Couple's Recovery Workshop


In Sickness and In Health...

When Lynn first found porn on their family computer, she knew there had to be some explanation. The images—over three thousand of them—included some of the crudest sexual acts imaginable. Horrified as to how these images could have gotten there, she picked up the phone and called her husband—a loving, moral person by anyone's description—for support. That he might have had anything to do with these images had never crossed her mind. Upon sharing her discovery, Jim calmly assured his wife that the computer had likely contracted a virus and that he had come across similar 'porn viruses' at work. He told her he would take care of it as soon as he got home and that is exactly what he did.

Yet something just didn't feel right.

“Where was the outrage?” Lynn wondered. “Where was the desire to protect his kids from such images? Why is he acting like this is no big deal?” For the first time in their eighteen-year relationship, she wondered if there might be more to the man she fell in love with. Sure there were problems in the marriage, but nothing extraordinary for a relationship that had lasted so long. Sex was sporadic. Quality time was rare. The relationship had become more functional than romantic. But aside from this, there was nothing to suggest that Jim might have a problem. So why then did she have this feeling that something was wrong?

Over the next few months, she began noting inconsistencies in the stories he would tell. Inconsistencies that, when confronted, would be masterfully spun to his advantage and which further increased her suspicions. Was he having an affair? She poured through phone records, credit card bills and receipts. She methodically scrutinized his business trips and leisure activities — interrogating him on the smallest of details. Still, there was no proof that anything was amiss. He had answers for everything, but these answers offered Lynn no comfort. Contrarily, they actually drove the need to validate her suspicions further — to the point of obsession. She secretly loaded tracking software on the family computer and installed hidden cameras in the kids' rooms. She followed him on his 'nights out with the boys'. She logged into Internet sites using his user name and password. And then, finally, her suspicions were validated. With a strange mix of satisfaction and horror, her world imploded.

For the past seven years, Jim had been engaging in both online and real affairs. He had obtained credit cards to use in registering on over two dozen hard-core pornography sites. He had developed six unique personality profiles to use on dating sites—personalities that ranged from a sixteen-year-old female to a thirty-eight year old homosexual to himself—and had collected scores of sexual correspondence addressed to each. She discovered that Jim would access fetish-based web cams daily to engage in a wide range of voyeuristic activity. He even hooked up the family's digital camera at night to allow others to watch him masturbate over the Internet. As if to further emphasize the extent of his lies, Lynn returned to the folder of the original pornography he had deleted—and attributed so convincingly to a 'porn virus'—and found that it was restored by him the very next day. “How could I have been so stupid?” she wondered.

Armed with these facts, Lynn stared at her husband who was playing so lovingly with their daughter and realized that the man she was about to confront was a complete stranger. That while they had shared the better part of their lives together, a separate life existed that she knew nothing about. Her mind raced through thousands of events in their marriage that she had never before questioned: the female friends he spent so much time with; the overnight fishing trips; the mysterious withdrawals from their savings account. She confronted him with this and more. Much, much more. Every answer he offered seemed only to trigger more questions. For weeks the questions kept coming—her mind could focus on little else. Often, it was the same questions over and over again. At one point, even Lynn recognized that she was getting no relief from this inquisition, but still felt the need to continue. As she put it, it was 'all I can control in this situation'. Unable to manage the shock of the discovery, they separated two months after the initial discovery. This did not offer either of them the relief they anticipated. Jim's compulsive behavior increased with the loss of the relationship; Lynn experienced a roller coaster of emotional extremes that had expanded to other areas of her life. By the time she came to me, her only goal was to understand the “Why?” of her partner's behavior. Reconciliation was not her desire; she only wanted to move on. I encouraged her to participate in the healing workshop offered through and within weeks, she gained enough emotional stability to recognize the truth of her husband's addiction. The door to reconciliation was open and her roller coaster began to slow.

On Lynn's suggestion, Jim began the Recovery Workshop and he too, began actively implementing the workshop's Health-Based Recovery principles. Two months later, Jim's compulsive patterns—patterns that had existed for more than twenty-five years—had been eliminated. Completely. He found himself on an active road to making a permanent transition to a healthy, values-based life.

This workbook incorporates the principles shared in both of these workshops and merges that information into a recovery tool that is focused on healing the relationship. It was written with both of you in mind—though some aspects of The Couple's Workshop will address the addicted person directly, while others will focus exclusively on the partner. It will be important for each of you to experience both sides of the fence—as gaining insight into your partner's experience will significantly speed the healing process in you both.

