Working with partners and sex addicts over the past 11 years, I’ve been told, and witnessed, many examples of successful—and less than successful—dialogues between addicts and partners.
Successful couples’ conversations usually have the following characteristics:
- Listening with curiosity and openness
- Minimal defensiveness
- Willingness to attempt to understand the other person’s perspective (also known as empathy)
- The ability to admit being wrong or engaging in behaviors that harm the relationship (accountability)
Unproductive conversations are the opposite, where one or both members of the couple:
- Are unable to listen, or take in the reality of the other person
- Are defensive, or engage in rationalization or minimization
- Are self-centered, or unwilling to try to understand the other
- Lack accountability or the willingness to admit that they made a mistake, broke a boundary, or acted in a hurtful way
I’ve identified five Dos & Don’ts sex addicts can learn and put into practice immediately to improve communication—and connection—with their partner.
Addicts, for each Do, keep in mind that it won’t be effective— or even believable—if you simply repeat the Dos on this list if they aren’t true for you. Practice these tips only if you can do so from a place of authenticity and honesty. Otherwise, you’ll just be repeating old, inauthentic, and deceptive behavior.
“I understand why you don’t trust me.“
Addicts sometimes have difficulty with this one. Typically it’s shame that’s in your way, rather than truly not understanding why your partner doesn’t trust you. If you’d been lied to and deceived for months, years, or even decades, you know you’d struggle to trust the person who deceived you . . . . until they prove—through trust-building behaviors—that they’re trustworthy. As difficult as it may be to tell your partner that you understand why she doesn’t trust you, it will go a long way toward healing your relationship.
“What can I do to repair what I’ve done?“
This may sound simple, but it’s one of the most powerful questions you can ask your partner. This question can be used for something as simple as being late, forgetting to do something you said you’d do, or for a more serious matter such as having a slip or a relapse.
You may be reluctant to ask your partner what you can do to repair because you’re worried about what she/he will ask for. However, a request is not the same as a demand. You have a right to agree to the request, say “no,” or negotiate an agreement you’re comfortable with. You might even be surprised by how simple—and easy—the request may be.
Lead with agreement
Leading with agreement is a powerful communication tool everyone should master. Leading with agreement is the ability to sort through everything someone says to you, identify what you agree with about what they’ve said, and then start with what you agree with.
For example, let’s say you came home 30 minutes late (without letting your partner know you’d be late) and when you got home, your partner told you how upset she is that you didn’t call, and that every time this happens she worries you’re acting out or that you’re with a former affair partner, etc., etc.
Leading with agreement would sound something like:
I’m so sorry (accountability). You’re right, I was late and I didn’t let you know that I would be late (validating her reality). Is there anything I can do to make it up to you? (offer to repair)
This is a very effective statement (and question) that goes well beyond leading with agreement since it includes accountability and an offer to repair.
The opposite of leading with agreement is defensiveness or outright ignoring what the other person said. In the example above, a defensive response might be:
- I was home on time yesterday.
- But you were late yesterday picking up the kids for school.
- Why are you always on my case?
Notice that defensive statements like these change the subject, don’t address the immediate issue, and create more disconnection and upset.
“I’ve told you everything”
Addicts, never—and I mean never—say “I’ve told you everything.” Even if you’ve gone through formal therapeutic disclosure, taken a polygraph (or more than one polygraph), I repeat, never, ever say “I’ve told you everything.”
The simple truth is that your partner doesn’t know everything about your acting out behavior. In fact, you probably don’t remember everything about your acting out history. Sex addicts have been known to find stashes of money, for example, in a hidden place in their home many years into their recovery and sobriety. They simply forgot they had it.
And then there are the granular details of some of your past activities that you haven’t—and shouldn’t—disclose. As I write that last sentence I can literally hear partners asking, “Why not? Don’t I have a right to know everything (s)he’s done?”
Yes, you have a right to know the behaviors, the frequency of the behaviors, the last time your partner engaged in the behavior (or had contact with an affair partner), how much money he spent, and many other facts about his acting out behaviors.
However, there are some details that should not be disclosed because they serve no useful purpose and ultimately create more unnecessary pain and anxiety for partners. Examples of these types of details are:
- Most thoughts/fantasies
- Graphic details of sexual encounters
- What affair partners said
- The identity of affair partners (when the betrayed partner hasn’t and won’t ever have contact with her/him)
Ask (or expect) your partner to congratulate you
on your sobriety or recovery activities
This can be a tough pill for addicts to swallow. Change is challenging, and fighting a long-standing pattern of compulsive or addictive behavior is extremely difficult.
As you’re working diligently on your recovery and rebuilding trust, you would probably like your partner’s support, encouragement, and maybe even enthusiasm. But looking to your partner to meet these needs is unrealistic, and frankly, unfair.
Partners are sometimes highly offended when the addict expects them to acknowledge and thank them for something (fidelity) that is a basic, fundamental, and expected quality in long-term committed relationships.
Partners have a similar experience in the early stages of discovery. The person they most need—and want—to turn to for comfort and support is you. Unfortunately, at that time, the addict isn’t the person who can best support her. She must reach out to others to get her needs met.
Addicts need a solid system of support from 12-step communities, peer support groups, clergy, therapists, mentors, and others who can give them the unconditional encouragement and validation they need.
Partners, are there Dos & Dont’s you’d like to add to this list? Leave a comment below with other communication “best practices” that have been particularly helpful for you and your relationship.
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© Vicki Tidwell Palmer, LCSW (2016)
All submitted comments are subject to editing to protect confidentiality and maintain anonymity.
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