By Tania Rochelle
In the weeks and months following my discovery, I endured a variety of insults and injuries via the sex addiction treatment industry, in the service of my husband’s recovery. The basic rules were made clear early:
Do not leave for at least a year.
Do not show your anger.
Do not cry.
Do not monitor or check up on him.
Do not ask questions about his meetings/therapy sessions.
Do not cause him stress.
Expect slips and relapses.
Keep sex simple.
Have faith in a “better than ever” marriage.
To summarize: I was to stay put, carry the load at home, suck up my anger and sadness, extend my trust to a serial cheater and liar, extend my trust to a 12-step group full of serial cheaters and liars, extend my trust to CSAT’s who were themselves serial cheaters and liars, tiptoe around him, accept that “relapses are part of recovery,” have sex with him but make sure to keep it missionary style (no fun, creative sex life for me), and believe that all of this was going to lead to the marriage of my dreams.
I’ve already written about our first post-D-Day therapy session with the Cowboy, an account you can read over at Your Story is Safe Here. But my then-husband’s first individual session was disastrous in terms of my own recovery from this trauma. Unfortunately, it merely set the bar for subsequent therapists to transcend. His first therapist was a woman. He came home from the session and told me that she’d suggested he buy the book Walking on Eggshells because after his description of my reaction to discovery, she’d diagnosed me with Borderline Personality Disorder. I was working on my master’s in counseling at the time, so I knew plenty about THAT. I was incensed.
First of all, why were they talking about ME? During our twelve years together, he’d been living a sordid secret life while maintaining the appearance of a devoted husband and father. It seemed to me that they had enough to deal with, addressing his compulsive sex chatline use and Craigslist hook-ups, without wasting one second on whatever I might be. Instead, they apparently spent that entire session talking about my “anger.”
During our first joint session with her, I was shocked by the way she was dressed to treat a so-called sex addict: low-cut blouse, black boots with spiked heels, long hair in a loose, messy bun that played right into the sexy librarian fantasy he’d disclosed to me in the aftermath of discovery. She constantly referred to her clients as “my addicts,” claiming them affectionateIy. I kept waiting to wake up from the icky nightmare. But no, this was real. She was pretty clever, though; what better way to keep a so-called sex addict as a client than to dress like a hooker, show him adoration, and name his wife the enemy.
Eventually, he stopped dating seeing her, because she was always running at least 20 minutes late and he was far too important to be kept waiting. The next therapist was an admitted “recovering sex addict.” He was as gentle and soft-spoken as Fred Rogers, with an office full of dreamcatchers and Tibetan singing bowls that suggested he’d spent time on mountain tops and in sweat lodges, connecting with his deepest spiritual self. He was always leaving to “meet the children at the bus stop” after our appointments, like an All-American dad.
He’d created just the right image, and I was desperate enough to think he could help us. But it was in his office that I first heard the terms shaming and pain shopping. I learned that every time I cried or expressed anger, I was shaming my husband, and every time I insisted on answers to my questions about the past decade of my life with him, I was pain shopping. In fact, no matter what emotion or impulse I expressed, it was wrong. It was inappropriate. It was damaging to both of our recoveries and to our marriage. What marriage? I asked. It has never been an actual marriage.
This therapist liked to use false dichotomies, a little trick I found common among the CSAT’s we saw. Once he asked me, Would you rather have a husband who shares himself with you, who talks intimately, who lets himself be vulnerable, who is honest…or would you rather have someone who never slips or relapses? To which I replied, Huh?!! Are you kidding me?!! Has it occurred to either of you that it’s possible to have BOTH?! But there I was, expressing my emotions, and thereby shaming the two of them.
There were several therapists after that, therapists who were at least equally dangerous or inept. There were enough of them, in fact, that I began to realize how few truly helpful resources there were for wives and partners. It became evident that the treatment industry was designed to keep the men in treatment and that they needed the wives to make that happen. I was being used as a prop, and I was only important in as much as I could shut up and be useful.
