How Much to Tell & When, Part 1: Spontaneous Disclosure
This post is the first in a series of posts called How Much to Tell and When: Disclosure in Early Recovery. This post discusses spontaneous disclosure and the benefits of delaying formal disclosure. Click here for part 2, here for part 3, and here for part 4.
“How much do I tell her?”
When spouse initially finds out about your sexually compulsive behaviors, there’s enormous pressure on you to disclose details about your acting out. It’s completely understandable to struggle with what to say in response.
Whether she confronted you after an initial discovery or you confessed to her some or all of your behaviors, you’re facing some tough questions. If she hasn’t already, she’s going to press you hard for details. The more she finds out, the more she’s likely to grill you.
So what do you do?
To understand how to respond to your partner in these situations, it’s important to understand that there are two different ways that spouses can learn about the details of your acting out behaviors.
JOHNNY ON THE SPOT: WHAT IS SPONTANEOUS DISCLOSURE?
Even if you’re new to sex addiction recovery, perhaps you’ve heard about “disclosure” from your therapist, your sponsor, your group, or at 12-step meetings.
Mentioned in these contexts, “disclosure” refers to a process of formal disclosure of acting out behaviors that is guided by a professional. We’ll revisit formal disclosure in the course of the rest of this blog post series.
There’s another type of disclosure called spontaneous disclosure, a very common phenomenon in early recovery. Spontaneous disclosures occur when the partner of a sex addict:
- catches him in acting out behavior,
- learns about the behaviors from the addict in an initial (and usually partial) “confession,” or
- confronts the addict for more details after either #1 or #2 has already happened, and the she wants more information.
In spontaneous disclosures, the addict offers additional details of his acting out to his partner, details that are unplanned and almost always done “in the heat of the moment” when his spouse is in pain.
SPONTANEOUS DISCLOSURE FOR THE PARTNER
For the partner, spontaneous disclosures frequently take place because she’s been deeply hurt by the betrayal of the acting out AND the lies that concealed it, often for years.
Pressing for more information from the addict is a completely understandable attempt to feel safe after the betrayal trauma.
A partner’s questions are motivated by anxiety and a need to re-establish the safety of the relationship by knowing as much as possible in order to guard against additional emotional pain. Partners will also ask questions in order to:
- regain some sense of control,
- validate suspicions about what was happening in the relationship, concerns that the addict denied in some way,
- make sense of the past, and
- determine the addict’s level of commitment to future of the relationship (Schneider, p. 28).*
All of these goals are perfectly appropriate. The tragedy is that because these disclosures almost always result in a steady drip of piecemeal details, they often end up exacerbating her trauma, pain, anger, and confusion rather than soothing it.
These sorts of “staggered” disclosures, wherein the partner learns about the acting out bit by bit, means that her emotional wound is violently stripped of its band-aid and reopened again and again, thus preventing it from truly healing.
SPONTANEOUS DISCLOSURE FOR THE ADDICT
For the addict, spontaneous disclosures can also be traumatizing. The addict, who is probably early in his recovery and has hopefully committed to undefended honesty and transparency in all details, his partner’s questions pose a real dilemma: “What should I tell her? I’m so afraid to hurt her more than she is already. Am I being dishonest by NOT saying everything?”
The addict feels caught between wanting to be honest with his wife about everything she might want to know and between his desire to avoid causing her more pain.
Moreover, he may have even heard from his therapist that she’ll learn everything in formal disclosure, so the pressure to withhold hurtful details is even greater. But even with initial guidance from a professional about what to tell her and when, moments like these may still feel dishonest and inauthentic.
It’s exactly this kind of “yuck” that the addict has probably been longing to heal from because he’s so tired of living a double life.
SHAME AND SPONTANEOUS DISCLOSURE
Speaking of yuck, spontaneous disclosures often occur because the addict feels overwhelming shame in response to his wife’s questions. The shame that the addict already feels about his acting out is amplified many times over by the pain he sees on his wife’s face as she presses him for details.
The appropriate guilt he feels in moments such as these (“I did something bad”) becomes the shame that ultimately fueled the sex addiction in the first place (“I am something bad”).
Under the weight of that shame, as many addicts in early recovery don’t yet have the emotional tools to manage that feeling, the addict will often collapse and tell his partner everything she wants to know.
The new information re-traumatizes the partner and creates new questions, which can start the cycle all over again.
WHY NOT JUST DO FORMAL DISCLOSURE RIGHT AWAY?
It’s an obvious question, isn’t it? If spontaneous disclosure sucks so much and can be so harmful, why not just get everything out in the open through formal disclosure right away so that you can get on with rebuilding the relationship? There are several reasons for this.
First and foremost, formal disclosure is a traumatic process for addict and the partner. Without proper preparation, important details and aspects of the past acting out behaviors can be left out or omitted, especially since the addict may not remember all relevant details early on. If more information comes out after the disclosure, it will greatly exacerbate an already painful process.
Second, the partner needs time to find her own support, to prepare emotionally and spiritually, and to determine what information is important for her to find out more about in the disclosure process. Receiving this support enables the recovering partner to begin to manage her trauma, define her boundaries in the relationship, and start to consider choices about how she will participate in it in the future.
Finally, an addict will not be able to “show up” emotionally in a rushed disclosure. Without at least a couple of months of therapy and recovery, he will not fully grasp the impact his behavior had on his partner and therefore he may not have much empathy or compassion for his partner.
HANG IN THERE
For these reasons, formal disclosure is typically delayed to ensure the best possible outcome for the couple. Even so, a few months is a long time for partners especially to wait for disclosure, which is why spontaneous disclosures can and do happen.
In part 2, we’ll talk about formal disclosure and its benefits so that in part 3, we’ll be ready to tackle how to best manage moments of possible spontaneous disclosure.
*Schneider, Jennifer. (2011). “Chapter Two: I Need to Know Everything That Happened. . . . Or Do I?” Mending a Shattered Heart, 2nd ed. Ed. Stephanie Carnes. Gentle Path Press.