How Much to Tell & When, Part 4: What to Do When Your Partner Asks about Your Sex Addiction
One of the most common questions I get from clients struggling with sex or porn addiction is how to respond to their partners when they’re hurting and asking for more details about their previous acting out. “What do I say when she comes at me like that?”
As we’ve seen, the answer isn’t so simple. In part 1, we discussed spontaneous disclosure and a little about how this traumatizes partners. In part 2, we saw how waiting to tell her about all acting out behaviors via formal disclosure can actually be healing to both partners in the long run. In part 3, though, we established that waiting until formal disclosure often sucks. Big time.
All of that was necessary to answer one of the most common questions in early recovery: How should you, a sex addict in recovery, respond to your partner when she asks for more information about your acting out?
As we saw in part 3, when your partner is pressuring you to spontaneously disclose, she’s wanting more information about one of three possible scenarios:
- your acting out before the initial discovery (that is, when she first found out about your secret double life of sex addiction) that she does know about,
- your acting out before the initial discovery that she doesn’t know about (perhaps because she’s discovered more or she’s shooting in the dark hoping to hit something)
- acting out since the initial discovery (i.e., relapses or slips) that you haven’t told her about.
If she’s asking for more information about acting out that she is aware of (#1), it’s best to wait on giving her more information until the formal disclosure. Of course, as we’ve seen, she needs to know about any acting out that exposed her to STDs, that involved or took place around children, and that involved anyone she knows. She’s asking about your acting out in this circumstance because she’s trying to feel safe, protect herself from further harm, and manage her feelings from her betrayal trauma. You can help her with that, and we’ll get to how in a moment.
If she’s asking about acting out since the initial discovery (#3), be honest and own up to your behavior. More than likely, her spidey-sense has been tingling and she’s known something is wrong and that you’ve lied to her about a relapse or a slip. You should have told her, so ‘fess up, avoid justifying the lie, and acknowledge how painful it must be for her that you’re still not telling her the truth and how much that hurts her.
If she’s asking for more information about acting out that she doesn’t know about (#2), consider carefully how to respond. Do your best to hold your boundary and wait for disclosure to avoid any more partial disclosures. Consult with your support network for guidance. Generally speaking, if your partner is pressing you for more information about acting out before the discovery, it’s best to wait until formal disclosure to relate this information safely in such a way that supports your healing and your partner’s.
If, however, she’s discovered a stash of pornography, the burner phones you used to communicate with prostitutes, or a charge on the credit card for a massage parlor that you forgot about, for instance, she’s nailed you. In these situations, it may be best to tell her some basic, relevant details before attuning to her feelings (again, more on that in a second). Use your best judgment: How can you be honest with her? What could you say that will rebuild trust?
At the same time, stick to your boundary of waiting for disclosure as much as possible, so be careful about the details you share with her. You might combine essential facts that acknowledge the new information with empathy by saying something like, “I did use burner phones in my addiction, even though I knew keeping my acting out secret from you in this way would hurt you. I can’t imagine what it must be like for you to learn about this. I want to tell you more about how I used these phones in our disclosure together and answer any other questions you have about them then.”
Outside of situations like this, though, when she’s asking about acting out behaviors unknown to her, she’s probably shooting in the dark to attempt to make sense of her feelings while the acting out was going on.
Most partners say that a part of them knew something was wrong in the relationship but that the addict always found a way to mitigate their concerns or suspicions: gaslighting, denial, defensiveness, “I love you, I would never. . . .” The list goes on. While these situations present you with the dilemma of how to be honest with her, it’s also important to attune to her feelings and get into her emotional world.
ENTER HER EMOTIONAL WORLD
Your wife or partner will confront you with questions about your acting out. It’s going to happen. Moments like these are difficult for both of you; it’s going to kick up your shame and cause you to want to defend yourself or disappear into the floor—anything to make your shame go away.
But it’s precisely when she’s angry, anxious, or afraid in these moments that you need to tune in carefully to how she’s feeling. Why?
It’s important here to understand a little about how trauma works. When we’re emotionally injured in some way, whether it’s betrayal, abuse, an act of violence—whatever it is, when we are supported immediately afterward by a responsive, attentive, empathic other, the effects of trauma decrease dramatically. In fact, when we can process the trauma with someone who is really present with us, we may not experience any long-term effects of the trauma at all.
The power of empathy is incredible. I’ve written elsewhere about empathy (check out this and this), so let me simply say here that by attuning to her feelings, you’re trying to enter her emotional world by putting yourself in her shoes.
Look past the content of her questions about consider how she’s feeling: Is she angry? Scared? Hurting? Sad? Find out everything you can about what’s going on for her that she’s asking you about your acting out. She needs you as an understanding, empathetic, and loving presence in her life much more than she needs the information she’s asking about. (I know that’s hard to believe, but when she softens, you’ll know you’re on the right track.)
