Isolation: treatment of an impacted partner

What about the spouse or partner of a so-called sex addict? Well, what about them, said sex addiction treatment programs for many years. That’s the narrative of advocates for impacted or betrayed partners—that their clients have been ignored by sex addiction specialists who privilege attention to the acting out party, focusing upon their needs while impacted others are told to back off, not intrude upon the afflicted party’s “recovery”. Well, this is a complicated issue so the pros and cons of partner isolation, or “backing off”, as I put it, bear exploration. Firstly, as someone who has worked privately, as in individually, and as part of a collaborative team for over twenty years, I’ll admit that I have supported the segregation of a partner’s program from that of an acting out figure on many occasions. The reason: there’s too much of a rush to “do something” when you treat sex addiction with a directly systemic approach from the outset of a treatment episode. Now, a possible point of confusion: problems relating to sex addiction may be systemic—meaning, that sexually acting out behavior aside, a couple shares responsibility for relational problems.

But the problem is that since impacted partners have been integrated into sex addiction treatment as part of a “systemic” approach, the field has more recently adopted a perpetrator/victim model that addresses angry women (mostly), promising them “accountability” (as often as not a euphemism for punishment, used to disguise aggression and therefore lessen guilt), and enabling splitting defenses that lead to binary conceptions, scapegoating sexually acting out figures while their partners are given a pass on most relational conflicts because they are “betrayed”. In this model most impacted partners are treated as victimized figures, repeatedly lied to or otherwise emotionally and perhaps physically abused—basically not responsible for most if not all problems between the couple. Now, there may be some who will retort that this take is unfair; that the model in fact expresses that perpetrator/victim roles are “fluid”, implying that impacted partners become abusive and traumatizing themselves. Yes. In plain speak, this means that impacted/betrayed partners exact revenge, feel righteous when they apply “boundaries” post-discovery of sexual acting out, but don’t generally, in my opinion, accept that mutuality contributes to a pattern of acting out. That violates the “his behavior is not about you” ethos, which is then generalized, so any abuse between the sexually acting out figure and the impacted partner is presumed to be unilateral. Interestingly, this tacit heurism doesn’t apply if the acting out figure is female in a heterosexual context. Only in that scenario will you hear sex addiction or betrayal trauma specialists speculate that the impacted partner (if male) is as much the perennially “abusive” figure in the relationship, if not more so. This is probably due to what I have dubbed a feminist tautology: feminine victimization is a redundancy; unless proven otherwise, it is treated as a given—one of the tacit rules within the intersectionality ethic.

If you’re an impacted partner (especially a female one) reading this you likely won’t like the ironic tone of what I just wrote, but the non-ironic, problematic thing is this: I’ve sat with a lot of couples over a lot years (in other words, not just people like you, Heather) and—quite simply—I’ve observed or else heard about the above-described narrative many more times than I care to enumerate. Regardless, this opinion will likely be the most controversial aspect of Getting Real About Sex Addiction because it flies in the face of current political correctness. The treatment of addiction intersects with social mores, but in our progressive zeitgeist only social underdogs get to be cast as scapegoats, not heterosexual men. This is why sex addiction treatment, which is primarily aimed at heterosexual men, more recently eschews the paradigms of codependency or systemic roles like “scapegoat”, which imply that addicted individuals carry the pathology of a system and are therefore not exclusively responsible for relational disputes. Now, to complicate matters, progressive SA specialists will argue that the opposite has been long-true: that the field’s bias has actually been to employ the codependency and scapegoat concepts so as to dilute responsibility and cast unfair responsibility on impacted and betrayed partners. If this was, say, 1989, I’d say they were probably correct, but my sense is that biases have been tilted in favor of impacted partners for some time now, likely because women now represent a majority of practitioners within the field of mental health care.

Anyway, Getting Real actually begins with an exchange between myself and an agitated partner of an identified sex addict. In that illustration, I observe the frantic efforts of the angry, scared discoverer of an unacceptable pattern of behavior. Amid demands for decisive and implicitly sooner rather than later change, I outline an approach that will point her in the direction of support groups, her own self-exploration, with lesser emphasis upon what she’d prefer: an auxiliary role in the oversight of her wayward husband. In a later chapter, I devote many pages to this woman, who had attended a partners’ support group but soon dropped out, dissatisfied; she then sought a “full disclosure” in couples therapy via a sex addiction specialist (CSAT), but found that dissatisfying also, her husband merely compliant, not sufficiently earnest or candid within that exercise’s largely structured protocols. For a year she languished alone, not leaving her marriage in a practical or physical sense, but nonetheless feeling more isolated than she ever had before. In her efforts to get closer to her husband, even rebuild the shaky foundation of their twenty-year old bond, she’d tried everything she could think of—everything except looking at her anger. That she did in individual psychoanalytic therapy, or so I chronicle in the book. It played out throughout our relationship, from the tense, testy consultation we’d once had over a phone, to a later, intensive episode in which her frustration emerged in the transference of our sessions*. We met twice a week at first, then three times per week at the height of our arrangement. I know. If you don’t know much about psychoanalytic treatments then you’ll likely think that excessive, or you might not know what transference is. Think of it this way: if you want to get to know yourself with the help of a professional, it’s best they see you as often as possible, for as long as possible. You see, that way a person’s real self has less chance to hide. It simply increases the pressure to do what we call the work.

