Although full disclosure to a partner or spouse is considered essential to recovery, telling your parents, your grown up children, your relatives or your in-laws that you are a sex addict can be a good idea or a very bad idea depending on a number of factors. Of the scores of sex addicts I have treated, each one has had a unique situation in confronting the fallout from this question. There are a myriad of possible scenarios but I will attempt a look at some of the key variables involved in this decision.
Age: the parents of young addicts
With both teenage addicts as well as older adult addicts, the involvement of parents in the addict’s treatment and recovery can be both good and bad.
For young people and teens who are addicts their parents can play an incredibly supportive role. This is particularly true if, as often happens, the young addict goes to their parents for help. A young porn user may find that he or she has become compulsive in the use of porn or has strayed into disturbing or illegal kinds of online viewing behavior. If parents can respond in a level headed way, they will be able to learn about the problem, reassure the addict, and use their financial resources to get help, including residential treatment if necessary. This is something that the teen could seldom accomplish without them.
The danger is that sometimes parents of a young addict can be too involved. They may have a history of seeing that particular kid as a “problem” and may have been too quick to send him or her to therapy in the past. A parent’s enmeshment with a particular child may have been part of the problem that lead to the addictive behavior in the first place. And the parent may end up in a codependent position, one in which they are over-involved and ultimately hinder recovery by inadvertently keeping the addict in the “patient” role.
Age: older parents of adult addicts
Parents of grown up addicts can potentially play a helpful role. This is particularly true if they have some understanding and sophistication about the issues involved in addiction and even more so if they have done some self-exploration and personal growth in their own lives. Parents, as well as adult siblings can be a gold mine of information about the addict’s early life, including sharing memories and clarifying events the addict may have forgotten or failed to understand at the time. This in turn can help the addict connect the dots about their history and their problems.
Telling your parents about sex addiction recovery is tricky though. Some parents and siblings have a rigid or distorted view of the family and the addict’s role the family system. This family pathology can be part of the problem, as when everyone is in denial about someone’s (or everyone’s) problems. Parents may also have been negligent or damaging in the addict’s early life in ways they cannot see. In this case, telling one’s parents how great it is to be recovering from sex addiction may be something they take personally or don’t want to hear. This can lead to all kinds of reactions including distancing, moralizing or turning a deaf ear. In general therapists encourage recovering sex addicts to wait and take their time in sorting this all out.
Telling adult children
As with dropping this bomb on parents and siblings, telling adult children that you are a sex addict can be a double edged sword and should not be done without considerable thought and professional consultation. There are a number ways in which disclosing to adult children can be helpful. It can greatly help them in understanding what happened between their parents, assuming there was an upheaval. It can also help them make sense of their own life experience, what was less than optimal in their life growing up and how they ended up with whatever insecurities and problems they themselves have. The caveat is that high school or college age children may not want to know the details of the addiction right away, if ever. It’s OK to take it gradually and pay attention to how much they actually want to know. But in general, seeing our parents grow and change opens up the possibility of change and can inspire us to grow.
Coming out to adult children in a well thought out way can also benefit the addict. Often the addict fears that the adult child will despise or reject them. But it can be a very moving thing when the child can reassure the addict that they are loved and even admired for their courage.
There are other serious potential downside risks to disclosing to adult children that cannot be ignored. This is especially true if there were disruptions in the relationship between the addict and the child when the child was young. In some cases adult children of addicts see the information about the addiction as part of a long-standing pattern. Because of their own alienation or resentment they may see the addict as dangerous to them or their own children. It is not unusual for children of addicts to cut off all contact in a way that feels unreasonable to the addict.
And adult children who feel in some way personally damaged by the parent’s addiction may disclose the addict’s behavior to other people. Even when there is some justification for this, it can cause a lot of upheaval. I had one adult child of a patient disclose her father’s addictive behavior to his employer. This was done without any particular thought or consultation with anyone and it resulted in him getting fired. This is another good reason to delay full disclosure until the family members are involved in the recovery process and are well supported.
Disclosure occurring outside your control.
Addicts should be prepared for the possibility that someone, such as a spouse, may tell members of the extended family or close friends about their sex addiction. Partners and spouses are in a crisis initially and can be validated for focusing on their own need for support. This in turn can sometimes cause family members to become polarized. It also happens that the addict’s children or other children in the family are told before the addict can work on dealing with them in an appropriate way.
Generally I think it is better for the addict to confront these situations directly as they arise. This means talking to the family members directly and being open. If it is a child, it means limiting what you say about your behavior as is age appropriate and giving them as much reassurance as possible. With adults, it means reaching out and acknowledging the awkwardness while reassuring them that you are doing everything possible to address your problems.
The take away
In addiction recovery we talk about the need for “rigorous honesty”. But that does not mean disclosing everything to everybody without careful thought and consultation. Many people do not understand what sex addiction is and we encourage sex addicts, especially in the beginning of recovery to choose who they confide in carefully. There’s no rush. It will be important for you, the addict to decide whether a family member can understand and therefore can contain the information you give them. It is very important to get feedback about a given situation by talking to a therapist or other trusted person. It is equally important that you pay attention to your own intuitions about whether a given family member seems “safe” or whether they don’t.