Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Partners of individuals struggling with sexual compulsivity

As a new blog, it is important to recognize a gift when something occurs. Today, I received such a gift via a phone call from a woman who is the partner of a person with sexual compulsivity. (The gift is that her struggle became today’s topic. As a resource, my goal is to respond to particular needs. Feel free to suggest topics and review the list of upcoming topics.) “Jill” (not her real name) is struggling with a partner in denial about his behavior. She is frustrated, angry and confused about what to do. In our conversation, my assessment is that she came across as assertive in her search for information on how she can cope with his behavior. To a degree, she knows what she wants and needs to do. Her goal is find information in her journey to facilitate the process and avoid obstacles. Unfortunately, she couldn’t find much information.

After completing a search, I agree with Jill that there is very little information. A few books exist, but not much is written about it from a scholarly point of view. One author that I found (Tripodi) affirms that little information exists. Tripodi’s experience is a good place to start understanding the experience of the individual whose partner is caught in the compulsive cycle. I summarize her findings here.

Tripodi highlights that it is typical to experience feelings of despair, hopelessness, confusion anger and sadness. The powerlessness that comes with not knowing what to do and how to get your partner to stop the behaviors is to be expected. Various forms of denial may occur. These forms may be blaming yourself, turning the other cheek, buying into the partner’s commitment to change by “giving him one more chance.” Eventually, the denial strategies fail, and the individual is faced with responding to the partner’s behavior. In some cases, the individual isn’t in denial; rather, he or she simply doesn’t know until some type of disclosure occurs by the partner that there is a pattern of compulsive behavior. I do disagree with Tripodi’s statement that the underlying theme in “all cases” (yes, her word, page 5) is the lack of a developed self leads to the individual undermining and second guessing themselves. In my opinion, this is the same as blaming the rape victim for being raped. In many, if not most cases, this theme might be present; in other cases it is absent particularly when the individual is unaware of the compulsive behavior and disclosure occurs unexpectedly. One such example is when the individual received a positive result for an HIV/STD test which requires a follow-up with the partner who then discloses a history and pattern of compulsive behavior.

While much of the blog will focus on treatment for the individual with sexual compulsivity, this entry is to address treatment issues for the partner. The following issues need to be addressed in your support network. Many times, they will need to be addressed more than once as future disclosures occur or choices made in response to the behaviors. I like Tripodi’s paradigm of early, middle and final phases of treatment. They parallel the stages of treatment that I use. I provide a summary of the issues to be addressed in treatment for the spouse.
  1. Need for support. This can be through professional help, peer network (groups), family and spiritual. Feelings of shock, confusion, anger, hurt, sadness, depression and grief are but a few of the emotions that an individual will face.
  2. Need for information. The phone call from Jill reflects this need. She was seeking information on where to get support, who and what she needs to do to take care of herself, etc. What she and later I discovered, is there isn’t a lot of information available. Increasing familiarity with the language is also part of this goal. Those in the 12-step movement and therapists often use a jargon for short hand communication. Learning what these terms mean is important.
  3. Medical Health. When a partner has multiple sexual contacts, the individual is at increased risk for HIV/STIs. Tripodi recommends that the individual seek medical attention to assess any possible problems. It is my recommendation that you be completely open and honest about the purpose of the visit with your health care provider. Some providers will assume that since you are in a relationship, you’re not at risk. You will need to be explicit and say “I found out my partner has multiple sex partners and I’m worried about being infected with a sexually transmitted illness (STI).”
  4. Safety for Family. Sexual compulsivity is not the same as pedophilia. However, as Tripodi states, family members may have access to pornography. Setting boundaries to maintain safety of others is important.
  5. Triage. Identify what needs to be done today, and what can be done in one month, three months, or 1 year. Unfortunately, no guidelines are availabe. Tripodi identified how individuals may be pressured to leave the relationship. If possible, I recommend that you wait a period of time (the length of which, you decide) where you focus on the immediate concerns. This suggestion, however, is mute if your safety is at immediate risk.
  6. Focus on the self. As you move away from crisis/shock, it is important to stay focused on your emotional and physical health. As you cope with the partner’s compulsive behavior, you need to identify what you need to do for your self-care. This includes addressing the shadow aspects of your personality. It also includes clarifying what you need and want in a relationship and an honest assessment of where the current relationship is going. Some relationships can be saved, some should end. This is a chance for you to clarify your boundaries and develop the skills to enforce those boundaries.
  7. Life Purpose. Near the end of the treatment, it is important for you to step back and review where/how/what you want in life. This may mean developing the skills for new employment, coping with divorce, or reestablishing intimacy with your partner. Each goal will require different interventions.

The seven areas are great places to start. I’ve included additional references below to also help you in your journey. Good luck to Jill and to others in a similar spot.


Academic Resources:

Tripodi, C. (2006) Long Term Treatment of Partners of Sex Addicts: A Multi-Phase Approach. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 13, 269-288.

Book Resources:

Schneider, J. (2005) Back From Betrayal, Third Edition, Chapin

Mellody, P., Wells-Miller, A., Miller, J. Keith (2003) Facing Co Dependency. HarperOne

Mellody, P., Wells-Miller, A., Miller, J. Keith (2003) Facing Love Addiction. HarperOne

Web Resources

Sex Addicts Recovery Resources

Support Groups

Co-Sex Addicts Anonymous (COSA)

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