Partner's Workshop: Stage One; Lesson Nine
Assessing Your Partner's Sincerity in Recovery
From early on, you'll likely want signs as to the sincerity of your partner's recovery. Is he just going through the motions? Is he doing this to appease me? Is he really sincere about changing? Thankfully, there are objective signs you can look to. In the previous lesson, we reviewed common recovery patterns associated with either short or long-term success. Here we will look at things from a more practical view: is he on the right track?
Ironically, whether your partner continues to engage in sexually compulsive behavior in early recovery is one of the least reliable ways of determining sincerity. Just as paradoxical is the notion that their level of honesty is a direct barometer of their sincerity. Both should be, but neither are. When you have greater than 95% of those immediately following the discovery of their addiction continue to use deception to minimize responsibility for their actions — what you have is a symptom, not an indicator. Similarly, as is the nature of compulsivity, one's desire to end their addiction does not translate to their ability to end it. A germophobe can simply stop washing their hands to end their OCD. An anorexic can simply eat. A sexually compulsive person can simply stop masturbating, or fantasizing, or looking at porn. It just doesn't work this way.
Sign One: The Recognition of Fundamental Flaws
Now, this doesn't mean that ongoing acting out should be expected or tolerated, it simply recognizes the reality that a train running non-stop for years doesn't just stop because the track has come to an end. It also doesn't mean that people in recovery are any less responsible for the consequences of their behavior. An anorexic stops eating, they die. A germophobe's perception of the world becomes so distorted that they become socially paralyzed. A sexual compulsive's value/boundary structure becomes so warped that he destroys the lives of those around him. These are the consequences of such compulsive patterns. And so, if you can't trust your partner to tell you the truth and you can't trust them to stop acting out, how can you possibly assess their sincerity towards recovery? Good question. Let's first clarify a few things about that question. You may not be able to trust that you partner will tell you the complete truth early on in recovery, but that should change rapidly. As they come to see themselves beyond their addiction, as they come to recognize the significant structural damage that has been done to their lives, they recognize that what is at the root of all of their deception is immaturity. Their unwillingness to accept responsibility for their own lives, actions, decisions, etc. This realization allows them to begin acting as the conductor of that train, rather than as a passenger. So, one of the first signs to look for in a sincere recovery is whether or not your partner has recognized that there are structural defects in the foundation of his/her life. That they are emotionally immature and lack efficient adult life management skills.
Someone who doesn't recognize these things? They will try to gain a stranglehold on their recovery by managing the symptoms of the addiction, not the core issues. They will measure their progress through abstinence, rather than effort. Through consequence rather than reality. They will 'do what they are told' rather than doing what is necessary. Recovery will become a series of activities to complete rather than a process of change. And so, if they stop acting out — or, they are not caught in the acting out they continue to engage in — then they consider themselves to be 'in a healthy recovery'.
What you must look for is that they have acknowledged that their addiction is not related to the symptomatic rituals that make up that addiction, but that there is fundamental weakness at the core of their identity.
Sign Two: Change is Generalized Across All Areas of Their Life
The most powerful indicator of a sincere recovery is that they begin to apply what they are learning to their day-to-day life. That they don't compartmentalize and isolate what they learn in recovery to compulsive behavior alone. This is a blessing for you because it provides you with not only a direct link into their sincerity; but an ongoing gauge to use in measuring their overall balance and potential for relapse.
For instance, as your partner learns about emotional immaturity and how to overcome it, they don't limit that development to how it can be applied to urge control. They instead look at other areas of their life and seek out the impact that their immaturity may have had. They look to extend the application of this awareness to help rebuild areas that may have been damaged by it. And, to avoid any future damage. Understand, they don't sit back and wait to be told, they seek out opportunities. Similarly, as they learn values-based decision-making, they don't limit that to whether or not they should have an affair or look at porn. They instead seek to gain experience in applying such principles in other areas of their life.
Sign Three: Vulnerability and Transparency
Communication is a major weakness in most people with sexual addictions. Inexplicably, some use recovery as an excuse to perpetuate it. They hide behind a veil of an entitlement to privacy to limit what they share with their partner. This is counter-productive and the exact opposite of what should be taking place. Can a person end their addiction in secrecy and isolation? Yes. Can they recover? No. Recovery involves so much more than mere abstinence and so, a part of recovery is learning to effectively communicate one's true self to the world around them. Nowhere is this more necessary than in the communication shared with one's life partner. There are several reasons why one would want to recover in secrecy — and none of them are healthy.
On the other hand, in a sincere recovery, your partner may initially approach a deepening level of communication with awkwardness, uncomfortableness and even fear...but there is also an element of excitement and even fun. Especially as it begins to open up a new world of intimacy and emotional connection. Vulnerability is essential to healthy communication in recovery.
