The recovering sex addicts I counsel often ask what their partners need to rebuild trust in the wake of sexual betrayal. My initial answer is pretty obvious: TRUTH, in combination with fidelity, respect, and an end to manipulation. She needs to know her mate really wants to hear her heart and is willing to share his own. But the most basic need of all, the one that will be essential in eventually restoring trust, is unfortunately the one that is most destroyed by betrayal — a sense of emotional safety in the relationship.
When the addict understands that the quest for emotional safety is the fuel that drives the behavior for partners of sex addicts, the myriad of emotions and actions that frustrates recovering addicts and confounds many therapists becomes understandable.
Betrayal is traumatic for partners. When a mate’s betrayal occurs in the context of a sex addiction the prospect of future betrayals can’t be ignored and the resulting anxiety becomes overwhelming. Not only does the partner no longer trust the addict, she no longer trusts her own intuition. Since she either ignored her intuition or her intuition let her down, self-doubt is now rampant. Intuition, that most basic innate mechanism for safely navigating her emotional world is either silent, now a source of mistrust, or it is difficult to distinguish the sound of her own intuition from her trauma generated fear.
The partner was hurt by what she didn’t know, or didn’t understand, about her sexually addicted spouse. If she was hurt in the past by what she didn’t know, she can be hurt in the future by what she doesn’t know. This often triggers an intense need to find all the pieces of her mate’s sex addiction puzzle and to put them together in a way that gives her a sense of understanding what she’s up against and whether she wants to stick around for the outcome. The puzzle she’s attempting to solve is “How do I keep myself emotionally safe.”
However, the partner of a sex addict believes she can no longer rely on the addict for either truth or reliable information, nor does she believe she can rely on her own judgment. Therefore, the route to emotional safety appears to lie in either interrogation or detective work. This awareness can result in a compulsive-like fixation on seeking out “proof” of further deception as both a way to gain some sense of understanding about the betrayals of the past and predict the relational landmines in her future.
As the sex addict moves deeper into recovery, the partner’s sense of emotional safety is further undermined by the self-doubt that is now associated with periods of relative calm, or the fear that is triggered as trust begins to grow again in the relationship. At first glance, this may seem counterintuitive. It is easier to comprehend in other types of trauma.
For example, imagine you are out for a drive in your car, aware of how much you are enjoying the scenery of a beautiful day and the pleasant music in the background, and your last conscious thought before being hit by a truck you didn’t see coming is, “I am really having a good time.” It is quite likely that in the future any awareness of enjoying yourself while driving might become coupled with subsequent fear. We often experience this as ‘the shoe is about to drop’ fear that can arise on the heels of a positive experience.
For the partner of a sex addict the ‘shoe about to drop’ fear may occur as she becomes aware of a growing sense of security and trust in her mate. For example, the partner may notice that the overt indicators of her mate’s sexually acting out are no longer evident and that he sounds sincere when professing his commitment to be sexually sober and faithful. She may think to herself, “I’m not noticing any signs of betrayal” and breathe a sigh of relief.
Suppose, however, her next thought is “but I didn’t see any signs before. I thought I could trust my own perception of reality in the past. I was wrong then and was blindsided by betrayal. I’m going to get hurt again.” An initial feeling of security now triggers a huge rush of fear. She will go on full alert to protect herself from the danger her nervous system is telling her is near.
This often serves as a precursor for what partners refer to as the “emotional rollercoaster” or an influx of intense and sometimes paradoxical emotions in combination with intrusive thoughts and memories. This includes increased physiological arousal, sleep disturbance, poor concentration, obsessive-compulsive like behaviors, and fluctuating feelings of fear, shock, sadness, and anger, that may alternate with numbness.
So how does the recovering sex addict help his partner restore a sense of emotional safety? TELL the TRUTH! When the addict is telling the truth, his words and behaviors will line up consistently across time. After a significant period of words and actions consistently matching, trust will eventually begin to be restored for the partner.
How does the partner begin to restore a sense of emotional safety? Stop relying solely on changes in her mate’s behavior to determine the level of emotional safety in the relationship. Although her mate’s sexually addictive behavior may be the cause of her pain, the wounds are now in her heart and only she can heal them. Be willing to reach out to a healing community of other partners who can provide support and advice for how to better contain the pain.
Most importantly, recognize that personal boundaries will be the greatest single source of empowering herself. Once truth, containment and boundaries are firmly in place, emotional safety will be re-established and the recovering addict and partner can begin the task of rebuilding trust in the relationship.
Dr. Janice Caudill is the founder and Clinical Director of McKinney Counseling & Recovery. MCR offers individual, couples, group therapy and multi-day intensives for partners of sex addicts and wounded hearts struggling with sex addiction, infidelity, love addiction or love avoidance, intimacy anorexia, or relational trauma in the McKinney, Plano, Allen, Richardson, Frisco, Carrollton, Lewisville, Dallas and surrounding areas.
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