A couple of weeks ago, I began a series of posts about my husband’s recently-discovered backsliding and the insights I hoped to glean from sharing my experience, my feelings, and my observations here. The first post (“Married to a Sex Addict: Relapse”) gave an overview of my current situation and explained what I hoped might useful about discussing it here. The second post (“Married to a Sex Addict: Watching the Spiral”) explored what the addiction cycle and its progression often look like to a close observer.
Last week, I shifted focus to some other topics, but I would like to resume the relapse series, with a look at the process of confronting your spouse about his or her behavior, how your partner is likely to react (and why), and how you can best respond.
Even if you have undeniable proof of your spouse’s actions, and even if you approach your partner calmly and reasonably, he or she will probably still respond negatively or evasively. It is incredibly rare for any addict to immediately respond to confrontation by owning up to his or her actions and accepting responsibility for them. That takes a high degree of maturity and integrity; few people can sincerely accept correction that well under the best of circumstances. It is most likely that anyone in a position to practice that kind of self-awareness will be more forthright about his or her behavior in the first place (either by not engaging in the addictive behavior, or by admitting the slip to his or her partner before it gets found out).
Most addictions develop as a coping mechanism of one kind or another. In my husband’s case, he turned to pornography as a very unhealthy form of self-medication for his depression, because his brain craved a way to correct the imbalance in his brain chemistry. This is fairly common; sufferers of depression, bipolar disorder, and other related conditions have much higher rates of addiction than non-sufferers, and treatment for these conditions (along with focused addiction treatment) may help address the addiction as well. Addiction may also be the addict’s only or best perceived way of coping with loneliness, boredom, or other stress factors.
As a result, addicts are usually very protective of their habits. Since discovery of the habit usually means that it (or the means for pursuing it) will be taken away, the addict is probably focused on preventing that. Initially, this may take the form of hiding signs of the addiction; for a sex addict, this may mean secretiveness about a cell phone or a computer, or precautions such as deleting browser histories. In response to confrontation, addicts frequently respond either with denial or with deflection (or a combination of the two).
Denial is an almost universal response among addicts. Many will deny that they have a problem at all. Others who can admit that they are addicts will still deny specific actions, episodes, relapses, or slips.
Your spouse’s denial may actually seem like a plausible explanation, but if he or she is lying, some small detail may not seem to fit, or you may simply feel that something is somehow “off.” Trust your instincts. If something feels wrong, even something small, it probably is.
Especially in later stages of the addiction’s progression- or if your partner simply is not a very good liar- the denial may be an obvious, almost ridiculous lie. During my husband’s last major relapse, I found his profile on the dating site where we met; he was listed as single again, with some changes to the text of his profile. When I brought it up, he insisted that the changes were due to a computer glitch; he expected me to believe that a computer glitch was capable not only of reactivating his profile and changing his status, but of rewriting whole sentences as well.
If lying fails to end the confrontation, your spouse may resort to some form of deflection. Deflection is an effort to shift the attention, blame, guilt, or responsibility to someone other than the addict. Your partner may be angry, cruel, and accusatory in the attempt to shift the focus from his or her action to your faults (whether those faults are real or imagined). This may take several forms:
- Counter-accusation: With or without denying the behavior itself, your partner may angrily accuse you of snooping, not trusting him/her, never believing him/her, or not really loving him/her. The implication is that these things are worse than than what your spouse has done (for the record, cheating and lying always trump snooping, and I have two therapists to back me up on that) or that these things make your evidence invalid, even if you are correct. Response: Keep this in mind, and respond calmly and rationally; your partner wants to derail the conversation by provoking an emotional response. Stay cool. Ask your spouse if he or she thinks that your snooping is worse than his or her infidelity and lying. Point out that trust has to be earned, and you’re giving your partner a chance to earn that trust now, by telling the truth and taking responsibility. Remind him or her that you are having this conversation precisely because you love your spouse, and you want to preserve a loving, faithful, healthy relationship. Above all, stay calm and don’t take the bait.
- Shifting blame: Your partner may try to blame you for his or her actions. He or she may claim that you are overweight or otherwise unattractive, that you don’t meet his/her needs, that you caused the stress that triggered the slip, or that your distrust drove him/her to it. This is a tacit admission of the behavior, but the implication is that it is your fault. Response: Again, staying calm is the key. Staying calm in this situation will be very difficult for you, but it is crucial. Remind your partner that none of the reasons he or she has given justify unfaithful actions like viewing pornography or engaging in erotic chats or sexting- or lying about it. Point out that your spouse is ultimately in control of his or her own actions, and that if your spouse unhappy in the relationship or has a problem with your behavior or her appearance, he or she needs to communicate directly with you about it, not break the commitment you made to each other.
- Deflection: In the 1997 movie Wag the Dog, the fictional President hires a PR team to fabricate a war in order to cover up his sex scandal. Addicts sometimes do very similar things when confronted about their behavior. Your partner may try to start a fight about something completely unrelated to his or her sex addiction, in order to distract you from the confrontation. Several months ago, when I tried to bring up my husband’s last relapse, he managed to turn the situation into a fight about me not doing my share of the housework, which he spent a week threatening to leave over. Response: As with counter-accusation and shifting blame, try not to take the bait. Stay focused on the issue at hand. Tell your partner that you’re willing to discuss the new issue later, but that for now you should handle one thing at a time. If he or she persists, ask what the new issue has to do with his/her pornography habit or other inappropriate actions. Stay calm.
Overall, when confronting a sexually addicted spouse, the best way through a negative or evasive response is firmness and persistence. This may be one of the hardest things you have ever done, but be strong. Do not accept lies, excuses, or distractions.