Gill Booth 2022
The Role and Impact of Shame on the Partner of a Sex Addict.
This assignment will focus on the shame experienced by a partner who discovers their loved one is addicted to a sexual behaviour. As a partner deals with the shock and pain of the discovery, the shame experienced and how it affects the partner will be explored. This assignment will also look at the role shame plays on the partners decision making processes through the early stages of disclosure and how shame impacts the ongoing recovery of the partner and relationship. To conclude ways of managing the shame that promotes healing and personal growth within the couple’s relationship will be explored along with the overall role the therapist plays throughout the process.
What is shame and what are the two types. Shame attacks the soul of a person. Unhealthy shame as described by Sanderson (2015) evokes feelings of being a bad person, an unworthy person who is despicable and unlovable, however healthy shame can be a guide to elicit healthy social behaviour encouraging connection, empathy and compassion for the self and others. The unhealthy shame voice condemns the person, making them feel they are intrinsically evil, immoral. When a relationship has been attacked by the deceit and dishonesty of sexual addiction the addict can often feel the unhealthy shame. The discovery of a part of them that had remained secret is now exposed; this naturally pushes the addict into the soul eating arena of unhealthy shame. The partner can facilitate this dysfunctional feeling in their addicted partner as they seek to discredit and humiliate them. Helping clients through therapy reconnect and re-evaluate their relationship will help them to understand and recognise these differing states, enabling them to move from unhealthy to healthy shame.
“Face reality as it is, not as it was or as you wish it would be” Jack Welsh (Hall 2016).
Shame is not the first emotion a partner experiences when they discover their partner is a sex addict. According to Hall (2016) the shock, pain, disillusionment the discovery brings, overwhelms the core of the partner and the integrity of the relationship. The partner is consumed by the deceit, betrayal, and total devastation the discovery inflicts (Hall, 2016). Shame surfaces very soon bringing an additional level of emotional pain. This level of shame is related to embarrassment plus potential self-blame and guilt (Sanderson, 2015). Shame for a partner in the early stages of discovery is connected by association. The partner can also suffer initial blame from the addict who seeks to place the responsibility on the partner (Gilliland, South, Carpenter & Hardy 2011). This can be challenging if the partner believes it to be true. Guiding a partner from self-blame to acceptance that the responsibility is solely on the addict needs to be empathically and non-judgementally navigated. At this sensitive and early-stage, non-maleficence, and beneficence according to the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy [BACP] (2017) is the ethical consideration for the therapist to observe and practice. The primary concern is to walk alongside the partner helping them cope with the destructive and intrusive thoughts that precede disclosure. Hall (2019) observes that a partner engulfed with betrayal and deceit can impede the addict’s recovery. Shame experienced at this early stage by the partner and addict represents feelings of rejection, self-loathing, confusion, and imprisonment (Brown, 2007). Relentless questions of detail of the behaviour, re shames the addict and can drive them back to the behaviour (Hall, 2019). Another common behaviour that contributes to re shaming of both the partner and the addict is the gradual disclosure. According to Schneider, Corley & Irons (1998) the disclosure process is rarely a one-off event. The pain of the dripping tap method that an addict uses is usually due to the fear they face that the relationship may end or to try and save their partner from being overwhelmed with pain. In addition, the shame the addict is experiencing contributes to this dysfunctional method of disclosure, inflicting continuing impending shame onto the partner. There is a great deal of sensitivity and empathy needed within the therapeutic relationship. The therapist needs to identify and continually assess the partners shame and how it is affecting the healing and recovery process for both the partner and the addict. If a therapist is working with both clients this can be easier to manage. If a therapist is only working with the partner helping the partner understand the addiction by psychoeducation can help to begin to ease the shame the partner is feeling. In the early stages of discovery, a partner can be so outraged that they disclose their partners behaviour to family, friends, and work colleagues. This offers temporary relief for the partner as they seek to shame their partner and humiliate them to the world. However, this reactive behaviour seldom provides long term relief, the partner discovers that the focus is also on them and how they decide to deal with the problem. This can evoke additional shame on the partner as they try to justify and navigate their decision-making process. Understanding that fear, blame, and disconnection are intricately knitted together to create shame, it isn’t surprising that the combined shame both partner and addict feel is complex, powerful, and difficult to overcome (Brown, 2007).
