Partner's Workshop: Stage Five; Lesson Three
Placing Blame, Seeking Accountability
Ideally, the subject of accountability (e.g. your partner taking responsibility for his/her actions) would be one of the first to master in a healing workshop: as few issues are more responsible for prolonging the anger that you will experience as will the ongoing consequences of your partner's addiction. Why isn't it addressed earlier then? Because it is too emotionally volatile of a subject to address from a state of emotional crises. Hopefully, by this stage of the workshop, you have begun to feel a little more grounded emotionally — a little more stable. This stability will help you to perceive the issues relating to blame and accountability in a more healthy context, rather than a confrontational one.
In the early stages of your healing, you have already been stripped of a significant amount of control over your life. Your ability to blame and confront and demand accountability offers you a slight reprieve to the helpless feelings that would otherwise be experienced. In this lesson, you will be asked to consider delaying your desire to confront your partner (if they are actively pursuing a healthy recovery) on what they have done in the past...seeking instead a more permanent resolution to the issues relating to accountability. Such a consideration can trigger feelings of vulnerability and a desire to protect what little you have left — even if it is not in your best long term interest.
More than any other approach to communication, demanding that your partner hold himself/herself accountable for their destructive actions will serve to destroy any developing emotional stability you may be gaining. Consider this rather common scenario:
Over the course of your romantic relationship, you were subtly forced to confront many issues that you 'just couldn't put your finger on'. Issues involving things like your partner's aloofness, their unreliability, their emotional volatility (or emotional absence), and their on-again-off-again connection to you as a lover, spouse, friend, etc. Obvious to you, these issues were not present in the beginning of the relationship, but rather, they began developing soon after the intoxication of the new relationship wore off.
Being a moral person, you fought to work through these issues. But most likely, you found little success — instead engaging in endless debates over the validity of your perceptions/feelings. So, you adjusted. You compromised. You settled for what you thought was 'the best you were going to get' out of the relationship. Your dreams were altered. Your priorities changed. Your values adjusted. But you did these things willingly (reluctantly, perhaps...but willingly) because in your life, in your value system, a relationship requires such compromise...and sacrifice...and adjustment.
Then, after what was most likely years of struggle and 'adjustment'...you discovered that your husband had been engaging in numerous secret sexual behaviors across that time span. And then things start to click. All of the communication problems, the lack of intimacy, the sporadic or non-existent passion, the 'excuses' that never seemed right to you...it became clear that there were other reasons that such problems within your relationship existed. Then reality hits. You realize that all of your time, all of your effort has been spent chasing illusions. And through all of your sacrificing and compromising with the sincerest of intentions to improve the relationship...all the while you remained committed to your partner...your partner was being unfaithful to you by engaging in this secret behavior (whether we are talking about affairs, porn use, prostitution, compulsive masturbation or some other behavior does not matter in this context). Your partner was consciously lying to you. Knowingly deceiving you. And with full knowledge that what they were doing behind your back was wrong (or it wouldn't have been hidden from you), they sat there watching you struggle with issues that they already had the answers to, but were too immature and selfish to help ease your mind. Instead, they compounded your struggles....often blaming you for the relationship difficulties.
But now you have proof of their deceptions...and so you confront them.
You let out a barrage of anger and resentment...and you demand answers. You want a complete and unadulterated confession. You want them to take responsibility for the way that they have deceived you and apologize for causing you so much unnecessary grief over the course of your relationship. But they do none of these things sincerely. Instead, they reply by either minimizing your feelings (e.g. You're blowing this way out of proportion. This isn't that big of a deal. It didn't mean anything to me.") or by disarming you through repentance (e.g. "There's something wrong with me. I need help. I'll do anything to save the relationship.") It will be this latter response that can be the most deceptive and the most frustrating. We'll expand on why in just a moment.
At this point in the scenario, you have made the discovery, you have experienced the anger, you have confronted your partner, and for this lesson, we will assume that your partner responds with the desire to get help. Wonderful. This gives you some temporary sense of hope that the relationship can be improved/saved. You gain a temporary sense of relief that some answers have been found. But then, once more, reality sets in and you realize that you are in a no-win situation. You have been taken advantage of, manipulated, used...you have been made to think and act in ways that have drained you emotionally. And what is the BEST you can hope for? Not a lot.
You can hope for your partner to recover...though if they do, you will be left with all of those lost years, and no way of resolving the pain that you have had to suffer through. How can you morally punish a person who is no longer the lying, cheating person they once were? You can't. Not morally, anyhow. To do so puts you in the role of being the destructive person in the relationship. And so you are stuck feigning happiness that your partner is turning their life around. And you start to feel better for longer and longer periods of time until it hits you. You were the only one who suffered. You were the only one who had to reap the consequences that your partner had sowed. And so the anger returns. As does the desire for some type of punishment. And you realize that you may never get over these feelings, while your partner has seemed to move on quite easily. And you hate him/her for that... And nobody wins.
