SEX ADDICTION RECOVERY FOR COUPLES.
From Isolation to Intimacy
A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart - King Solomon, 350 BCE
If you are here you are most likely at one of the most intense and painful crossroads in your life. To make it through this difficult journey you will need expert guides and a plan that addresses all 3 aspects of this path: your recovery, the couples recovery and the betrayed partner’s recovery.
They are different strands that must weave together if you are to have a chance at a full reconciliation of your relationship. I have partnered with two other therapists because we have seen over and over the damage done when the strands of treatment are not integrated.
Marriages have literally been lost because of contradictory recommendations, confusion and lack of competency. We are all experts at what we do and together we want to offer you the best opportunity to make it to wholeness and reconciliation, if in the end that’s what you should choose.
The team consists of:
Alex Lerza, MFT, CSAT - for the addict
Muna Haddad Farhat, MFT, CSAT - for the betrayed partner
Harry Motro, PsyD, MFT - couple work
THE COUPLES PORTION OF INTEGRATED SEX ADDICTION TREATMENT
I work with well-trained individual therapists to offer the couples portion of an integrated couples treatment approach. Through an intensive program of therapy, primarily based on the work of Patrick Carnes, PhD, a leading expert on sex addiction, the following treatment steps take place in couples therapy:
Crisis Management: create safety
Honesty: break free from secrets
Insight: understand the “why” of the addiction
Empathy: process the impact of betrayed partner’s feelings
Restitution: create a long term recovery and couples plan
Decision: recommit to the marriage and the recovery
Rebirth: experience a new relationship
1. CRISIS MANAGEMENT:
The fallout from sex addiction is different than a one-time affair. The betrayed partner often bears the brunt of the initial trauma and will experience traumatic symptoms such as intrusive thoughts, hyper-vigilance, an inability to sleep and other emotional discomfort. The couple usually is engulfed in overwhelming emotions of betrayal, shame and loss.
Our first step in couples therapy is to manage the current crisis. Our work starts immediately with a step-by-step process to build some stability in the midst of chaos.
The crisis management steps include:
Communication: Introducing an approach to basic communication where each person can be heard without interruption.
Trauma: Learning couples coping skills for trauma, anger and anxiety (including PTSD-like symptoms such as flashbacks). Different coping skills: deep breathing, mindfulness, tapping, grounding using our senses, healthy physical and emotional outlets and others.
Narrative: Reframe the narrative for the betrayed partner: "This is not about you!"; “You did not cause it, you cannot control it, and you cannot cure it.”
Breaks: Learn how to negotiate “time-outs” or “space” when needed. Set time limits on discussions.
Boundaries for the Couple: Negotiating clear boundaries for physical touch, money, living arrangements and information sharing.
Transparency: Installing transparency around communication and actions.
Boundaries with 3rd Parties: Assessing whether the acting-out behaviors have stopped, and if not, what steps must be taken to begin our couple work. Plan steps to take if unexpected or uninvited contact.
Safety: Reviewing safety from multiple perspectives, including health, work ramifications, and domestic violence.
2 . HONESTY - SHARING “WHAT” HAPPENED:
A full therapeutic disclosure (FTD) process will be planned out so the couple can set a new foundation of honesty. A comprehensive description of the acting out behaviors will be shared. The FTD should be built on an understanding of the vulnerability of the betrayed partner so wise decisions can be made about what should and should not be shared.
The FTD will usually be prepared in conjunction with individual therapy by the acting out partner and then shared in couples therapy. Being able to have a productive conversation about WHAT happened can allow the couple to face the reality of their situation. Only after taking this step can they begin to have the confidence to ask the hard questions of WHY they are struggling with the current crisis.
3. INSIGHT - FIGURING OUT “WHY” IT HAPPENED:
Once the FTD step is complete, the couple will begin the deep work to understand the reasons WHY the acting-out partner chose the harmful behaviors in the first place. These are first uncovered in individual therapy by the acting-out partner but then processed as a couple in couples therapy.
The non-acting out partner usually comes to understand that acting-out behaviors were not designed to intentionally hurt the other partner; rather, the acting-out behavior is a sign of emptiness, deep pain, and the need for a numbing mechanism. Understanding the underlying cause and healing it, will ultimately take the power out of the addiction.
4. EMPATHY - PROCESSING THE TRAUMA
Both partners must understand how trauma may be impacting both partners. In couples therapy, we will learn how to create a safe place for pain to be expressed without blame and attack.
An Impact Letter will be prepared which captures the depth of the pain experienced by the betrayed partner. We will learn how to comfort the pain so that discussing the betrayal will become a bonding opportunity. Every session, we will have opportunities to practice empathy in the safety of the therapy setting.
