Marie Woods, LMFT, CSAT
Primary Therapist, Gentle Path at the Meadows

When the news of the Ashley Madison leak made headlines last week, one of the first thoughts to cross my mind was, “what about the partner of the Ashley Madison subscriber?”

Being betrayed by a spouse is bad enough, but to find out that it was through a site like AshleyMadison.com, and to think that your identity might be publicly leaked on top of the betrayal sounds almost unbearable.

Inside the rooms of Gentle Path at the Meadows, stories like these are far too common. Partners of sex addicts often tell us that the discovery of the betrayal is one of the most traumatizing aspects of dealing with a sexually addicted spouse. What partners often say is the most painful, however, is the way in which they discovered the acting out behavior.

The Ashley Madison leak serves as a good example of one a particularly painful type of discovery. When something like this makes front page news, the addict may decide to tell their partner what they’ve been up to out of fear. Some might think that this is a good thing; however, for most sex addicts the disclosure is just one small detail of their overall struggle. For partners, it can be a traumatic event.

The Cascade of Disclosures

Because sex addicts rarely come clean with the entire story at first, a cascade of disclosures often follows. So, as though the initial discovery of the betrayal were not painful enough, the partner may go on to learn more and more details as time goes on. Some partners become suspicious after the first discovery and very soon find out more. Other partners may go years without learning the full story. Either way, each time more details are disclosed, more betrayal, hurt, and pain is felt, and the partner is further traumatized. Meanwhile, the addict remains steeped in the shame and guilt that perpetuates their acting out.

In the sex addiction therapy community, we refer to this as “staggered disclosure.” This is when the sex addict tells bits and pieces of the truth over time throughout their active addiction rather than telling the whole truth at once when they are sober. This usually happens when they are questioned or get caught, and they share just enough information to escape the current conflict. This pattern of trickling information often keeps addicts stuck in their guilt, shame, and addiction. Consequently, it also keeps partners stuck in their anger, pain, and trauma, and it leaves both unable to begin healing.

A Certified Sex Addiction Therapist Can Help

During this process, partners often vacillate between wanting to know the truth, but not wanting to continue to be hurt over and over again either, and they are not always sure what to do.

If a partner thinks that they might be dealing with sex addiction, a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist (CSAT) should be one of their first stops. For starters, the CSAT therapist can assess the situation and find out if what is being dealt with is actually sex addiction or not. If it is, then the therapist can be of huge support in walking the couple through a formal disclosure process. This involves a therapist (sometimes two) working with both the addict and their partner to determine what the extent of the addiction is, and the addict’s willingness to share it in an open and honest way. It also involves helping the partner cope with the initial discovery and any new information that may come out of the disclosure. In its later stages, it involves defining the meaning of the relationship and forgiveness moving forward.

It’s important to know that this process takes time, but our experience at Gentle Path at the Meadows shows that couples that choose this route typically save themselves a lot of additional pain during an already excruciating process. Although these are difficult and painful therapeutic issues, having a therapist who specializes in sex addiction to support both the addict and the partner through this is absolutely critical. Soliciting help from a therapist will help minimize any further trauma for a partner. Resources are available, and partners do not have to face this alone. In the midst of some of the most gut-wrenching betrayal, partners should know that they deserve compassionate care and support.