Working with Female Partners

Joy Rosendale (MA (Dist) Cert Ed, Accredited with COSRT, UKCP, ATSAC) writes about interventions used in group programmes for female partners of men with sex addiction and sexually compulsive behaviours. 

Although there has been a rise in understanding and treatment of sex addiction over the past few decades, the situation of partners of sex addicts has not been given a similar degree of attention. Most partners are traumatised by the revelations of the sex addict, yet historically they have been omitted from the treatment processes and so suffered from losing the relationship they thought they had, and then losing their spouse to recovery.

My experience has been that most women feel ambivalent when deciding to join a group offering support and education about sexual addiction and its impact on partners. Feelings of isolation, powerlessness, shame, sadness, fear and indignation that it is not their problem, all feature in the often desolate emotional landscape.

All addictions make a couple dynamic problematic, but when sexual energy is diverted compulsively outside of the relationship, it strikes at the heart of femininity. Some members think their partner’s acting out is just bad behaviour, using expressions such as ‘he can’t keep his trousers up’. However, increasingly, since 2013 especially, participants are reading more of the literature and recognising that it may be worth exploring the concepts of an intimacy disorder, a generational addiction pattern or frozen early emotional development.

Sue arrived in the office, white with fatigue and with the shocked, traumatised appearance sadly familiar to me from other partners in a similar situation. She had discovered more pornography on her husband’s computer that morning, despite a showdown three days earlier when her partner, Doug, disclosed a secret life of visiting dominatrix sex workers. Doug had become careless of late and had left a mobile phone in a jacket. Sue had taken to checking his things routinely as she had felt his absence from the relationship in the last year but had not been able to make her intuitions concrete. There had been some missing time in his work schedule and she had once found a stocking in his suitcase.

In this initial session I reassured Sue that, as her life committed to reality again, rather than existing in the denial of addictive patterns, she would be in a place to make decisions about whether to stay in or leave the marriage, and that in six months it might be time for some evaluation.

Sue felt extremely apprehensive before the first group meeting and almost couldn’t get in the car to drive there. She paired up with Sarah for the introductions and was shocked to hear that Sarah’s husband, a city lawyer, went ‘dogging’ frequently, sometimes disappearing for days and returning dishevelled, with his shoes muddy and ruined. Sarah’s baby was only 18months old. When Sue though of this back at home after the meeting she cried for Sarah, for herself and for all the women who had been humiliated and exposed.

My observation, anecdotally, is an outcome of ‘thirds’: in a typical group, one third will leave the relationship, one third will ‘stay stuck’ (remain together but with problems unresolved) and one third go on to have a different and often improved closeness with their partner.

A therapeutic modality that I have to be of benefit when facilitating partner groups at the Marylebone Centre is Transactional Analysis, which is humanistic in its philosophy, believing we all have worth and value (I’m Ok, You’re Ok). The three main TA concepts I explore in this chapter are Ego States, The Drama Triangle, and Life Scripts, all of which I find help partners better understand and shape the dynamics of their own relationships.

The group facilitator will need to be willing and able to sit with the profound trauma, anger and sadness in the room and should never accept the invitation to join the ‘aren’t men awful’ game. Finally, hope must always be held for the future for partners. This is a learning that would never had been chosen, but whether going forward in the couple, or continuing alone, it can be a positive wake-up call for one’s life.

joy-rosendale_500  Joy specialises in working with partners of those struggling with sexually compulsive behaviours www.joyrosendale.comShe initiated the Partners’ programme at the Marylebone Centre in 2005 and the groups continue, offering support and education. She also teaches on the Sex Adddiction Training Diploma and has contributed to books on the subject including being a contributing author to the Routledge International Handbook of Sexual Addiction.  Joy has been practising psychotherapy for 27 years and trained with Relate as a relationship and sex therapist, and with Patrick Carnes in Arizona for sex addiction.   She likes Transactional Analysis as a modality (I’m ok, you’re ok) and offers a kind and holistic approach to self development.