5. COUPLE RECOVERY PLAN - RESTITUTION:
The couple will build a plan together to assure that the behavior will not occur again. The couple’s plan has two parts:
Own It: The acting out partner will be specific about actions that caused pain, without minimizing. Full responsibility is taken for all behaviors. The word “but” is eliminated.
This is also an opportunity for the acting-out partner to fully and deeply express understanding and empathy for the depth of the betrayal trauma.
Restitution: The acting out partner sets forth concrete steps to address his or her coping mechanism. It will also include an understanding how intimacy has been blocked in the acting-out partner’s life and new ways of providing healthy connection. The couple’s plan ultimately represents a combination of the offending partner’s recovery plan plus any changes the couple needs to make given all that they have learned. All of this work will be captured in a Restitution Letter. The acting-out partner’s commitment to the plan can represent restitution for the deep wounds inflicted prior to recovery.
6. DECISION: RECOMMIT TO THE RELATIONSHIP AND THE RECOVERY
One of the biggest triggers for a men in this recovery is hearing their partners say “We never had a real marriage. Our marriage is dead.” Moreover, even after all the recovery work and restitution work the betrayed partner may struggle to fully commit to this new marriage.
This is an incredibly vulnerable moment for the both of you. On the addicts side, it can be vulnerable to feel in a one down position for a long period and to imagine the rest of your life and relationship being that way. On the betrayed partner’s side, she never wants to feel betrayed again and can’t imagine going through the experience again.
By working through the earlier stages of recovery, the couple will get to a fork in the road where they can make a conscious choice to lead a different life based on a different foundation.
A decision to recommit is a real crucible for the relationship. Both partners will probably go back and forth in this decision process for some time before you feel settled and ready for your second marriage to be born.
7. REBIRTH OF THE COUPLE:
A rebirth of the relationship means an active striving towards forgiveness and reconciliation has occurred. Reconciliation is the agreement that a new relationship is now being formed built on honesty and trust to achieve a relationship with healthy emotional, spiritual and physical intimacy. Forgiveness means not holding past hurts against the other and understanding that past history is not forgotten; however, an active choice to move through the hard moments together because there is enough trust rebuilt.
When and if a couple has recommitted to the relationship, foundational couples therapy will begin. This work allows the couple to focus on intimacy (first emotional and when and if ready sexual) in their relationship. The restoration of intimacy in the couple’s relationship can be a critical part in the addict’s healing journey.
With dedication to this process and an experienced therapy support team, the cycle of sexual addiction can be broken and a journey of healing for the couple can gradually take place.
If you are reading this at the beginning of the journey and you are in crisis this may seem completely miraculous and unbelievable. That’s ok. Just trust us that these sorts of miracles are possible and made ever more possible if you follow the above stages with all of your heart, mind, soul and strength.
One of the first steps for the acting out partner is to start figuring out if you may have an addiction. This can be scary!
In spite of your curiosity, you may be afraid to learn more about yourself. Talking to anyone requires trust that you may not have at this time.
One way to start learning about yourself is to take the Sexual Addiction Screening Test (SAST) which is designed to assist in the assessment of sexually compulsive behavior which may indicate the presence of sex addiction.
12 STEP GROUPS:
Lastly, many couples find 12 step groups to be very informative and helpful in terms of community support:
SA 12 steps - https://www.sa.org/twelve/
SAA 12 steps - https://saa-recovery.org/our-program/the-twelve-steps/
Difference between support groups - https://www.billherring.com/comparing-sex-addiction-12-step-meetings
S-Anon - https://sanon.org/
A NEW WAY OF UNDERSTANDING ADDICTION:
Johann Hari's TED talk provides a helpful way to think about what causes addiction.
When couples deal with Sex Addiction, the acting-out partner may be behaving in ways that reflect trauma experienced earlier in life. The betrayed partner may have experienced the partner's acting out itself as trauma. Understanding how trauma impact one's ability to relate to each other is critical to having a safe place to heal.
Our work in couples therapy is rooted in the following fundamentals:
We have the capacity to heal each other that is equal to our capacity to destroy.
Language give us the power to change.
We can regulate our own physiology [without drugs] through breathing, moving, touching.
We can change how we respond to each other to help our love one's feel safe and thrive.
A helpful book to understand trauma is Bessel Van der Kolk's book, The Body Keeps the Score.
Discussions of porn are very common with couples. will not tell you whether to watch porn or not but I often discuss if and how it is impacting you as a couple.
These videos are good conversation starters:
SAME SEX ATTRACTION:
When one partner in a heterosexual relationship is experiencing same sex attraction, it can cause confusion and a major disruption of trust.
I work to support the couple in processing this experience and restore their relationship. You can start learning more about this situation by reading this article by Joe Kort.