of the specific behaviors which have symptomized their addiction, their instinctive response to the discovery of that addiction is to continue the very behavior management patterns that sheltered it all along: deception, intellectualization, rationalization, minimization, etc. In their mind, these rituals occurred in the private world of fantasy and experience — not in the world of social boundary. And so, the homophobic community leader that is caught soliciting same-sex encounters in a public restroom does not see themselves as the person who engaged in that behavior. They instead — from the very core of their being — continue to see themselves as and protect that socially moralistic identity they have come to use to rationalize their behavior. And make no mistake, this isn't an act. They are not (primarily) trying to avoid consequence (though that is a relevant consideration/motivation), they are actually protecting themselves from the reality of their incongruency and corruption. They are protecting themselves from the reality of having to accept who they really are. To them, as long as they can keep the reality of these rituals secret (or in doubt), then the behavior itself 'doesn't count'. It isn't privy to the statutes of 'real life'. Granted, this is hugely simplified, but you should get the general idea: people with ingrained sexual addictions have integrated a secret-identity so deep that it warps even their own perceptions surrounding their behavior.
Along this same line, it is important to note that their deception — their primary tool in maintaining this secret world — is not limited to protecting their actions from others, it protects the reality of their actions from themselves as well. Through the ingrainment of warped perceptions, values, boundaries, etc., this self-deception is as much a staple of addiction as the rituals themselves. What's more, it isn't until the reality of just how much damage has been done to their 'real life' that they experience the actual trauma of the discovery. And so, to both ease the trauma of the discovery of their addiction and to instinctively protect that secret world they have constructed — deception will continue to be their primary tool in disclosure.
Once a person is able to accept this; once they recognize that they have established a secret identity that must now be expunged; a healthy recovery can begin. The following represents a typical recovery path — from the acceptance of this dual-identity through the transition to a healthy, values-based life. This path does not represent everyone — though the great majority of those who are traveling a healthy recovery will experience something close to these stages. Or, would have if not for what they will learn in the recovery workshop. Some, perhaps one in thousand, will not experience anything even close to this. Instead, they will make the decision to move forward in their life and their actions will follow directly — without experiencing a void, without experiencing slips, without experiencing further urges. This is again, rare. And for anyone not experiencing either — those whose focus is more on achieving and maintaining abstinence — well, hopefully they will find some other, less direct route to health.
Stage One: The Identity Crisis/Minimal Disclosure
It is typically a crushing awareness — an identity crisis — that triggers the start of a healthy recovery. Until then — say, when recovery is based purely on threat or the pursuit of abstinence, only the symptoms of addiction are pulled into play and challenged. The entire recovery process can be played out in a manner that both symptomatically appeases others and simultaneously protects the core of their addiction. In a healthy recovery, that is not enough. In a healthy recovery, it is understood that inadequate life management skills (i.e. emotional immaturity, value management, boundary application) opened the door to the development of the addiction; and that that door will remain open for as long as those skills remain inadequate. This requires your partner to accept that he is inadequate as a mature partner and adult. That he lacks certain skills that should have been developed by this stage of his life. That he is not the person that he has projected himself to be. This can be traumatic, leading even to depression and suicide in rare cases. But, it is only when your partner recognizes the damage that has been done to their own identity that they will be able to accept and commit themselves to a deep, sustained recovery process. One that involves the rebuilding of that identity.
Because of the overwhelming insecurity that follows such a discovery, and because the reality of a dual-identity is just beginning to be examined, disclosure at this stage is often reduced to an absolute minimum. Whatever can be proven — is admitted to. If there were multiple affairs and only one was discovered — only one was disclosed. If an online affair crossed into actual an actual face-to-face meeting — even if no sexual encounter occurred — only the online affair will be admitted to. The immediate, immature reaction of the person being discovered is to stop the bleeding. To cause no further damage. Now, there are exceptions. Rituals involving 'less threatening' behavior like porn or masturbation tend to be shared with more completeness — unless the relationship is protected by hyper-rigid boundaries. Though even in these cases, it is extremely rare for 'the whole truth' to come out.
Stage Two: Heightened Motivation/Effort/Hope
With the initial pursuit of a healthy recovery — and one's commitment to it — hope is born. And with it, the motivation and effort that hope breeds. Typically, the emotions produced from this initial boost last anywhere from a few days to a month — but rarely longer. It is difficult during this early stage of recovery to gauge a person's ultimate prognosis because they have yet to settle into a life management strategy that is sustainable. The emotions themselves will result in an immediate experience of diminished urges, increased behavioral control and can even produce the motivation to avoid threatening situations. But all of this is somewhat of an illusion. It is not yet based on fundamental, core decisions. It is based on hope.
