Men who come to see us for recovery from sexual compulsive behavior often expect a sort of linear course for regaining their lives. “I’ll put 6 solid months into counseling then… my wife will trust me again, our marriage will be back to where it was, and I’ll never do this again.” Unfortunately, only our compulsive behavior is linear — you CAN expect your compulsive behavior to get more extreme over time if not checked. However, your recovery is more like a scatter diagram, with many ups and downs.
A common frustration that’s voiced during the recovery process reflects this expectation. The flaw in this thinking is that you aren’t alone in your committed relationship, your marriage. It’s not just you. There’s a dynamic with your partner that needs to be repaired. You may work diligently on your sobriety and cleaning up your act, but the amount of your recovery doesn’t equal the same of amount of repair to your relationship. How come? Think of the Venn Diagrams we learned in math class:
The first diagram shows two independent individuals while the second reflects two people in a relationship. The relationship is more than just the two individuals, it’s also the collective relationship, your union, shown by the overlap. You changing your part of this delicate equation is only one-third of the “solution.” Another way to think of it, if you’re changing, how is your partner changing and how is your relationship changing because of that?
Your Relationship is a System
Think of your relationship as a system — with rules, patterns, beliefs, and expectations. Therapists often use a “dance” analogy to describe the balance. If you are used to a certain way you both dance, what happens when one of you changes the steps? If you’re making personal changes to address your compulsive sexual behavior, isn’t that like changing a pattern you’re both used to? While change is necessary, so is communicating and sharing what EACH of you are going through during this change. If you are merely changing your behavior to “save” your relationship then you may be disappointed with the outcome. Gaining sobriety will not in and of itself save your relationship … but it is a prerequisite.
Changing Roles … You AND Your Partner
As guys who’ve acted out, we often assume the role of the Identified Patient (IP) in a relationship — or in layman’s terms, the screw-up. But that’s only half of the story. It is important that you learn to accept that you and your partner are peers. Your wife or significant other is not your parent or authority figure and the process of change includes learning how to change your role in your relationship, and that includes your partner.
Individual and Couples Counseling
When men come to see me for counseling, they are often in a hurry to “fix” the problem and want to get into couples work immediately. Understand that both you, and likely your partner, both need individual attention and help before you take on couple’s work. Referring to the second diagram, you will notice the vast majority of the circles reflect each individual. You each brought your personal histories into the relationship and forged the inner circle (the relationship) and you both need to look at the roles within the system in your relationship. Your compulsive behavior may have ignited the need to change but the problems in your relationship likely outweigh your addiction.