Assessing Sexual Addiction

Because you are reading this book, chances are good that you are concerned with the sexual patterns displayed by yourself or your partner. Or, you may know that a problem exists, but aren't sure how significant a problem it is. And while numerous screening tools exist that identify destructive sexual behaviors in an individual, nowhere are the signs of sexual addiction more clearly observed than within the context of a relationship. Take a few minutes to examine your own relationship for the presence of one or more of the following:

  • continuing pattern of destructive sexual behavior that continues after experiencing guilt and/or shame; voicing a willingness to stop a particular behavior but not doing so
  • sexualized lifestyle and/or relationship—communicating with frequent sexual jokes and innuendo; unsolicited groping of partner; increased pressure for sexual performance; sexual quotas like daily masturbation or intercourse every three days
  • Secret sexual behavior that would shock the other if it were to be discovered; covering up sexual behavior with secrets and lies
  • Emotional intensity and/or aloofness—especially relating to sexual behavior
  • pattern of extreme, rapid changes in sexual activity and/or desire
  • Objectification of people—especially related to physical attraction and beauty; hypercritical/hyperalert to the physical beauty in themselves and/or their partner
  • Rubber-necking while driving, poor concentration in public places, gawking at others in a restaurant
  • Consistent patterns of time unaccounted for; extensive time alone on the computer; no longer going to bed together unless sexual activity is involved

Do any of these sound familiar? If so, there is a good chance that your relationship is being affected by sexual addiction—even in the absence of 'absolute proof'. The bottom line, however, is that sexual addiction does not need to be present in order to seek changes to the relationship. All that needs to be present is a feeling from either of you that a problem exists. Understand that, it is important: a problem perceived by one of you is a problem to be resolved by you both.

Discovering Sexual Addiction

Assessing your relationship for the existence of a sexual addiction is easy, but few uncover the presence of an addiction in such a way. Far more likely is the uncovering of an addiction through a traumatic discovery and/or the experience of a devastating consequence. It is in the early stages of this discovery crisis when the relationship is in greatest jeopardy.

If you have just discovered your partner's secret life, you are no doubt devastated. Everything you have come to believe about your relationship has been an illusion. It wasn't, but will likely feel that way. The bond you thought you had with your partner was anything but. The majority of waking moments are spent battling racing thoughts, self-doubt and instability. You look at his face and feel repulsed. You see him playing with the kids and feel disgust. You hate him for what he has done and yet, deep down, you know you still love him. You need answers. You need to understand. You need to put it all into a perspective that will allow you to salvage at least a fragment of the dignity and pride you once took in your relationship. “Is there more that he isn't sharing?” You don't know. “Can he change?” You don't know. “Will I ever be able to forgive him?” You don't know. What's worse, such answers simply weren't available to you — until now. On the other side, such an emotional crisis is not reserved for the person making the discovery. If you're the one struggling with a sexual addiction and have only recently come to this realization, this too is a devastating event. Addiction is a pattern of artificially producing emotional stimulation by using certain stimuli. As it develops, it subtly replaces your existing values so that once the addiction becomes ingrained as your primary emotional management strategy; it feels completely natural to the individual. What's worse, healthy values begin to feel unnatural. In addiction, you may know that the behavior you engage in is wrong—thus the secrets and the lies to protect it—but you also know that these behaviors are an important part of your emotional health. They have become a 'part of who you are'.

As you come to recognize that your 'unique' sexual patterns are nearly identical to what hundreds of thousands of others experience, an identity crisis ensues that can have dramatic and deadly consequences. Feelings of intense shame, humiliation and failure can overwhelm you. As you become more aware of the consequences of your addiction—something you believed you had avoided by keeping your behavior secret—a crushing guilt and sense of helplessness can emerge that often leads to severe depression and even thoughts of suicide. For so long, you believed yourself to be unique in the sexual passion and intensity you experienced; the realization that you are far from unique—that you are little more than a syndrome can be a severe blow to your identity. Self-pity? Hardly. Discovering for yourself that you are dependent on sexual rituals can be a devastating life experience.

Like your partner, your thoughts are flooded with questions that have no easy answers. How much time have I wasted? How many relationships have I ruined? How much potential have I lost? Is it too late to save this relationship? Is it too late to change? Can I change? Without knowing anything about you, let me share the answers to the last two: no, it is not too late to change; and yes, if change is what you desire, then change—permanent change—is certain given your willingness to walk the path of a Health-Based Recovery.