Another possibility to hope for is that your partner experiences the full wrath of your anger. That they experience the emotional pain that is commensurate with the pain that they have caused you. Sure, it would be nice if they changed their life, but after they experience this pain. After they have suffered the consequences of their behavior. What happens in such a scenario? You look for ways to administer the punishment...which leaves you in a destructive, angry mode. Your partner remains in an emotionally imbalanced state — the absolute worst environment for recovery to occur. And they quickly return to their emotional safeguard of sexual behavior/fantasy to deal with this state. Again, nobody wins.
And while there are many more possible scenarios, the absolute best for recovery and healing exists when you look inside your heart and realize that you do indeed want what is best for your partner. That you truly want to see him/her change their life because you love them unconditionally. (Quick note: unconditional love does not mean boundaryless love.) And even though their pursuit of recovery means that you may not have the opportunity to voice your rage at what they have done to you...at least not anytime soon...you sincerely want what is best for them and your relationship. But even this scenario has significant issues that will need to be addressed. Such is the purpose of this lesson.
Relating this scenario to your emotional stability...
Let's consider the best case scenario mentioned...with your partner beginning a process of change that leads to an immediate shift in his/her perceptions. This shift in perception leads to a shift in the way they lead their life. They begin to develop the skills that they have previously taken for granted, and realize that they no longer have the need for such behavior. They have learned to use their values to balance themselves, to assist in their goals and to assist in their decision making. They have truly begun to 'feel' the love that they have for you — love that was previously taken for granted. And with each day that passes, they get stronger and stronger. And as their confidence grows, they feel themselves separating more and more from their destructive identity. Until eventually, it disappears altogether. This is actually a fairly common pattern in a healthy recovery. But where does that leave you?
As your partner moves forward with their life, you are left behind with your intense feelings of rage, with the memories of all the pain and suffering that you have experienced needlessly...with having the rules of the relationship changed right in front of your eyes. And it is all happening so fast. You have suffered through the hardships, yet your partner is the one reaping the benefits of recovery. He/she is the one growing, developing...taking pride in the changes that are taking place in their life. Where is your pride supposed to come from? Where is your reward for suffering through this relationship? How unfair is it that you are the one who gets lost in the recovery process? The answer: extremely unfair. And that has to be enraging.
While your partner is happily learning new skills...you are left to analyze the situations in which his/her sexual behavior influenced your relationship, your family, your friends, etc. While your partner is enthusiastically developing new values...you are left to take inventory of your values that were compromised, taken advantage of and lost. While your partner is developing confidence and pride in what will be a fulfilling future...you are forced to leave back a part of yourself in case of a possible relapse. And these all take place in the BEST possible scenario of recovery. It is unfair. No doubt — at least with a short term perception. And that is where the essence of accountability is found. And where your peace and resolution to your partner's behavior can finally be achieved. Not in seeking short term accountability for their behavior, but through seeking the long term benefits of permanent change. Ultimately, that is how accountability can best be measured. And healing can best be achieved. More on this later.
The Destructive Role of Blame
Responsibility vs Punishment
If you were to take an inventory of your emotional reactions in the months following the discovery of your partner's behavior, it would most likely include a significant amount of pain. Gut-wrenching, emotionally-devastating pain. And, most likely, you would have experienced a desire to see that your partner took responsibility for their actions. Because it is rare for a sexually compulsive person to openly hold themselves accountable for such things, you are then placed in the emotionally-purging role of forcing them to take responsibility. In fragile emotional states, actions are often triggered by raw emotion. In situations involving the emotionally charged intensity associated with deception and infidelity, that action is almost always blame. At least initially.
Blame can be a very destructive, demeaning, emasculating way to communicate. The target of the blame is left in a subordinate position within the relationship — which often triggers some rather unhealthy responses in return: anger, denial, rationalizing, projecting, minimizing, justifying and more. All in an attempt to cushion themselves from the emotional pain associated with having to take responsibility for behavior that they most likely regret and/or feel ashamed of already...but don't want to acknowledge. In a healthy individual, when they act in a way that hurts others, they take responsibility for that action and seek to make amends. But with sexual compulsive individuals, we are not talking about healthy, mature people...and so their inability/unwillingness to recognize responsibility for their action unfairly falls upon those around them. That means you.
The last thing that a person who has been hurt by a sexually compulsive person should be expected to do, is to take on the role of educating that person. But, it is often a role that they find themselves in, and so they begin that education process in the most direct and emotionally-purging way possible: confrontation and blame. Why this is destructive is that confrontation and blame are attacking actions...and when one feels attacked, they defend. And the behaviors listed above (anger, justification, rationalization, etc.) constitute the defense system used to counter this attack. Taking such a defensive stance is human nature, and you will be wise to recognize this.