And if your partner doesn't experience this initial sense of hope? All is not lost...as long as the sincere recovery effort continues. On the other hand, if this lack of hope is supported by ongoing frustration, poor communication, emotional distance and protective behavior — then forget it. Recovery has not yet begun — whether he is achieving abstinence or not.
Stage Three: Forced Abstinence/Expanded Emotions
With a commitment to recovery comes a commitment to abstain from known destructive rituals. Think about that. If a person is sincere about their desire to end this addiction, they will do everything they can to achieve that goal. The problem is, for most, they don't actually know what they are supposed to do. Instead, they follow. They follow outdated paths; they follow misinformed people. They literally do 'anything' to end their addiction — though not necessarily the right things. But at this stage, one thing is undeniable — they KNOW if they are continuing to indulge in compulsive behavior and they KNOW it is in conflict with their stated goals. And so, on a healthy path, they may not yet know how to successfully manage their urges to a point where they feel meaning and fulfillment; but they still force themselves into abstinence — accepting any emotional discomfort as the price they are willing to pay.
But the emotional discomfort that comes with forced abstinence isn't the only emotional cost. With the willing abandonment of their addiction, they have left themselves with the same emotional immaturity but with even less options for managing those emotions. This often leads to a spike in emotional intensity like frustration, depression, rage, etc. This is normal, though not healthy. Episodes of tearfulness (triggered by a memory, song, commercial, etc), a hair-like trigger for frustration and wide mood swings are often (but not always) observed. This expanded range of emotions should be expected, but not tolerated — if the resulting behavior violates any of your boundaries. Emotional immaturity is an explanation for your partner's lack of responsibility, it is not an excuse.
Stage Four: Absorption within Addiction/Recovery Process (or some other aspect of their life)
Typically, once a person begins to see a true path away from their addiction, they sprint towards it. They are so motivated by hope that their world becomes unbalanced with too great a focus on recovery. In a sense, their obsession shifts from sexualization to recovery. In a healthy recovery process, this is okay and even serves a useful purpose — as long as this shift is temporary.
Stage Five: Motivation Weakens; Effort Fades
Like all sprints, this spike in energy and focus cannot be sustained. In fact, it often fades quickly (almost always within the first month). When it does, the person in a healthy recovery will face their first major challenge/threat. Because they remain emotionally immature, they perceive this completely natural phenomenon as a weakening of their sincerity and may even translate it into proof of a lack of commitment/inability to recover. Frustration and depression may be triggered — though this is often-short-lived and not extreme. This fading motivation is the primary reason for the recovery/relapse cycle observed in the great majority of recovery efforts. Eventually, those continuing on a healthy path move into one of two camps: 1) they lose their feeling of 'inevitable change' and settle instead for 'doing what they can'. Or 2) they move to the next stage of the transition that involves a loss of identity and emotional void.
Stage Six: An Emotional 'Void'/Loss of Identity is Experienced
Note the difference here from the identity crisis discussed in stage one. There, the crisis involved recognizing the existence of a dual-identity. Here, with forced abstinence in place and the initial motivation/hope weakening, they are dealing with a lack of any clear identity at all. They don't know if they can be the healthy person they want to be; and don't know if they can exist without the sexual-compulsions that have been. They are in 'no-man's land'. They have lost their identity altogether. The biggest threat at this stage is the reality that, to the person experiencing this, there will be a STRONG tendency to return to the security of their addiction. The logic being, having a destructive identity is better than having no identity at all. At least when their lives were being managed by sexual ritual, they felt something. Now, they feel very little. They feel lost.
Stage Seven: Recommitment to Recovery; Sense of Inevitability
Like the initial euphoria experienced in early recovery, this emotional void doesn't last long, either. And in the wake of this 'lack of identity', a slow, methodical, inevitable approach to health will emerge. There is an acceptance that, no matter what may come — including slips/relapse — that they are no longer fighting to end their addiction; they are now fighting to establish a healthy life.
Stage Eight: Opportunities to Grow, Experience
By now, recovery no longer becomes a process of avoidance, fear and management; it becomes a push for experience, confidence and growth. There is a recognition that with each day, unique opportunities arise to challenge oneself. Relapse triggers become triggers for strengthening their recovery. A shift takes place where recovery is no longer seen as an activity they are engaging in, but as a means of managing the inevitable transition to health that is taking place.
