Partners of the Chronically Unfaithful, Part 3

Note: this is part three of the five-part article "Partners of the Chronically Unfaithful", by Bill Herring.  Click here to return to the previous section.  If you prefer you may click here to read this article from the beginning.


The realization that some basic assumptions about the relationship have been false makes the search for truth a fundamental component of the healing process for a partner of a person who has engaged in multiple acts of sexual betrayal.  Once trust is broken, however, it is difficult to place faith in anything that cannot be verified, and even that can be subject to great scrutiny. 

Information And The Search For Truth

Often the partner decides that what is necessary to heal is to become aware of everything that took place, even in the darkest crannies of the chronic betrayer’s secret life.  Interrogations such as “what hotel room did you use…….what did you say to each other…….how many times did this take place…….tell me every website you visited” may go on and on and on, sometimes seemingly without end.

This insatiable quest for information is easy to understand.  Since a basic theme that keeps emerging for sexually betrayed partners is the sense of powerlessness that comes from being emotionally tossed around like a raft in a hurricane, it makes perfect sense that the search for a semblance of control and self-direction can assume epic proportions.  The old adage that ‘knowledge is power’ holds great sway for people who have been kept in the dark for so long. 

The Risk Of “Information Addiction”

It’s certainly true that possessing adequate information allows for decisions to be made on the basis of fact rather than fantasy.  Information can be an important antidote to a partner’s unchecked imagination.  But it’s also generally the case that the value of ever-more-specific details quickly reaches a point of diminishing returns.  Eventually it becomes evident that information is very different from insight, just as understanding is a poor substitute for acceptance. 

This limit can be difficult to determine in the ongoing search for that elusive sense of regained personal power, which is why some partners can fall into an unhealthy pattern of what has been termed “information addiction”.  Examples of this can be seen when a partner pulls years of phone records, questions every imaginable discrepancy and wakes the betrayer up in the middle of the night to demand another piece of information.  This degree of detail rarely serves healing.  Information will not scratch the itch where it resides, for that wound is not in the head where the thoughts are but in the heart where the soul lives.  For this reason I caution partners against demanding or searching for too many explicit details immediately, if at all.  

A useful analogy to consider is the shock you would feel upon learning that you are in a relationship with a person who repeatedly shoplifts.  How many incidents would it take to indicate that this is a problem for the both of you?  Would it be necessary to know the brands of the items that were stolen, the location of the security guards, the names of the cashiers on duty or even the reason for the crimes?  Boil it all down and all that fundamentally matters is that you’re in a relationship with a chronic shoplifter.  What else do you really need to know to come to grips with the essence of your dilemma?

The Dangers Of Unrestrained Disclosure

Ironically, there are times when the betraying partner unleashes a tidal wave of explicit details early into the discovery or disclosure process.  This generally happens when he or she recognizes an absence of moral authority to hold back any information that the aggrieved partner might want to know.  In addition, a person who has long been lost in a self-created maze of deception, isolation and shame can find great relief by finally telling the truth and bringing what has been shrouded in darkness into the light.

But a sordid avalanche of specific detail about every act of deception can pummel the betrayed partner into a state of profound shock without yielding much that is productive enough to make such pain worthwhile.  Wounds rarely benefit from salt, and the negative impact of such unrestrained disclosure can last forever.  As the old saying goes, a bell can never be un-rung.  

I’m not saying that a hurt partner doesn’t deserve to know whatever is helpful to his or her healing process, nor that chronic betrayers should try to dictate the extent of their disclosure Often times their protests that “I don’t want to hurt you any more than I already have” or “I don’t think it would be helpful”, or “my sponsor told me not to go into too many details” mask deep fear and shame at the prospect of taking full accountability for the consequences of their behavior.  

But in my experience partners who have been grievously hurt by chronic betrayal may demand to know every possible excruciating detail precisely at the time of their most tenuous hold on emotional stability.  The harshest detail at the worst time is rarely the best course.  When a partner insists on getting the most potentially damaging information while in the worst state of mind to be able to handle it, it is as if the unhealthiest part of that person is screaming for information that takes every ounce of reserve and emotional balance to incorporate. This can lead to an ultimately self-destructive phenomenon has come to be known as “pain shopping”.

