Partner's Workshop: Stage Seven; Lesson Two
Communication. If it had been in place from the beginning, you wouldn't be in this situation. It was their secrets, their lies, their lack of respect for what you valued in the relationship that allowed the addiction to flourish. And with this in mind, it is communication that will allow you to permanently move beyond that addiction. But not any type of communication. What is required is the ability to engage in meaningful communication.
As you pick up the pieces of your life, as the crisis state begins to stabilize and you find yourself sinking into depression and disbelief, there will invariably come a time when you wonder, "Will I ever really get over this? Will I ever really allow myself to trust him again? Will I ever forgive him?" And while such questions have no immediate answers, there are three absolutes to consider as you move closer to those answers:
1) You will get over the crisis of the discovery. It may take several months, it may take several years...but the emotional intensity and constant obsessions will diminish. There will come a time in your life where your partner's addiction will be put into perspective...and with that perspective, it will not hold you hostage as it may seem to now.
2) Couples do rebuild trusting, intimate relationships after the discovery of even severe sexual addictions. Relationships that are stronger and more fulfilling than they ever were before the discovery are common in those couples who remain together as true partners. Why is this? Because once the patterns of addiction have been eliminated from your relationship, you will be rebuilding a life with someone who is stronger in every way. From their desire to rely on individual and shared values, to their willingness to consider your values in every decision they make. Previously, you may have believed that your partner knew you 'inside and out', but if the pattern of addiction was ingrained, this would not have been possible. At best, they would have known you for the roles that you played in their life. A healthy recovery will change this.
3) There is one universal constant in all couples who achieve renewed intimacy and mutual respect in their relationship: both will have learned to engage in willful, meaningful communication with each other. Rebuilding passion, experiencing attraction, forgiveness, enjoyment...these can all be experienced without meaningful communication. Redeveloping intimacy and respect cannot.
It is this last point that will be the focus of the lesson. There are several areas of such communication that we will explore: communicating with yourself, communicating with your partner and the recognition of potentially volatile communication triggers.
Understanding Your Partner's Communication Skills
Learning to communicate in a healthy, meaningful way comes naturally for those who have been raised in a healthy, nurturing environment. People are taught to express themselves openly without having to worry about being judged, punished, ridiculed or constantly belittled for their thoughts. In an oppressive, abusive or neglectful upbringing, such communication is stifled. In its place develops the foundation for secret, nurturing communication with oneself. This is a foundation that often continues to develop into adulthood — and is directly correlated with the development of addiction. This is not to suggest that everyone who is raised in an unhealthy environment develops an addiction; only that those who do develop an addiction and who have been raised in such an environment, already have the 'dual-identity' ingrained into their communication skills long before the addiction is apparent.
As you have no doubt painfully discovered, this open communication is not present in those who are struggling with sexually compulsive behavior. At best, especially in the beginning of a relationship, there will be a 'selective openness' that will have you believe that they are pouring out their souls — but it is a measured approach. Such 'deep communication' is required to achieve the instant intimacy that is required in many types of sex/love addictions. Once the relationship progresses, there may be a 'calculated openness' that is used to distract you from uncovering the more shameful secrets they hold, but a complete openness is something they are incapable of. Not while actively engaged in the addiction. This is not to suggest that people with addictions cannot communicate. In fact, it is their adeptness at communication that allows many to continue on with the "other life" without their secrets being detected. It is their communication skills, and their ability to "say all the right things" and "act normal" around others that lead to the perpetuation of their double life. Eventually though, their communication skills deteriorate to the point where they must avoid such communication altogether — as the lies have been too numerous and the risk of discovery too great. Communication becomes paralyzing. This is usually when relationships begin to show serious signs of incompatibility — with you believing that it is somehow your fault.
