Recovery from Problematic Sexual Behaviors
What does real recovery and healing look like after sexual betrayal?
Posted Feb 11, 2019
In my years of treating both individuals and couples dealing with out-of-control sexual behaviors, it's worth noting that there's a significant difference in terms of healing and recovery for betrayed spouses when the offender takes ownership of his or her behaviors.
Some clients feel they've done so by apologizing profusely and promising never to engage in the sexual behaviors ever again. While this is definitely needed, it's often misplaced and comes prior to truly acknowledging how one has impacted the spouse.
With this level of betrayal, the sexual betrayer often has a faster timeline towards recovery than what's truly expected as research indicates it can take up to three years before some semblance of trust is restored. Comments such as, "I already said I was sorry," "Why can't you get past this?" "Why is my partner still getting angry?" and "How come my spouse is getting triggered (cell phone texts, emails, places, dates, etc.) and is still suspicious of me?"
Adding to the complication is the deep level of shame that the offender may have, often focusing on the recovery about how "bad" he or she is without examining what led to their behaviors in the first place.
Words that indicate the sexual betrayer has not owned up to their actions are easy to detect. They will refer to their misbehaviors as "accidents," "a bad decision," or "something I regret," but struggle with actually naming them by the more accurate terms: adultery, infidelity, or compulsive sexual behavior.
It will also be hard for them to acknowledge their impact of having broken vows, betrayed you, as well as openly sharing how they lied, deceived, or justified their behaviors. Emotionally, the sexual betrayer will minimize their behaviors, act defensively towards you, and make you feel as if you're being unreasonable for not "forgiving them."
In addition, most partners "discover" these sexual lies and betrayals through their own intuition and suspicion. Very rarely do the betrayers offer up this information. Nevertheless, for true recovery and trust to be built, betrayers need to "disclose" what occurred to their partners (therapists suggest doing in a structured format called "therapeutic disclosure") for everything that occurred within the duration of their relationship. If not, what can occur is known as a "dribble disclosure" where the betrayer will share a little bit of information at a time when he or she feels it is emotionally safe or when caught in more lies. Some may rationalize that they "don't want to hurt their partners" by sharing about their past, but make no mistake that if you're the betrayed partner, you deserve to know the truth upfront otherwise you will always wonder if there was more to what had occurred (there usually is).
On the other hand, a tell-tale sign that you are on the road to recovery is when the betrayer begins to share how he or she justified and rationalized their behaviors. If they continue to use the word "mistake," you may need a strong therapist to challenge his cognitive distortions. While it may have been a mistake, a truly repentant individual would also acknowledge how their brain gave them permission to make that mistake (e.g. "I justified having sex with multiple people because I felt you didn't love me"). Being able to share their mental distortions is not a sign of excusing the behavior but an acknowledgment that the betrayer understands how he allowed it in the first place. If the betrayer has no idea or is unwilling to confront their thoughts, then how is this person ever able to stop these behaviors moving forward?
On a final note, betrayers not only acknowledge that their behaviors must change in the future but also accept their reality that they must live and act in a much different manner. This means recognizing all forms of sexual "acting out" need to stop which includes not only the obvious, such as pornography, but even behaviors that may appear benign such as complimenting someone attractive, connecting to certain people via social media, and emotionally confiding in someone outside of their partner.
If and when this begins to happen, trust can develop with the possibility where healing, commitment, and fidelity can one day be restored.