Virginia Hartman, MA, LPC, CSAT
Paul Hartman, MS, LMFT, CSAT
There is good news and bad news for couples in recovery from sexual addiction and co-addiction. The good news is recovery for the couple is possible. The bad news is couples recovery requires hard work, commitment, and patience. Still, the effort is worth it.
This chapter reflects the personal experience of a sexual addict and co-addict; we talk about how we achieved recovery and how we sustain recovery. While we focus primarily on long-term couple’s recovery, we also refer to our individual recoveries, because our couple’s recovery depends on individual recovery. We began our recovery journeys more than thirty years ago. As of this writing, we have been married more than forty-five years. We hope to share how a long-term recovering relationship can be fulfilling, satisfying, passionate, romantic, and fun.
Is it possible to have a relationship with a person who betrayed me so deeply?
Dr. Patrick Carnes identified five stages in recovery from sex addiction. In our experience, these same stages apply to our coupleship. In the developing stage, we both knew that we were dissatisfied and unhappy in the relationship. We did not know why specifically. The crisis/decision stage began when the co-addict discovered some of the addict’s sexual acting-out behaviors. For the co-addict, my thoughts were:
- this is too much
- this is the one thing I can never forgive or accept
- this is the end of the marriage
At this point, many co-addicts seek help from an attorney. I did myself. Many of these cases do result in divorce. Now, looking back, I feel fortunate and grateful that I sought help from a therapist instead. Back then there were few or no therapists who specialized in just sex addiction. I was already attending Al-Anon meetings. From recommendations there, I found a therapist who referred to 12-Step meetings as part of the treatment plan, did group therapy, and had expertise in multiple addictions.
Even with help from a therapist, I did not believe that I could stay in the marriage. We had three young children, so part of me wanted to keep the family together. However, another part of me felt so betrayed that the thought of staying in the relationship seemed impossible. I needed time apart from the addict.
My therapist agreed. She recommended a clinical separation rather than a legal separation. One of the most important lessons I learned then was that I didn’t have to make long-term decisions. I did have to learn to live in the present moment. My therapist kept reminding me that over time — in my case about six months — I would get through the pain of betrayal and loss and that my own inner wisdom would know what to do about the marriage. Instead of obsessing about my partner and whether or not to divorce the addict, I learned to focus on me. My main tasks were to learn and practice self-care, reduce shame, stop blaming myself, build self-esteem, and stop obsessing.
While all this was happening, the addict felt tremendous shame, humiliation, remorse, fear, and hopelessness. In recovery language, this state is sometimes referred to as “hitting bottom.” Even today, with all the advances in addiction medicine, hitting bottom still seems to be a necessary part of the recovery process for addicts. In this condition of hopelessness and surrender, the addict begged for another chance. The addict claimed, “I will do anything.” That turned out to be an exaggeration. The therapist recommended inpatient treatment that would take at least four weeks, maybe longer. The addict refused. The addict used the excuse that inpatient took too long and cost too much. Those are very common excuses. The real reason was the addict was still in some denial about the disease and lacked willingness. The addict did agree to some things that proved to be essential. I agreed to my own therapy including group therapy. I agreed to attend 12-Step meetings. I agreed to the clinical separation even though I did not want to do any of this. Only in my state of desperation did I have the willingness. Many addicts identify with the phrase “recovery is doing the things you do not want to do.” In hindsight, I wish I would have had gone to inpatient treatment. The recovery process would have progressed much faster. I did agree to attend several intensive workshops. Inpatient would have been better. The workshops were a good second best.