Transparency — one's willingness to share themselves as they are — is more difficult to achieve with an emotionally immature mind. The pull to avoid further conflict is too great in early recovery to overcome. Rationally, the decision is pretty easy. Be transparent, be honest...and everything can be worked through. The reality though, is that an individual who has spend decades protecting and managing their life through deception is not just going to set down that shield and walk away from it. And so, transparency will be something that should evolve over the early months of recovery. Signs of this evolution will include your partner stopping himself in mid-sentence as he catches himself preparing to use deception in some way. Or, in further disclosure of current/past behavior — though here, the sign of sincerity is that they volunteer this information. If it is forced through being caught, there is little value from a transparency view.
Where transparency really comes into play is in middle and late recovery, when your partner has detached himself from their addiction and thus, feels safe to share with you his ongoing struggles. Shared in an empowered, "I don't know why I'm struggling with these thoughts/feelings, but I am not going to hide from them" way...not in a self-disparaging, passive way.
Sign Four: Proactive versus Reactive
Another key sign of a sincere recovery is your partner's willingness to be proactive, rather than reactive, in managing their life. If they have settled into a pattern of doing what they are told, reading what has been assigned, attending the meetings that are scheduled, dealing with urges as they occur...they have settled into a reactive recovery. Reactive recoveries are far less efficient and offer significantly diminished results. Take that same recovery and add to it a desire to anticipate threats, prepare for them, master them. Add the desire to seek out personal weaknesses (like intimacy and communication) and work to strengthen them. Add the desire to do what they can, rather than what they must...and you have the makings of a sincere, proactive recovery approach.
Sign Five: Slips, Relapse
This is one of the more difficult areas to assess regarding sincerity. On the one hand, slips and relapse are not part of a healthy recovery. They are not part of a sincere recovery effort. Anyone who is sincere about recovery should be able to isolate any given ritual and — simply through sheer force of will — be able to manage the urge. Where it gets cloudy is in the irrational structure of the compulsive mind. In their ability to disconnect themselves from their core identity and create a buffer zone where what they do somehow "doesn't count" because it was done in this secret world. Sounds weak, I know. And I wish there was some other, more rational way to represent this, but it is how I experienced it and it is how thousands of others have described it. Even in the sincerest of recoveries, they at times can lose focus on allow themselves to escape into this place that is free from consequence, judgment or boundary. Except, of course, until the behavior is discovered and the secret world is exposed once more. Then reality is very much relevant.
So how do you know, based on a slip/relapse, whether it is a sign of insincerity in recovery?
Start by separating your partner's overt sexual rituals from the subtle. The overt rituals will be those that require physical and sustained action. Affairs, porn, masturbation, voyeuring, exhibitionism, promiscuity...these are all examples of overt rituals. The subtle rituals will be in areas that actively perpetuate their sexualized mindset, but are often spontaneous and/or the majority of which are mental. Scanning a social environment for sexual stimuli. Engaging in sexual teasing, groping, joking, etc. Engaging in sexual fantasy while trying to get to sleep, driving, to alleviate boredom, etc.
With overt behavior, the sincere person will put up a fight. There is no reason that a person in a sincere recovery cannot complete the transition from addiction to health without further engagement in any overt sexual rituals. Granted, this typically doesn't happen — for several reasons, but it is possible. The real value in this awareness is not in whether they remain abstinent to sexual rituals — or experience a decrease in sexual urges — it is how they approach those rituals/urges that matter. And, how they process them once they occur. Doing so with vulnerability and transparency is a much better sign than approaching them with an aura of invincibility or of nuisance. This is all explained in depth throughout the workshop. What you need to know now is "the sincere person will fight these urges, not protect them". They will recognize that while they may not be able to initially control these urges, they absolutely can control their behavioral response so that they don't lead to overt rituals.
With subtle behavior, the best a sincere person can hope for is to gain awareness of what they are doing and take action on that awareness. With overt rituals, a specific action plan can be developed and enacted until one's healthy response becomes ingrained. With subtle rituals, this would be a paralyzing thing for most. The sexualized mind can engage in such subtle rituals 100, 200 up to 500 times a day — especially if they are in a social environment that produces a constant stream of stimuli (mall, zoo, beach, etc.). The great majority of times — in early recovery — these 'mini-rituals' are so ingrained that they truly don't realize they are doing it. And so, you recognize the sincerity of someone at this stage not by whether or not they are having such urges/rituals, but how they respond once they become aware they are doing it. If that response is defensiveness, denial, aggression, etc., well...you know. On the other hand, if their response is to seek awareness, objective assessment, etc., then these are good signs.
A. What are the key signs that you have observed in your partner that lead you to believe that he/she is engaged in a healthy recovery?
B. What are the key signs that you have observed in your partner that lead you to believe that he/she is NOT engaged in a healthy recovery?
C. How have you communicated your observations to your partner? Have you communicated the healthy observations as well as the unhealthy? How has your partner responded?