When some type of compulsive sexual behavior takes place outside of a marriage or committed relationship, a crisis is likely to occur for the couple when the behavior is discovered. Discovery may occur when an unmarried woman having an affair with a married man reveals the affair to his spouse or to her friends; or a spouse finds hotel receipts or telephone bills; or a man is arrested for exhibitionism or voyeurism; or a professional such as a physician or clergyman is accused of sexual misconduct by the licensing board or other authority following a complaint by a patient or parishioner with whom the professional has engaged in sexual activity.
At this point the most spouses ask the individual who has engaged in sex outside the relationship for information about the behavior. The response they receive is likely to have great impact on the future of the relationship.
It is natural for people whose sexual behavior is discovered to attempt "damage control," by minimizing, rationalizing, excusing, or denying their behavior. They may fear that the spouse will leave (threats by the spouse to do so are common) if the full extent of the behavior is known; they may wish to avoid the additional shame of disclosure and potential legal consequences of the disclosure; they may wish to hide some of the activity because they want to be able to continue it in the future; or they may wish to spare the spouse more pain. However, many individuals engaging in such behavior may be suffering from a sexual disorder with addictive features. Sexual addiction is a treatable disorder, but only when the disease is confronted in the open and treatment is undertaken.
Most spouses or partners want additional information. They feel they have a "right to know". They want to be able to assess their risk of HIV disease and other sexually transmitted diseases. Many spouses had suspicions but were told they were imagining it or were crazy; now they want validation of their prior feelings. Others feel that they were lied to for so long that they now want the truth. If the sexual misconduct is now a matter of public record (e.g. revealed by the media or the subject of a legal inquiry), most spouses want to know the facts so that they can decide what to do and how to respond appropriately to others' questions.
Spouses who learn about extramarital sexual behaviors experience a whole range of emotions, including pain, at times devastation, and usually anger. Threats to leave the relationship are common at this stage, but preliminary findings from a 1997 survey conducted by some professional members of SASH suggests that these threats are not usually carried out. Spouses report that honesty by the addict at this painful time can be the first step to rebuilding trust. Although disclosure of graphic sexual details is rarely helpful to the spouse, most partners find it valuable to receive information about health risks, the timing, location and nature of the behavior, how committed the addict is to the marriage, and whether the behavior has stopped.
Extramarital sexual activities are usually accompanied by lying. When disclosure finally occurs, the spouse often feels betrayed on two levels - both by the sexual activity and also by the lying. If the addict subsequently again lies to the spouse after the behavior is discovered, the spouse feels yet another level of betrayal. If on the basis of the person's denial, the spouse defends him or her to family, friends and the public and states that the person has been unjustly accused, when the true nature of the allegations is revealed the relationship may be irretrievably damaged. Rebuilding full trust in the relationship typically takes two years; however, if additional lying has occurred after the disclosure, trust might never be restored.
It is important to have a support person (counselor, close friend, or another spouse of an addict in recovery) available at the time of disclosure to the spouse. In our national survey, it was clear that many partners of addicts would have preferred to have professional help and personal support in the hours immediately after the disclosure, which is best conducted in person rather than by letter or telephone. When a professional boundary violation or illegal act has occurred which could result in legal consequences, it is prudent to discuss disclosure with an experienced professional who has worked with addictive sexual disorders.
Persons who keep relapsing to the compulsive sexual behavior are likely to be those who have been unwilling to disclose their behaviors to the spouse. Overwhelmingly, couples who have put their relationships back on track after the crisis of the addict's extramarital sexual behaviors tell us that honesty is the key foundation to the survival and growth of their relationship.