How (and Why) You Should Avoid Staggered Disclosure

Staggered disclosure is an unfortunate—yet extremely common—experience for betrayed partners.

Staggered disclosure is when a betrayed partner receives repeated and incomplete information about her spouse’s unfaithful actions or sexual acting out either directly from him (or her) or indirectly through intentional or unintentional discovery.

For example, her spouse may tell her a story about a particular event one day, and then one or two weeks later he adds other important information to the story that wasn’t included the first time around. Or, her spouse tells her he participated in a certain activity less than a handful of times, but she later discovers or is told that the real number is much higher than originally disclosed.

Staggered disclosure is profoundly damaging and hurtful not only to betrayed partners, but also to the restoration of the couples’ relationship if they choose to stay together.

Betrayed partners are repeatedly traumatized when they receive additional information about how their spouse was unfaithful after they believed they had the whole story, or thought they had received complete information. Partners often describe the experience of staggered disclosure or discovery as feeling as though the rug is repeatedly pulled out from under them.

If you’re a betrayed partner, you know that one of the primary reasons it is so difficult for you to protect yourself from staggered disclosure is that your spouse has information you need, want, and deserve. Because of the deception and gaslighting inherent in chronic betrayal and addiction, you have many unanswered questions about what your spouse has been up to. And the only way to get that information is to ask for it.

As difficult as it can be, I recommend that betrayed partners and unfaithful spouses alike do everything they can to minimize or eliminate staggered disclosure.

Here are 3 reasons to avoid staggered disclosure to lessen the traumatic impact on you and your relationship:

1

Unless your unfaithful spouse is getting therapeutic help and professional guidance, he (or she) is not yet capable of giving you “the whole truth.”

He is probably still trying to protect himself, and has likely not accepted that transparency is the only viable path forward for healing and restoring trust. He is also, no doubt, terrified of the consequences of telling the truth. He will give you bits and pieces of information, and tell you that he has told you everything. Unfortunately, when you are repeatedly told that you have been told “everything” only to learn that you haven’t, you will eventually stop believing most of what your spouse tells you.

2

Asking for information when your spouse is not yet ready to be forthcoming and transparent means that you are more likely to get information from him that is not helpful—and is actually hurtful—to you.

Examples include thoughts your spouse was having at the time he was unfaithful, or graphic details about sexual encounters or experiences. While part of you may want this information or believe that it is vital for you to move forward, often the information is based on delusional, addictive thinking, and creates confusion or more unnecessary and painful thoughts, questions, and triggers. Most partners will tell you that in the long run this kind of information serves no useful purpose and was unnecessarily harmful to them.

3

As an unfaithful spouse, you harm yourself and your relationship by engaging in staggered disclosure because it further erodes what little trust your partner may still have in you. Repeated disclosures dig an even deeper hole from which you must climb out of to prove your honesty and trustworthiness, causing you even more shame and guilt.

Four ways betrayed partners can protect themselves from staggered disclosure:

  1. Before asking your spouse more questions about past indiscretions and infidelity, ask yourself how the information will help you move toward healing. If you’re not sure, write your question down and revisit it later to see if you have more clarity.
  2. Honestly assess your spouse’s current capacity for honesty. If you don’t believe he is capable of being honest with you, his answers to your questions may have little or no meaning for you.
  3. Write down all of the questions you would like to ask your spouse and process them with your therapist, a member of your support community, or a trusted mentor. Sharing your questions with someone else and getting feedback will help you determine which questions are truly essential.
  4. If you haven’t already, request that your spouse work with a trained therapist to prepare a Formal Therapeutic Disclosure (FTD) document to present to you. Partners often find that knowing they will receive FTD in the near future helps decrease or eliminate the urgency to get certain questions answered.

For unfaithful spouses, the best course of action is to begin diligently preparing a Formal Therapeutic Disclosure document with a qualified therapist. Once you’ve begun the FTD process, your partner can submit all of her questions to your therapist so that you can incorporate the answers into your FTD document.

If there are important or urgent questions (the most common being an imminent public disclosure or serious financial or health information) that can’t wait until FTD, arrange with your therapist(s) to have an interim, topic-specific disclosure held in a therapy session to share that information.


© Victoria Priya, LCSW [formerly Vicki Tidwell Palmer] (2018)

Radiant Threefold Path articles are protected by U.S. copyright laws, and may not be reproduced, distributed, or re-published without written permission of the author.
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16 Comments

  1. MA on May 31, 2018 at 8:47 pm

    Such a good blog! I went through staggered disclosure and its exactly as you describe in terms of damage to the partner and the addict. So difficult to rebuild trust after this on top of the deception and gaslighting.
    I still question a full therapeutic disclosure without the use of a polygraph though. When I asked my husband if he would have disclosed everything in an FTD without the polygraph he flat out told me no! He’d been lying to his therapist and group for months as well as to me. The polygraph really cleaned the slate for both of us and it made a huge difference in his recovery and my ability to trust. He still (we both still) works hard, therapy, 12 step etc.but now it’s from a point of honesty for the first time in 40+ years in his life!
    Thanks for this article, as always so well written!

    • Vicki Tidwell Palmer on June 1, 2018 at 8:53 am

      You’re welcome MA! And thanks for mentioning polygraph. While I don’t discuss it in this article, I agree that FTD with polygraph should be standard protocol in cases of chronic infidelity, unless the partner chooses not to do one or both.

      Thanks for sharing your story of healing and recovery. It will bring hope to many.

