Updated: Feb 11, 2021
Being honest with your spouse about how you've sexually and emotionally betrayed them might be the most difficult thing you'll ever do. It WILL change your life, but maybe not in the horrible ways dancing through your head right now. Instead, leave some room for the possibility that coming clean might be what sets you free from your sexual addiction, and could even transform your marriage into the relationship you've always desired but thought was impossible. Sometimes, the only way to save a marriage is to love your spouse enough to risk losing them. I know this is true because I've seen it happen in my own marriage and many others.
Marriages don't always heal after disclosure, but even when they don't, both partners and addicts overwhelmingly report they are glad the disclosure happened, according to researchers M. Deborah Corley and Jennifer P. Schneider. Their study of 164 sex addicts and partners found that 93 percent of partners and 96 percent of addicts felt disclosure had been the right thing to do, despite the pain. They also found that over half the partners threatened to leave after disclosure, but only one-quarter of couples actually separated.
Yes, disclosure hurts, but it also brings freedom, emotional intimacy and hope for the future of a relationship. "One can never by 100% sure where disclosure will lead. Nonetheless, both addicts and partners have learned that honesty is the best way to find healing," Corley and Schneider wrote in Disclosing Secrets: An Addict's Guide for When, to Whom, and How Much to Reveal. If you're considering disclosure of an addiction to pornography, affairs, anonymous sex or some other unwanted sexual behavior, here are seven things to keep in mind:
Take a deep breath and slow down. Blurting out the details of your sexual brokenness to your spouse and unleashing the lake of shame that's been dammed up within you would probably feel good, but it is not fair to your spouse. This is a complex process that needs to be tackled with care and compassion. Many people have walked this path before you, so take some time to learn from their experiences before you charge ahead blindly. A great starting point would be to read Disclosing Secrets or a great pamphlet from Faithful and True called Full Disclosure. In many cases, a full disclosure is not the FIRST step toward healing from sexual betrayal.
Don't do this alone. You're going to need some support. As an addict, you will benefit greatly from working through the disclosure process with a trusted and trained guide, such as a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist. For example, a counselor can help you prepare for a full disclosure by guiding you through the process of creating a complete timeline of your sexual history. Your spouse, meanwhile, will likely need professional help recovering from the betrayal trauma your truth perpetrates on them. Many CSATs and PSAPs also specialize in betrayal trauma, along with Certified Clinical Partner Specialists.
Understand your motivation. There are many healthy reasons for disclosing infidelity and other unwanted sexual behaviors to your spouse, but there are unhealthy reasons as well. The purpose of disclosure is to share the full truth about your sexual betrayal so the relationship can be reestablished on a firm foundation of honesty and truth-telling. Doing this allows you to take full responsibility for your actions, brings freedom from the shame of lies and secrets, creates empathy for your spouse, allows your spouse to make informed decisions based on reality, and begins the process of building true intimacy. Sometimes, though, addicts and spouses choose to wield disclosure as a weapon. If your goal is to blame your spouse for your decision to act out or to inflict emotional pain on your spouse, then you're not ready for a full disclosure. Similarly, you're not ready if your goal is to avoid serious consequences or manipulate your spouse into offering forgiveness by telling half-truths. It's worth noting here that the process of full disclosure is meant for couples who have hope of staying together. If your spouse already knows part of the truth and has decided to leave the relationship, it might be unwise to offer a full disclosure that could be used as evidence in a divorce proceeding.
Your spouse needs to know the full EXTENT of your betrayal, but probably not every sordid detail. It's often difficult to discern which details your spouse needs to know in order to begin healing and which ones might hinder her healing. As a general rule, your spouse can't fully forgive you without knowing what they're forgiving. So, if you acted out sexually with 12 different people, that's something your spouse needs to know in order to understand how they've been betrayed. Your spouse, though, probably doesn't need to know the exact locations (hotels, parking lots, etc.) you used for acting out. Having that level of detail might make it more difficult for your spouse to heal since memories of your betrayal and the resulting trauma might get triggered every time your spouse drives by one of those locations. Still, the ultimate decision about which details you'll need to share should be made by your spouse. If you feel like they're seeking details that will be detrimental to their wellbeing, it's okay to ask them to process the issue with their therapist or a trusted guide. If they still want to know, the loving thing to do is respond with complete honesty.
Don't drip it out. Making a full disclosure can bring great healing to your marriage, but a series of partial disclosures can obliterate trust and cause great harm to your spouse. "When information is acquired this way, a betrayed spouse will always wonder if there is more uncovered deception or if she asked the right questions to ascertain the whole truth," Mark and Debbie Lasser explain in Full Disclosure. Sadly, staggered disclosures are common. A core belief of most sex addicts is that "if you really knew me, you would reject me." That means addicts, when caught acting out by a spouse, often tell half-truths and withhold the most difficult information for later, making it more difficult to ultimately restore trust. In their research, Corley and Schneider found that 70% of partners reported there had been more than one major disclosure, causing repeated trauma for the spouse.
Write it down and share it with a guide. This is not a time to shoot from the hip. It's likely that your brain will click into "fight, flight or freeze" mode during the stress of a formal disclosure, so it's not a time to rely on your memory. You'll need to take the time to write a letter with the help and support of a trusted guide. Sharing an initial draft of your letter with a trusted brother can also help you overcome the fear and shame that can paralyze an addict. Walking through the disclosure process with friends who love you can help make it bearable. After you've spoken the letter to your spouse during a formal disclosure you can give them the letter to review later since their brain will also likely be in "fight, flight or freeze" mode during disclosure. It's almost always best if this process of formal disclosure is done in the presence of a therapist or trusted guide. This is an extremely emotional process for the addict and the spouse, so having a trained third party on hand to guide the conversation is invaluable.
Don't keep distorting your spouse's reality. Many people who struggle with unwanted sexual behavior convince themselves they're protecting their spouse from unnecessary pain by withholding the truth about their selfish sexual behavior. It's a lie. Often, addicts fail to consider the harm caused by distorting another person's reality. It's extremely likely that your spouse knows something is wrong in your relationship. They may not even have words to articulate this feeling or hunch, but it's always there, nagging them. Sometimes, they trust their gut and become a private detective of sorts, always searching for clues until they confirm their fears. Other times, they trust you and begin doubting themselves. This can lead to a sense of going crazy. "Lying, keeping secrets, and manipulating the truth about behaviors undermine the sanity of those trying to make sense of their world," write Mark and Debbie Lasser. Here's the bottom line: You're not God, so quit acting like it and love your spouse enough to let them truly know you. An up-front disclosure of the truth is far better than being caught and forced to disclose without any preparation. Yes, being vulnerable is risky and your spouse might choose to leave you. But they might also choose to stay and work on healing their heart and the relationship, giving you the gift of being fully known and fully loved. There's only one way to find out.
If this all seems overwhelming, please take a deep breath and remember that you don't have to walk this path alone. As Christians, the Holy Spirit lives within us and will teach us ALL THINGS (John 14:26). And in James 5:16, God clearly tells us that confession is a necessary step for healing. "Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective."
If you're considering disclosure, I'd love to talk with you. I know the fear you're feeling because I've walked this road in my own life, but I also know the freedom and hope that comes from being fully known by the person you love the most. If you'd like to talk, please schedule a free coaching call now. I'm here to help.