Co-Addiction vs. Trauma Informed Treatment for Betrayed Partners

In the early days of sex addiction treatment, clinicians took a copy + paste approach from successful substance abuse treatment protocols and applied it to sex addiction treatment. While some of this was (and remains) helpful for treating addiction, it unfortunately misunderstood and ultimately mistreated the partners in the process. This copy + paste approach left treatment addict-centric while looking to the partner and family for support for treatment rather than understanding the family needs their own support too. It also carried the co-addict or codependent label over to the betrayed partner.

The co-dependent model can make the partner feel culpable or responsible for the addiction behaviors by somehow enabling their acting out or for the very reason of choosing an addict as a mate. This model requires the partner to also be in lifelong recovery as they unpack and release their own addictive tendencies. This left many partners feeling blamed for their spouse’s addiction and further traumatized when seeking treatment.

As new research emerged over the years, however, the field is acknowledging how poorly the partners of addicts have been treated along the way. It has become clear that the most helpful approach to supporting betrayed partners is a trauma informed lens. Rather than label with codependency or other mental health diagnoses, the trauma informed model assumes first and foremost that the partner’s responses (emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, relationally) fit those consistent with traumatic stress. Often the betrayed partner has done the best they can to adapt to an addictive system, one that they were likely unaware of until discovery of the sexually compulsive behaviors. The discovery of the behaviors plus the secrecy and double life required to keep it hidden is doubly traumatizing.

While some betrayed partners may also identify with some codependent qualities, certainly not all will fit this list. The vast majority, however, will display symptoms of traumatic response as a result of the betrayal. The trauma model empowers the partner, normalizes their responses, and holds hope that healing and restoration are possible. If you find yourself looking for healing after discovering your spouse or partner’s betrayal, I encourage you to find trauma informed support through counseling, coaching, or support groups that will journey with you this process.

Shame Messages: Negative Core Beliefs


Shame & guilt are universal emotions that we have all experienced. The best way to distinguish between guilt & shame is this -- guilt says “Woops, I did something wrong, I did something bad.” Shame says “I am bad, there is something wrong with me.” Small differences in language, hugely different meanings. Guilt is an uncomfortable feeling when something we’ve done, or not done, doesn’t measure up to our values. Guilt is usually specific to the experience, can be helpful and adaptive, and motivates us to change and grow. Shame, on the other hand, is the devastating feeling that there is something wrong inherently with who we are, thus making us unworthy of love and connection. Shame is typically consistent over time and experiences, a stable belief about who we are. Shame tends to be toxic, not adaptive, and is associated with depression, bullying, eating disorders, addiction, aggression, violence, and suicide.

Usually our shame messages, or negative core beliefs, develop early in life from family rules (be seen not heard, don’t be a burden, we don’t share hard feelings), family roles (the performer, the jokester, the all-star kid, the troubled kid), or from early childhood pain (abuse, bullying, family ruptures, trauma, etc.). Negative core beliefs often act as a magnet attracting evidence that supports its belief, but repelling contradictory messages. For example, someone with a negative core belief of “I’m unlovable” may have that message reinforced when a boyfriend cheats on them as a teenager, or can’t find a roommate in college, or when they feel lonely at a wedding in adulthood. These early wounds become tender buttons that get pushed in our adult lives. For instance, if someone yells at me or I feel I’m “in trouble” today as an adult, I will often feel exactly the same way I felt as a 2nd grader when I got in trouble for talking and had to pull a card in class.

We work hard to avoid feeling shame, and often turn to hiding places to numb out the uncomfortable feeling. We may use food, TV, technology, exercise, alcohol, substances, sex, porn, control, shopping, gambling, people pleasing, busyness, gaming, work or anything else to protect ourselves from feeling shame. Learning to recognize our cycle, like reaching for the ice cream after a stressful day or controlling the household when feeling afraid, can help us replace those numbing behaviors with more healthy coping. Instead of pouring another glass of wine, pick up your journal, call a friend, go for a run, or sit and meditate. Taking the time to identify our negative core beliefs can help us notice when they get triggered and use affirmations to remind ourselves of truth. Instead of spiraling into negative self-talk about being unlovable, someone may think “That’s old stuff. I know I am beloved, I am perfectly imperfect just as I am.”

