The Trauma Currency, Part Two

(Continued from part one)

Cermak’s intent was to present codependency as a legitimate focus of clinical attention, applicable to a variety of contexts. And so we have the Co-Addict Model, which draws attention to problematic behavior as a function of an underlying, pervasive disorder. While RT adherents may agree with aspects the co-addict corollary, their clinical focus downplays the pathologizing accent. Coping strategies, such as keeping busy with tasks, are instead normalized, cast as affect regulating under exceptional circumstances. Certain behaviors such as indiscriminate sharing of a sex addict’s behavior with friends or family, including children, are discouraged; however, these behaviors are framed as products of social isolation and episodic trauma brought on by an addict’s behavior, not an underlying or even associated pathology. The notable literature that represents this position includes Your Sexually Addicted Spouse (Steffens, Means, 2009), and Facing Heartbreak: Steps to Recovery for Partners of Sex Addicts (Carnes, et al., 2012): the latter, in keeping with recovery tradition, outlines a healing process in stages: a pre-discovery stage, followed by phases of crisis/decision, and repair. In the crisis/decision stage the partner asks, “how did I get here?”, and comes to realizations like, “nothing in this marriage has been real”. Note the emphasis upon present or recent past events, not family of origin, early developmental or even adult developmental material.

The framework of RT appears to contraindicate a neutral therapeutic stance, becoming partner-centric, especially upon discovery of sexual betrayals, because the proposed de-pathologizing shift only applies to partners. There’s nothing in the RT paradigm that contests the assessment of sexual addiction. Indeed, the scope of questions for the revised version of the Sex Addiction Screening Test (or SAST) has widened in recent years, to address not only changes in technology—the broader means of acting out available to sex addicts—but also the impact upon partners of sexual betrayals. Notice, for example, a question on the 1989 version of SAST, “Does your spouse ever worry or complain about your sexual behavior?” (Carnes, 1989), versus a question on the revised 2008 version: “Has your sexual behavior ever created problems for you and your family?” Notice the slant has shifted to query problems identified by the would-be addict, instead of that which is externally identified by a partner whose perspective might be denied by the would-be sex addict, or distorted by a co-addict disorder.

The RT model calls for sex addicts or acting out partners to be identified as perpetrators of trauma, and this term—“perpetrator”—seems close enough to the connotations of “offender” that observers may be surprised that APSATS hasn’t called for the inclusion of more sex addicts on public sex offender registries. In the RT model, partners are validated as victims of a relationship-specific betrayal, and thereafter supported to integrate this experience in a way facilitates a healthy re-emergence in life, comprised of self-care, fellowship with a strong support system, realistic observation of sex addict behavior, but also renewed trust in humankind. The approach suggests that observation of predisposing pathology and validation of traumatic experience are mutually exclusive goals, which may lead to facile, short-term interventions, tailor made for practitioners presenting brief, intensive programs of care. While this may be an appropriate shift in the paradigm with respect to many partners or with all partners of sex addicts in the immediate aftermath of discovery, I wonder about the pathology that will be overlooked in the service of trauma validation, especially amid follow-up treatment episodes wherein identified-patient premises collapse over time.

In cases of sexual betrayal, a therapist working with acting out and non-acting out partners functions as a container for memories and emotions that cry out for expression, or disavowal in the case of those struggling to cope with the past. This Winnicottian task dovetails with reparation efforts—a Kleinian concept before a sex addiction treatment strategy—which hinges upon individuals’ capacity for mourning. Klein (1975) wrote that grievances we harbor towards parents for the wrongs they have committed, and for having denied those wrongs, elicit feelings of hate and desire for revenge. Durham (2000) has argued that the capacity for making reparations in the internal world is the basis on which empathy for others is established. When individuals defensively split, they attach to a narrowly defined narrative: therefore (borrowing the RT Model identifiers) a victim’s anger and hatred is rigidified in the face of a perpetrator’s denial, which represents an evil system built upon a primitive intrapsychic structure. A working through of splitting, into mourning, requires the perpetrator to own his destructiveness so as to experience mourning; then, if the victim is sufficiently open to an awareness of “good enough” qualities in the perpetrator, a re-internalization of that individual as a good object might occur, which in turn enables the victim’s own work of mourning.

