What Do We Do Now?  Making Sense of Sex Addiction and Infidelity  

How do we build trust? Is there hope? Can we repair our relationship? What do we do now?

These are common questions we are asked when couples come in after the discovery of infidelity and/or a sexual addiction.  We had the privilege of talking with one of the experts in the field of infidelity and sexual addiction to answer these questions for you.  Stefanie Carnes, Ph.D., CSAT-S, is one of the best resources out there (read more about her below).  Here is what she had to say: 

What are some of the first things you tell couples after discovery of a sexual addiction or infidelity?

One of the first things I do is validate for the partner how traumatic discovery is and teach both parties about betrayal trauma.  I encourage both partners to do their own therapy process. I tell them how important it is to be doing individual work and group therapy. If we know there is a sex addiction, I provide education regarding sex addiction, what it is and what treatment looks like.  Early on, I also ask who they have already talked to about it.  One mistake some people make early on is oversharing with people in their community.  Sometimes, when they share with others, they may feel shamed or lose their support.  I help them discern who is appropriate to tell, who they would not feel judged by.  It is very important they have support people, but it’s also important to have the right support people.  

What are the best ways for couples to repair the relationship after infidelity?

If a partner wants to know more information about the betrayal, I encourage them to do an appropriate facilitated disclosure.  I encourage the partner who is an addict or has committed the betrayal, to maintain an attitude of honesty and transparency.  I encourage them to be open about their recovery process.  Also, to be patient and understanding about the trauma response of the betrayal for their partner.  Sometimes, the partners reactions are very hard for the addict.  I try to educate the addict on betrayal trauma and help them respond in a way that is sensitive to their partner’s pain. 

What are some trust-building behaviors after infidelity? 

Openness and a willingness to be transparent. For example, to share their phones and answer their partners questions.  In the early stages, it is really important that they provide reassurance and support to their partner. 

What you do tell spouses who are deciding to stay or go? 

I try to have them delay decision-making if possible.  Some partners have already made up their minds and I support them in any decision they have made.  However, I do encourage them to take the opportunity to see if recovery can talk hold. Have the partners wait and “collect data.” I advise them to take some time to watch their partner.  See if they respond to treatment, demonstrate commitment, are more relatable and have recovery-oriented behaviors.  See if their actions start matching up with their words. The first six months after discovery is really telling.  This time frame gives the addict and opportunity to commit to recovery and possibly save the relationship.  

What are some common blocks to rebuilding trust that you see when working with couples?

Relapses can happen in early recovery.  Relapses are such a trigger for betrayed spouses.  They can be really painful and set a couple back.  If there is a sex addiction, addicts need to fully commit to recovery.  They need to jump into it 100%.  When they don’t, their partners notice and it is a block for them to get emotionally reinvested in the relationship.  Other blocks are when they get into control issues, for example, not wanting to share the contents of their phone.  This makes partners question their commitment and dedication to trust-building.  In my experience, it doesn’t work well to get into fights about this things.  Either surrender and get fully committed, or you will probably lose the relationship.  You can’t waffle or ride the fence of recovery.  If a partner doesn’t see the accountability and changes, they can lose hope for the relationship.  

What is a reasonable expectation for couples after significant betrayals?

It is going to take a long time to repair.  Sometimes, when addicts get into recovery, they think “I’m doing well” and they expect their partners to get through it quickly.  It is not a quick process. It can take 3-5 years. To restore trust, they have to demonstrate change and honesty over a long period of time.  

What are your thoughts about using a polygraph after a discovery? 

There is conflicted research on the reliability of the polygraph.  However, it can be clinically useful to provide reassurance for the partner.  Especially with there has been many many staggered disclosures, it’s an opportunity for addict to demonstrate they are putting everything out on the table. 

Can you tell us about an impact statement?  

I do an exercise to help clients build empathy for their betrayed partner.  The impact statement helps them consider all the ways their partner has been impacted: physical health, financially, self-esteem, emotional well-being. I have them write a letter from point of view of their partner to themselves.  It helps gain empathy and compassion and an understanding of the betrayal trauma their partner is going through. 

Your new book you mentioned is coming out soon. Anything our readers can look forward to in reading it? 

It should be out early next year.  It’s unique in that it is a book for couples to read together.  The Impact statement model is in the new book. It is an eight-part letter and gives the addict guidance for different areas to think about.   I want this as complete as possible so the partner really feels heard.  

Stefanie Carnes, Ph.D., CSAT-S is the President of the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals, a training institute and professional organization for addiction professionals, and a senior fellow for Meadows Behavioral Healthcare where she works with sexually addicted clients and their families. She has authored several books for partner’s of sex addicts and has a new book, for couples dealing with sex addiction, coming out next year.  We highly recommend Dr. Carnes’ book:  Facing Heartbreak: Steps to Recovery for Partner’s of Sex Addicts

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