The Goals of Permanent Recovery and Healing

The Couple's Workshop is a guide to permanently heal a relationship marred by sexually compulsive behavior. By working through this book together (and independently when called for), you will learn to:

  • Regain control and stability in your lives through deepening your awareness of your values, boundaries and by developing other critical life management skills
  • Develop a platform for managing and maintaining a healthy partnership
  • Develop effective communication skills based on emotional maturity and absolute honesty
  • Rebuild intimacy and sexual desire through progressive communication exercises
  • Evaluate the presence of an addiction, the presence of health and the warning signs of impending relapse
  • Explore the subtle and overt consequences of sexual addiction
  • Understand sexual addiction's role in life management
  • Effectively manage compulsive urges
  • Overcome the five major obstacles to a permanent recovery
  • Navigate the three barriers to rebuilding a healthy relationship
  • Develop personal action plans and relationship contracts

Why the 12-Steps Alone are Not Enough to Save a Relationship

In the 1930's, a man named Bill W and a fellow alcoholic began meeting in their home to begin what would eventually become Alcoholics Anonymous. Over the next sixty years, the twelve steps and the twelve traditions evolved into the primary addiction-recovery resource for western treatment communities. Remarkable in their ability to unite compassionate, supportive individuals in a community recovery effort, the 12-Step philosophy expanded from the treatment of alcoholics to the treatment of nearly every dysfunctional behavioral pattern ever experienced. As of this writing, many well-respected treatment professionals continue to require participation in the 12-Steps as the foundation for addiction recovery. And they are wrong. At best, individual participation in a 12-Step support community is a valuable supplement to recovery; at worst, it perpetuates dependency, helplessness, an absence of personal accountability and it perpetuates an unstable foundation for a relationship to heal.

What Makes Health-based Recovery Different from Disease-based Recovery?

Health-Based Recovery

  • Recovery is focused on making a permanent transition to health
  • Takes an active, personal approach to life management
  • Develops personal responsibility and accountability through life management skills
  • Encourages individual value selection, prioritization and management
  • Relapse triggers seen as opportunities to further personal development
  • Establishes goals based on personal values and boundaries
  • Teaches the need to integrate social consciousness (e.g. the values/boundaries of others) into recovery
  • Teaches effective relapse prevention through assessment and monitoring
  • Uses life management skills, emotional balance and value congruency as primary measurement of success
  • Recognizes the role of emotional immaturity in addiction
  • Recognizes that partners have both individual and relationship roles to fulfill in recovery

Disease-Based Recovery

  • Recovery is focused on making a transition from addiction to permanent recovery
  • Requires lifelong addiction management
  • Requires rigid implementation of established steps and rituals
  • Establishes dependency on support community and higher power
  • Requires belief in higher power
  • Relapse triggers feared and avoided
  • Uses days of abstinence as primary measurement of success
  • Teaches that relapse can occur at any time; that 'once an addict; always an addict'
  • Believes that addiction is a life-long disease that can only be managed, not overcome
  • Labels many partner's as codependent or enablers that require their own 12-Step recovery process

Individual Notes:

(SA) Real, permanent change is available through Health-Based Recovery but the responsibility is on you to embrace it. If you are looking to shift responsibility for what you have done and what you will do in the future—HBR is not for you. If you are looking to manage your life 'one day at a time'—for the rest of your life; or believe that an addict's brain is somehow 'diseased' and that you must adjust your life to accommodate that disease—HBR is not for you. If you intend to manage the remainder of your relationship from a state of perpetual recovery—HBR is not for you. On the other hand, if you believe that deep inside you are a fundamentally good person who has lost his/her way; if you are willing to define yourself through an evolving value system, rather than through reactive emotions; and if you are willing to accept that your life management skills are fundamentally immature and in need of strengthening; than HBR is exactly what you need and will allow you to make a complete transition from addiction to health.

(P) Any joy exhumed from the belief that you may one day move beyond this crisis pales in comparison to the emotional devastation that you are now likely experiencing. There are no words that will comfort you for all you have lost. There is no explanation that will put into perspective the disregard that your partner has shown for you and your relationship. When trust has been obliterated, when intimacy has been shattered, when respect has been devastated, the possibility that you may someday move beyond this crisis will be little more than an afterthought. You are in a fight for your soul; and for the life of this relationship. The man you pledged your heart to has secretly engaged in behavior that has placed the foundation of your life in jeopardy and it will be the way in which you handle this current crisis that will define the person that you have yet to develop into. Your life will change. It already has. And as painful as it is, you must pull your head up from the muck and ask the question, “Where do I go from here?”

