It’s indisputable that anyone discovering that their beloved has been engaged in secretive sexual behaviours experiences a sudden sense of loss. Many partners say that the death of their loved one would somehow be easier to deal with than this new reality. At least then their sense of who that person has been to them remains intact. Following discovery/disclosure partners are faced with the challenge of “Who exactly are you?”.
Grief is a word to describe the feelings we experience in response to a significant loss. Mourning is what we do in order to process the change in our reality. Grief is painful and mourning is exhausting and chaotic. It feels out of control - we feel out of control. Knowing who our partner is and what their values are is reassuring and helps us feel more in control, after all knowledge is power (control). For partners, discovery/disclosure represents a significant form of control lost as they realise their knowledge of them was an illusion.
Although the grieving process is very individual, there are also similarities in the way people experience their emotions as they process the change. Shock and denial are common at the beginning (see Discovery). Denial can take different forms:
- Denial of the facts - perhaps not believing what has been discovered.
- Denial of the meaning - “I didn’t love them that much anyway”.
- Denial of the irreversibility - perhaps trying to carry on as normal.
Acceptance of the change takes time and needs to be realised both intellectually and emotionally. Anger and frustration can last for a long time and can come out of nowhere. They are often a defence against the pain and helplessness of grief. Sooner or later it will become impossible to avoid those feelings. Some partners try to swerve the feelings by making decisions quickly, such as throwing the addicted partner out or instigating a separation or divorce.
Some partners try to bargain away the pain due to the change and loss e.g. “If only I hadn’t put on so much weight”, “If only I had put my foot down about them going out so much”, “If only we hadn’t got high speed broadband”. The possibilities are endless but don’t take into account the truth - that the partner didn’t cause the addiction, they can’t control it and they can’t cure it. This will require the addicted partner to step up and address the addiction by taking responsibility for themselves.
Depression is at the bottom of the pit. The anger, frustration, betrayal, pain and helplessness are so exhausting it’s somehow easier not to feel. This is never a conscious choice, more a coping mechanism. This is when partners really need the patient, non-judgemental support of others. Being heard allows them to realise that yes, there have been losses but they haven’t lost their own identity. If their feelings of loss and grief are heard and validated they realise that they have choices about the relationship. This might be that there is too much to lose by separating. Or, it might be that there is too much to lose by remaining together.
Something surprising to most partners is that, as well as losses, there are also gains. These might not be apparent at first in the chaos. Probably the most important gain is the truth. This allows for both to identify their individual needs and take responsibility for the things they need to. Sex/Porn addiction involves difficulties with emotional (and sometimes physical) intimacy. The new vulnerability experienced by both can be an opportunity to gain emotional closeness. For partners who have had their reality manipulated by lies and deceit, the gain of self-trust is precious. We grow from struggle and a likely gain is discovering emotional resources that were previously unknown. Whether a partner decides to stay with the addicted partner or not, these gains are worth acknowledging.
Professional support can help a partner to identify the losses and understand their own grief. It can be useful for identifying where a person may be stuck in their grieving process or what might be complicating the process. It can help by validating and normalising feelings, thoughts and behaviours, inviting greater clarity.