Sex/Porn Addiction Recovery – When Couples Get Stuck

In the aftermath of Discovery/Disclosure the person with addiction and the partner are in crisis. Suddenly everything is out of control. For the addict all of the shameful, grisly secrets are out of the box. The partner’s world has fallen from beneath their feet. The task in the coming weeks is survival – and this will be a very individual task at this stage. Each needs to attend to their own needs and process the tsunami of emotions.

Given that Sex/Porn addiction exists alongside the relationship rather than within it, the existence of addiction is not a measure of whether the relationship is worthwhile or not. Many couples strive to repair the damage to the relationship (or at least put a decision whether to stay or leave on hold) in the first few months. If the person with addiction can acknowledge that there is a problem and can begin a meaningful recovery, this allows the partner to wait and see what happens. The partner has experienced the person with addiction throughout the relationship (for better and what they thought was the worst) and is now aware of their secret behaviours. A full disclosure provides a point from which to move forwards. What they don’t know yet is what life is going to look and feel like if their addicted partner is committed to their recovery.

Many couples manage to limp through the first few weeks, spurred on by a new awareness – that the addict’s behaviours haven’t been driven by their lack of morals but a recognisable health issue. The person with addiction throws themselves into researching and getting support. Ideally the partner would reach out for support too.

A common point of stuckness for couples is where the partner, in response to life feeling out of control, dedicates their time and energy to policing the person with the addiction. This perhaps involves GPS tracking, checking phones, checking bank statements, restricting activities etc. and it can give the illusion of control. While this is a common, reflexive response in the beginning, what starts out as a coping strategy (the solution) becomes part of the problem in the following ways:

  • The focus is on doing rather than feeling (hurt, betrayal, anger, humiliation, shame etc.) so emotions remain unprocessed. The partner remains stuck in the trauma.
  • The partner becomes exhausted, believing that if they take their eye off the ball for even a moment their world will crash to the floor again.
  • A Parent/Child dynamic is set up/perpetuated. Partners sometimes believe that the person with addiction should forever feel connected to their shame as relapse prevention, without realising that it is shame that has allowed the addiction to exist and grow in secret. In a Parent/Child dynamic the only responses available to the addict are to Please or Rebel. This can lead to Impression Management (rather than Authenticity) to give the illusion of pleasing. Or, the person with addiction might be triggered back into the behaviours as a form of rebellion.

When the person with addiction shows evidence of being in meaningful recovery, partners (through fear) can sometimes hold on tightly to control strategies long past their usefulness in the mistaken belief that this is what is providing some safety. It seems counter-intuitive to let go of the control so that the person with addiction can take full responsibility and accountability for their actions.

Letting Go Of Control

Consider the parable of how to trap a monkey. A peanut is placed inside a tethered glass jar, which the monkey can just get it’s hand into. The monkey can’t release it’s hand while it is grasping the peanut. All it needs to do is let go of the peanut and it will be free.

 

Letting go of control often leads to something better – the opportunity for the person with addiction to rebuild trust.

As previously mentioned, letting go of control can seem counter-intuitive and terrifying. It requires a leap of faith, not necessarily towards the person with addiction but within oneself. It means connecting to and validating one’s own feelings e.g. “I’m feeling that something is off” or “Right now I’m not feeling that I’m being lied to”. Often, in the days after Discovery/Disclosure, partners experience strong memories of when they felt something wasn’t right and they now know why. It’s good to listen to these and experience feelings of vindication – “I was right to feel that way”.

Gaslighting

Unfortunately this leap of faith in oneself isn’t always an easy process as the person with addiction will likely have spent years manipulating the partner’s reality. This usually happens through Gaslighting, a desperate bid to avoid detection and/or confrontation. Gaslighting is a term derived from a 1944 film where the emotionally abusive husband drives his wife to insanity by tampering with the gaslights, then denying her reality when she tells him they have been flickering. Given that the leap of faith requires the partner to connect to and validate their feelings, how can they when all trust of their own feelings has been broken? Gaslighting can take the following forms:

  • Lying.
  • Denial – even when there is proof.
  • Erosion of the partners identity e.g. questioning/criticism of their likes/dislikes, skills and achievements.
  • Invalidating feelings e.g. “Everything’s fine”, “You’re being over sensitive”, “You’re over-reacting”.
  • Actions not matching words – causing confusion, self-doubt or Emotional Fog.
  • Projection – people often unconsciously project emotions they aren’t comfortable experiencing onto others so that they can do the feelings for them e.g. “You’re angry”, rather than, “I’m angry that you’re questioning me”.
  • Questioning the partner’s mental state e.g. “You know how you over-react”, “You’ve had depression for a long time”.

Taking a leap of faith and relinquishing control isn’t just down to the partner. It’s helpful if the person with addiction can show the partner their understanding of how they have manipulated their reality in the past and also show empathy for how this has affected them.

Stuckness is usually noticed when the initial momentum of recovery has slowed and life has taken on some semblance of normality.  The difficult feelings can provide the motivation for couples to explore their relationship in a deeper way than they have ever done previously.