Stage Nine: Lost Focus/Balance/Complacency
No matter how sincere the commitment to health or how confident the sense of inevitability, everyone will experience times in the three-twenty-four month range of their recovery where they will find their lives out-of-balance, will have lost focus on the purpose of their lives and/or will have developed complacency in their responsibility to manage their life. What is important is how they respond to this realization. Should they see it as proof that all the changes that have taken place have been an illusion, they are vulnerable to complete relapse. Should they recognize it for what it is, an inevitable fact of life that is experienced by everyone — healthy and unhealthy; those in recovery and those who have never been addicted — they will more easily recognize this as a time to gain experience in employing their emerging life management skills.
Stage Ten: Disconnect from Addiction; Full DisclosurePossible
At some point — usually after a few times having successfully navigated a life crisis in a healthy way — they begin to personally disconnect from their past addiction. They begin to clearly see it as the emotional management tool that it was and no longer feel personal shame for engaging in it. Let me clarify, they will forever feel remorse for the consequences of what they have done, but they will no longer feel the intense shame. Instead, they come to realize that this truly was an addiction. That what drove this compulsive, destructive behavior was ignorance and an unhealthy foundation, not disease and/or instinct. It is only now when they are capable of a full disclosure of all past behavior**.
In terms of the addiction itself, the frequency of sexual urges, along with the intensity of those urges will have significantly diminished — with most (if not all) overt rituals eliminated completely. More subtle rituals — like scanning, hypersexuality, fantasy — will continue as the primary target of awareness/response. But they will continue at a much more manageable rate. As an example, if it was typical for a person to engage in two or three hundred such subtle rituals a day (much more common than people think — and seen in those without addictions as well), then these will likely be reduced to perhaps two-five such rituals a week by the beginning of the six month through the second year; and two-five such rituals per year beginning with the second year post-recovery. The frequency of these subtle rituals then become one of the primary tools for objective monitoring of overall balance and stability.**Note: This is not to imply that your partner has not yet shared everything there is to share. It is only to point out that if they made the decision to hide anything out of fear that such disclosure would have been unbearable, now is the time when they will be able to share it openly — when they are disconnected to that behavior and emotionally connected to their higher values.
Stage Eleven: Health, Health Monitoring and Maintenance
As the transition to health takes hold, the actual time spent focused on recovery should diminish dramatically — eventually fading to mere 'refreshers' in skill development and awareness. A mechanical, objective weekly monitoring system should be in place to monitor for overall balance. An ingrained, 24-7 emotional monitoring system should be in place to serve as a warning system to detect immediate threats to one's core values. Additionally, confidence will have been built in the area of threat management through skill development and repetition in values-based urge-control. The concept of 'recovery' is phased out of one's vocabulary altogether, replaced by a fundamental responsibility to manage one's health and the threats to it.
Again, this is the typical path to someone engaged in a healthy transition from addiction, through recovery and onto health. It is not the only path. Though you would be wise to view any variant from this well-worn path with a cautious and pessimistic eye.
Because of all of the deception inherent in addiction, it is common to challenge your own 'gut feelings' relating to your ability to read your partner. You may have even concluded that these instincts failed you. Yet what is most likely is that your instincts picked up on the curious patterns — it was your heart and head that altered your conclusions. And there is nothing wrong with that. It is a good person who leads their life with values such as trust and love and partnership.
But, now that you know that you are dealing with an addiction...risk, vulnerability...these are things that you can no longer take for granted in your life. You must offer them only when accompanied by logic and reason. And so, at least until trust can be rebuilt, you will need to develop a more mechanical, objective and safe ability to monitor your partner's health. Much of this will be done throughout the workshop, but we will start by doing the following:
In your healing thread...
A) Brainstorm the times when your 'gut feelings' have been right about your partner's sexual and/or romantic behavior. Include times when you feel strongly that you were right (though it may never have been proven either way).
B) Identify as many major situations as you can where you allowed your head/heart to override your 'gut feelings' in relation to your partner's behavior.
Situation — my husband called to tell me he had to work late. I called him later that night and there was no answer. He said that his cell phone had died. My gut told me that something was not right. I ignored my gut because I didn't think there was any way he could lie to me so convincingly.
C) Relying on the experience you have gained, make a list of likely behaviors, situations and/or feelings that may trigger a conflict between your gut instinct, your value system and/or reality.
My husband says he is trying hard in recovery and I want to believe him, but the objective signs just aren't there.
My wife has befriended a male coworker and they go out to lunch several times a week, they play tennis together on the weekends, she goes over to his apartment to watch movies every now and then. She assures me it is completely innocent and I want to believe her. But my gut says I'm being naive.