Partner's Supplemental Workshop Lesson: Traffic Lights

Traffic Lights: A Communication Tool

This lesson has been written on the assumption that:

  • The recovery partner is engaging in a genuine recovery process
  • One partner is experiencing over reaction type responses as described in the opening paragraphs
  • The two of you want to continue in the relationship
  • There is a desire in both of you to have and express compassion and respect to each other
  • You are pursuing the development of empathy towards each other to project into what may or may not be red/ amber/green for the other partner
  • You are both prepared to discuss without judgement or recrimination, the meanings and various scenarios involved, in a detached way


Over reaction?

One of the difficulties we partners have had to deal with is the effect that disclosures have on our immediate responses and our communication. I am not talking about the immediate aftermath of the first discovery, which is dealt with in the main lessons. I am talking about the long term impact that a single or multiple disclosures can have on us. If you are in a partnership and have faced the Sexual Addiction of your partner and are working through it together, you will most likely have experienced some communication difficulties such as this scenario:

Everything seems to be progressing well. Your partner is working his lessons, he seems to be making steps forward and you are working through your lessons and are coming to terms with what has happened in your lives. There may well be evidence of great change in your partner —abstinence from acting out, honesty and openness about slips, an increased level of sharing and personal intimacy, a developing integrity, etc . You are happily preparing the evening meal and he comes in from work calling out “Hi Honey I'm home” , you look up, smile and he approaches you, kisses you on the cheek. He says “Can we talk?”.

With those words “Can we talk?”, in a split second, your heart beats faster, you taste metal in your mouth, your stomach churns, your breathing seems laboured and the world seems to spin slowly. You are thrown into a panic! Your husband looks surprised and dumfounded at the tears welling up in your eyes and the shock on your face and says: “What's wrong? I was only going to say that the dog really needs to go to the vet this week!!”

Why does that happen?

In that split second your body and mind have reacted as if everything is pointing towards another disclosure. This is sometimes referred to as a post traumatic type response. Your body and mind are preparing for the shock of bad news!

The reality is that your husband may have wanted to discuss something at work that day, or the fact that the dog really needs to go to the vet, or that he would like to take you out for the evening or something quite mundane. The body-mind response that I described above was recalling the pain shock and trauma of the past and in this instance was inappropriate to the current situation (dog to the vet!). However it is a fairly common experience for partners who have had a disclosure of sex addiction, and especially for those who have experienced multiple or drawn out disclosures. For many of us partners this can be a repeated body- mind response pattern which occurs again and again over time. It can become an embedded body/mind pattern where a small phrase such as “we need to talk” or a “certain look” or “tone of voice” from your partner becomes a trigger for this unconscious response of high alert or hyper vigilance. Not everyone experiences this kind of response, in which case this lesson may not be of help to you. If you do recognise this pattern or something similar, be assured you are not the only one and it is not necessarily going to remain that way... we can do something about it.

Firstly it is important to understand that this is a natural response to the traumatic nature of what has happened in our lives and that it is closely related to the ‘flight of fight' response. Our body and mind is just responding to a perceived threat (another possible disclosure). We are not at fault or to blame for having these responses.

Secondly these types of responses may have significant impact on the communication dynamics of our relationships. i.e.: how we relate to each other within our partnership.
  • For the healing partner the initiating of “we need to talk” in terms of particular words, phrases, facial expressions, a touch on the arm etc can all be triggers for a post traumatic type response which strikes the partner with fear, anxiety or a combination of intense emotions because it triggers a physiological recall of the previous discovery or disclosure(s).
  • For the recovering partner the expression of intense emotions from their loved one, can be difficult because they may seemingly come out of the blue in the middle of what they perceive to be a ‘normal' conversation. To them it may be reminiscent of the emotion expressed at the original discovery and may seem like a step backwards. This can be perplexing and frustrating to both members of the partnership and especially so when each member is working hard at moving forward in their respective healing and recovery.

Thirdly we need to recognise that we can do something to help change our automatic body mind response. Working through the RN lessons and focusing on our own healing will help us to regain emotional balance, emotional regulation, and rebuild trust at an appropriate time in our relationships and in addition we can employ a simple technique which could assist us in developing our communication under these particular circumstances: The Traffic Light Method.

t light

The Traffic Light Method

Using the traffic light method will help to pre-empt the unnecessary body/mind (physiological) response evoked in us when we are faced with a trigger such as “We need to talk”. This method won't necessarily need to be used all the time. The aim is to normalise the experience of initiating non disclosure conversations (and it also has the benefit of introducing the' initiating of disclosure' in a different more helpful way). It allows us as partners to have an instant preview of the content that is about to be discussed and therefore either eliminating the body/mind panic response or preparing us for a potentially upsetting disclosure.

