You know that feeling where someone you love has been lying to you? That feeling of having the rug pulled from under you? Imagine that feeling generated by the person you love most in the world. Then imagine it happening again. And again, and again.
One of the most traumatic experiences that partners of sex or porn addicts go through is that of 'staggered disclosure'. This is the experience of finding out, over a prolonged period of time, the full extent of the addictive 'acting out' behaviour. This could be by uncovering more secrets or by the addict dribbling out information over several weeks, months and even years. Staggered disclosures happen either due to the addict deliberately withholding information that they fear would result in negative consequences for them or giving only as much information as they feel they can get away with, rather than the whole truth. Staggered disclosure may also happen when the addict is in deep denial over the extent of their addictive behaviour.
The negative impacts of staggered disclosure for the partner of the addict are obvious and serious. It is like living in an 'alternate reality' where every time you start to adjust to the reality in which you find yourself, something comes along and alters it profoundly again! There is often no way to tell what is true or false and where the finite line of acting out behaviours and secrets really is.
So what is a full therapeutic disclosure?
A full disclosure is a controlled telling of ALL the secrets in a safe, secure and therapeutic environment, under the care of well trained, specialist professionals. Dr Douglas Weiss (Founder of the American Association of Sex Addiction Therapists) in his training for therapists and coaches, refers to a full therapeutic disclosure as the difference between a surgical cut and a tear. Both will hurt deeply, both will leave a scar, but one will be easier to heal than the other and will be carried out under much more controlled conditions with both parties being properly prepared and supported throughout the process.
What are the benefits?
A full, therapeutic disclosure, when carried out under the conditions noted above can provide both addict and partner with the foundations for honesty and trust in rebuilding their relationship. When accompanied by a truth verifying polygraph, the partner can find security in knowing that they have the full truth and are not waiting to hear more disturbing revelations of the past. This contributes significantly to the partners feeling of safety and security in the midst of the shock and trauma they are experiencing. It also helps them to begin to reorient themselves to the new reality in which they live and begin the process of grieving their losses much sooner than if this process is interrupted by new, re-traumatising discoveries and disclosures. If both are committed to the marriage recovery the disclosure can act as a 'line in the sand', a point at which the focus shifts from the past, to the future and the vision of the new relationship towards which they are working. The use of polygraph in disclosure is commonplace in USA and is often accompanied by follow up, or maintenance polygraph examinations, throughout the first year or two of recovery. This has a significant benefit to the partner who will be experiencing issues with trust which could manifest in compulsive checking of internet history, email, addicts whereabouts etc. When the addict agrees to maintenance polygraph exams, the need to engage in this type of behaviour is significantly eased, providing some much needed relief for the partner. The majority of partners I have come into contact with who have followed this process of disclosure and polygraph have found great benefit in doing so.
What are the risks?
Some of the biggest risks in the process of therapeutic disclosure come from not being supported or being supported in the wrong way. Whilst there are indisputable benefits for the addict in the disclosure process, formal disclosure, from the partners' perspective is their opportunity to validate their intuition and instinct and get answers to the questions they have wanted to ask but never been able to. Having the right support as the partner goes a long way to avoiding some of the pitfalls of disclosure gone wrong. It is also incredibly important that the addict is supported in preparation for the disclosure to ensure that the appropriate information is shared in an appropriate way.
The potential for further trauma during disclosure is high. Whilst some partners may feel as though they want to know every detail of the addicts acting out, this level of detail may actually be counterproductive to their healing, leaving vivid imagery in their minds or highlighting those things about their partners preferences with which they are unable to compete. This experience can cause long lasting effects on the partner. Having said that, each partner is different, with a different level of tolerance to detail and differing needs for validation. It will be the mark of a good coach or therapist to work through these nuances with you, with great attention to your individual needs.
Catherine Etherington January 2017 ©