Primarily because we both had the help of a good therapist, we progressed from Dr. Carnes’ second stage of crisis to the third stage of shock. We both knew that there once had been a time when we truly loved and trusted each other. We could not believe what was happening to us. We both began the recovery process as victims. Without therapy and a 12-step program, both of us would have continued to recycle through the dysfunctional roles of victim, rescuer, and persecutor. Only because both of us had the willingness to seek and accept help, we learned to move from victim to Choice Maker. We both learned that we were not bad people. We were people with a disease. One was an addict and the other was a co-dependent. These two separate disorders share a common etiology—childhood trauma. For a young child, fear equals trauma. We were both traumatized in childhood. Dr. Carnes’ research shows that 83 percent of sex addicts are also trauma survivors.1
Some contend that this disease model enables the addict and co-addict to avoid taking responsibility. On the contrary, our experience demonstrates that each of us had to take responsibility for our own recovery. Understanding addiction and co-addiction as the diseases that they are may be one of the most important steps in our early recovery — individually and as a couple. With this new paradigm, we each moved from vacillating between blaming our partner and blaming ourselves to a new dynamic of empowerment through self-focus. Neither of us knew yet if we wanted to stay married. We did know that whatever happened, we both had a disease and each of us were responsible for our own recovery.
What does the addict need to share and what does the co-addict have a right to know?
Our therapist assisted us with the disclosure process. This crucial step has the potential to lead to disaster when mishandled. Remember that the addict and co-addict are both trauma survivors. The disclosure process itself can be trauma-inducing. When couples attempt to do disclosure on their own, each of them risks being retraumatized. The co-addict often demands detailed information about the sexual acting-out. Some therapists refer to this as “pain shopping.” If the addict gives in to the demands for too much detail, those details may become imprinted into the brain of the co-addict and make recovery virtually impossible. The addict often attempts to disclose only that which the partner already knows and withhold everything that might successfully be kept secret. This dishonesty during disclosure reinforces the co-addict’s belief that the addict can never be trusted.
A skilled therapist will coach the co-addict into waiting for disclosure until the co-addict is strong enough to hear it without the risk of being retraumatized. The addict needs to become willing to be “rigorously” honest. The addict will sometimes withhold out of fear that the partner will leave if they know everything. Attempts at information management set up a power imbalance with the addict one-up and the co-addict one-down. Mutuality cannot exist from this dynamic. Thus, couples recovery cannot happen.
Keep in mind that disclosure is not a one-way street. In an attempt to get unmet needs met, the co-addict may have lived a secret life also. No secrets, no information management, no inappropriate detail, no dishonesty, and not taking unnecessary trauma risks apply equally to the addict and the co-addict.
The addict did the despicable behaviors. Why am I labeled co-addict and why do I have to join in the work?
Details of individual recovery exceed the scope of this chapter. We simply need to emphasize that both addict and co-addict need their own recovery before there is any hope for coupleship recovery. Two wounded people cannot form a functional coupleship. Sex addiction exceeds behavioral problems. Addiction is a brain disease. Recovery means healing the brain, healing core wounds, and changing behavior. Co-addiction exceeds healing the wounds of betrayal. Co-addiction is a disease. It has its own symptoms and core issues. We both believe that we are together today because in the beginning of the recovery process we experienced the miracle of self-focus. Twelve-Step recovery is all about self examination.
Why not just move on?
We learned to view our coupleship as “the third entity.” Just as each individual entity has needs, the third entity of coupleship has its own needs. If we did not have children, we don’t know if we would have chosen to stay together and work on the coupleship. Our therapist encouraged us to work on a relationship even before we chose to stay in the marriage. The therapist taught us that we could divorce and become ex-spouses, but that we would never be ex-parents. Our original goal was simply to become friendly co-parents. We embraced the idea that a successful marriage is not the result of finding the right partner. A successful marriage is the result of learning how to function in relationship. We agreed that if we were going to do the work of learning how to behave in a healthy relationship, we might as well learn with each other and see what happened.
Many couples caught-up in the pain of sex addition do choose to move on without doing this difficult healing work. Many of them go on to new relationships only to experience the same problems all over again with the new partner. This is an example of first order change: “The more things change, the more they stay the same”.
Specifically, what do we need to do?
