Relationship Rescue for Wives and Girlfriends of Internet Pornography Addicts
Barbara Steffens, co-author of Your Sexually Addicted Spouse: How Partners Can Cope and Heal For the past ten years, Barbara Steffens, PhD., LPCC, has specialized in the area of sexual addiction and help for the spouse, providing individual and group counseling at her private practice in Cincinnati, Ohio, speaking at international and national conferences on sexual addiction, and educating her peers on the traumatic effects disclosure of this addiction has on the spouse. A recognized expert in this field, her new book, co-authored with Marsha Means - Your Sexually Addicted Spouse: How Partners Can Cope and Heal – was released nationally on September 1, 2009, by Horizon Press.
PAH: Early pioneers in the sex addiction field often viewed and labeled the partner as a co-addict. This is echoed today in many of the 12-step support programs for partners of sex addicts. What has your research found?
Barbara Steffens: After years of working with female partners of sex addicts, I repeatedly found the “co-addict” label to be inaccurate for the majority of my clients. I believed that the symptoms and behaviors seen in women that are considered to be signs of her “co-addiction” were simply (but painfully) symptoms consistent with exposure to/survival of a traumatic life event. Women would describe the process of finding out
about their husband’s hidden sexual life in highly assaultive or violent language. For example, they might say “it was like being repeatedly stabbed and then I look and its my husband behind me with the knife” or “it was like my house exploded with me in it, and now I have to try to pick up the pieces while I’m bleeding to death.” So I set out to find out if what I was observing and hearing in these women was truly trauma.
In my 2005 research study, I asked partners of sex addicts to complete three instruments that measure trauma symptoms- asking them to answer the questions as they related to their behaviors and emotions following the disclosure of their spouse’s sexual addiction behaviors. I was shocked to find that 69.9% of my study participants met the symptomatic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. I want to be clear: I am not and cannot say they had PTSD but can say their symptoms were the same as those who can be diagnosed as PTSD. (You should not diagnose someone based on one test… and having not met these women, that diagnosis would not be ethical). However, the results did give voice or an understanding of the devastation and potential mental health consequences of finding out about and living with the results of a loved one’s sexual addiction.
Co-addicts are described as those who seek to control the addict…with behaviors that are signs of their own disease. This model holds that the co-addict is addicted to the addict and holds dysfunctional beliefs about themselves and the importance of sex in their lives similar to those of the sex addict. Out of the co-addicts preexisting condition or disease, she is almost “destined” to find and marry someone with sexual addiction. The co-addict then must admit their powerlessness over their partner’s addiction and enter recovery for their co-addiction. Many who hold this view would believe that the co-addict is “just as sick” as a sexual addict and requires on-going support of a 12-step fellowship to remain “sober” or free of their co-addictive behaviors.
A trauma model of understanding and treating the partner is quite different. It responds to the same behaviors and emotional distress, but does not come from a position that the partner has her own “addiction” or disease that contributed to her loving a sex addict. By identifying the partner’s behaviors as typical responses to trauma, the partner is understood as someone who has encountered a threatening and traumatic life event that
results in emotional and behavioral responses common to those who have survived traumatic events. As a trauma survivor, the partner’s “controlling” behaviors are understood as attempts to re-establish safety following experiencing something that was very unsafe or life-threatening. A traumatized person will go to great lengths to attempt to find safety and security again, as do most partners of sex addicts.
So rather than someone who is “just as sick as” a sexual addict, the partner is someone who is responding to the significant traumatic experience of finding out about and living with their loved one’s sexual acting out, betrayal, and deception. They feel as if their lives have been turned upside down and shattered. They believe their very lives are in danger (and that is a realistic fear!) and find themselves in relationship with their worst
enemy. Many partners of sex addicts also experience emotional, financial, physical and sexual abuse within the relationship as the addict’s out of control behaviors impact all areas of their lives. The one they believed they could count on and trust and go to when they were in pain is now the source of their worst pain.
In addition, not all partners of sex addicts are traumatized! They do not all have post traumatic stress. However, in the co-addiction model, all partners have the disorder simply based on their relationship with someone with sexual addiction. To me, that is disrespectful, as it does not take into account individual differences or histories. It makes many assumptions that for many partners are just not true of them.
PAH: In your work, you determined that 70% of the women in your study had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in response to the disclosure of their partner's addiction. What does PTSD feel like?
Barbara Steffens: Most women with trauma symptoms feel as if they are going “crazy”- like they’re on a roller coaster that has no end. Partners of sex addicts report symptoms much like those who have experienced other life-altering or threatening events, such as accidents, assault, disaster, abuse, or even combat. Those with post traumatic stress experience helplessness and horror as an immediate response to the traumatic event. The
resulting symptoms fall into three major categories. First, they have intrusive thoughts/remembrances of the event. This can take the form of flashbacks, recurring dreams, intense reactions to reminders or “triggers” that may symbolize something about the trauma or feeling as if the traumatic event is happening currently.