For both partners and those in recovery, working with this tool offers the opportunity for further developing emotional maturity by establishing awareness about how our behaviours affects our partner.

This is how it works for me and my partner:

  • Coding
  • First we decided on the code and the meanings:
    Red: Warning! Alert ! Potential crisis material! You are likely to be very upset or hurt by what I have to say.
    Amber: Be attentive! This might be a difficult thing for you to hear but it is not a significant threat to our relationship.
    Green: It's OK ! This is non-threatening material. We can move through this conversation without any need for alert.

  • Categorising

    Then we discussed examples of what scenarios each of us would consider to be red and amber and green; This process is related to our own values and will differ from person to person — couple to couple and over different periods of time.

    I will give some examples, however please note that your coding might be very different — that's perfectly fine (and positively encouraged) the key is to make sure they fit with your values.

    Suggestions for categories with my coding after them... remember to code them yourselves together....

    • He passed one of his old ‘haunts' today and stopped for a minute to go in (red)
    • He passed one of his old haunts today and the thought crossed his mind to stop but he carried on driving ( green)
    • He went to a store and stole a porn magazine ( red)
    • He had sex with a stranger on the way home from work (red)
    • He thinks the car needs to go in for a service ( green)
    • He thinks he would like to try something new in bed at the weekend with you( green)
    • He wants to talk about an aspect of his past ‘acting out' in terms of healing ( amber- green)

    If you decide to do this yourselves, the greatest benefit will be gained by both you and your partner discussing what these categories are, recognising how they are different from each other and with empathy and compassion agreeing on what type of thing goes in each category. I would strongly recommend that they only be discussed when there are no amber or red issues looming or waiting for disclosure.

    This tool can develop and grow with you and so the categories change as you each move forward with healing and recovery. For example: for me when we first did this, If my husband said that he found someone else attractive that was not a red it was an amber. Now many years on, it's a green.
    You will need to discuss issues that are currently pertinent to you and your partner's situation.

  • Practising: Red - Amber - Green?
    When you engage in a conversation the partner in recovery simply prefaces the sentence with the colour:

    - “Green, can we talk later on! We need to decide what to do about the plumber”
    - “Amber, I need to talk with you about a thought which triggered something for me earlier”
    - “Red. We need to talk about something important to us - when is a good time ?”

    If the healing partner is experiencing a period of severe intensity of emotion and/or post traumatic type patterns, then using the colour at the beginning ( as above) is very important. If not, then the following is acceptable:

    - "Can we talk later this evening? Don't worry, it's Green!"

    For some it will be helpful to use role play so that they become comfortable using the phrases in natural conversation.

From the recovery partners point of view

These can be useful the other way around too. This is how it works for us: at certain times over a number of years I have used the traffic light system with him. It has been on occasions when:
  • I wanted some information from my husband which I knew was likely to bring back his past behaviours to his mind: “I would like to know some information — it might be red for you.”
  • I was upset about something that related to his past addictive behaviours for example: I was listening to a radio programme about a politician's infidelity to his wife and it brought all the memories flooding back. “It's amber — I was listening to a radio programme which stirred it all up and I'm just remembering what you did a year ago and how angry I felt towards you...” can we talk?

Red Alert !

Additionally I have found that the use of ‘Red' alert enabled me to choose when I wanted to hear a disclosure. After a particularly traumatic experience of being woken in the night to a disclosure this was very important to me - this method effectively gave me warning and enabled me to put support in place for myself. So If I was told “Red, I need to talk with you, its red!” this allowed me to call a friend in my support system to set up a coffee meeting the next day, to clear my head and remind myself of how I wanted to respond according to my values, enabled me to get the kids looked after and to choose the location and time for the “red” conversation.

This meant that I was more prepared for what was coming and made it a bit easier on us both. It helped us both to develop emotional maturity, emotional management and respect.


Go through Coding, Categorising and Practising with your partner and try it for yourselves. This is not a definitive tool - please feel free to use it, adapt it, develop it and make your own version of a tool which works for you.

slide up button