Our “third entity” of coupleship needed many of the same tools for recovery that we needed individually. Visualize a three legged stool. Two legs represent both partners and the third leg represents the coupleship. The tools needed include marital therapy, couples group therapy, and 12-Steps for the coupleship. When we began this work, Recovering Couples Anonymous (RCA) did not exist. We found a culture of support through other couples in 12-Step recovery. Our coupleship suffered some of the same wounds as the individual addict and co-addict, which included leading a secret life, couple shame, and couple trauma. Slowly we both came to see that we had problems that could not be fixed by simply changing partners. We began to see why so many people divorce only to perpetuate the dysfunction.
We believe that we did not fix the old relationship. The old relationship was so damaged by sexual betrayal and other traumas that it was beyond repair. Rather we chose to build a new relationship with each other. We sometimes joke that this is our second marriage. Actually we have only been married once, but we are in relationship with a brand new person as the result of recovery.
What do you mean “we create our own reality”?
The following axiom reveals itself most vividly in the process of trust building and forgiveness: Whether you believe you can or believe that you cannot, you are right. Both the addict and the co-addict often begin the process believing that they cannot do it. The reality is that the behavior of many sex addicts is so despicable that it is understandable that the co-addict begins the process thinking, I can never trust or forgive. And on our own, most could not. This is one of the reasons we must become part of a culture of support. We need the experience of seeing others do that which we think cannot be done. This is very difficult, but not impossible. Thousands of recovering couples have done it. If our goal is to have a successful coupleship with our current partner, we must surround ourselves with others who are doing it.
Will I ever be able to trust my partner again?
Trust building for the co-addict falls into the category of “life is not fair.” The addict’s behavior broke trust, and the co-addict must be willing to do part of the work to rebuild that trust. Believing that trust can be restored is difficult for the addict as well. Often addicts are so shame filled from the double hit of childhood trauma and current compulsive behavior that they believe no one, including themselves, will ever see them as trustworthy. Trust becomes the foundation of the new relationship that needs to be built. We must both choose to believe that we can build trust with our partner.
Fortunately there is a formula for trust building. Al-Anon has an expression for such a formula: talk’s easy, work’s hard. Consistent trustworthy behavior over time equals trust. Notice the word consistent is emphasized. Consistency is the key to the process. This becomes an even greater challenge because “addiction is a disorder that is characterized by relapse.” Left to our own devices, the sex addict will relapse. However, Dr. Carnes’ research informs us that addicts who work the tasks and live a 12-Step recovery can live a life free of slips and relapse. Consistent trustworthy behavior is attainable even for a sex addict. The co-addict’s role in all this starts with choosing to believe that it can be done even though all the co-addict’s experience screams to the contrary.
The other part of the formula states: over time. Even with all the recommended recovery resources in place, this process takes a long time. And it always takes longer than the addict thinks it should! In SAA meetings all over the country, newly recovering sex addicts can be heard whining that they have been so good for so long and their partner still doesn’t trust them. Often such complaints can be heard after only a few weeks of abstinence from the compulsive behaviors that broke trust in the first place. Trust cannot be rebuilt in days or weeks. It takes months and years. The addict needs to bring patience to the process. The addict’s core belief needs to be: I can do this and it will take time. Every time the co-addict expresses distrust or fear and the addict reacts with impatience and anger, the coupleship experiences a setback and the trust building process suffers.
Even now, after all our years of recovery and relapse-free behavior, the co-addict can still experience triggers that provoke doubt, suspicion, fear, wonder, or painful memories. When the addict reacts with gentle, loving, reassuring, messages, we move through these experiences with barely a hiccup to our coupleship. Addicts can respond from recovery rather than dysfunction when they remind themselves that the trigger is often the result of the scar tissue from the old wound of sex addiction.