Second, they attempt to avoid memories or reminders of the traumatic event. They may go out of their way to avoid places or people associated with the trauma, avoid talking about the event, or even forget some details of the event(s). Third, they experience increased arousal. That means they are highly anxious, startle easily, are troubled with nightmares, etc. They are on high alert, hyper vigilant and aware of potential “threats”. They can become highly irritable and have extreme anger. All of these symptoms are in response to the trauma. For a PTSD diagnosis, these symptoms must be in place for a month or more. For some trauma survivors, the symptoms come on later, while for others they start immediately after the disclosure.
PAH: What is often overlooked in the 12-step approach for the partners?
Barbara Steffens: In my opinion, most 12-step groups or programs miss the trauma. They acknowledge the pain and devastation of the disclosure or discovery of sexual addiction, but jump immediately to identifying the behaviors and emotions of the partner as signs of her own “disease”- addiction to the addict and codependency- rather than those symptoms that are typical in those who have had horrible things happen to them. While 12-step groups will say “you didn’t cause it, you can’t cure it”, there is also the double message that somehow due to your own dysfunction, there is something you did or something about you that lead to being with someone who would betray you. Women feel confused. They say, “If I didn’t cause it and can’t cure it, then why am I told I am sick just because I am in relationship with an addict? I didn’t know he was!” This then leads to the partner looking for those areas in their lives that “set them up” to being betrayed. Calling the partner of a sex addict a “co-addict” is not unlike blaming a rape victim for her assault or a battered woman for her beating. It is blaming the victim, rather than looking for ways to support someone who has experienced the unthinkable.
Another area that I think the 12-step model misses is the issue of empowerment. The first step in recovery is to admit powerlessness….they cannot control the addict. And this is absolutely true! However, they are not powerless to act on their own behalf to protect themselves or to have a say in their environment. Trauma survivors need to exercise choice to help to regain a sense of safety to fight the helplessness and fear. Stability for the trauma survivor involves making decisions, taking action, and finding some level of safety again. The 12-step model does not address this need, especially not in early recovery when it is needed the most.
PAH: Why do you believe it is important for a women to see her reactions as stemming from trauma versus co-addiction?
Barbara Steffens: As I’ve stated earlier, the trauma model of treatment seeks to understand and treat her symptoms as predictable responses to a painful and threatening life event. It is something that happened- and then something from which she can recover and heal. A trauma perspective validates the extreme devastation experienced by most partners of sex addicts. A trauma model makes sense of the kinds of debilitating symptoms that partners experience and opens up appropriate treatment options for these symptoms. Unfortunately, many women have not sought treatment or help due to the label of “co-addict,” feeling blamed for their situation. I hope that by recognizing the effects of trauma, these women will be more open to seeking out the support and help they need and deserve. Untreated trauma can lead to increased vulnerability to other mental health problems including addiction and depression.
PAH: In your book, you ask the reader to self-evaluate: "Ask yourself: Is your motivation to boost your power over others or it is to seek the safety you need in an unsafe situation to prevent further trauma and pain?" What signs would there be if a woman were to seek control more than safety in her relationship?
Barbara Steffens: Following a traumatic event, it is common for the survivor to engage in behaviors that are almost compulsive- these behaviors take a variety of forms but the goal or purpose of the behavior is to attempt to protect or prevent further injury. For example, if the trauma was a house fire, the survivor may compulsively check smoke alarms to make certain they are working, or become very vigilant about finding escape routes when in a new building. These are understandable. For a partner of a sex addict, these compulsive behaviors can include things like checking the computer for porn, or checking a wallet, or calling/texting to make sure her husband is where he says he is! If the trauma was betrayal, deceit and infidelity, these behaviors make perfect sense as well. However, they are often interpreted as trying to “control the addict” when in fact they are driven by fear of further harm or being ‘blindsided again.” They are attempts to control a dangerous environment to prevent or foresee danger.
Controlling or codependent-like behaviors are more about feeling needed or important, rather than finding safety. I am behaving in a codependent way when I seek to control others so that my self-esteem or sense of value is enhanced. The drive is about building me up or to prove my value as a person, even when it looks like it is about controlling or helping someone else.
Safety-seeking behaviors are about trying (unfortunately often in less-than-rational ways) to prevent future harm. The partner may falsely believe that if they keep checking, they’ll find evidence and not be fooled again. Or they will check to validate their “gut” feelings that something is wrong, searching for evidence. Most partners had some sense that something was wrong prior to disclosure but were unable to have their intuition
or beliefs validated…they continued to receive lies or cover-ups.
I ask partners to explore the “why” of the checking or “controlling”- I ask them “What are you hoping to achieve? Will it really bring safety? Do you already have enough “evidence”? What other ways can you increase your sense of safety, since it is likely this behavior won’t and really can’t prevent anything. Rather than blame her for controlling, I’ll work with her to identify things she can do that actually might help protect her or
shield her from further trauma.
PAH: In order to heal faster, a woman must believe she holds power over her own safety and destiny and must be able to act on that belief. Please explain.