Most romantically compulsive people have the ability to communicate on levels that others simply cannot match. It is how they overwhelm their targets. They frown upon small talk and believe it is a waste of time in social settings — preferring instead for deep, meaningful conversations. With small talk, they realize that there is no possibility for an "instant connection" to those they are talking with. It is instead a slow process in which they often see themselves as inept, but rationalize this by pointing to the superficiality of those engaging in such small talk. Why is small talk so difficult for them? It is too unpredictable. They are no longer in control of the conversation and thus, they risk being asked personal questions that will lead to uncomfortable moments. While they are engaged in deep conversation, romantically compulsive people have a phenomenal ability to remember all of the lies that they have told (both past and current), and to naturally steer the conversations away from topics that might threaten to expose those lies. This occurs as a result of the trance-like state they put themselves in — a state that just can't be reached when engaged in superficial conversation.
And social conversations within a group? Forget it. The sexual/romantic addict is a master at remembering exactly what story he/she is telling, why he/she is telling it, "planning ahead" for the impact of the story and measuring the outcome of the story. At the same time, he/she is also calculating past stories with this person and setting them up for future conversations. Part of their extraordinary ability to communicate is in their ability to read a person's body language and subtle inflections. This is impossible in a group setting. There are simply too many distractions to allow the trance-like state needed for his/her preferred type of communication.
As your partner removes the secrets and lies — all of them — from his/her life, they open the door to experiencing real, meaningful communication with others. Communication that is predicated on talking with someone, instead of to them. Quite often, it is this type of communication that is reflected in the majority of partner's who recognize that their partner has "really changed". Well, they have changed. They have changed their ability to engage in meaningful communications with you. They have begun to see you as an individual that they respect and want, rather than as a person who fulfills certain roles in their life (e.g. wife, mother of kids, etc.).
Understanding Your Communication Skills
It's easy to place the lion's share of responsibility for failed communication on your partner. After all, they're the ones who've lied. They're the ones that kept the secrets. They're the ones who chose not to trust you/respect you with the truth. They're the ones who kept you from engaging in a real partnership. It was their communication skills that are at the heart of this relationship crisis. If they would have communicated what was going on in their lives, you could have worked together to tackle the problem — or at least, offered support as your partner worked through them. But they chose not to. And because of that choice, your relationship has been led down a path of unnecessary pain and chaotic struggle. How often since the discovery of your partner's addiction have you looked back and wondered if you weren't a part of that addiction as well? Or, if his behaviors were the reasons for many of the fights, the times where intimacy was lost, where you felt sexually rejected or undesired, etc?
Meaningful communication cannot exist in such an atmosphere.
We've reviewed some common issues involving an addicted partner's communication skills, but what happens when your partner recognizes those deficiencies and sets out to overcome them? What happens when they are ready, willing and able to engage in meaningful communication with you? If you're like most, you will soon discover that it is YOU who is not ready. And for good reason.
Most people believe that the critical time in determining the salvageability of a relationship is upon the discovery of the addiction. Is this something that I can live with? Will I ever be able to love this person again after knowing what I know now? Do I really believe that my partner will ever truly get over this? Such thoughts are common soon after the discovery and they help put a tangible quality on the instability that you face. But the answers to those questions cannot possibly be answered. Not that early in the discovery — and not while your partner is continuing to engage in active recovery and/or addiction. It is AFTER they have ended those patterns...after they have ingrained the changes from recovery...that is when you will face the reality of your situation for the first time. This is when you begin to ask these questions for real. Can you live with what he has done to you? Do you believe that he has changed? Do you believe that these changes will remain? This is when the answers matter and you will undoubtedly come to the conclusion that you just don't know. Not yet, anyhow. And so you set up your own boundaries to block meaningful communication. Why? Because you're not yet ready to move on. Now that the immediate crisis is over and your partner is ready to move on in a healthy way, it is you who needs to take a step back and explore the situation with more depth. It is you who now needs to come up with some answers that will 'feel right' for you to move on. But how?
