As stated in my previous post, I have known Carol Juergensen Sheets, aka Carol the Coach, for quite some time, having appeared on her Sex Addiction podcast, as well as her Betrayal Trauma podcast, and having welcomed her as a guest on my own podcast, Sex, Love, and Addiction. Carol is a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist and coach who frequently appears on both television and radio discussing sexual addiction and related issues. She is the author of Sexual Addiction: Wisdom from the Masters, and, more recently, Help Her Heal: An Empathy Workbook for Sex Addicts to Help their Partners Heal. Her workbook on empathy prompted a recent conversation, as we share the belief that developing empathy is a major step on the pathway to healing for both sexual addicts and their betrayed partners.
I found our conversation both interesting and enlightening, and I have excerpted the best bits below in Q&A format. Because our conversation was lengthy, I’ve split this post into two parts. Part 1 was a general discussion of empathy and how sex addicts can develop it. Part 2, this post, looks at rigorous honesty, therapeutic disclosure, and things a sex addict can start doing right away to display empathy.
Carol, I’m a big believer in rigorous honesty as a foundation of recovery and relationship healing. I also think that rigorous honesty and empathy travel hand in hand. Is that a statement you would agree with?
One hundred percent. When sex addicts come to me, I tell them that I want to help them transform to be honest, authentic, and transparent. Then I remind them that they just spent years or a decade or even more doing just the opposite. So honesty, along with empathy, is at the root of the work we do. And that’s really scary, because usually the addict’s biggest fear is that his partner will either crumble and die or start punching him out. That’s the fight, flight, or freeze response [mentioned in the previous post] and he’s usually seen it already, multiple times since his behavior was first discovered.
And I do recommend full disclosure. I advocate for a formal disclosure where he discloses everything and answers all of his partner’s questions. This is a lengthy process that usually takes 3 or 4 hours and takes weeks to prepare. It’s the partner’s way of knowing the truth so she can decide how she wants to proceed. If she doesn’t want a disclosure, that’s fine. It’s her choice. But otherwise, I think disclosure is very important.
Nearly always, the addict’s fears about this type of honesty are unfounded. My experience, and I’ve done hundreds of disclosures, is that I’ve only seen one partner crumble. Most women hear the disclosure statement, ask questions, hear the answers, and end up saying to me either right then or during the next session, “I feel so relieved to know what I’m dealing with.” I have never had a disclosure end in divorce. I’ve had couples who eventually decided to separate and divorce, but not because of the disclosure. It was about the trauma that the betrayed partner could not manage because it was just too much to overcome.
Do you use a polygraph as part of disclosure?
I never thought I would work with couples and encourage a polygraph test, but I do. Not only as part of disclosure, but periodically as part of the addict’s recovery. Thirty years ago, before I worked with sex addiction, when clients would ask for a polygraph I would say absolutely not. But now I find that it’s incredibly helpful in re-establishing relationship trust, and also in holding the addict accountable. The addict knows he’s going to get a polygraph at least a couple of time a year in early recovery, and that helps hold him accountable. It also shows empathy, a realization that his betrayed partner is struggling to trust him and he understands that, and he’s willing to take a polygraph to help with that.
Would you ever recommend disclosure for a couple who already plans to divorce?
That’s an interesting question. Originally, with my Certified Sex Addiction Therapist (CSAT) training, they said absolutely not. They recommended to never do that. But I now am a proponent of, on the board for, and do training for The Association of Partners of Sex Addicts Trauma Specialists (APSATS), where we use a partner sensitive trauma model. With that, I believe that the betrayed partner has the right to know.
Now the founder of APSATS, Barbara Steffens, and I both live in no-fault divorce states, so it doesn’t matter what the addict has done, the outcome of the divorce is the same. As long as it doesn’t jeopardize the health and well-being of the kids, the court doesn’t care. In a different state I might have a different recommendation. So I guess my answer is yes and no. I believe the betrayed partner deserves the truth no matter what, if she wants it.
That said, most betrayed partners don’t want a disclosure if they’ve already decided they’re going to divorce. They don’t want more information to deal with. They’ve already discovered enough to make up their mind, and they don’t want any more pain.
What are three things a recovering sex addict can start doing immediately to display empathy?
- The addict can work a really solid recovery program so the betrayed partner sees he has an action plan.
- The addict can practice journaling about his feelings every day and then taking that to his therapist so he can better understand what’s going on with him.
- The addict can practice AVR – Acknowledging the issue, Validating the feeling, and Reassuring his betrayed partner that he cares enough to change his behavior and heal the relationship.
In early recovery, the addict can’t say, “Look, I’ve been clean for four months, it’s time for you to get over it.” What he needs to say is, “I’ve been wanting to change my life, I’m devastated that you’re devastated, and I want to start doing it differently.”
Those are probably the first three things a sex addict can do. And my belief is that people who contact me want this. They’re not doing this to scam their betrayed partner. They want to change. They want to heal themselves. They want to heal the relationship. They’ve hated who they’ve been and they want to get out of it.
To me, sex addiction is an interpersonal recovery issue for the sex addict and a relational issue for the betrayed partner. The early recovery work that sex addicts and betrayed partners can do is absolutely defined in my book. The skills that I talk about in the book are early recovery skills that can help them stay in the same house, or the same city, or take care of their kids together. It’s a way for the couple to function while they decide if they can heal and if they can learn to trust again.
To learn more about Carol Juergensen Sheets, visit her website, SexHelpWithCaroltheCoach. To learn more about sex addiction, you can visit my websites, SexandRelationshipHealing.com and SeekingIntegrity.com.