By Wendy Conquest, MA, LPC, CSAT-S
This blog is based on a recent talk I did for RMBI on sex addiction and resulting spousal trauma. For ease of writing I will be referring to the sex addict (SA) as “him” and the Partner as “her,” however, I see clients along the sexuality spectrum. Most SAs come in after their secret life has been found out. This time is commonly referred to as “Discovery.” There is a lot happening for both the SA and the Partner during this period. The SA experiences shock and stress as his two worlds collide. There is usually some relief that the secret is out. The Partner also experiences shock and disbelief as she finds out her partner has a hidden life. We now know she goes into a freeze response and becomes traumatized on many different levels. We also know he goes into similar shock which can cause denial and minimization with the breadth and length of his behaviors.
I am asked if sex addiction is the same as other addictions such as alcoholism, drug addiction, and gambling. The answer is yes…and no. To qualify as an addiction there are certain criteria that must be met. These include a loss of control, previous attempts to stop, loss of time in the addiction, preoccupation, an inability to fulfill obligations, continuing with the behavior despite negative consequences, an escalation, social, occupational and recreational losses, and withdrawal. The reason sex addiction is different is that you can be angry with your partner if they are drunk every night. And feelings are intense if your home is in jeopardy from a gambling addiction. However, when your loved one chooses someone else to be sexual with (and this includes images as well as real people) there is a sense of rejection, humiliation and shame that is incomparable.
There is a common expectation that when the secret life of the addict is found out the Partner will be surprised or in some sort of shock for a while, but then she will be able to quickly and competently look at her part of the problem. What we are now finding is that the effects on the partner are quite severe, categorized as Complex PTSD. Dr. Omar Minwalla’s article entitled the “Thirteen Dimensions of Sex Addiction-Induced Trauma (SAIT) among Partners and Spouses Impacted by Sex Addiction” explores the many ways Partners are affected, including:
- Discovery Trauma
- Disclosure Trauma
- Reality-Ego Fragmentation
- Impact to Body and Medical Intersection
- External Crisis and Destabilization
- SAIT Hyper vigilance and Re-Experiencing
- Dynamics of Perpetration, Violation and Abuse (SAIP)
- Sexual Trauma
- Gender Wounds and Gender-Based Trauma (GBT)
- Relational Trauma and Attachment Injuries
- Family, Communal and Social Injuries
- Treatment-Induced Trauma
- Existential and Spiritual Trauma
In my presentation I explained Disclosure Trauma, Sexual Trauma, Treatment-Induced Trauma and Existential Trauma. My intent was to highlight entry points for Brainspotting. I talked about Treatment-Induced trauma since I have many couples coming to me after they have been to other therapists. A common mistake among some couples’ therapists is to treat “an affair” as a one-off without seeking further to see if there is a compulsive pattern around sex and sexuality. As a certified sex addiction therapist, I have clients complete a questionnaire with over 400 questions that compiles the data needed to determine if there is sex addiction (and its extent) as well as to identify attachment style, specific problem areas around the addiction and quantifying motivation for change. This assessment is only available to CSATs, however, I was asked if I would be willing to collaborate with other therapists and the answer is “YES”! What a wonderful idea!
We talked about one event with sex addiction and spousal trauma being multi-pronged. I am finding that I can clear one event, let’s say when the Partner discovers the addiction is one BSP point. But then later another aspect of the discovery will pop up. For example, the spouse may not be confident in knowing her inner voice. The main point is to be aware of the different dimensions that are attached to one trauma, with varying visual points for both the SA and the Partner.
My book, Letters To A Sex Addict: The Journey Through Grief and Betrayal, is available through me directly or Amazon (paperback or Kindle format). The book provides a visceral experience of what the Partner goes through. She may experience isolation, rejection, invalidation from friends and family, church and the culture. Confusion, shame and despair result. I encourage therapists to have the Partner read the book and highlight sections that are applicable to them, and then Brainspot those. Clinicians also have the SA read the book to increase empathy and work on his shame targets. Couples therapists use the book in session as a path to talk about the betrayal. There is a short but thorough explanation of sex addiction in the introduction. If you have any questions after reading the book please e-mail me! This book is the only one I know which accurately reflects all the aspects of the Partner’s experience.
There are a few special considerations in using BSP with the Partner. I start by having them listen to the bilateral sounds and see if they calm down or if their anxiety increases. If anxiety increases, I emphasize somatic pieces to ground them and get them more stable before proceeding with Brainspotting. If they calm down I start with the resource eye on a resource spot. I continually check in with the body, not with their interpretation of whether they are “ok” or feeling “good”. From there I move to different pieces of whatever the current struggle is, whether that be “I hate him touching me” to “I don’t feel safe”. Because the addict usually is learning to distinguish between reality and dishonesty, many times in early recovery he is not yet safe to the Partner. My goal is to help her clear the trauma to get her instincts back on-line.
For the addicts, we go back into their history to find out where the link between safety and sex, acceptance and sex began. This might have involved masturbating to calm down when mom and dad were fighting, or using pornography to calm social anxiety. Perhaps a fetish started with neglect from mom and dad. I want him to know that the addiction is a very old and ineffective coping mechanism and that it is not who he authentically is. Sometimes I will start with more current trauma points such as the addiction being discovered, feelings of worthlessness with causing pain to their partners, or feeling inept in general.
I recently opened The Sex Addiction Counseling Center (SACC) in Boulder. I have two other therapists on my staff and my ambition is to start a program for teens struggling with pornography in 2016. Please visit the web site to learn more!
Wendy Conquest. MA, LPC, CSAT-S
Certified in Brainspotting, Integrative Body Psychotherapy and Sex Addiction
2975 Valmont Rd.
Boulder, CO 80301
wendyconquestlpc @ gmail.com