For decades, clinicians working with couples whose relationships have been damaged by infidelity – everything from porn use to affairs to full-on sexual addiction – have struggled with the process of creating a truthful baseline from which the couple can heal. The unfaithful party wants to keep some things secret because telling the full truth will hurt the betrayed partner and possibly end the relationship. The betrayed partner wants the entire truth because without that, the process of rebuilding trust can’t fully begin, and the relationship can’t reach its full potential.

Many therapists, even Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFTs), are not properly trained on managing the process of disclosure in ways that will help a couple heal and couples themselves are often completely in the dark. Enter Courageous Love: A Couples Guide to Conquering Betrayal, the latest offering from addiction and relationships expert Dr. Stefanie Carnes. In this book, Dr. Carnes teaches couples how to respond with compassion and empathy to their partner’s emotions, how to understand their partner’s reactive behaviors, and how to undertake the process of healing in the safest way possible from the standpoint of healing the relationship.

Dr. Carnes opens with information about the traumatic nature of betrayal. And she could hardly start anywhere else, given the fact that sexual betrayal is devastating to both the betrayed partner and the relationship. It shatters trust and intimacy, damages self-esteem, and creates doubt about everything that has ever happened in the relationship. Dr. Carnes also knows that shortly after betrayal is discovered – when the wound is still fresh (and many more wounds have yet to be uncovered) – the situation often appears hopeless.

Dr. Carnes teaches couples how to respond with compassion and empathy to their partner’s emotions…

“It may be hard to imagine how you and your partner are ever going to put the pieces of the puzzle back together,” she writes. But that is exactly what this book teaches couples (and the therapists who work with them) to do.

The process of healing both individually and as a couple begins and ends with the repair of relationship trust. Trust is the foundation of vulnerability, which is the foundation of intimacy, which is the foundation of a healthy relationship. If trust cannot be repaired, the relationship cannot be restored.

Relying on research, clinical experience, and considerable interaction with her colleagues at and individuals trained by the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals (IITAP), Dr. Carnes has developed highly a detailed process for therapeutically supervised disclosure, which is, without question, the most necessary groundwork for becoming honest, rebuilding relationship trust, and repairing damaged intimacy.

For struggling couples, this book should be read and worked through with assistance from a therapist or, preferably, a team of therapists – one for the participating partner (the betrayer), one for the betrayed partner, and one for the couple. In fact, having a team of therapists is a necessity for proper therapeutic disclosure, as readers will learn as they progress through the book. Both partners need individual support and advocacy, as does the relationship itself.

Probably the biggest misconception about getting honest about betrayal is that disclosure is a single event and all the participating partner needs to do is tell the truth as best he or she can. However, as any therapist who’s ever worked with a couple that attempted this type of unstructured, unsupervised disclosure can tell you, this is a recipe for relationship disaster. This type of disclosure will almost certainly be incomplete, leading to more trauma later when undisclosed behaviors come to light. This type of disclosure will probably be too graphic, creating images in the betrayed partner’s mind that can never be dispelled. The type of disclosure will also be unsupported, leading to painful fights, arguments, threats, and maybe the end of the relationship.

Formal therapeutic disclosure, as described by Dr. Carnes in Courageous Love, is a highly supervised and controlled process, replete with checks and balances. And it is not conducted until both parties are emotionally and psychologically prepared to give and receive full honesty, whatever the cost, in the hopes that the process of disclosure will lead to a better, stronger, more intimately connected bond.

A proper therapeutic disclosure involves much more than the participating partner spewing information about what happened. First, the cheating partner must become clear about what he or she has done – all of it, not just the parts that don’t seem so bad. If sexual addiction is in play, this can take quite a bit of time and effort by the addict, who’s been living in denial for so long that he or she may not even know what’s true. Then there is a therapist-facilitated back and forth about what the betrayed partner wants to know, the level of detail that will work best, and how the parties will find support after the formal disclosure occurs.

