My friend and colleague, Dr. Barbara Steffens, has specialized in the treatment and coaching of sex addicts and the betrayed partners of sex addicts since 1999. During that time, she has conducted groundbreaking research on the trauma that betrayed partners experience, and she has written an excellent (and highly recommended) book on the topic, Your Sexually Addicted Spouse: How Partners Can Cope and Heal. Dr. Steffens is also a founding member and current President of APSATS: The Association of Partners and Sex Addicts Trauma Specialists. Recently, I was able to speak to her about her work and her thoughts on treating betrayed partners with understanding and empathy for their experience as trauma survivors, rather than automatically labeling and/or pathologizing them as codependent, enmeshed, enabling, and the like. What follows is an excerpt from our conversation that both clinicians and lay readers may find useful.
Can you talk briefly about your study, where you looked at betrayed partners of sex addicts from the trauma perspective?
The research looked at trauma symptoms in betrayed partners after they learned about their spouse’s sexual addiction and betrayal. We expected to find some evidence of trauma symptoms when we undertook the study, but the level of trauma was a complete surprise. To our amazement, we found that 69.9% of the people who participated met the DSM criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some readers of the study might argue that the “life-threatening trauma” criterion of PTSD was not met, but the participants and the betrayed partners that I work with on a regular basis would absolutely disagree. When you love someone, learning about sexual betrayal really is life threatening, not just in the literal sense, but in the sense that it threatens every part of your life.
Even though I was surprised by the high percentage of participants with PTSD, it validated what I was seeing clinically. And once the study was published, other clinicians contacted me and let me know that it validated what they were experiencing, as well. However, the strongest response to the research came from betrayed partners after we published the book. They read the book and found that the trauma model really resonated with them.
Do you find that betrayed partners actually have PTSD, or that they just display the symptoms for a certain time frame, like a few weeks or a few months?
With the research, we asked them to complete the assessment based on their initial symptoms and reactions, and their current symptoms and reactions. And we made sure it had been at least six months since they’d learned about the infidelity and addiction because we wanted to compare over time. What we found was that most of the participants were still experiencing posttraumatic symptoms after six months. I would say that not all betrayed partners meet the full criteria for PTSD, but the majority do have at least some level of posttraumatic stress symptoms for a period.
What aspects of sexual addiction are most traumatic for the partner? Is it the sex itself, or is it the secrets and lies and loss of trust?
In the study, we didn’t specifically separate that out, but I can tell you anecdotally that it’s the deception. One thing we did look at in this regard was factors that increased the intensity of the trauma. We came up with two, and one was the length of time in the relationship before there was discovery. The longer the secret life was going on, the more intense the traumatic symptoms were. And that makes sense. Betrayed partners have their perception of what their life is, and then they find out that this person who’s always supposed to have their back, so to speak, has been hiding something from them, in some cases for their entire relationship. It’s a little like an earthquake. It just rattles everything you think you know about your life.
Can you briefly describe the process of safe disclosure about sexual addiction? How do cheaters/addicts tend to screw it up, and how do betrayed partners tend to screw it up?
We need more research to support what I’m about to say, but we tend to find that planned, therapeutically supported disclosure is the best method. The worst way is when betrayed partners are blindsided by the information. That’s just horrific. We also know that prolonged disclosure, where it’s a little bit at a time, where it trickles out, is awful for the betrayed partner because it’s an earthquake, and an earthquake, and then another earthquake. When their world is still shaking, they can’t start to heal.
We also find that disclosure is best done as soon as possible, as long as it’s well supported. There needs to be a therapist or coach there to fully support the betrayed partner, along with a person to support the addict, and everyone should be supportive of the relationship. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen. In fact, it rarely happens. But that is the best-case scenario.
The support needs to start well before the actual disclosure. The support system prepares the addict and partner for that event, while also helping them manage their emotions throughout and after the process. As part of the preparation, I think the best guidance for the addict is to give the information that the betrayed partner wants—no more and no less. To this end, I strongly advocate preparing the betrayed partner to ask for the desired information. But you have to be careful here. One problem I hear about relatively often is partners who demand a lot of very specific details—names, places, specific actions—that turn out not to be as helpful to them as they were hoping. They don’t seem to understand that once they hear that information, there is no way they can get it out of their brain. Another issue is that they sometimes short-circuit the preparation phase and fail to ask for everything they want and need. That comes out of anxiety, wanting to get it over with without more pain.
Another issue I see with disclosure is that couples wait too long. Sometimes when a disclosure is taking too long to get going, it’s not because the partner’s not ready, or the addict’s not ready, it’s because the addict’s therapist is not doing the prep work for disclosure or even bringing up disclosure as an option. As a partner specialist, a lot of times I’m the first one to give the partner and the addict information about therapeutic disclosure and to say it would be good to start working on that as soon as we can.
For more information about effective disclosure that heals rather than harms, please read Dr. Steffen’s book, Your Sexually Addicted Spouse: How Partners Can Cope and Heal or visit the APSATS website. Betrayed partners, if interested, can complete an anonymous survey about disclosure experiences on the APSATS site. This survey is being used to gather information about betrayal and disclosure, and to develop more effective methods of disclosure and healing.