Asking a sex addict to take a polygraph seemed ludicrous to me at first. First off, it seems like something you do with a criminal, not with a patient who has come in for help with a sexually compulsive behavior.
It is certainly true that addicts are world class liars. In fact, as I have argued in previous posts, they often seem sociopathic in their dishonesty and lack of accountability to anyone. But in treatment we are trying to help addicts learn to be honest. We want to promote honesty as a value, not coerce them into it with police tactics.
I recently presided over a formal disclosure with an addict and his wife along with her therapist. The addict disclosed “everything” about his history of leading a double life including extensive use of prostitutes, strip clubs, sexual massage parlors and pornography.
Later in a group therapy session he was discussing the fact that his wife still felt he was keeping secrets. I said that sometimes therapists recommend a polygraph test and he quickly said he was unwilling to consider that. He added that he would be afraid to take a polygraph because there were things he hadn’t told his wife. It turned out that these were not minor details either. In this case the mere mention of a polygraph was enough to get the addict to come clean with the group, the therapist and ultimately his wife.
So what would be the rational for considering or discussing the use of polygraphs with sex addicts or couples?
For the sake of the addict
For sex addiction recovery honesty is not a luxury; it is a necessity. Obviously addicts cannot address their problems in treatment if the nature or extent of those problems is hidden. The goal of sex addiction treatment is not just abstaining from a compulsive behavior pattern. It also involves breaking down the compartmentalization of the addict’s life: the normal life vs. the secret sexual acting out life. The new and healthier way of living is one in which the two parts of the addict are integrated. When an addict becomes integrated he or she can then behave with integrity, and can integrate sex into life in a more normal way.
Honesty is also essential as a way to combat the shame that many addicts feel about their acting out behavior. Shame thrives on secrecy and when the addict comes clean he/she can begin to deal with the problem with much less of the judgmental baggage.
While I would never suggest that therapists give their addict clients lie detector tests as part of treatment, it is certainly true as in the example above, that discussing the use of polygraph tests can itself jolt the addict into the admission that he or she is not being fully honest with anyone.
Part of what happens when sex addicts have been living a lie is that they get used to trying to control everything, particularly how they are seen by others. Forcing them to admit what they are hiding can help them let go of this “impression management”. If they can be induced by whatever means to admit their secrets they have a chance to see that someone– a therapist, a group, or a fellowship — accepts them as they are and that they are human. This then opens the door to their making a commitment to rigorous honesty going forward.
For the good of the spouse or partner
Disclosure of a sex addiction is always staggered. Addicts reveal only what they think they have to and are focused on damage control. Sometimes they rationalize this by saying that they don’t want to hurt their partner any more than they already have. Sometimes they are aware that they just don’t want the additional fallout. But the continuing discovery of more secrets is part of what makes it so hard on the partner or spouse. It is sometimes referred to as “trickle truth”.
Initially partners feel that they will never be able to trust the addict again. Ultimately, with recovery they can and do. But many partners experience haunting doubts both at the beginning of recovery after all has supposedly been disclosed and ongoing into the attempt to reconcile. They feel like “when will the next shoe drop?”
The willingness of the addict to take a polygraph may actually help the spouse or partner to feel that they can let go of trying to second guess everything the addict says. It is realistically hard for spouses to deal with the uncertainty about whether to trust the addict and they can get stuck in a pattern of trying to investigate and verify everything the addict does or says. Unless the addict is an out-and-out psychopath, he or she will probably not be able to fool a polygraph.
When is it inappropriate to talk about polygraphs?
In the beginning most addicts doe not recognize or even remember the full extent of their sexually addictive behavior. As they put the pieces together and connect the dots about themselves they see more and remember more. This is inherent in the process of treatment and will not be helped in any way by lie detector tests.
Later in therapy or treatment, the addict will have been working a recovery program. At that point polygraphs have not point as the addict will have embraced honesty as the guiding principle. If they have not done so then they are faking it, and until they admit this they will not be amenable to getting help.