How Much to Tell & When, Part 3: The Tension Before Formal Disclosure
This post is the third in a series of posts called How Much to Tell and When: Disclosure in Early Recovery. This post discusses the tension between the initial and partial discovery of sexually compulsive behaviors and formal, full disclosure of those behaviors. Click here to read part 1 on spontaneous disclosure, here to read part 2 about formal therapeutic disclosure, and here to read part 4 on what a sex addict should tell his or her partner when asked about acting out.
Sometimes Christians talk about living in “the already and not yet.” While it’s not a perfect analogy, it captures well what it’s like in between the initial discovery and the formal disclosure for sex addicts and their partners.
“The already and not yet” is a way of referring to the idea that the culmination of time and history began in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Christians believe that Jesus brought in the kingdom of God in his ministry such that it’s presently among us, but that it will only be realized in its fullness when Jesus returns in the future.
So God’s rule in the kingdom is already present and partially realized, and it is not yet fully manifest. Christians call this present age “the already and the not yet” for this reason.
It can be an excruciating era to live in, as sex addicts in recovery and their partners know well.
THE TENSION IN THE SPACE BETWEEN
The apostle Paul doesn’t mince words when he talks about living with the suffering that’s present in “the already not yet” in Romans 8. Our suffering is painful, and creation groans in longing for its full redemption.
This is the tension of our healing as believers; we have been raised with Christ into newness of life even as we anticipate the full healing to come along with the rest of creation. The wait is almost unbearable at times but necessary.
A similar tension is felt when a partner in a relationship discovers her spouse is sexually acting out. Whether she discovers these behaviors herself or her partner tells her for whatever reason, the disclosure is almost always partial and incomplete.
It’s a crushing dilemma: When the truth is partially realized, she may understandably feel overwhelmingly anxious about what she doesn’t know and put enormous pressure on the addict to spill the beans, even when she may intellectually know it’s best to wait for formal therapeutic disclosure.
Partners constantly tell me, “I just want to know everything,” while also saying, “I’m afraid of what else I might find out.” A partner is often terrified to learn how deep the betrayal goes while also wanting to know everything in order to feel safe and empowered. These feelings are often amplified tenfold as formal disclosure nears and the truth will be fully known.
The addict feels this tension too. In early recovery, he starts to experience the emotional freedom from his former life of manipulation, deception, and lies. He often wants to share everything with his wife, even as he may know that she may leave him.
It’s dilemma for him, too: He wants to tell the truth, even as he knows it’s better to wait for formal disclosure. He is also deathly afraid about the formal disclosure because of the possible consequences. Yet he’s hopeful for the healing that formal disclosure can bring and is yearning to live in full freedom and honesty with his partner.
WHAT TO TELL HER RIGHT AWAY
A partner may want to know everything and know it right now. This is a completely understandable reaction to the trauma she’s experienced in the wake of the betrayal of the acting out and infidelity. She’s trying to figure out what you’ve done, if you’re going to do it again, and how to protect herself if you do.
While most of these details will have to wait for formal disclosure, there are a few things regarding her safety and that of any children affected by acting out that she needs to know right off the bat:
- If there’s any chance that the addict has exposed the partner to a health risk, he needs to disclose this immediately. Is it possible that he could have an STD? If so, could he have given it to her? If so, she needs to know right away so that she can consult with her doctor.
- The partner needs to know if the addict has been sexual with anyone that she might know. If this is the case, she needs to know as she may turn to that individual for support.
- If the addict and his partner have children and they have been somehow present or affected by the acting out (e.g., they witnessed the addict acting out in the home), the partner must know immediately so that she can take steps to protect the children.
THE PRESSURE TO SPONTANEOUSLY DISCLOSE
Usually, the partner of the sex addict confronts him for more information about his acting out behavior when her traumatic pain has been activated. These triggers most often occur in one of three circumstances:
- She’s discovered more acting out behavior that was previously concealed (a form of staggered disclosure) and is asking for elaboration, or
- she’s recalled an aspect of the known acting out behavior and is wanting more clarification, or
- there’s been new acting out (a relapse or a slip) since the initial discovery that is now coming to light (which means more staggered disclosure).
All of these possibilities will be far more painful if the addict is not actively and intentionally “working a program” of sobriety while preparing for disclosure. By creating a recovery plan and sticking to it, being transparent and accountable, being rigorously honest, and by practicing empathy, the addict can begin to rebuild trust even while both partners prepare for formal disclosure.
With that in mind, one of these scenarios will inevitably happen as the couple readies for disclosure, so it’s wise to think about how to manage these situations. That’s where we’ll start in the next and final post in this series.