Some couples I see who are struggling to come back from sexual addiction seem to be locked in perpetual conflict.

For some, mistrust, resentment and aggression characterized their relationship or marriage since the beginning, since long before the sexual betrayal was revealed. For others the discovery of a sexual addiction allowed resentments to blow up into seemingly continual hostility.

Conflict is a struggle for power

Conflict may take a number of forms. It can be an exchange of recriminations and insults that come out of nowhere. It can show up as a continually defensive posture, anticipating negativity and pushing the other person away. It can be constant verbal attacks and sarcasm, or endless recitation of the other person’s past sins.

Each person is afraid to approach the other with openness and trust. Instead each is seeking to find safety in gaining power and avoiding vulnerability.

Beliefs which feed the power struggle

My partner doesn’t really care about my pain.

There is something that my partner can do to take away my pain.

I can change my partner by gaining control over him/her.

If I can control my partner I will feel less pain about the past.

If I can control my partner I will be safe from future pain.

These kinds of beliefs are not usually borne out.  The partner who is betrayed by the addict’s behavior naturally feels mistrust, grief and resentment. But these are not feelings that can be dispelled by gaining power and control over the other person. The need to find safety in power and control is a natural reaction to deep mistrust. But using verbal attacks and venting mistrust will most likely breed more mistrust. It will not bring a feeling of safety.

Paranoid mistrust is contagious

Perpetual rehearsal of unresolved anger is a way of denying pain and avoiding inevitable grief. It is an attempt at undoing the pain rather than working through it. It projects blame by saying: “you are making me feel bad and you are not doing enough to undo my bad feelings.”

Meanwhile, partners who are perpetually “triggered” by each other are rehearsing their reactions of alarm and fear, and sensitizing themselves to become more fearful and suspicious. This kind of paranoid approach to another person can be contagious; paranoia toward another breeds paranoia mistrust of us in return.

How to escape the cycle of conflict

What does it mean to “give up and win”?  We are often told that we need to create healthy boundaries. If we give up the fight it can feel like we are being co-dependent or allowing ourselves to be used or abused. And sometimes it is important to say no or to stick up for oneself.  But in the perpetual conflict scenario it is often more challenging to find ways to back off.

By “giving up” I mean simply the process of never attempting to negotiate anything when you or the other person are emotionally upset or “triggered.” This means being aware that you are angry or upset, that you are in fight-or-flight mode, and giving yourself a moment  of space. This is your moment of non-reactivity, the time when you don’t judge or react automatically.

  • Never attempt to set boundaries or argue your point when you or your partner are in the grip of strong emotions. Stop and wait until later.
  • Don’t argue or negotiate when you or your partner are being aggressive. If your demands are sandwiched between insults and recriminations this is aggression.  Stop and wait until you can both talk assertively rather than aggressively.
  • Do not expect your partner to be somebody else. Especially, do not expect your partner to be who you thought they were before the crisis. That was a fantasy.
  • Do not threaten your partner while you are attempting to talk. This is part of an aggressive pattern, e.g. “I’ll take the kids and move” or “you will be forced to sell the house.”
  • Decide which conflicts you need to put before a counselor or mediator and solicit your partner’s agreement to do this. But do not use this idea as a threat or in anger.
  • Recognize that both of you will need to get help to change old roles and behaviors in the relationship. If you played the victim, the boss, the naughty child, the parent or whatever, these roles will be challenged as you recover.

Giving up gracefully

When you give yourself a time out to get over your (and your partner’s) reactivity you must resist the temptation to do this in an angry way. Take a deep breath. Don’t storm out of the room. Say something like, “I can’t talk about this right now but let’s talk about it later when we’re calmer.”

Above all be willing to shut up even when you feel you are being treated unjustly. Let it be what it is and trust that things will get better as you work through them over time.

Find Dr. Hatch on Facebook at Sex Addictions Counseling or Twitter @SAResource and at www.sexaddictionscounseling.com

Check out Dr. Hatch’s books:

Living with a Sex Addict: The Basics from Crisis to Recovery and

Relationships in Recovery:  A Guide for Sex Addicts who are Starting Over