Whether or not labels of victim, perpetrator, addict, or codependent are necessary, harmful, or inhibitive of this process seems ambiguous. Assessment and diagnostic nomenclature informs psychiatric intervention; enables the placement of individuals in appropriate levels of care, including hospitals when necessary; generates short and long-term treatment planning goals. Informing patients of their diagnoses gives informed consent to treatment based upon an understanding of conditions that are the focus of clinical attention. At the same time therapists know the stigmatizing risk associated with assessment and diagnostic labels, particularly those whose prescriptive measures are not clearly defined, or subject to a range of treatment alternatives, despite the attempts of some who promote protocols in response to diagnoses. The advisability of informing a patient or client that he or she has a substance dependence, for example, seems predicated on particular factors well understood across professional disciplines, and by the general public: that the problem can be accurately assessed in a short time frame; that prescriptive measures can be readily understood by those potentially receiving services (such as recommendations of abstinence, or attendance at 12-step meetings); that a person may be at grave risk of illness, injury, or even death if immediate intervention does not occur.

Are these factors true with respect to sex addiction, or codependency, or personality disorders? Maybe in some cases, but of the forty five questions on the revised SAST, for example, only one pertains to behaviors that place afflicted individuals in dangerous situations. In my training I learned to refrain from using diagnostic or assessment labels when addressing clients about their problems, unless the applicable term or terms seem critical for intervention, or unless prescriptive measures based upon the nomenclature can be articulated succinctly and concretely. Otherwise, confusion and/or resistance typically follows, with clients left thinly understanding conditions, floundering to make sense of new identities imposed by expert opinion. I often experience this when clients meet with me for the first time, having been diagnosed by a previous practitioner with, say, Narcissist Personality Disorder. They’ve been given an article to read, or a DSM criteria sheet to examine. Afterwards, they exhibit disorientation, manifest with awkward attempts to describe their freshly assigned disorder. When devising a plan, they offer that they need to learn to empathize with others more. Woodenly, they report feeling instructed, and branded, but not understood.

This is often true with individuals who are told they have a sex addiction, or a codependency problem, and while many can wrap their minds around the concept of sex addiction, the assessment still bears much explanation and holding of emotion. As for codependency: from an object relations point of view, that umbrella term represents a whole multitude of dynamic relational configurations, replete with intersecting projections and introjections. So no wonder partners of sex addicts are flummoxed and invalidated by the term, regardless of what betrayals they have felt. Aren’t many or even most shocked to hear that they may have enabled another’s addiction? Won’t many be confused to hear they may have contributed to another’s disorder by an overly close, or conversely, a distant involvement? Doesn’t it jolt the senses, the unconscious, one’s entire being, to hear that one might have a sex addiction, and that an important aspect of that concept is its impact upon intimate partners? Ultimately, what seems important is to hold the idea of a complex problem, brought to light by acting out behaviors, but not reducible to those habits, necessarily. Might it not render the divide between rival models of treatment moot to consider that our clients deserve to not be hamstrung by labels, or denied what is useful in our nomenclature? Rather, they should feel held by our open minds and fuller understanding.



 American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA. American Psychiatric Publishing.

 Bergner, R. & Bridges, A. (2002). The significance of heavy pornography involvement for romantic partners: research and clinical implications. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 28, 193-206.

Black, Claudia (2009). Deceived. Hazelden. Center City, Minnesota.

Carnes, P. (1989) Contrary to Love. Hazelden.

Carnes, S., Lee, M. A., Rodriguez, A. D. (2012) Facing Heartbreak: Steps to Recovery for Partners of Sex Addicts. Gentle Path Press.

Cermak, T. (1986). Diagnosing and treating codependence. Minneapolis, MN: Johnson institute

David J Ley (2012, September) “Abusing the Term Trauma”. Retrieved from

Durham, M.S. (2000) The Therapist’s Encounters with Revenge and Forgiveness. In “Psychological Repair: the intersubjective dialogue of remorse and forgiveness in the aftermath of gross human rights violations”. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association. Volume 63. Number 6. December 2015

Glass, S. (2003) Not just friends: Protect you relationship from infidelity and heal the trauma of betrayal. New York, NY. The Free Press.

Klein, M. (1975) Love, Guilt and Reparation and Other Works, 1921-1945. London: The Free Press, 2002.

Steffens, B. A., & Rennie, R. L. (2006) The traumatic nature of disclosure for the wives of sexual addicts. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 13, 247-267.

Steffens, B. A., & Means, M. (2009) Your Sexually Addicted Spouse: How Partners Can Cope and Heal. New Horizon Press.




Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s