Healer, Not Whipping Boy

Posted on July 3, 2014


If you have read much of my blog, you know that one of my areas of specialization is treating sexual addiction.  Whether addiction is involved or not, if there has been sexual infidelity or other betrayals of trust in the relationship, the partner is often traumatized.  As with other types of trauma, traumatic reaction to betrayals in the relationship can involve hypervigilance and emotional reactivity.  This can often take the form of the partner raging at the addict (or the person who betrayed the trust).  Addicts on the whole are not well equipped to deal with the intensity of these emotions.  The intuitive response from the addict is to shut down and withdraw when things get intense.  For the partner, this only confirms that “You never really cared about me” and “You are not there for me now.”

Dr. Doug Weiss created a video series titled “Helping Her Heal” in which he coaches the male sex addict about what has happened to his wife and how to help her through the healing process.  Weiss does not pull any punches.  One sex addict told me that watching that video was like being hit in the crotch with a cricket bat.  On the plus side, Weiss’ intensity helps the addict to see what has happened through his wife’s eyes and respond with patience and understanding.  Part of his frequent refrain is “remember you did this to her.”  Sometimes where this leaves the addict is feeling that “I just need to take this.  I caused this.  This is the penance I need to pay for what I did.”

I would assert that there is a difference between being the healer and being the whipping boy.  Stephen Karpman (1968) described a form of transactional analysis that is commonly known as the Karpman Triangle.  The idea is that there are three unhealthy roles that can be assumed within the relationship and that partners can move around between these roles.  The roles are persecutor, victim, and rescuer.  Typically, when the addict is active in his addiction, he[1] is in the role of persecutor in which he pressures or manipulates his partner.  The partner has been in the role of the victim (and perhaps even in the role of rescuer).  Once the betrayal has been discovered, there is the potential for the partner to move into the role of persecutor and the addict into the role of victim.  This is a change in dynamic, but it is still unhealthy and gets in the way of healing the relationship.  It is not a healing experience for the partner for the addict to become the whipping boy.

So is there an alternative other than withdrawing or standing in the line of fire?  Obviously, my assertion is “yes” or I would not be writing this post.  To approach this, let’s look at what is behind the partner’s anger.  First, there is pain.  The partner may feel absolutely overwhelmed by the pain of discovering what the addict did.  She loves you, but she also hates you for causing her this much pain.  She is confused about how you could love her and have done what you did.  Second, there is fear.  What else have you done that I don’t know about?  Will you do it again?  Are you still acting out?  How can I know?  How can I ever trust you again?  Have I been exposed to an STI?  These are frightening questions.  Third, there is sadness.  There is a deep grieving for the loss of the life she thought she had.  Fourth, there may be loneliness.  Who can I talk to about this?  She may be feeling more alone than at any point in her life.  Fifth, there may be shame.  This could take the form of “How could I have been such a fool?”  Or it may be “I wasn’t enough.  My husband had to go outside the relationship to have his needs met.”  There is hopelessness.  How can we ever recover from this?  There is helplessness.  I don’t feel safe, but there is nothing I can do.  Underneath all of that is a need to feel loved and valued and emotionally safe again.  All of which has been lost.

That anger, in a matter of speaking, is a bid for connection.  If she were through with you, she would have left you already.  This is a request to see the pain that I am in and show that it matters to you how deeply I am hurt.  The natural reaction of taking cover when under fire will not accomplish this.  Neither will just passively taking the verbal bullets.  Neither will a repeat of “I’m sorry” (which you have already said many times).  The way to start being the healer is to acknowledge the pain.  As men we need pretty concrete instructions.  So try this on.  When your wife is expressing anger over your acting out, acknowledge the hurt by saying something like, “You are really in a lot of pain.  I know I caused that.  What do you need from me?”  If she starts monitoring your phone or your browser history, acknowledge, “It is really scary to think I might still be doing _____ (whatever it was you did).”

So which emotion do I pick to acknowledge?  Well, what do you suppose is happening for her?  In the end it is not a problem if you pick the wrong one.  She will correct you, and then you can acknowledge her experience.

A word of caution: Do not use the words, “I understand.”  She will most likely tell you that you don’t.  The way you communicate understanding is by acknowledging her emotional experience.

Recognize that this is not a panacea and healing is not instantaneous.  When you say, “You are in a lot of pain,” she may tell you “You’re damn right I am.”  Just because you acknowledge it, does not make the pain immediately go away.  It does create an emotionally safe place to begin the healing process.  This is also not a linear process.  Over time, there is healing and the pain subsides.  But there are still times when something will remind her and it will become more intense.

A final note here.  It is helpful if both partners get therapy.  Partners often feel that this is the addict’s problem, and I don’t need therapy.  The bottom line is that you have been injured and you need treatment for your wounds.  Be kind to yourself.  Get some help of your own.


[1] I am going to stick with the gender specific language even though sex addicts are not all male.