             This woman—Anne is her pseudonym—thought that the work of therapy would be “supportive”:  she supposed, largely from her prior experiences in therapy that she’d be validated in her complaints about her husband; that she’d be encouraged towards various ways to “self-care”, accompanied by the half-presumption that she didn’t do this very well. She’d be introduced to legitimate if weaponized rhetoric: terms like “perpetrator”, “victim”, “survivor”, “narcissist”, and of course “addict” were all invoked by group peers, her former providers, mostly in reference to her husband. Headlining the psychoeducation were terms like “betrayal” and “trauma”—again, legitimate constructs but often employed in a manner that externalizes problems and circumscribes meaning, blunting efforts at self-exploration. Why look at yourself if someone else is really the problem? And please, I’ve heard the expressions that feign responsibility, from the offhand, generalized, “I know I’m not perfect”, to the backhanded self-blame of “I didn’t want to believe he was an addict” or the quasi, glib self-exploration of “why am I so attracted to abusive men? I know. I know…I have low self-esteem”. At first, Anne did indeed feel validated and supported by the treatment aimed at her. But soon enough she felt patronized, and was secretly aware that the story of her marriage wasn’t as simple as some were reflecting back to her. In her meetings with me, I validated one thing: her feelings of betrayal specifically relating to the acting out of her husband. Besides that, I offered precious little of what she ultimately found precious and unconvincing. That didn’t mean she would declare herself singly at fault for a broken marriage; she wouldn’t victim-blame or otherwise split so explicitly in her thinking.

             In part due to the frequency of our meetings, she couldn’t hide the angry side of herself, even though she tried, by masking her frustration in subtle gestures of devaluation, and later—upon my interpretations of these moments—by overt expressions of complaint; her paradoxical need for an understanding beneath attempts to push me away. Part of her frustration in life was sexual. Like many impacted or betrayed partners, she hadn’t wanted a cessation or diminishing of her sex life, the semi-inevitable result of having discovered her partner’s cheating and porn-binging. Unlike some who invert the “excuse” phenomenon so often assigned to self-identified sex addicts, she wasn’t citing the sex addiction discovery as a pretext for refusing sex when loss of sexual interest was an underlying truism**. Nor was she a hypocritical monogamist, claiming betrayal while holding post-modern values that cast skepticism on the exclusivist, women-subordinating institution of marriage but still extolling the values of the white dress. Indeed, one of the feelings she wanted to explore in our treatment was her lifelong struggle with jealousy, and just as Esther Perel writes in her book State of Affairs, Anne felt that overwrought support for her betrayed experience had served to obscure this recently valid yet historically neurotic trait.

             Among the standard maxims within our profession and culture is the belief that jealousy, a derivate of hate, isolates. And we think this whether we are speaking of racism, toxic masculinity, misogyny, or its lesser observed analogue, misandry. Hate, or the perception of it, leaves us cold and distant; we lose empathy, othering the people we don’t know, or we forget the people we once knew and loved, or felt dependent on. I was reminded of this watching an old film recently in a state of unwitting jadedness. Ostensibly, I was looking for escapist fare as I selected Casablanca, one of the great romantic flicks of the WWII era, but also a story with hate and jadedness at its center. Rick, Humphrey Bogart’s character, is a cynical American expatriate wounded by, among other things, a lost love in the form of Else, played by Ingrid Bergman. When she returns to Casablanca with another love (for another man) but a lingering regret for having ditched Rick years earlier, she attempts reconciliation, only to find him bitter and drunk. In the aftermath of their tense reunion Rick asks, in effect, what did you expect? See, he felt entitled to his anger. No arguments from her—just a blank, wayward gaze. Ultimately, Else checks out, looks away, says she can’t feel anything for him in the face of his hate, even though she accepts his right to feel that way. Hate. Betrayal. Compulsion. Jealousy. Whatever it was, it had isolated them physically, emotionally. Psychologically, they were correspondingly split.

*Transference refers to feelings and unconscious thoughts that emerge in the therapeutic relationship that are based upon past relationships, especially those with primary caregivers

** I’m aware that this observation, paraphrased from one similar in the book, will be offensive to some readers. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that such ulterior wishes describe all or even most partners of sex addicts who enter treatment for themselves. But I am suggesting that this phenomenon exists, that it presents often enough, and that those who think this isn’t a thing are in another kind of denial.

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