Whatever it is that you’re currently thinking, feeling, and fearing, you should know right now that if you’re willing to try to heal yourself and your relationship, you can succeed in that endeavor.

And that’s hardly the end of the process. Formal therapeutic disclosure involves not only honesty about what happened, but learning about the impact of the betrayal, grieving what is lost both individually and in the relationship, developing empathy, accepting responsibility, and creating a plan to move forward in a healthier, more intimate way. Fortunately, Dr. Carnes outlines the entire process in detail, using illustrative stories and providing tasks that bring the information to life and give readers hope as they work their way through the often-arduous process of repairing their relationship.

And make no mistake, there is hope, even for the most damaged of relationships. As Dr. Carnes writes in the opening pages:

Whatever it is that you’re currently thinking, feeling, and fearing, you should know right now that if you’re willing to try to heal yourself and your relationship, you can succeed in that endeavor. If you and your partner are hurting but still truly love each other and want to make it work, that type of healing and restoration is possible. This book can take you on that healing journey.

Courageous Love is a must-read for all couples whose relationships have been damaged by infidelity, with or without the presence of sexual addiction. It is also highly recommended reading for therapists who work with sex/porn addicts, infidelity, betrayed partners, and couples. The process of disclosure and relationship repair is complex and, if improperly managed, can go awry in a hundred different ways with disastrous consequences. This book is the definitive guide to keeping this process on track. No couple should attempt disclosure before they read and work through this volume.

By Wendy Lee Nentwig

Childhood experiences, both positive and negative, shape our beliefs and behaviors as adults. So, it’s no surprise that sexual trauma or abuse experienced as a child would carry over into adult life. Multiple studies show that sexual abuse during a person’s developmental years has a strong correlation with hypersexuality, sex addiction, and an unhealthy perception of sex, intimacy, and relationships as an adult. Even without overt sexual trauma from a parent, coach, or other adult, young men can still be traumatized by unwanted early pornography exposure or other unwanted or unexpected online sexual solicitations and interactions. Since this type of childhood trauma can adversely impact adult sexual behavior, it’s important to take a closer look.

The Childhood Trauma Connection

male traumaTraumatic incidents in a person’s developing years — ranging from unwanted exposure and interactions to sexual abuse — leave their mark. Research shows that many adult sexual behaviors may be related to childhood sexual abuse (CSA), ranging from withdrawal and dysfunction on one end of the spectrum to hypersexuality and compulsion on the other, according to “Pathways of Problematic Sexual Behavior,” published in the Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity Journal in 2012 by Michael Aaron, PhD.

Compounding the issue, males are less likely to report sexual abuse or speak up about unwanted sexual interactions due to social stigmas and stereotypes. For many abuse survivors, both the abuse and their reactions to it are painful, confusing, and difficult to comprehend.

Childhood sexual abuse doesn’t automatically mean a future of sex addiction, but research seems to show that survivors are at a higher risk. It is unclear why some adults respond to sexual abuse during childhood by withdrawal, while others respond with an endless cycle of short-term partners, dangerous or risky sexual behavior, addiction to pornography, or regular bouts of infidelity. One thing we do know, says Dr. Aaron, is that both the gender of the victim and the age at onset of victimization can be factors.

Research has found that male survivors are less likely to report or discuss their trauma and more likely to externalize their responses to childhood sexual abuse by engaging in compulsive sexual behaviors, Dr. Aaron reports. For a male survivor of childhood sexual abuse, these expectations are in large conflict with the need to shatter the secrecy of their trauma and/or obtain and maintain healthy sexual relationships; both of which require an open and honest dialogue.

From Childhood Sexual Trauma to Adult Sex Addiction

“Recent research shows that men who are addicted to sex are highly likely to have suffered trauma in their childhood. Approximately 72 percent of sexually addicted men say that they were physically abused, while 81 percent claim to have suffered from sexual abuse, according to Dr. Patrick Carnes.”