Effective Ways to Communicate
It's important that you express your feelings instead of stifling them or feeling afraid to speak out because of how your partner may react. This is one of the steps in developing meaningful communication. You need to communicate what you're feeling when you're experiencing those feelings instead of holding onto them and expressing them inappropriately in other areas of your life – for example, snapping or yelling at a small irritation that happens later rather than calmly confronting your partner when something is not feeling right to you.
There are certain loops (merry-go-rounds, traps) you can fall into when trying to communicate meaningfully. You can start a conversation about a feeling you have or something that is bothering you, as you should, but that conversation can become derailed into one of the following loops where the SA can't meaningfully respond because of where they're at in their recovery or because of their shame and guilt. If you're aware that certain conversational tactics can backfire and actually interfere with communication, you can adjust your method of communicating. One way to adjust is to bring up your concern, then give your partner time to think about it so they can respond to you in a meaningful way.
Keep in mind that if your partner isn't in recovery, no matter how hard you try to communicate, it may be impossible and you'll find yourself endlessly caught in one of these loops. It's also true that in the beginning of recovery, you may not be satisfied by anything they have to say. After all, actions speak louder than words, and you are in the painful position of having to wait and see what their actions are before you can begin to trust again. So remember that your desire for assurances or information may not be able to satisfy you or repair the damage that has been done even if your partner can respond.
Ineffective Ways to Communicate
By far the most common and natural communication style in early recovery. You want to know any and everything about your partner's behavior...and believe that you have every right to hear exactly that. Your partner becomes dehumanized, with his/her only role in the communication being to provide you with whatever information you may want to know, when you want to know it. And while the interrogation technique is required to some degree in early recovery/healing, when it is used as the only communication style, or it is used over long periods of time...it will serve as a shameful, dehumanizing event to your partner and an ineffective communication tool for you. In early healing, such submissive question and answer periods are used to help you gain control over the situation. They are rarely effective for meaningful communication.
The 'Setting Them Up to Fail' Approach
"Be honest with me." It sounds like such a simple request. And coming from a partner who just discovered that their relationship was in jeopardy, it is a request that doesn't seem to be too much to ask. Rather than condemning the relationship, the compassionate spouse courageously looks upon their partner's deception and betrayal and requests only to know the extent of it — fully intending to work through these issues. "Just look me in the eyes and tell me this is everything. That there is nothing else I should know about. I won't hold it against you. I know that you have a problem. But now is the time for you to come clean with everything. Right now, or our relationship will be over." The usual response? "There's nothing else." A lie. Not always, but it is the rarest of individuals who share all of their secret behaviors when asked. Why? Why with the opportunity to come clean would they choose to continue to lie and keep secrets? Because this response is tied in with the nature of the addiction itself. It is completely irrational and potentially devastating. And yet, it is a response that is almost universally engaged. The shame and humiliation that would be experienced otherwise is just too great. That, and the desire to end their addictions does not instantly translate to their ending their addciitons...and so they leave behind hidden pockets to reconnect to that secret life — should they ever need to.
Does this mean that you shouldn't ask for complete honesty? No. You should demand it in a compassionate and accepting way. But if your goal is to develop a meaningful communication style with your partner, accept the reality that there is a good chance that other secrets will come out as his/her recovery progresses. Providing your partner with one opportunity to 'come clean' is an unrealistic expectation that will likely force an even stronger reliance on keeping the remaining secrets secret. The most common pattern of complete discovery occurs first in the months following the initial discovery...and second upon the transition to a healthy life — once they have begun to disassociate from their compulsive experiences and want to let go of all of their secrets.