BE AUTHENTIC ABOUT YOUR DILEMMA IF NECESSARY
Perhaps even as you empathize with her, she continues to ask you her questions. That’s understandable and needn’t put you on the defensive. You’re going to continue in your commitment to be rigorously honest with her, and right now you’re feeling torn: You don’t want to hurt her unnecessarily, which is what telling her will do, but you also want to cultivate trust by being open and honest.
(By the way, this might happen most often in situation #2 described above when she’s asking without having made a discovery—when she’s guessing about what might be true about your acting out.)
If you’re feeling pressed against the wall in this way, rather than deny her any and all information that she doesn’t know (which will make things worse), I would suggest being honest with her not with the information first but with how you’re feeling. Be open with her about your dilemma while sticking to the boundary of waiting for disclosure.
While the circumstances will vary widely of course, after you’ve empathized with her, you might say something like, “I can completely understand your wanting to know more about that, and I want to tell you even though it would probably be painful you. I’m feeling conflicted because I know we’re preparing for formal disclosure. That means I need to wait for formal disclosure to answer your questions. I want to do everything I can to minimize further pain for you because I know I’ve already hurt you so deeply. On the other hand, I also want to be as honest with you as I can be, even as we prepare for disclosure, because regaining your trust is important to me. I’m not sure how to be honest right now.”
A response like this does a few things:
- You’re empathizing with her desire to know more about your acting out.
- You’re being honest about how you feel, and that authenticity will help you get out of the doghouse.
- You’re respecting her need to need to know while also framing the dilemma it creates not just for you, but for the relationship.
- You’re sticking to your boundary of waiting until disclosure to tell her more about your acting out, recognizing that the process of preparing and waiting is difficult for both of you.
Hopefully by this time, your gentle, empathetic, and understanding presence will have transformed a painful moment for both of you into an opportunity to connect, or at least to defuse a potentially explosive conflict. The idea is that you’re trying to get away from the vicious cycle that starts with her asking, continues by you reactively answering, gets worse when her trauma is kicked up, and ends when you collapse into the floor in shame.
It may be, though, that after this she’s still wanting to know more information. If so, you need to pump the brakes.
WAIT UNTIL DISCLOSURE TO RELAY NEW INFORMATION
After you’ve empathized with her and attuned to her feelings, after you’ve been transparent about the dilemma, if she’s still asking about your acting out, you need to be firm about holding the boundary and waiting for disclosure. Even though she might hate your guts for it.
Why do I say this? Because, as I tell my clients, this is where your recovery ends and hers begins. In other words, your responsibility is to cultivate openness and trust by being trustworthy, accountable, and transparent. It’s her job to learn to trust you again. Both of these jobs require courage, strength, and a lot of effort. And it’s true that the latter is pretty impossible without the former done well over time. But if you’re doing all you can to heal yourself and your relationship, that’s where her work begins.
Still, I’d strongly recommend discussing what to do in situations like these with your support network because each relationship is unique. These are meant to be general guidelines only to inform your thoughts as you receive support from your therapist, sponsor, small group, or 12-step meeting.
“WHY NOT JUST TELL HER WHEN SHE ASKS ABOUT STUFF I’VE NEVER DONE?”: SOME FINAL THOUGHTS
“Well, did you ever . . . ?” During her own healing journey after the initial discovery, your partner is going to be seeking out her own support: books, groups, blog posts, her own therapist, and maybe her own 12-step group too.
She’s going to hear and read about a lot of behaviors, many of which may not be a part of your story. But for a while, anyway, it’s going to rev the motor of her imagination regarding what might be true that she doesn’t know about.
Cue the shooting in the dark. (I’ll say it until I’m blue in the face: This is, in the short-term, understandable and actually one of many behaviors that she is using to adapt to a nightmarish betrayal. In the long-term, she’ll learn other, more adaptive ways of taking care of herself.)
When your spouse or partner asks about sexually compulsive behaviors that you’ve not engaged in, it may not seem like a big deal to tell your her. “No, I’ve never . . .” And sometimes, thoughtfully replying “No, I haven’t” may be perfectly okay.
For reasons I’ve explained throughout this post, though, always offering quick denials like this isn’t the best policy. Let me wrap up by offering a few thoughts.
Quick replies about the stuff you haven’t done will eventually lead to questions about stuff you have done. Shoot in the dark long enough and you’re bound to hit something, right? That then means that more staggered disclosure is possible—either by your ashamed silence or quiet “yes”—and again, this form of disclosure deepens the existing wound of betrayal.
Quick answers don’t interrupt the destructive cycle of her asking questions in her fear, pain, and anxiety, your answering in shame and defensiveness, and her further questions spurred by your guarded, panicked responses. Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’ve had some moments where you’ve tried to answer her questions, to simply give her the information she’s asking for. Things get worse, don’t they?
That’s why it’s so critical to lead with empathy. Empathy, through the unique power human understanding, is able to transform moments of woundedness, shame, and pain into connection and closeness, which you both need desperately in early recovery when your healing is still young and fragile.