Responding to childhood sexual abuse with hypersexual behavior may seem on the surface to be counterintuitive. Why would a person willingly seek out activities that originally caused them intense psychological distress at the hands of another person? In fact, these types of behaviors are a very common reaction among those who have survived childhood sexual abuse.

Recent research shows that men who are addicted to sex are highly likely to have suffered trauma in their childhood. Approximately 72 percent of sexually addicted men say that they were physically abused, while 81 percent claim to have suffered from sexual abuse, according to Dr. Patrick Carnes, author of The Betrayal Bond and clinical architect of The Gentle Path treatment program.

Many people who suffer sexual abuse during childhood come to equate their sexuality with their self-worth. Over the years, the person may have come to “accept” the abuse as though it was the only aspect of their character which offered gratification to another person. It greatly skews a person’s perception of who they are, what their purpose in life is, and their understanding of appropriate relationship dynamics.

Suffering sexual abuse at a young age also lights up neural pathways in the person’s brain which are linked to sexual arousal. This can be damaging because children have not developed the structure to properly process this type of arousal. When sexual arousal occurs at an age when someone is matured enough to place it within a context of healthy desire and connection, it helps them develop a healthy perspective on intimacy and sex. But when it happens before they have matured enough, these same neural pathways become associated with negative emotions such as fear, shame, secrecy, confusion, physical distress, jealousy, and rage.

Childhood cumulative trauma (CCT) refers to an amalgam of childhood maltreatment experiences that can lead to a range of symptoms and problems in adulthood. One recent study at Canada’s Université Laval in Quebec examined CCT and its relevance to psychosexual adjustment in adult survivors, confirming that CCT is associated with affect dysregulation and sexual anxiety that, in turn, predict lower levels of sexual satisfaction.

Defining Sex Addiction

Much is misunderstood about sexual addiction, just what it is, and how it impacts sufferers. Some believe it’s an excuse for bad behavior or a way to justify infidelity. From a clinical perspective, sex addiction is classified as a mental health disorder on the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases list and includes a range of compulsive sexual behavior. The WHO’s ICD-11 is recognized as the foundational document that clinicians and scientists around the world use to identify and study health problems, injuries, and causes of death.

In the ICD-11, compulsive sexual disorder is defined as “a persistent pattern of failure to control intense, repetitive sexual impulses or urges resulting in repetitive sexual behavior.” A disorder isn’t defined by the number of sexual partners you have or the specific sexual behaviors, instead it is marked by an individual’s sexual behavior becomes a “central focus of the person’s life to the point of neglecting health and personal care or other interests, activities, and responsibilities.”

Healing from Childhood Sexual Abuse and Help for Adult Sex Addiction

“…male survivors are less likely to report or discuss their trauma and more likely to externalize their responses to childhood sexual abuse by engaging in compulsive sexual behaviors.”

Whatever the etiology of problematic adult sexual behavior, there is help available. Unfortunately, the shame that is often associated with being a victim of abuse can cause men to shy away from getting treatment for sex addiction and addressing their underlying trauma. But a clinical disease warrants in-depth professional treatment.

For men struggling with childhood sexual abuse and sexual addiction, learning to abstain from problematic sexual behaviors that reinforce abusive sexual scripts is just as important as learning how to develop healthy intimate bonds and create a sexual identity that is affirming.

For someone attempting to face these complex issues, the importance of having acceptance and unconditional, non-judgmental support can’t be understated. It is the abusive and negative interpersonal interactions that created the pain, and supportive and affirming ones will have the power to lift it.

At Gentle Path at The Meadows, we specialize in creating this space while offering a host of trauma-based services that are informed by the most current understanding of the nature of trauma and its impact on the person as a whole. Additionally, the therapeutic focus at Gentle Path includes not only learning to identify which components of someone’s sexuality are subtracting from the quality of their life but also identifying or creating ones to enrich it, helping them to develop a healthier new outlook on relationships, sex, and intimacy.