For many sex addicts and partners the initial disclosure and crisis is followed if not by a rupture then by an uneasy peace. And that peace is often characterized by alienation and doubt and punctuated with flare ups and mistrust.
As I have posted about previously, the partner or spouse of a sex addict experiences symptoms of PTSD in the aftermath of sexual betrayal. The recovery curve of the partner is thought to be longer than that of the addict. Clinicians have a rule of thumb that partners cannot begin to trust again for about a year, but their recovery can stretch out longer.
Addicts may begin to feel great relief and improvement in a much shorter time. The recovering addict may find him or herself in the awkward position of feeling good about life but unable to feel OK in the eyes of their spouse. The addict may be committed to being trustworthy and honest, caring and loyal, and yet still be called upon to prove him or herself and make amends for the past. The addict may have left the past behind but for the partner the past still colors how they see the recovering addict.
The Dog House phenomenon
The partner or spouse of the addict is not putting the addict in the dog house. They are just trying to protect themselves in appropriate ways. But in practical terms, the addict often relates to the process of rebuilding of trust as one in which they have to do whatever it takes to win back their partner.
For example, many couples handle the need for safety and accountability in part by giving the partner access to the addict’s browsing history, email, phone, texts etc. And often the addict will try to set aside their own needs and feelings in order to provide what the partner needs to help them heal.
In other words it’s not enough for addicts to just be honest and active in their recovery. They actually have to demonstrate their new found ability to be unselfish and responsive in order to counteract the previous pattern of being self centered and manipulative. Being in the dog house, or undergoing a period of being on trial in this way serves a purpose. It is a way of saying “I’m sorry and I really get it”. And sometimes it works in just that way. The relationship is rebuilt on a different footing; one that is more equal and more intimate.
Hiding in the dog house vs. emotional maturity
There is a central paradox for the addict who genuinely wants to get it right. The difficulty can arise because of the fact that many sex addicts lack emotional maturity and have never learned to be present and authentic in an intimate relationship.
Addicts in general feel a sense of inadequacy which they often cover with a façade. They have a long standing habit of never showing up as themselves. Often they are the kinds of people who do what is required of them without feeling that their heart is in it. This inability to be genuine leaves them feeling resentful which in turn can be a rationale for leading a separate life, a life of self-indulgent acting out behavior.
So while the addict in recovery may be laser focused on winning his partner’s trust, one of the main recovery tasks before him is to learn how to speak his own truth and be open with his own needs. Unless the addict can stick up for himself in a calm and serious way, unless he can learn healthy ways to get his needs met, he will not be able to be genuinely responsive to the needs of someone else; he will be faking it.
Since the addict may already be afraid of emotional openness, the prospect of angering his partner will be truly daunting, making him even more likely to try to be over-compliant even if it is not really what he feels.
The way out of the dog house
As the couple proceed on the long journey to intimacy it may be increasingly obvious when the addict is using placating as a form of avoidance. The partner may like the fact that the addict is more agreeable and accountable, but they may also notice that as a couple they are not really getting as emotionally close as the partner would like.
Meanwhile, the dog house behavior will begin to get old for the addict. Unless the addict has been working on taking emotional risks, speaking his truth, and asking for what he needs, he will begin to show signs of wear and tear. The over-compliance will get old and the addict may feel like withdrawing and finding passive aggressive ways to get his needs met. He may even be tempted to go back to acting out as an escape.
The way out is paradoxical. At some point the addict needs to try out some new and more assertive behavior. The paradox is that the more genuine the addict can be about his needs and feelings, the more the partner will be reassured! After all it is the deceptiveness of not being genuine and honest that caused the problems in the first place.
This may not always be smooth sailing. The addict may say something that is at odds with what the partner wants to hear. And if the partner gets angry this may send the addict in to fight-or-flight mode. But the more both partners are aware of the necessity of developing the addict’s ability to relate in emotionally mature ways the better it will be.