Accountability is another part of the trust building process. The addict must be willing to give the co-addict access to all the information needed for reassurance. This includes passwords, cell phone records, access to voice mail and e-mail, financial records, and anything else that the co-addict requests. We may need to change jobs in order to discontinue the need to travel on business. The co-addict may need us to stop going certain places or spending time with certain people. Remember this quote from Alcoholics Anonymous: “We must be willing to go to any length to get it.” Obviously, this is not legal advice for couples going through divorce. Protecting yourself in a divorce action is a totally different process than the process of building a relationship. Helpful self-talk at this point is: This is difficult, but it is worth it.
We use one other resource for trust building. It comes from Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements: Be impeccable with your word.2 Many know this old joke: “How do you know if an addict is lying?” “If their lips are moving.” Many of us grew up in dysfunctional family systems where we learned to distort the truth as part of our survival system. In recovery, we must say what we mean and mean what we say. To live in recovery we must become people of integrity. When we live from integrity our actions match our words. We become trustworthy.
Can I ever truly forgive?
Another cornerstone for the foundation we are building is forgiveness. Like choosing to trust, this is another very tall order. The tools we learned for trust building help us in the forgiveness process. It starts with choosing to believe that I can do it. Again this is true for both the addict and co-addict. Sometimes the co-addict learns about betraying behavior and retaliates in ways that are inappropriate, hurtful, and vengeful. Sometimes co-addicts act outside their value system in an attempt to get their needs met. The addict and co-addict must both choose to forgive.
The strongest case we can make for forgiveness is to look at the alternative. What happens if we do not forgive? In 12-step recovery we learn that the opposite of forgiveness is resentment. In the 12-step program resentment is sometimes described as taking poison in hopes that the offending person will die. Choosing resentment does not work. It only hurts the person holding the resentment. Does this mean that forgiveness must always be granted? No!
Many of us come out of a faith system that teaches that the betrayed must always forgive. Whatever our religious background, many of us have heard the instruction; “turn the other cheek”. Janis Abrahms Spring’s How Can I Forgive You provides excellent guidance for both the offended and the offender on this topic.3 She emphasizes that the offender must earn forgiveness in contrast to the offended must grant forgiveness. We found this to be an excellent model for healing the coupleship from the betrayal of sex addiction.
We learned that unconditional forgiveness and resentment are the opposite extremes on the forgiveness scale. We strive for the healthy middle of acceptance or genuine forgiveness when earned. When resentment remains buried and hidden, Spring calls this false forgiveness. The unresolved resentment may surface years later. Resentment blocks healing and coupleship recovery.
12-step recovery provides another resource for earning forgiveness. The ninth step instructs us to make amends to people we had harmed. We learn that the main people we harmed were ourselves and our family. Making an amend goes way beyond saying, “I’m sorry.” Many addicts have said sorry so many times that the word becomes meaningless or even annoying. If we really mean it, Dr. Joe Cruse suggested a format that we find effective.4 There are five parts to the apology:
- I was wrong
- You didn’t deserve that
- I’m sorry
- Please forgive me
- I love you.
When delivered with sincerity, this can be a means for earning forgiveness.
Amend means change. The best way to earn forgiveness is to change behavior. The entire recovery process helps us achieve real and lasting change.
Many of us have heard the phrase “Forgive and forget.” If we embrace this approach to forgiveness we may wrongly conclude that forgiveness is not possible for us because we know that we cannot forget. Our experience teaches us that we can choose to forgive even though we may never forget.
In summary, Coupleship recovery requires forgiveness. We cannot fake it. Working the 12 steps and committing to therapy help us work through and let go of resentments.
Getting to the belief that our partner was trustworthy and that we each could forgive the other, took us significant time. Neither of us remembers exactly how long. We both agree that this part of the healing process took not months, but years.
Will I ever feel safe enough to be vulnerable with my partner?
In the Dr. Carnes model, we were at the grief stage. We both reached this stage earlier in our individual recoveries. With the help of the 12-step program and therapy, we separately acknowledged the losses we experienced over a lifetime. We learned to grieve those losses. John James’ book, Grief-Recovery Handbook, provided invaluable help with this process.5
Remember, we are working in a model that recognizes our coupleship as the third entity. So even though each of us had grieved separately, we needed to grieve our losses as a couple. Couples can only do this when they feel safe enough to be vulnerable with each other. Grieving is an emotionally intense encounter. This cannot be done together until trust and forgiveness have been established.
