You’ve discovered your spouse’s compulsive affairs or addictive pornography use, and you’re reeling from the new information. You have a thousand questions to ask them, but it seems like every time you ask for more detail, you get a different answer. You don’t know what you can trust anymore, especially since you can’t believe anything your partner says.
Or perhaps your spouse just found out about your addictive behaviors, and you’re trying your hardest to minimize the amount of pain they’ll experience or the intensity of anger directed at you. So you only tell them information they “need” to know. Problem is, they keep asking more questions or finding out more information that you left out, and they’re getting angrier than ever.
Working through the pain and trauma of sexual addiction recovery is a challenging process for a couple. The #1 issue I come across with couples dealing with affairs or sex and love addiction is loss of trust. Couples ask me over and over again: “How do we rebuild trust? How can I ever believe anything they say again? Why can’t my spouse trust me?”
Trust requires honesty. It requires acting in alignment with words, taking responsibility for past wrongs, and telling the truth even when it is difficult and painful. In order to gain trust again, the first and most important step is participating in a therapist-facilitated formal disclosure.
What happens without formal disclosure?
In the majority of couples, the addict is discovered while still in active addiction. The partner happens upon an email, a website history, or catches their spouse acting out. The addict denies their addiction, but the evidence can’t lie.
What typically follows is a process of “staggered disclosure,” a term coined in Disclosing Secrets* by Jennifer Schneider and Deborah Corley. Staggered disclosure happens when the addict tells their spouse as little information as possible about their behaviors, testing the waters to see if their partner will stay and/or living in denial of responsibility for their behaviors. However, this simply prolongs the partner’s pain, as trust is further destroyed upon future discoveries of withheld information.
In this case, the partner is constantly living in fear of what information or new revelation might be coming next. This can go on over the course of years, as the partner continues to make discovery after discovery of their spouse’s behaviors. Clearly, the addict’s behavior of downplaying and denial of the truth simply hurts the partner and further erodes trust.
What is formal disclosure?
Formal disclosure is a therapist-led process in which the addict prepares a timeline of all sexual behaviors occurring since the beginning of the relationship, including such information such as the type of behaviors, period of time engaged in them, consequences, lies told to spouse, etc. Meanwhile, the betrayed partner meets with an individual therapist to process their trauma, prepare for the disclosure, and compile a list of questions to ask their spouse.
Once these are completed, the addict will read the timeline to their partner in a therapeutic setting with both the addict’s therapist and the partner’s therapist present. The addict takes ownership of their behaviors and establishes a foundation of truth and honesty for the relationship. The partner will have a chance to respond with an impact letter outlining how the addict’s behavior has affected them, and the addict can then respond with an amends letter.
Why do we do formal disclosure?
Formal disclosure is done when a couple is interested in moving forward in their relationship and seeking greater healing and intimacy. It’s designed to re-establish trust in the relationship through allowing the betrayed spouse to receive a foundation of truth. The betrayed spouse is empowered to make an informed decision on the future of the relationship, and it validates that they are not crazy for having been suspicious or wondering about their spouse's behavior.
The addict needs to end denial to engage in formal disclosure, knowing that honesty is the only route to intimacy. A helpful reminder is that the real injury and pain comes from the behavior, not from the formal disclosure process. Walking through disclosure offers the opportunity for complete healing instead of continued secrets and avoidance of pain.
For both, the process of disclosure can create greater intimacy and, somewhat counterintuitively, hope for the future.
What is required to do formal disclosure?
Both the addict and the partner need to be pursuing individual therapy, preferably with a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist, or CSAT. Both also need social support systems in place before beginning the process. Addicts can find support through Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA) or Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA) meetings where they can receive support from others who have been in their shoes. Partners can look for support through support groups, therapy groups, or 12 Step programs such as COSA or S-Anon.
There are some reasons why disclosure might be off the table for the time being. One of the most significant reasons not to pursue formal disclosure is if you are headed toward divorce or that is a likely possibility. Formal disclosure is intended to be a stepping stone to rebuilding the marriage, not a pursuit of information to use against the spouse in divorce proceedings. Other reasons to postpone disclosure include such possibilities as threats of violence, outside stress, suicidal thoughts, pregnancy, or other factors that you can talk through with your therapist.
What control does the betrayed partner have over what's included in the formal disclosure?
For some partners, imagining hearing every gory detail of their spouse’s acting out behaviors sounds like more of a nightmare than a path to healing. And they’re right: in the process of disclosure, too much information can lead to undue triggers and pain. Your therapist is aware of this, and during discussions with him or her, you can choose which types of information you want to receive.
You also have the opportunity to ask questions to your spouse, which will be discussed with your therapist beforehand. Keep in mind: it is best not to ask questions about specific details or locations due to potential triggers in the future, and your therapist may work with you to change questions if there is fear of receiving too much detail. However, there is room to include it if one of those questions feels necessary to continue on in the relationship.
How do I get started?
The first step toward formal disclosure is for each partner to get involved in individual therapy with a CSAT therapist. Do not attempt formal disclosure without therapeutic support. Having therapists involved not only ensures that you’ll be supported through whatever information comes up, but it also ensures that the disclosure will contain the most comprehensive amount of information possible.
Talk to your new therapist your desire to move toward disclosure, and they will help to guide you on the path to healing and rebuilding trust as a couple.
Recommended Resources for Sex and Love Addicts*
- Out of the Shadows by Patrick Carnes
- Healing the Wounds of Sexual Addiction by Mark Laaser
- Facing the Shadow by Patrick Carnes
- For Women: No Stones by Marnie Ferree
- Disclosing Secrets: An Addict’s Guide by Deborah Corley and Jennifer Schneider
Recommended Resources for Partners of Sex and Love Addicts*
Are you tired of constantly receiving staggered disclosure from your spouse? Do you wish you had all the information? If you’re an addict, are you terrified of having your spouse know the whole truth, but you want to rebuild trust? Do you have questions about formal disclosure? At a CSAT therapist at Restored Hope, I offer focused counseling services to address sex and love addiction, and I believe formal disclosure is an essential step in that process. Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to talk more about setting up an appointment to get started.
*These are Amazon affiliate links. Click here to read more about Restored Hope’s Amazon local associates policy.