Partner's Workshop: Stage Two; Lesson Two
The Traumatic Discovery
Few are ever prepared for a major traumatic event to occur in their lives. The death of a child. A devastating car accident. Cancer. Such events leave us shocked...bewildered. They fill us with fear, instability, anger and disillusionment. They leave us with the overwhelming reality of how unfair and cruel life can be. How unpredictable. How irrational. Such traumatic events are immediately forced to the forefront of our awareness, quickly putting all else into perspective. Or, more accurately, they serve to knock everything else out of perspective.
The discovery of your partner's sexually compulsive behavior is no different. It is, and will forever remain, a traumatic event in your life. It will have upset the very foundation with which you perceive your own identity. In trying to comprehend such a devastating trauma as the death of child, most would find comfort in turning to their value system. They may target fate or God as the reason for the event — intangible entities that serve to buffer the extreme emotions that are naturally experienced. With sexual addiction, that same value system is not capable of providing such a buffer, as there is a very real and tangible target for those emotions: the person who engaged in the behavior. And while the thought of having such a target to vent your feelings to may sound good from a healing perspective, it actually makes the process of recovery (yours and your partner's) that much more complex. Why? Because with such a target, there is a tendency to believe that the issues involved with such irrational, unpredictable behavior can be dissected, analyzed, reviewed and controlled (somewhat). And with this, some semblance of control can be gained in your own life. Some measure of emotional relief achieved. But it can't. And your efforts to develop such unrealistic expectations will only tear you further from the reality that is your situation.
You might be wondering, "Why wouldn't the opportunity to openly confront the source of your pain be beneficial to you in the early days of the discovery?" Reasonable question. Throughout our lives we've been told to not hold in our feelings. Here, the feelings can be so intense that to not share them would be painful. Your partner didn't consider your feelings when they engaged in their behavior, why should you consider their feelings now? The answer is that you are not holding back your feelings because of them, you are being asked to hold back because of you. If you are like most, your natural expectations for such an emotional confrontation will be that in return for your willingness to 'hear him/her out', you will be provided with truthful, rational answers. But in reality, these answers are not available. Not yet, anyway. And so your emotionally immature partner (and all sexual addicts are emotionally immature in specific ways) is then trapped in a situation that is unbearable to them. Their natural reaction is to rely on what they know to get through the current confrontation. How? By skewing the truth...by saying what they think you want to hear...or by saying what they want to believe. Each a strategy that will eventually end in further pain for you both. In discovering that your partner has engaged in a pattern of compulsive sexual behavior, you must also come to the realization that you are temporarily trapped in a hopeless situation. You desperately need answers, need assurances, need proof — but in reality, your partner is not capable of providing these truths. Yet you continue to search — forcing an ongoing cycle of lies, excuses and half-truths that tend to impede your own healing process.
"You're saying that it is my fault he is lying?!"
Of course not. It is only being pointed out that in the mind of most people who engage in compulsive sexual behavior, a process of immediate gratification has already been ingrained to the point where their natural reaction to confrontation is to disengage from that confrontation as quickly as possible — future consequences be damned.
"So then, how should I be reacting?"
First, know that however you may have already reacted...it was the right reaction. Whether you exhibited anger, rage, forgiveness, aloofness — it doesn't matter. You have been victimized — for lack of a more empowering term. Your values have been ignored. Your boundaries have been violated. Everything that you have given to the relationship has been taken for granted. Everything that you have sacrificed over the years in pursuit of this relationship has been jeopardized. You are the victim of your partner's addiction. And so, no matter how you may have responded since the discovery, allow yourself to accept that it has been the right way. The more relevant question becomes, "Where do I go from here?" And to best answer that, you will need to have a bit of an understanding of what your partner must go through at this stage in his/her recovery.
In early addiction recovery, there are two issues that play a huge role in a person's ability to develop a strong foundation for change in their life. One is that they temporarily suspend their focus on controlling their compulsive behavior. The other is that they suspend the guilt and shame that they may be feeling for past behavior. Why do you suppose this is? Is it because the behaviors themselves are unimportant? Of course not. Is it because your partner has already suffered enough from their actions, and to make them feel continuing guilt and shame is unnecessary? Absolutely not. The reason that they are asked to suspend their focus on these two areas is because these two areas are responsible for triggering the most intensely destructive emotions in recovery. And what they come to learn quite early in recovery is that the stronger the negative emotions they experience, the more likely they are to act out. Why? Because they simply have not yet developed the foundation that will be necessary to manage such strong emotions...and so they continue to seek comfort in compulsive ways. By eliminating two of the major triggers to acting out, they buy themselves some time to begin developing the solid foundation that will be critical to their long-term health. And yours — should you decide to remain in the relationship.
How this applies to you.
The emotional patterns discussed above apply to you just as surely as they do to your partner. Because your emotional stability has been upset, you also have the need to regain emotional stability. Most likely, you do not have the patterns of addiction ingrained in your emotional management skills and so you will have established a far more mature foundation for dealing with this instability than does your partner. But even in the healthiest of individuals, the trauma of discovering that your partner has significant sexual issues will affect that foundation. Your goal then — which is similar to your partner's goal in early recovery — is to minimize the situations in which intense emotions are experienced. As stated previously, there will be a time for such intensity, but it will be when it is most beneficial to you. It will be when you have regained balance and strengthened your own emotional foundation.
As a partner of someone with an addiction, you are forced to deal with consequences from actions that are beyond your control. Behaviors that are beyond your comprehension — incompatible with the values that you have come to base your life on. The behaviors associated with this addiction have certainly caused a significant disruption in the way that you live your life. And whether you stay in the relationship or not, issues have developed that must be addressed by you in order to regain control of your life.
A. Write a letter to your partner, expressing all of the emotions that you have experienced as a result of their addiction. This is not intended to be a letter that he/she will read, but rather, a letter representing your most intense feelings.
There are several guidelines to follow in writing this letter:
1) If you find yourself becoming overwhelmed with anger, to the point where you experience a strong urge to act upon your emotions, then STOP. This is a letter that can be written at a later time. The benefit for doing it now is to purge yourself — in a safe and 'controlled' manner — of some of the extreme, intense emotions that you may be feeling. Or, to become aware of feelings that you may not have realized were there.
2) Do not write this letter in an environment where it can be read by your partner. This is for you to share your feelings openly and honestly — without thought to your partner's reaction.
3) If you would like to post this letter in your Personal Healing Thread, please do so, but it is not essential that you do.
B. Upon completion of your personal letter, it will be your task to write one more. This one, a letter from your partner to you. In this letter, take some time to think about what it is you would say, "if you were them". How would you apologize? How would you offer reassurance? How would you explain the behavior?
The key to this exercise will be in your ability to write a letter that, if you were to read this from their own hand, would fill you with confidence that they understand the pain and confusion they have caused you.