The other option commonly available to them in such a confrontation is helplessness — which is just as effective in terms of deflecting responsibility.
As mentioned, one of the reasons for delaying this lesson until now was to allow you to develop a more stable, healthy understanding of the roots of compulsive behavior in the context of your partner's life — thus allowing you to distance the behavior from the person you know them to be. Hopefully, at this stage in your developing awareness, the desire for retribution has begun to diminish (or has resolved altogether), as you are now able to see your partner's destructive behavior in a more generalized context. Knowing that the motivation for his/her behavior was not to hurt you...knowing that your partner's destructive decision-making processes have existed long before you came into the picture...should allow you to more easily focus on the critical issues that remain: your partner's need to learn/implement those skills into their life; your partner's need to gain a full understanding of the consequences of their behavior; and most importantly (to you), your need to regain control over your life.
This is not to suggest that you must forgive their behavior, nor is it expected that you will absolve them of their responsibility. That would be tragic for both of you as neither forgiveness nor personal accountability are decisions that are made. They are, instead, feelings to be experienced naturally. This is one of the reasons why the best thing that you can do for yourself is to rebuild your life. Strengthen your values. And NOT demand accountability from your partner. Your partner's goal in recovery is not to prove their sincerity...but to live it. To experience it. For it to mean anything, it has to be real to them. And while it may feel cathartic to have them answer every question you throw at them...while it may be comforting to have their behavior completely regulated...in the long run, you are sacrificing the essence of your relationship. True accountability will occur when they have internalized what they have done. When they have recognized the destructive roles that their behavior has played in your relationship...and have processed those roles within their core identity. It is important that your partner recognize the underlying patterns involved with their behavior, so that they can see these patterns in the context of their life. Until that happens, they will be merely regurgitating what they think they are supposed to say...and that further isolates them from their core identity, not brings them closer.
How this applies to you...
If your partner appears to be pursuing a healthy recovery process, and yet you are continuing to struggle with an ongoing need for retribution... If you are experiencing repeated urges to voice rage at your partner... If you continue to use blame as a weapon to punish the progress that your partner may be making in his/her recovery so that he/she doesn't get off the hook "too easily"...then you are sabotaging your own healing process along the way. For so many reasons, it is in your best interest for your partner to achieve a full and permanent recovery as soon as possible. The most important of which, in terms of accountability, is that once your partner is making that transition to a healthy life, they will experience a true understanding of the pain that they have caused you. In early recovery, it is an intellectual awareness...and so the things that are said to show their remorse, are things that they believe are expected to be said in such a situation. This is of little real value. But once they begin making the transition...they begin experiencing things in a way that they have never done before. They see things with a clarity never before experienced. And at that time, their remorse will be real, and it will be sincere, and it will be felt at their core. That is when you begin to reap the benefits of having suffered through so much.
But what if they don't reach that point? Or what if the relationship is over?
This is exactly why you do not continue to focus on their behavior. Be aware of their behavior, yes. Recognize and confront curious or unexplained changes in their behavior, absolutely. But the majority of your awareness should be on you. Your development. Your behavior. Your future. Your present.
In this workshop, there will be times where you must focus on their behavior, because one goal of this workshop is to understand that behavior. But in your everyday life, such a focus should be limited. Instead, continue to rebuild your life. Continue to focus your time, your goals and your values on the things that are important to you — both independently and as a part of the relationship (when applicable). By doing this, you are protecting yourself from the consequences of whatever his/her decision to recover might be. Or your decision to end the relationship. Also, you are placing yourself on the same healthy platform where someone in a true recovery resides...where daily growth and reward are possible. Where your future is within your grasp. Under your control. That is how healing occurs.
A. Previously, you listed the consequences your partner's behavior has had on your life. Today, consider the consequences that your partner's behavior has had on your partner. What consequences of his/her actions has he/she had to face? List both the imposed consequences (i.e. from you, legal, etc.) and the natural consequences (lost respect, shame, etc.)
B. Review the list above, ensuring that you have made a complete and unbiased inventory of your partner's consequences. After this review, list below any additional consequences that you believe your partner needs to experience in accepting responsibility for their behavior.
I know that this is not an easy question to answer as it requires you to make educated guesses — not certainties. Early in the workshop, you were asked to write a letter from your husband/wife to you — reviewing that letter now should provide an excellent start in helping you to determine what issues might still need to be resolved before you allow yourself to move forward.
C. In your own words, describe the roles that blame, punishment and/or responsibility have played in response to your partner's behavior.
For instance, unhealthy roles might include: you using blame to sabotage his/her recovery because YOU are not ready to move on; using recurring blame to punish your partner; using blame/punishment as an anger management tool; using blame/punishment as a means for gaining control. Healthy roles might include: developing a clear list of your partner's expectations/responsibilities allowed you to gain a sense of control; you using the act of blame to recognize unresolved feelings.
There are no right or wrong answers here — only a deepening awareness.