We will share one example of a loss that was both an individual and couple’s loss. After the birth of our second daughter, we experienced our third pregnancy. That pregnancy ended in a late term miscarriage. That child who died before birth was a son. At the time of the miscarriage, we barely acknowledged the loss. We were both too caught up in the busyness of our lives and the distraction of our addiction and co-addiction to grieve the loss at the time. With help, we learned to face our losses together and grieve together. We named our unborn son, talked about how our life as a family would have been different if he survived, cried together, and continue to talk to each other about him whenever either of us think of him. Grief is a process of healing. In addition to healing our coupleship, grief also provided us with our early experiences of emotional intimacy.
Can we ever stop blaming, attacking, and defending?
We both needed to admit that we didn’t know how to talk and how to listen to each other. Like most people, we learned couples’ communication by watching it modeled by our parents when we were young children. For both of us, our parents modeled dysfunctional communication. Also, our resentments toward one another made respectful, intimate communication very difficult. Once again, we needed therapy to teach us how to do it differently. RCA gave us opportunities to watch recovering couples model new methods of communication.
Entire books have been written on couples’ communication, and a thorough discussion of strategies is beyond the scope of this chapter (please see appendix for books on couples communication). However, we will share a few highlights that helped us communicate without attacking and defending. Take time to decide who will talk first and who will listen first. We cannot listen and talk at the same time. Two sayings help us remember this. “When the mouth opens, the ears close.” “There is a reason we are created with one mouth and two ears.” Also we remind ourselves that we are communicating to know our partner better. That means listening to the other’s reality and talking to share our reality. Functional couples’ communication is not about blaming, defending, case building, or getting my way. It is about being vulnerable enough to share our reality and being respectful enough to listen without judging or defending.
Can we ever have intimacy in this relationship?
We learned that we had not known emotional intimacy with each other even before sex addiction took over the relationship. We didn’t need a new partner to have intimacy. Both of us needed to stop blaming our partner and learn how to create intimacy. The following behaviors helped heal the coupleship and helped create emotional intimacy:
- stop blaming
- risk trusting
- earning and give forgiveness
- reduce shame individually and as a couple
- grieve together
- communicate with boundaries — simply to know and be known
Going through this process requires us to be risk being vulnerable with one another. We learned to communicate in feelings-related language. One day we recognized that we had created a functional, emotionally intimate Coupleship — without the need to change partners. We still had more work to do, but we had the start of a new relationship.
Can we ever experience healthy sexuality together?
We began learning about healthy sexuality early in our healing process. However, we didn’t experience true sexual intimacy until we achieved emotional intimacy that resulted from practicing all of the tasks listed above. The sex addict needed to change the core belief that sex was the most important need. The partner needed to stop believing that being sexual to please the addict or avoiding sex to punish the addict or protect the self would result in power and control over the chaos that resulted from living in sex addiction.
In early recovery, we both needed time out from sex. We achieved that by agreeing to a celibacy contract. Our therapist recommended ninety days of no sexuality together, alone (masturbation), or in any way. Since we were getting back together after a time apart without sex of about six months, we abstained from sex for about nine months total before we were ready to begin this extremely vulnerable and intimate step.
We both needed to learn how to nurture ourselves and each other in non-genital ways. Our therapist instructed us to have “skin time” at least twice a week. That was a time of holding in bed while nude. We learned to enjoy this form of touch without progressing to intercourse or any form of genital stimulation. This assignment was especially difficult for the sex addict. Over time, even the addict learned to enjoy this form of nurturing and intimacy.
