How Much to Tell & When, Part 2: Formal Disclosure
This post is the second in a series of posts called How Much to Tell and When: Disclosure in Early Recovery. This post discusses formal disclosure and its benefits. Click here to read part 1, here for part 3, and here for part 4.
“How much do I tell her?” In part 1 of this series, we considered spontaneous disclosure, which happens when the sex addict’s behaviors are either discovered, about to be discovered, or when there is partial disclosure of the addict’s acting out behaviors after the initial discovery.
Oftentimes, spontaneous disclosure occurs as a couple is preparing for formal disclosure. Although holding off for a few months on formal disclosure can give both sex addict and his partner time to prepare for the traumatic formal disclosure date, waiting can be excruciating, especially for the partner.
But what is formal disclosure? And as painful as it is, why is it worth waiting around for?
WHAT IS FORMAL DISCLOSURE?
Formal disclosure is fundamentally a transfer of information aimed most importantly at providing the partner with a complete account of the addict’s acting out behaviors.
Often called “disclosure” for short, formal disclosure is a process that begins with the formal disclosure day; on this day, the addict, partner, and their therapists meet to facilitate the disclosure and usually meet with both afterward in individual sessions for processing, support, and to ensure safety as a part of each one’s aftercare plan.
In my view, disclosure is far more than a simply transmission of information from the addict to the partner. It’s a profound opportunity for the addict to begin repairing the relationship by acknowledging the damage he has done to the relationship, how he has hurt his partner, to recognize his role in the current crisis and take responsibility for it, and to formally commit to restitutive actions (e.g., participating in therapy, submitting to a polygraph, abiding by partner’s boundaries).
That’s why after the formal disclosure date, I encourage couples to plan additional sessions that can facilitate this deeper healing:
- About a month after the disclosure day, the addict’s partner presents a prepared emotional impact letter in which she may share how the sex addiction and betrayal have hurt and traumatized her. Although the partner can ask questions during the formal disclosure, the emotional impact letter gives the partner the opportunity to fully articulate her pain, perhaps for the first time, with the hope of being understood by the addict.
- About a month after this date, the addict presents a prepared response called the emotional restitution letter, which acknowledges (hopefully in an empathic and understanding way) the partner’s pain and outlines again how he intends to participate in the relationship in the future.
WHY FORMAL DISCLOSURE IS SO IMPORTANT
Always done with the support of a therapist or helping professional, formal disclosure an opportunity for the addict to give a full accounting of his betrayal, including the sexually compulsive behaviors, lies told, and money spent on the addiction.
In this way, the addict can begin to restore trust by being transparent in an undefended manner. Formal disclosure can also be an important part of the addict’s healing and recovery as he practices honesty and vulnerability. Formal disclosure can also serve to release the addict from all secrets and decreasing his shame.
For the addict’s partner, it’s a chance to learn about the behaviors that have taken place in secret so that she is no longer in the dark. She can be empowered with the knowledge that has been withheld from her and have her reality validated. Especially empowering is her opportunity in the preparation process to prepare questions for the addict to be addressed in the disclosure.
Unlike spontaneous disclosure, which is unplanned, incomplete, and often harmful to both partners, formal disclosure is a professionally guided process designed to minimize harm on the sex addict and the partner. Formal disclosure is carefully implemented with parameters and guidelines for the partner and the addict.
RISKS OF FORMAL DISCLOSURE
As potentially healing as disclosure can be, it’s not without risks. Most importantly, disclosure is almost always a process that induces great pain for each partner. This is why the process includes preparing a safety or aftercare plan so that each partner can take care of themselves in the days surrounding the disclosure.
For the addict, disclosure can induce significant feelings of shame as all of his secrets are at last exposed. The addict’s pain can be magnified as his partner understandably may recoil, become angry, or be even more deeply hurt.
For the partner, disclosure is invariably traumatizing. The open wound of the initial discovery is reopened (if it ever closed at all) and is exacerbated by the revelation of more secrets, lies, and betrayal.
Finally, the relationship may not recover after disclosure, even though it is performed to facilitate its healing. The partner will likely hear new information and, armed with all of the data and now able to make an informed decision about the relationship, she may choose to end the relationship. This is a very real possibility that the addict must accept.
FORMAL DISCLOSURE: CLEANING THE RELATIONAL WOUND OF SEX ADDICTION
One of the therapists who trained me as I was completing my formal study of sexual addiction likens disclosure to sanitizing a wound: Cleaning out the wound is painful, but it must be done so that the wound can heal properly. Without proper cleaning, the wound will fester and grow worse.
The same is true of sex addiction, of course. The wound needs to be reopened, cleaned, and stitched up so that it can fully heal. Formal disclosure often means that the relationship gets worse in the short term, but its long-term benefits ensure that it has the best chance to not only survive the betrayal but flourish afterward.