No Longer Silent
I’ve been feeling a bit discouraged lately. I’ve worked hard to help voice the needs of partners, but the continued silence on partners issues in our society is disheartening. The personal pain and destruction experienced by partners of sex addicts remains a silent storm- and yet its a storm that is affecting millions of women in the United States and across the globe. So, I’ve been thinking a lot and talking with some others about the needs of partners of sex addicts and why it seems to be so difficult to bring attention to partner’s issues. I’d like to share some of my thoughts with you.
The partner as an extension of the addict
First- partners of addicts have long been seen through the lens of treatment for sex addicts. In traditional treatment for sex addiction, the partner is brought in as support for treatment of the addict. Or she’s seen in in-patient treatment centers on “family” days or in couple’s sessions. Again, this is in support of the treatment of the addict. It is about him and his treatment- not about the partner.
A woman recently emailed me these thoughts-
“After working with you I began to realize the importance of spouses telling our own story. It dawned on me that the prevailing theoretical concepts about spouses of sex addicts was formed from the viewpoint of addicts themselves or people committed to working with addicts, As a consequence, our story is being told to the world through words that are not our own. This makes what you do so very important. Without you and your work, spouses would continue to be viewed through the eyes of addicts and their support groups, as opposed to being shown through our own eyes and the eyes of those dedicated to our recovery.”
As a result of being seen through the “viewpoint of the addicts”, much in the prevailing treatment models are not geared toward the specific needs of the partner and her wounding, trauma, and betrayal. Her needs go largely unaddressed in many of our traditional treatment settings. We need to hear partner’s stories. We need research. We need new models!
The partner and blaming the victim
The second thought I have about why partners needs are not addressed involves the historical oppression and mistreatment of women, and blaming the victim. Partners of sex addicts are treated in the media and unfortunately in some treatment settings like our society used to treat female victims of sexual assault or domestic violence. We “blame the victim” when we say things like “how didn’t she know” or “what is wrong with her that she chose someone like him?” When women hear these statements, they often feel invalidated and voiceless. Sometimes women then give up. They feel hopeless.
This blaming the victim can be quite subtle, too. I hear it in statements that describe the partner as “just as sick as the addict” or “destined to find a sex addict” due to her family of origin history- a history over which she had no control, by the way. It often reminds me of when we used to hear things like “what was she doing in that part of town, or dressed that way?” as if she brought sexual assault on herself. In the past, the sexual assault victim’s personal history was used as part of the defense for the offender- as if she were “culpable” in her own assault. It also reminds me of the judgment and blame victims of domestic abuse receive when people ask “what did she do to make him so mad?” This is blaming the victim. Much of the sex addiction treatment model for the partner holds her “culpable” and treatment focuses on her history that “set her up” to marry a sex addict. For partners of sex addicts, it feels like this model is saying “you asked for it”. She did not ask for it. She most likely had no idea. She didn’t know and she was blind-sided.
I’ve found that relationships with sex addicts are often fraught with abuse. This can take the form of emotional, sexual and sometimes physical abuse. Prior to disclosure, partners are often subjected to blame shifting, gas lighting, verbal abuse or emotional abandonment within the relationship. Partners experience sexual pressure or coercion, or are cut off sexually within the relationship. Partners hear or are assaulted with inappropriate sexual comments or actions. Some partners are coerced into participating in the addict’s “acting out” especially prior to the discovery of the addiction, leaving them feeling shamed, used, and assaulted. Some partners of sex addicts are physically threatened or assaulted. It is vital that treatment providers assess for abuse as part of any treatment protocol with addicts and/or their partners.
The other issue I am beginning to hear is that some partners are feeling misunderstood and even re-traumatized when they do seek help or go to treatment with their husbands. This secondary trauma can leave partners feeling without help and hopeless, and contribute to feeling unsafe. Treatment providers need to incorporate models that respect the experience and mental health needs of the partner. One size does not fit all.
It is time for us to collectively work to address the needs of partners in a respectful and responsive manner.
I want to invite partners and therapists to join with me to bring voice to the needs of partners of sex addicts. Share your story here by responding to this blog. Contact me through my website at http://www.partnerofsexaddict.com (Steffens Counseling Services). I am hoping to begin a network of people who will become a powerful voice for partners of sex addicts.
“I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. “