When I moved into private practice I met a bright and delightful woman who had just discovered her husband’s secret history of sexually compulsive behavior. She learned about it in a devastating way, finding an open computer and seeing ongoing correspondence with a prostitute. A bomb had gone off in the center of her universe and she sought psychotherapy to work through the impact and implication of this discovery. She was engaged, motivated, wounded, and deeply in love with her husband.
The sudden rupture in her attachment relationship triggered post-traumatic stress symptoms for my client. She was anxious and fearful, and felt chronically on alert. Her beliefs about safety and trust were shattered. Ironically, despite describing her friends and family as generally loving and supportive, she did not find their reactions at all helpful. In fact, others’ insistence that she should leave her husband immediately only contributed to her distress. She understood intellectually that members of her support system meant to be helpful; however, she felt further isolated when she reached out to them.
We discussed that, although some helping approaches view partners of sex addicts as “co-addicts” or “codependent”, conceptualizing these individuals as survivors of an acute relational trauma would address the core issue more effectively. When trauma hits any of us, we look for ways to feel safe and grounded in the chaos. Often these strategies are automatic because in trauma we can lose the ability to choose action purposefully. Therefore, recognizing a person’s tendency to look through her partner’s phone as an instinctive safety seeking behavior is imperative. Once therapists help clients understand how certain reactions become automatic, clients can be helped to work in therapy to reconnect with the ability to choose action and to act deliberately. Using a trauma-informed lens to support these partners seemed more appropriate and certainly more empathic.
The shift in approach was extremely helpful to my client as she worked through her trauma, and yet she needed more: she still felt very alone. Her need for understanding led me to begin a support group for partners of sex addicts. I run these trauma-informed support groups to offer individuals a safe place to learn, struggle and help one another in a collaborative and non-judgmental way. Group can be a terrific adjunct to individual therapy for just this reason – individuals in a similar struggle can feel less alone, and can receive support from and provide support to one another. It’s invaluable.
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