Around the time this was sinking in, I read Barbara Steffens’ book, Your Sexually Addicted Spouse, wherein she talked about the damage that was being caused by labeling partners “Codependent” and by ignoring their trauma symptoms. Her research showed that almost 70 percent of wives and partners ended up with PTSD symptoms. She called for a different model of treatment, a model that focused on the partners and on processing their trauma. Furthermore, she had founded an organization to train practitioners in this model, called the Association of Partners of Sex Addicts Trauma Specialists. Yes, I thought. Steffens is starting a Revolution. I wanted to be part of it, wanted to learn as much as I could so that once I finished my masters, I could be as helpful as possible.
I registered for the inaugural APSATS training in Dallas. On the first day, I found myself in a large conference room stacked with CSAT’s. Although it made me uncomfortable, I hoped it might be a good sign that so many of them were open to learning a new way to operate. My hopes were summarily crushed. It was more like a slogging game of tug-o-war.
Steffens would present slides outlining the trauma model of treatment, and the CSAT’s would undermine the materials by saying things such as, The partners are going to have to learn to bite their tongues and We shouldn’t do a formal disclosure unless the wife agrees to stay with the addict for at least a year. Otherwise, she might just be getting information to use against him in a divorce or custody case. They were still protecting the so-called addicts and not the wives and partners. This was no Revolution.
I left Dallas feeling deflated and defeated. Those feelings were reinforced as I read article after article by leaders in the SATI (Sex Addiction Treatment Industry), paying lip service to the trauma model while using the same misogynistic language and tropes they’d always used. They still called for partners to stay for a year, still encouraged partners to foster intimate physical and emotional connections with these unsafe men, and still emphasized the idea that relapse is to be expected. Most importantly, no one was calling “sex addiction” what it is: domestic abuse.
The most egregious recent example of such mind-fuckery is Robert Weiss’ latest book, Prodependence. For over thirty years, the treatment industry accused wives and partners of being codependent at the same time it tried to make us codependent. The label worked to their advantage when they could say we knew all along that our men were “acting out” and that we enabled their behavior, when they told us that we were as sick as our husbands and that we needed as much help as our husbands did. Then those same therapists tried to turn us into codependent little soldiers, urging us to make safety lists and to create boundaries and to sit on our hands while they spent weeks or months compiling the “formal disclosures.”
Now, Weiss has spun the term codependent into something we’re supposed to be proud of, calling it prodependent. Yes, it means the same thing as the “co” version, but now it’s ok, now it means we’re compassionate and loving and helpful. Furthermore, he equates sex addiction with cancer and encourages partners to care for the addict the way we’d care for someone with Leukemia. Get real. You don’t wake up one day with sex addiction. It doesn’t strike you through no fault of your own. People with cancer do not gaslight and blame shift or expect you to administer their chemo.
People with cancer do not take you down with them. They don’t steal their children’s college funds and give their spouses HPV. Cancer victims don’t, as a rule, abuse their partners. To equate cancer and sex addiction is its own form of abuse and manipulation of partners. In my experience, wives and partners of so-called sex addicts are strong, compassionate, loyal, and empathetic. To exploit those qualities in order to keep men in treatment is unethical.
Traumatized women have no reserves. When they channel energy away from themselves and toward his recovery, it makes their own healing slow and difficult. All Weiss has done is remove the part of codependency that says “you are as sick as he is.” After all, if he does not take out that you’re-as-sick-as-he-is part and tries to use his cancer analogy, you end up with two people who have cancer. If the “sex addict” has cancer, and the partner is “as sick as he is” and she spends all her energy supporting and taking care of him instead of getting her own treatment, she will probably die. Everything else about codependency that’s helpful for keeping the partner engaged in her mate’s recovery is prettied up, tied with a bow, and handed back to her with his blessings.
By the way, why doesn’t it work from the other direction? Who decided that the sex addict needs more care and support than the traumatized partner? Why isn’t Weiss saying that the sex addict should treat his traumatized partner as if she has cancer? Why shouldn’t the person who caused all the damage to his wife and children be enlisted to support her recovery?
Why, after all these years, is the recovery industry still focused on the perpetrator and not on his victim? And, barring that, why can’t they just stop expecting her to prop up his recovery and instead encourage her to get the intensive individual care she needs to heal from her trauma and rebuild her life?
Because sex addicts don’t go to treatment on their own. They go because their wives or partners threaten to leave if they don’t. The industry knows this. Without us, there would be no sex addiction treatment industry.