  2. MA on May 31, 2018 at 8:47 pm

    Such a good blog! I went through staggered disclosure and its exactly as you describe in terms of damage to the partner and the addict. So difficult to rebuild trust after this on top of the deception and gaslighting.
    I still question a full therapeutic disclosure without the use of a polygraph though. When I asked my husband if he would have disclosed everything in an FTD without the polygraph he flat out told me no! He’d been lying to his therapist and group for months as well as to me. The polygraph really cleaned the slate for both of us and it made a huge difference in his recovery and my ability to trust. He still (we both still) works hard, therapy, 12 step etc.but now it’s from a point of honesty for the first time in 40+ years in his life!
    Thanks for this article, as always so well written!

    • Vicki Tidwell Palmer on June 1, 2018 at 8:53 am

      You’re welcome MA! And thanks for mentioning polygraph. While I don’t discuss it in this article, I agree that FTD with polygraph should be standard protocol in cases of chronic infidelity, unless the partner chooses not to do one or both.

      Thanks for sharing your story of healing and recovery. It will bring hope to many.

  3. Sara on June 29, 2018 at 2:41 pm

    How important is it, if you choose for the addict to take a polygraph, that it be done immediately after FTD? Thank you.

    • Vicki Tidwell Palmer on June 29, 2018 at 6:58 pm

      Hi Sara, great question!

      Ideally, a post-Formal Therapeutic Disclosure polygraph should be completed within 24 hours after the disclosure session. However, in cases where the polygraph examiner is not geographically near the location of the FTD session, it may not be possible to complete the polygraph within 24 hours.

      The danger of having a longer period of time between FTD and polygraph is that if the addict engages in any significant middle circle behaviors or has a recovery slip, it can negatively impact the benefit of the FTD process, even if the disclosure was thorough and complete at the time it was held.

  4. Sara on June 29, 2018 at 2:41 pm

    How important is it, if you choose for the addict to take a polygraph, that it be done immediately after FTD? Thank you.

    • Vicki Tidwell Palmer on June 29, 2018 at 6:58 pm

      Hi Sara, great question!

      Ideally, a post-Formal Therapeutic Disclosure polygraph should be completed within 24 hours after the disclosure session. However, in cases where the polygraph examiner is not geographically near the location of the FTD session, it may not be possible to complete the polygraph within 24 hours.

      The danger of having a longer period of time between FTD and polygraph is that if the addict engages in any significant middle circle behaviors or has a recovery slip, it can negatively impact the benefit of the FTD process, even if the disclosure was thorough and complete at the time it was held.

  5. Kathryn W on August 18, 2018 at 3:28 pm

    My husband cannot remember much. He’s 66. How long does it take to remember and complete FTD?

    • Vicki Tidwell Palmer on August 19, 2018 at 10:17 am

      Hi Kathryn, you can find more info about how long it should take to prepare a Formal Therapeutic Disclosure in my article, How Long Should It Take to Prepare a Disclosure?

      Unless your husband has a physical condition that is impacting his cognitive functioning, memory should not be a problem. My husband just turned 60 recently and his memory seems pretty sharp to me!

  6. Kathryn W on August 18, 2018 at 3:28 pm

    My husband cannot remember much. He’s 66. How long does it take to remember and complete FTD?

    • Vicki Tidwell Palmer on August 19, 2018 at 10:17 am

      Hi Kathryn, you can find more info about how long it should take to prepare a Formal Therapeutic Disclosure in my article, How Long Should It Take to Prepare a Disclosure?

      Unless your husband has a physical condition that is impacting his cognitive functioning, memory should not be a problem. My husband just turned 60 recently and his memory seems pretty sharp to me!

  7. Kathryn W on August 18, 2018 at 3:28 pm

    My husband cannot remember much. He’s 66. How long does it take to remember and complete FTD?

  8. Curtis on August 18, 2019 at 4:59 pm

    I am the cheating spouse. I agree with staggered disclosure and setting a time to do it. It does hurt your spouse and they are the only ones truly supporting you. Ever since it happened I have been in protection mode and scared of revealing any more than I have but I also know it is the only way to make the progress that is needed. For a long time I didn’t see the gaslighting I would do or the lies I would invent. I have had 2 or more women at all tones for over 30 years. Now that I only have one relationship I cannot believe how much more energy I have. It is so much easier to try and tell the truth than generate a lie. The staggered disclosure is equally as hard for both partners. If they want the relationship to succeed there has to be full transparency. It is like a million paper cuts or stabbing your partner continually daily and watching them bleed to death slowly. Get the truth all out there live through the bleeding and stop the hemorrhage all at once. Then work through the pain which will be constant for a long time. Don’t expect forgiveness or trust for a very long time.

    Just my 2 cents.

  9. Curtis on August 18, 2019 at 4:59 pm

    I am the cheating spouse. I agree with staggered disclosure and setting a time to do it. It does hurt your spouse and they are the only ones truly supporting you. Ever since it happened I have been in protection mode and scared of revealing any more than I have but I also know it is the only way to make the progress that is needed. For a long time I didn’t see the gaslighting I would do or the lies I would invent. I have had 2 or more women at all tones for over 30 years. Now that I only have one relationship I cannot believe how much more energy I have. It is so much easier to try and tell the truth than generate a lie. The staggered disclosure is equally as hard for both partners. If they want the relationship to succeed there has to be full transparency. It is like a million paper cuts or stabbing your partner continually daily and watching them bleed to death slowly. Get the truth all out there live through the bleeding and stop the hemorrhage all at once. Then work through the pain which will be constant for a long time. Don’t expect forgiveness or trust for a very long time.

    Just my 2 cents.

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