Health-Based Recovery will help you to rebuild your life first, then your relationship. There is one thing it will not do, however. It will not take away the pain that you are currently experiencing. Not right away. Part of your healing process is to embrace the intensity of this pain and use it to define the damage that has been done to your existing values. Use it to strengthen your existing boundaries. This takes time. How much time will depend on how stable your value system was before the discovery and how active an approach you both commit yourself to.

(SA & P) Be Active in Your Approach

If all you are interested in as a couple is to ensure that these behaviors never again interfere with your relationship, there is one sure way to guarantee it: sit down together and read a book on addiction recovery—any book on addiction recovery. When you are through, select another. Then another. Read every line on every page and then continue to read until every last sexual addiction title has been read. Then, start on the magazine articles. The journals. The videos. Once you've completed reading through this list together, switch your focus to the recovery material available on the Internet. Should you begin to bore, take breaks by attending support meetings, counseling sessions, lectures or by engaging in recovery journaling. Together or apart—it makes no difference. By the time you have completed this resource list, you will be well into the 22nd century and will have lived the remaining years of your life in abstinence. Your relationship will never again be disrupted by the crisis of sexual addiction. Congratulations!? Sadly, while such an approach was meant sarcastically, it is not too far from the extreme of how many approach recovery. Relationships cannot thrive on such a foundation. Your life cannot thrive on such a foundation. Forced abstinence may be better than acting out, but it is not ideal—not for developing an intimate, healthy relationship. For that, a transition away from recovery must be achieved and, no matter what recovery approach you adopt, only an active, sustained effort by you both will make this transition happen.

A Passive Recovery from Addiction

A passive recovery from addiction involves the blind following of a prescribed treatment program, usually supervised by a therapist. “Recovery" is measured solely by your behavior. Are you attending the counseling sessions? The support meetings? Have you read the assigned material? Completed the assigned exercises? Taking the prescribed medication? A consistent "yes" to these questions will project the illusion of a person in recovery. Still, your underlying thoughts will not have changed. Your ingrained desires will not have subsided. All that will have changed is the depth of your secrecy and the belief that—after yet another relapse—you can't really change. A passive recovery looks good, even feels good for a while, but as the initial euphoria of recovery fades and your support system eases its grasp, the chaotic feelings will return — as will the compulsive behaviors and obsessive thoughts that have been used to manage them. Choosing an active recovery means more than simply controlling compulsive thoughts and behaviors; it means making the choice to eliminate the addictive patterns from your life. An active recovery means that you have taken responsibility for your life and, more importantly, it means you want to take responsibility for the rest of your life. Those who have made an active commitment to recovery will begin to hate their compulsive behavior. They will see its devastating consequences and vow to conquer it. They will see recovery not as a punitive consequence of a failed life, but as an extraordinary opportunity to become the person they know themselves to be. They quickly learn that what defines them is not their addiction, but their values. And then, they begin to protect those values with the same tenacity that a parent would protect a child.

A Passive Healing Process for Partners

A passive healing process for partners involves a submission to the events that have triggered the crisis. And, a submission to the emotions stimulated from those events. Putting a twist on Descartes' “I think, therefore I am.” For partners, it would read as follows: “I feel, therefore I am.” A na├»ve partner manages her healing primarily through her emotions. How she feels is how she measures her current health. Now, the discovery that your partner has been living a secret life based on sexual compulsivity is a traumatic emotional experience, to be sure. It is enough to shatter even the healthiest of identities. And so, those feelings will be extreme and volatile. Allowing those feelings to dictate the direction and progress of healing is akin to allowing urges to dictate the direction and progress of someone in recovery. It's passive and reactive. The healthy partner recognizes that the impetus to stability is not found in how they react to their partners, it is found in how they respond to themselves. Specifically, it is found in their ability to experience their emotions without allowing those experiences to derail them from their goals. And so, they set out to actively rebuild the foundation of their own life. They actively seek to assess the damage that has been done to their foundation, to repair that damage and to begin building again. Not necessarily building a relationship with their partner; the relationship they begin building is with themselves.