Managing the shame as the weeks go by after discovery is challenging. Hall (2016) quotes “Shame is to addiction like oxygen is to fire.” The devastation, shock and anger begin to subside. If the partner has managed to contain the discovery to trusted family or friends this can reduce the likely re-shaming that can occur when others advise and offer opinions. Corey and Schneider (2003) concurred that early disclosure to all, and sundry fuelled with anger can later be regretted. The shame can start to change as it moves from the initial shame of the acting out behaviours and simple morality to considering a future and forgiving their partner. A partner can feel confident and hopeful if they can see the addict engaging in therapy and there is evidence that changes are being made, nevertheless intrusive thoughts can still plague them sending them into waves of doubt about their own decision-making process. The shame can destabilize a partner forcing them back to the early shame that is fuelled with anger and disbelief. It is important to help the partner navigate these intrusive thoughts. Supporting and guiding the partner, validating their emotions, and helping them to manage the waves of doubt that appear without warning. Therapists need to be mindful that they do not induce shame onto the partner. This can be conveyed through body language or not remaining sensitive to their clients needs (Sanderson, 2015). There is a danger that empathy is not experienced by the client if the therapist is not expressing authentic empathy. Sanderson (2013) explains this as cognitive empathy rather than effective empathy. The difference is the therapist is using empathic words but not feeling true empathy for the partner. This can inflict shame on the partner as they recognise the therapist’s incongruent behaviour. Enduring a partner’s shame within the therapeutic environment is challenging especially when they try to deflect their shame onto the therapist. These transferences can be questioning the therapist’s modality of working or undermining them. These overt or covert attacks need to be recognised and explored with the client, helping them see the unconscious defences connected to their own shame (Sanderson, 2015).
Triggers are unexpected and disruptive. Learning about triggers and how they can affect shame is a crucial part of the ongoing work with partners.
This is a phase that can sabotage healing. Triggers hijack the recovery of the partner thrusting them into feeling re shamed. When a partner is triggered these thrusts them back into the early days of discovery. It disrupts the healing and trust building development as it reminds the partner of the shame, they feel about themselves and the shame transferred from the addict. Helping the partner recognise these triggers as a temporary setback can support their journey to building resilience to future shame. Once triggers are accepted as a part of the recovery process guidance and psychoeducation can be used to empower the partner to deal with the pain the triggers inflict. When the partner has been hijacked by shame unexpectedly because of a trigger this can evoke reactive behaviour from the partner. The early feelings of anger, pain and disillusionment can return and re shame the partner. This can drive the partner into rash decision making. The therapy work needs to address what has happened and how. Attempt to slow the partners distorted thinking down and guide them back to feeling safe and supported. Hall (2016) talks about recognising triggers and preparing for them. Identifying feelings and emotions and learning to manage any cognitive distortions that may flood the thought process. These triggers also re-shame the addict which can impede their recovery, hence affecting the relationship.