The Valueless Question
Because you will undoubtedly be in a state of emotional crisis for several months, many of your questions will be geared towards achieving emotional stability in your own life. There is nothing wrong with this. It only becomes problematic when the answers to those questions hold no value to either discovery, healing or recovery. In other words, it is the asking of the question that is providing the emotional control, as opposed to the answer. For instance, you discover your husband having an affair with your best friend. You ask the question, "Did you guys sleep together in our bed?" There is no answer to this question that will provide value to you. If they did, you will increase your own disgust, but to what degree. You already know about the affair — which is the critical element of the discovery. And if they didn't sleep together in your bed, what will you gain? Nothing. You will either continue disbelieving the answer or will refocus on what they did do together. This is a valueless question and they should be avoided if at all possible.
The Endless Interview
How long do you have to find out everything you need to know about your partner's behavior? A month? Six? The rest of your life? It's a tough question to answer. And it gets even tougher if your partner has begun to make real changes in his/her life. Imagine if you were overweight and you committed yourself to losing fifty pounds and succeeded. Now imagine your partner consistently asking you why you gained all that weight to begin with. And reminding you how unattractive you were. How unhealthy. At some point, you would no doubt want to ring that person's neck and say, "Look at me now. I've changed. I'm no longer that unhealthy person I once was. Judge me for who I am, not who I was." Those who make a healthy recovery from sexual addiction are no different. They are changing their identity and the only way that a healthy identity can become ingrained, is if they are constantly reminded of how sick they once were.
This puts you in a very difficult position. On the one hand, what is best for you is for your partner to be as healthy as possible, as quickly as possible. On the other hand, you most likely won't begin to appreciate the answers that he provides to you about his addiction until after the crisis has begun to resolve. And so to you, these questions are relevant for your ability to move forward. For him, they are 'asked and answered' questions that are only being re-asked to sabotage his progress. There are no easy answers to this conflict. Though as you search for the right time to begin 'letting go' of the unhealthy past and recommitting to the healthy present, do consider that you WANT your partner to be healthy. You want your partner to transition away from having an addict's identity. This is in YOUR best interest.
What is Meaningful Communication?
Engaging in meaningful communication is to open a free-flowing river
of thought from one mind to another. It is feeling safe enough to
share any and everything with each other without fear of being judged.
It's feeling comfortable with an ongoing exchange of values, boundaries
and goals — the meat and potatoes of life management. It's feeling
safe enough to communicate the anxieties, struggles and irrational
thoughts you may have — knowing that they will be explored, not exploited.
Supported, not attacked. It is knowing that you will not have to defend your mistakes, merely
acknowledge them. It is learning to communicate with the person,
not the role that that person plays in your life.
Until this level of communication is developed, the best that you will ever be able to muster in your relationship will be the acceptance that he is "doing everything he's supposed to and he seems to be okay'. This isn't a strong foundation with which to rebuild intimacy, trust and respect. On the other hand, the development of this communication will allow you to feel the changes that are being made in his life (and your relationship).
One final thought on communication. Developing meaningful communication with your partner is an ongoing process. Because both of you will be constantly changing, there will never be a time where you can take such communication for granted. Ever again. Either of you. But at the same time, don't make the mistake of thinking that you need to have perfected your communication before allowing yourself to move on in the relationship. You don't. You can move on as soon as you feel safe to move on. With your own values and boundaries in place, even if you were wrong in trusting him/her again...even if they continued to lie to you...you will have acted in a manner that was consistent with the life that you were living. So recommit yourself fully. Do your part to engage in meaningful communication with your partner.
#1: Consider the following situations and share what your response would be in each:
Your partner is contacted by an old romantic partner that they haven't seen in many years. Not wanting to keep any secrets from you, they tell you exactly when the person will be in town and would like your permission to catch-up over dinner.
You come home early from work and find your partner masturbating to porn on the Internet. Upon seeing you, they quickly close down the computer and lie about what they were doing.
You suspect that your partner is lying to you about where they were, but you have no proof.
You find yourself feeling frisky and so you make a few sexual overtures towards your partner that are quickly brushed off. You are feeling hurt and rejected.
After discovering that your partner had been involved in many affairs over the course of your marriage, you experience the urge to ask your partner if he had an affair while you were pregnant some eight years ago.