The Phoenix Effect

At this point, it may seem that your lives are bogged down by the trauma and instability of the addiction. So much time and energy is typically spent on recovery issues that individual needs are neglected. This must change. From the ashes of the discovery will arise two individuals committed to building a healthy relationship. A relationship grounded in honest communication and realistic expectations. It will experience freshness. It will experience cleansing. Dormant issues that once kept the relationship from progressing will be openly and respectfully confronted. The relationship will experience growth and maturation. It will experience the Phoenix effect. Trina Paulus, in her book, “Hope for the Flowers” shares the following, “How does one become a butterfly?" she asked pensively. "You must want to fly so much that you are willing to give up being a caterpillar." Nowhere does this apply more than in addiction and relationship recovery.

“How will you rebuild a relationship that is addiction-free?” You must both want to build a love and/or friendship so real that you are willing to move beyond the barriers that addiction presents."

For the person with an addiction, this will mean giving up the secrets, the selfishness and the emotional immaturity that is found at the core of sexual addiction. It will mean sacrificing immediate gratification for long-term values. It will mean rebuilding the core of your identity so that you will have a more efficient way to manage your life. For the partner, it will mean shedding the comfort and security of your personal morality to rebuild a shared morality with your partner. It will mean the letting go of 'what should have been' to focus on 'what is'. It will mean sacrificing your rage, your shock, and your desire for accountability in order to reclaim effective communication and equality in your relationship. And above all, your desire to rebuild this relationship must be so strong that you would willingly give up the right to remain devastated by the discovery. Rebuilding your relationship requires the recognition that the love you thought you were sharing and the life you thought you were living…wasn't. But it could be.

Exercise Two

While active work on intimacy (and beyond that, sexual intimacy) won't start until you reach the third stage of the Couple's Workshop, we are going to begin using certain activities to expand your consciousness, your emotional maturity and other skills required to experience intimacy within your marriage. Some of these activities will be fun. Some challenging. Some uncomfortable. Fight through all of these emotions to implement the activities exactly as they are laid out. A quick note about sexuality: until you reach the sixth stage of the Couple's Workshop — do not allow any workshop activity to lead to sexual behavior. That doesn't mean you can't engage in sexual activity throughout your recovery, just don't do it as a continuation of your work here. There are too many potential dangers that exist.

Intimacy Activity: Caring

Purpose: The purpose of this activity is to expand each partner's perception of the other from their current stage of life to stages throughout the life span. While engaging in what is below, you are asked to temporarily suspend all thoughts of addiction/recovery (past, present and future) in order to grasp each other's fragility and humaneness. Rules:

(SA) The person in recovery will take an evening to care for their partner. This care should be playful, but intimate. Meaning, the partner being cared for is not to act as an invalid, but rather, as appreciative and helpful in having someone nurture certain needs that they can no longer meet on their own. This caring will include areas such as eating, hygiene and 'feeling loved'. As you are providing this care, focus on how vulnerable your partner's life is. How fragile her life-sustaining activities are (e.g. breathing; heart beating; need for food, water, etc.). Focus on how lucky you are to have another human being to relate to in times of such fragility and vulnerability. Focus on how many opportunities you have in your day-to-day life to nurture your partner more than you are already do.

(P) Your job is to allow yourself to be nurtured by another human being. Don't worry about motivations, mistakes, interruptions...just feel the love they are trying to communicate to you through their awkwardness, tenderness, thoughtfulness, etc. This activity isn't about them anticipating your every need, it is about both of you remembering how fragile life is and how much potential meaning can be experienced by having someone to share that life with.

(SA & P)

How in-depth you take this is up to you both. When my wife and I did this, I dedicated an entire evening to her a meal, feeding her, supporting her in a non-sexual bath, renting Songcatcher — which is one of her favorite movies, watching it with her. But at a minimum, your care must include:
  • Feeding your partner a meal with a spoon and/or fork
  • Brushing/combing your partner's hair
  • Brushing your partner's teeth
  • Comfort reading to them for at least fifteen minutes (choose a book/story you think they might enjoy)

Once you have completed this activity, both of you should write up a brief summary of what positive thoughts such dependency on each other triggered and post them in your couple's thread.

True note: Upon developing this activity initially, Christy's Grandmother had a stroke and was transferred to a hospital here in Omaha (where we live, but an hour or so from the home she has lived in for the past seventy years). Over the week that followed, we took round-the-clock shifts to provide exactly the type of care I am talking about here. Our goal (and it should be yours as well) was not to 'feed her, clean her, keep her occupied'. It was to love her, respect her, admire her for the life she has led. We accomplished this through the way we fed her, cleansed her and kept her occupied. I hope you understand the difference and apply it to your own efforts in this exercise. Your goal is to communicate your love and admiration for your partner through personal care.

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