Ultimately, as Brene Brown says, vulnerability is the secret superpower to fight shame:

If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can't survive.

How can you fight shame today? Healing your shame may help impact your family for generations.

Disclosure After Infidelity

There is often a mixed reaction when we talk about a full disclosure - some couples want to race into it, others are scared to face it. Sometimes one party wants it, and the other doesn't. Research shows, however, that 94% of couples that go through the full disclosure process find it to be healing, helpful, and are glad they did it.

Full disclosure is essentially the acting out partner giving a complete account to their spouse/partner of all sexual behaviors from the inception of the relationship and forward. Understandably, this is a very challenging day for both partners. Often the disclosing partner fears the information will hurt their partner, and the partner fears they may regret hearing information that they cannot unhear. Despite these potential risks, there are many benefits.

Often partners of sex addicts will experience staggered disclosure, bits and pieces of information gathered over time, either from an addict self-disclosing or being caught. Usually the information is spoken as if it's the full truth, so when more information comes along, it can be all the more traumatizing. This leaves the partners feeling uncertain if there is more information hidden and fearful of trusting again. Yet many partners need to know the full truth in order to move forward in healing the relationship. Therapeutic disclosure helps reduce that fear by creating a safe space to hear all of the acting out behavior in one setting. This is a painful day, yet the structure helps contain the trauma into one setting rather than being re-traumatized with each staggered disclosure. 

Though there may be some trepidation approaching disclosure day, the disclosing partner often reports feeling a sense of relief in having all of the secrets and information clearly out in the open. By bringing the secrets into the light, shame can dissipate and recovery can continue. The full disclosure is an important step that allows the couple to put secrets to rest, share the same information, and work through the pain to move forward.

I carefully walk couples through the disclosure process in three parts: Full Disclosure, Emotional Impact Letter, & Emotional Restitution Letter. In future blogs we'll talk more about what the next steps entail. 

If you think a full disclosure may be helpful in your journey, reach out today to get started!

Responding to #MeToo

In the last few weeks stories of Harvey Weinstein have littered news sites as celebrity survivors come forward sharing their experiences of sexual victimization. Weinstein is not the only high profile person to gain the spotlight for sexual assault allegations, prompting the viral #MeToo campaign, where women have courageously come forward sharing their experiences of assault, rape, and sexual harassment.

Tragically, the experience of womanhood includes enduring unwanted sexual advances, the unsolicited up-down glances of strangers, unsolicited sexual images, infantilizing comments like “Honey, sweetie, babe, sweetheart” made to adult women, catcalling on the street, unwanted touch, unsolicited sexual comments, and for one in four women, sexual assault. These unwelcome sexual advances may be made from friends, family, strangers, or people in power.

In the midst of these behaviors, women are often told to lighten up, get a sense of humor, and learn to smile or brush off these advances for the sake of their careers, relationships, or reputations. Essentially, women are taught to minimize their experiences and remain silent as “boys will be boys”.

As thousands of women come together to demonstrate that these stories are not just Hollywood scandal, but a pervasive, enduring problem in our society, how do we respond?

Listen. Take time to ask and understand the experiences of women in your life. Respect their stories, and respect if they are not able or willing to share at this time. This is not your chance to argue or blame shift, but to truly hear what her experiences have been like. Use phrases like, “Tell me more. What was that like for you? What do you need right now?”

Educate. Take time to do research about what constitutes sexual harassment, abuse, assault, and rape. At least one in four women will experience sexual assault or rape in their lifetime.One third of women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. In California 99% of women have endured street harassment.

Evaluate. Behind each #MeToo is a man or boy who made the advances. Challenge yourself to ask hard questions like, “Have I been that person before? How do my attitudes towards women affect my behavior? In what ways do I act or speak disrespectfully about women? Have I remained complicit or silent as others have treated or spoken about women disrespectfully? How do ‘jokes’ about women contributed to #MeToo? How can I stand up for women when I witness harmful conversations, jokes, or behavior around me?”

Support. For many assault and rape survivors, when stories like Weinstein’s break, a flood of memories, flashbacks, and nightmares may return. Many other women struggled to offer #MeToo because of rampant minimization, thinking their experiences of harassment were “not that bad”. Support your sisters by naming and denouncing sexual harassment, assault, abuse, and rape. Support women as they heal. Become advocates for change in your own circles and beyond.