Barbara Steffens: Empowerment is the ability to act of your own behalf. It is an essential component of emotional health and safety. The opposite of empowerment is helplessness, and this can lead to a sense of hopelessness. Helplessness and hopelessness do not promote healing- they promote depression, or bitterness and resentment. This situation can occur when the partner experiences continued injury or trauma within the
relationship. Just as a wound cannot heal when it is continually re-injured, a person’s heart and mind cannot heal when trauma and betrayal continue in the relationship. It is a form of chronic emotional abuse when an addict’s acting out continues or when deceit and betrayal remains. A partner of a sex addict who can make decisions and take action to protect herself from further injury can then allow her heart and mind to calm
down enough to begin to heal. When we can act on our need to make decisions and effect the direction of our lives, it helps us feel empowered rather than as a victim. A victim is someone whose life is under the control of others while the empowered person is a participant in life. It says I am responsible for my life and my choices and how I respond to life’s difficulties. Many partners need a strong support system or counselor to help them move from helplessness to a place of empowerment.
PAH: Why is it important for a woman to create personal boundaries between herself and her crisis with her addicted partner? How can she create personal boundaries?
Barbara Steffens: This is not an easy question to answer in a brief response. There are entire books on the topic. I’ll give it a go! Think of boundaries as fences – they help identify what is within my area of responsibility to care for and helps define those things that are outside of my ability or responsibility to control. My boundaries or personal fences also help to protect me by keeping out danger. I am in control of setting up these fences or boundaries. So in the situation of sexual addiction, I know that the addict is relatively “unsafe” until he is in some consistent recovery. I can then set up some boundaries to help protect myself. My boundaries can include things like if I want to engage in sexual activity, how much or how little touch I am comfortable with, or if I am comfortable with my husband using the computer when I am not home. These are not attempts to control someone else, but boundaries around what I will allow within my area of responsibility or areas where I am feeling unsafe or in danger. I have the right and responsibility to determine what and who I allow into my world and under what circumstances. The ability to identify and establish healthy personal boundaries is one of the most important things a partner of a sex addict can do to help re-gain a sense of emotional and physical safety to allow her to begin to heal. This area is so important! As a clinician, I spend more time with my clients on this task or skill than just about anything else we work on in therapy.
PAH: What is detachment and how can it help a woman cope while her partner works on his addiction?
Barbara Steffens: Detachment is the process of putting an emotional boundary or bubble in place between yourself and your addicted love one for the purpose of self-protection. When you are able to detach, you can go from being a person in the midst of the turmoil that surrounds an addict to the position of an interested observer.
I use the analogy of a tornado to describe this need for detachment. If there is a tornado in the area, I do not want to go toward it, but rather watch it and its path to see where it is going and what damage it is doing. I am watching from a distance. I want to stay out of its path and away from its damage. I can avoid much of its wake if I can watch from far enough away and then take steps to go to a place of safety.
Someone in active addiction or even in early recovery is kind of like a tornado. There is a lot of twisting and damage and unpredictability in the addict’s behavior. As you emotionally detach, you can step away and refuse to participate in the damage. You can watch with interest and compassion, but not engage in the addictive spiral of emotional upheaval. As you watch from a detached perspective, you can more easily observe signs of change, or danger because you are in a more objective position. It is a much more comfortable position and one that can promote increased sense of calm as you watch and wait to see where the sex addict is headed in their recovery.
PAH: How long does it generally take a sex addict's partner to heal?
Barbara Steffens: I think this is the question I hear most often! I wish I could give you a date or number of years…
Healing is dependent on many variables. It also depends on what you mean by the word heal. I don’t believe healing always means that there are no longer any signs of the wound, but that the wound is healed sufficiently so that we can live life as fully as possible. Healing doesn’t bring about forgetfulness or total lack of pain when remembering. All life events, including this trauma, must be incorporated into the whole of who I am. It becomes part of my story.
We know that there are three main things a trauma survivor needs. First- she needs support. Isolation inhibits healing and may contribute to worsening symptoms. So the more healthy support she receives, the better. This is difficult for many due to the feelings of shame associated with sex addiction and betrayal. Safe people, friends, support groups, and a good counselor who understands trauma can be great sources of support.
Second, she needs to re-establish safety. This means looking to places that can provide safety- not her husband. This one is difficult because our first instinct is to go to the person closest to us to help us feel safe. But this person is not safe and won’t be for a long time in their own recovery. The partner then must find other ways of providing safety for herself- through her own actions, boundaries, and in other safe places. For the
majority of my clients, faith in God is their safe relationship and place.
Thirdly, the trauma survivor needs time. It takes time to heal and to incorporate this trauma into the whole of a person’s life. Eventually over time, a survivor can even find meaning or growth out of the worst of traumas. Time doesn’t erase it, but it does provide the opportunity to have some positive life experiences that can counter the negative ones. I think of it like the healing that occurs after an accident or surgery. We recover, find meaning, and even grow stronger, but a scar usually remains.
Thanks for allowing me the opportunity to share with you the things I have learned from the true experts on this difficult issue- all of the wonderful, strong, resilient and courageous women I have had the privilege of knowing and working with over the years.
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