Healing the Relationship
There are two ways of looking at healing the relationship. Healing the individual, the self and healing the couple dynamic. What is central to the treatment of sex addiction is healing shame (Birchard, 2017). Once a partner has moved through the anger stages, recognises that there will be triggers but has strategies to deal with them the relationship can begin to heal from shame. Forgiveness is an essential part of moving from unhealthy to healthy shame. The fear of forgiving the addict can elicit thoughts of letting them off the hook, declaring that their behaviour was acceptable. Forgiveness is about letting go. Hall (2016) describes the process as letting go of emotional pain. Hall (2016) confirms that this will take time and effort. Shame continues to play its role throughout this process. The partner will question them self, clarifying and try to justify why forgiveness is the right thing to do. Blocks to forgiveness are fuelled by shame. According to Hall (2016) blocks such as wanting justice, wanting control, and needing guaranteed safety will impede forgiveness. These blocks keep both partner and addict locked in unhealthy shame. Through therapy with the addict and partner as a couple, the therapist can facilitate moving them towards forgiveness thus promoting healthy shame. The therapist can work on re connection both with each other and the wider circle of family and friends. Throughout the early stages of disclosure shame disconnects both addict and partner from their other support systems, especially when they have contained the crisis they are going through. It can be a challenge to re develop these emotional networks as questions may be asked about their absences. It is important to talk through with the couple how they will navigate these instances to ensure re-shaming does not occur. Educating a couple about healthy love and connection and how this can build is important work with the partner and the addict. Carnes (2001) talks about the couple sharing inner thoughts and struggles with each other. This can reinforce trust it enables each person to take responsibility for their own thoughts and actions plus affirms the other person.
There are ongoing challenges for a couple moving forward together. Reconnecting sexually can bring overwhelming feelings of doubt and shame for the partner. Sexual addiction attacks the very core of the couple’s sexual relationship and when a partner decides they want to connect sexually this can evoke intense triggering thoughts. Shame plays a huge part in these thoughts. A partner can experience waves of intrusive thoughts about their partners deceitful sexual behaviour, setting off a chain of events fuelled with shame. Shame that they still want to have sex with their partner, shame that despite all the pain they still want to stay with their partner. It is essential to help the partner recognise these distorted cognitions and help them find empathy for themselves. Brown (2007) talks about moving from being vulnerable in shame which evokes blame, fear, and disconnection to being vulnerable in empathy which encourages connection, compassion, and an acceptance of who you are. This work helps the couple see where they are in their own personal shame and enables them to accept each other and provide support and acceptance building connection to all aspects of the relationship.
Conclusion and limitations
The partner plays a significant role in the healing and rebuilding of a relationship tarnished by sexual addiction. The shame that still exists around this taboo topic makes the process of recovery much harder. The partner needs support from the beginning and Hall (2019), a leading sex addiction specialist emphasizes the need to treat the addict, partner, and relationship to ensure a successful outcome. Shame reduction for both parties need to be a part of the treatment process yet in the research shame doesn’t seem to represent a large focus. I found that there is an abundance of literature on sexual addiction but not with a focus on shame. There seems to be a lack of research conducted that just concentrates on the partners experience. Research that could be conducted about the partner and the shame that they encounter would be beneficial. There could be difficulties conducting this kind of research because of the shame partners feel, sharing their inner most painful feelings would need a partner who has navigated their way through their own personal struggles but has re connected with their vulnerabilities. A partner who has reached out and moved into an empathic state rather than a shameful state would feel open and able to share their story. This could only provide much needed insight into the world of healing and recovery a partner must endure.
Birchard, T. (2017). Overcoming Sex Addiction A Self Help Guide. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
British Association for counselling & Psychotherapy, (2018). Ethical Framework, Retrieved December 15th, 2021 from https://www.bacp.co.uk.
Brown, B. (2007). I Thought it was Just Me (But it Isn’t). New York: Penguin.
Carnes, P. (2001). Out of the Shadows Understanding Sex Addiction. Center City, Minnesota: Hazelden.
Corey, D.M. and Schneider, J.P. (2003) Sex Addiction Disclosure to children: the parents’ perspective. Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity: The Journal of Treatment and Prevention, 10: 4, 291-324.
Gilliland, R., South, M., Carpenter, B.N., & Hardy, S.A. (2011). The Roles of Shame and Guilt in Hypersexual Behaviour.
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Hall, P. (2016). Sex Addiction: The partners Perspective. Hove, East Sussex: Routledge.
Sanderson, C. (2015). Counselling Skills for Working With Shame. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Schneider, J.P.,Corley, D. & Irons, R. (1998) Surviving Disclosure of Infidelity: Results of an International Survey of 164 Recovery sex Addicts and partners. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 5: 189-217.