We both needed to admit that we did not know a lot about sex. We needed to learn about the human sexual response cycle. There is so much more to good sex than orgasm. We learned together to enjoy every stage of the cycle. We recommend Sexual Anorexia by Patrick Carnes as a resource for couples desiring better sexual intimacy. 7 About two thirds of the book is devoted to healthy sexuality. Reading through and discussing each of those chapters together enhances both emotional and sexual intimacy.
Can we ever be on the same page spiritually?
Throughout this chapter we attempt to emphasize that we felt powerless over the disease and we felt powerless to heal our relationship. Working the 12-step program for our individual recoveries, gave us the hope that we could recover if we surrendered and accepted help. We applied that same principle to our coupleship. With help, we could do what we could not do alone. To paraphrase to Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous:
- we admitted that we were addicted and could not manage our relationship
- we admitted that no human power could relieve our pain
- we admitted that we could recover if we were willing to accept help
Neither of us thought of spirituality as a way of experiencing intimacy. We automatically thought of religion. We did grow up in similar denominations, and we raised our children in a faith community. However, we rarely talked about religion. In our individual recoveries we learned to differentiate religion and spirituality. In RCA we learned that spirituality for the coupleship was just as important as our individual spiritual progress. We learned that we could have different religious beliefs and still connect with each other spiritually. The key here is connection. Both addict and co-addict learned to live in isolation. Many addicts relate to the expression “feeling alone in a crowd.” We experienced any form of connection, not just connection to God, as spiritual progress.
Individually, both of us spent time in prayer and meditation each morning. We began to do that spiritual practice together. We would take turns reading from a meditation book of our recovery program. We would discuss it together. Then we would pray out loud together. We sat facing close enough to hold hands. We prayed with eyes open looking into each others’ eyes. We do not know whether this is an effective way to talk to God. We do know that it is a very powerful way to connect with each other.
Both of us love to spend time outside in nature. We learned that this too can be spiritual practice. Everything that results in feeling connected, whether to the universe, the planet, the community, family, or to another person, all of this is spiritual. We spend time together in nature on a regular basis. We love beaches, mountains, rivers, and deserts. All of these places help us feel connected to the earth, to each other, and to the spiritual realm.
For us finding a place we could both worship a Higher Power together was an important part of our couple’s spirituality. We no longer worship out of a sense of obligation, but rather as an expression of gratitude; and a way to experience spiritual intimacy together.
We learned that there are two parts to spirituality—spiritual principles and spiritual practice. If it is true that one spiritual principle is love, then everything we do to grow in intimacy together is spiritual practice.
When will all this just come naturally?
For us the answer is never. We will celebrate our forty-sixth anniversary in a few weeks. We have been recovering together for about thirty years. We still have to work at having a great coupleship. The problem is time. In order to have intimacy together we need time together. At every life stage, things get in the way. Many recovering sex addicts replace their sex addiction with work addiction. Just like a precious child, our coupleship requires, time, nurturing, and valuing. We still schedule a date night together. When we don’t, a whole week can slip by without time for intimacy and fun. It seems like everybody is too busy. We do find time for the things that are really important to us. Here is a model for couple’s time to strive for:
- thirty minutes a day
- one day a week
- one weekend per month
- one week every six months
We rarely hit the goal. However, by striving for the goal we have much more quality couples’ time than we would without a goal.
When will we stop hurting each other?
Even after many years of individual and couples’ recovery, we are still imperfect human beings. We still make mistakes. One of our most useful tools comes from RCA. Once a week (daily in the beginning) we review the week (day) together. The talker shares “one thing I did this week that was hurtful to our coupleship” and “your gift to me was” Then we switch roles and the listener shares in the same way. Notice the taking of responsibility and validating of our partner. We have come full circle from blaming and defending.
We close with this reminder: A successful coupleship is not about being lucky enough to find the right partner. It is about learning how to function respectfully in a relationship. Even when the betrayal cuts so deep, as in sex addiction, couples can choose to build something brand new together that is better than what they had in the first place. That is what is possible when both partners bring individual recovery to the coupleship.