The Elusive Search For Explanations

Another source of frustration for chronically betrayed partners who are seeking to know more about their partner’s deceptive history is that people who have engaged in chronic sexual betrayal may claim extensive memory gaps for a variety of reasons:  

  • A reality that can be painful for the betrayed partner to hear is that sometimes the sheer number of illicit sexual acts makes it impossible to remember each one with clarity.
  • A truly sexually addicted individual in the midst of a sexual binge experiences a dramatic shift of persona, judgment, reasoning, values and perception.  The neurochemical activation of arousal, numbing and fantasy is why sex addiction has been called three drugs in one. This altered state of awareness is a form of dissociation in which parts of the self that don’t fit together are compartmentalized into fragments rather than integrated into a stable sense of identity.  It’s not coincidental that the word integrity and integration share the same root: a lack of integration leads to a lack of integrity.  In the same way that it’s difficult to remember dreams once you’re awake, such episodic distortion of reality impairs a person’s ability to recall events, even those which occurred fairly recently.  
  • Finally, the intense shame that accompanies some of these acts can make it difficult for a person who lacks strong moral character to face the facts of his or her history.  It is important for a chronic betrayer to resist the desire to “put the past behind” without completely facing it, for this would be just another form of compartmentalization rather than integration.  One value that derives from involvement in a 12-step recovery process is the emphasis on obtaining a “fearless and searching” acknowledgment of all that has happened in the past.  This can have a powerfully positive effect on a person’s ability to recall events.  

Regardless of the “who, what, when, where and how” of chronic deception, the question that can seem most important to a betrayed partner is "why”.  However, this often proves to be the least productive line of inquiry.  The reasons why people repeatedly engage in ultimately destructive behavior are often complex and subject to many unfolding layers of insight which often emerge over time.  One of the goals of therapy for chronic betrayers is to delve into the psychological drivers of such behavior.  But I’m also reminded of the story of the simple response the famed bank robber Willie Sutton gave when asked why he kept robbing banks: “Because that’s where the money is.”

The Value Of Structured Disclosure

An adequate and appropriate disclosure process may take awhile to develop.  Often it is best achieved in a counselor’s office in order to provide structure, containment and guidance through a process that may otherwise go off-course in a thousand ways.  It can be helpful if both partners have had the chance to achieve a degree of support and stability through some measure of individual counseling.  

Since this process occurs a little later in the healing process I am not going to discuss it in depth here, since this article is written more for people who are starting out on their journey and the structured disclosure process is best discussed with a therapist in order to be tailored to the specific needs of each individual situation.

Some Information Needs to Be Immediately Disclosed

Of course some pieces of the puzzle are best turned face up right away. The following categories of information need to be immediately disclosed rather than revealed in dribs and drabs over the course of weeks or months.  

1. The types of deceptive behavior that took place (online chats, phone sex, IM’s, anonymous sex, affairs, one-night stands, professional sex services, etc.)  Partners have a right to know the various categories of illicit sexual behavior that the chronic betrayer engaged in, even when it is not necessary to know every detail of every encounter.

2. How long the behavior has been occurring.  In some scenarios partners learn that chronic infidelity began at some time after the relationship began, while in other situations they are shocked to learn that this behavior has always been a shadow side of the relationship, and may have even been a part of the betrayer’s pattern of behavior well before the couple ever knew each other.

3. Whether the partner knows any of the other people involved in the sexually inappropriate behavior.  Addicts may want to hide this behavior by fearing it will implicate a friend, neighbor or business associate, but this is not where the most important sense of loyalty resides.  People willing to engage in sexual betrayal should know what the risks are from the very beginning, and that includes being revealed when the secret comes out.  

4. Whether any laws were broken.  Partners certainly need to know if any portion of the pattern of chronic betrayal has transgressed legal boundaries, regardless of whether such behaviors resulted in arrest.  Examples include prostitution, public exposure, illegal voyeurism, sexualized behavior involving minors, embezzlement to pay for illicit sexual activity, and so forth. 

5. Whether there has been any risk of exposure to sexually transmitted diseases.  It is obviously crucial to know if any bacterial or viral infections caused by unprotected sexual activity could possibly be a concern.  Betrayed partners may decide to get medically tested regardless of what they are told.  Even if sexual behavior within the relationship continues, partners may insist on condom use until all fear of risk has passed. 

6. The amount of any money that was spent.  Not all repetitive sexual infidelity involves significant amounts of money but some patterns can be stunningly expensive.  A person who has repeatedly used professional sex workers (prostitutes, strip clubs, massage parlors, etc.) can place a huge financial toll on a relationship.  

What all of these categories have in common is their direct impact on the chronically betrayed partner’s need to plan a course of action for the future.  This goal is not substantially aided by knowing about every detail about the secret life of the sex addict (or non-addictive chronic sexual betrayer).  All that is necessary is a sufficient sense of what has taken place to make important life decisions.  

I want to be clear: if you ask your chronically unfaithful partner to tell you whatever information you want to know, he or she should be prepared to do so.  It may turn out that the actual details are not as important as the knowledge that your partner is willing to give you whatever you feel you need to heal the wounds caused by his or her behavior.  On the other hand, it’s your responsibility to be cautious about what it is you are trying to find out and clear about your motivation. Both the co-addict and trauma models of healing recognize that feeling “compelled” to get extensive details is a potentially unhealthy symptom. 

(Click here to move on to part 4 of this article, "THE BIG QUESTION: WHAT DOES YOUR FUTURE HOLD?")


Personal assistance is available from the author of this article, Atlanta psychotherapist Bill Herring.)