To Have and To Hold, How the Sex Addiction Treatment Industry Uses Wives and Partners
When I asked Tania Rochelle to take this blog, neither of us could foresee the week’s events and the toll they would take on so many women. Today Tania opens her life to us, sharing what she lived through and her choice to honor her truth and save her life. Thank you, Tania.
*Note: To simplify, I have used the term “sex addict” the same way I’d use “vampire.” I don’t believe they exist, but it’s a lot of trouble to write repeatedly “blood suckers they call vampires.” Also, I refer to sex addicts as male and partners as female, because this site is for women, and so am I.
My D-day was in December of 2008, ten years ago. But I remember like yesterday the first time my then-husband and I walked into the first CSAT’s office, three days after my life imploded. I was still in shock, weak from the lack of food and sleep, exhausted by the endless stream of sickening images moving through my head. I was panic-stricken, grief-stricken. Stricken. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse, rape, and domestic violence, I had never been so flattened. It is a special kind of devastation that comes when you are truly happy, when you have risen from the ashes and built a life that brings you joy, and you discover you built that life on lies. I felt helpless and hopeless.
In the therapist’s waiting room, my husband held my hand. Hit me or hold me, I didn’t care. As we sat there, a big, lumbering guy in cowboy getup—roach-kicker boots and ten-gallon hat, embroidered western shirt, silver belt buckle as big as his head—walked through the room and down the hall. He looked like a cartoon, and I figured he was there for treatment. So I was surprised when he came out and asked us to follow him to his office. It didn’t matter to me if he was a cowboy or a flying monkey. When you feel like you’re dying, you’ll let anyone save you. Seated side-by-side on the couch, my husband and I waited for him to tell us what to do.
“What if I told you that your marriage could be better than it’s ever been,” he began, “the kind of marriage you’ve always dreamed of.”
I thought of all I’d discovered about my husband: that he called sex chat lines every day on his way to work and back, that he spent his workdays surfing porn and the Craigslist personal ads, that he sought out couples for threesomes when he was away on business trips, that he’d been having lunch-time quickies with his secretary for seven years. I thought about my life, now vanished: the four funny and beautiful kids we’d raised together, the menagerie of pets, the beach trips and birthdays and Christmases. This cowboy was offering a miracle, and I wanted to let him perform it. I prayed for a resurrection.
“I can help you,” said the cowboy, “but you’ve both got to do the work.” He turned his attention to me. “The only way it will happen is if you realize you’re as sick as he is. You’ll need your own treatment for co-addiction. He explained to me that on some level, I’d known my husband was “acting out,” that I had enabled him. He warned that if I left my husband and didn’t get treatment, I was destined to end up with another sex addict. He suggested I not make any big decisions—like separation or divorce—for at least a year. Blame, scare, and manipulate—a trifecta.
He gave me a list of COSA groups, a twelve-step program for co-addicts of sex addicts. I threw myself into the program and picked up the slack at home as my husband went to his meetings and therapy, as he read and journaled, as he took his “me time” to ride his bike. I was instructed to “stay on my side of the street” and to control my anger.
I was learning a whole new vocabulary. For him, there were terms such as acting out, red circles, slip, and trickle truth. For me, pain shopping and shaming the addict. These words became part of our everyday vernacular. It seemed that all the language applied to sex addicts was child-like and innocent, while the words applied to partners were critical and incriminating. But that was okay. I was willing to accept the blame and the labels if it meant I could get my life back. If I caused it, I thought, maybe I could fix it.
We saw several CSATs in the years I fought to save my marriage. Most were, themselves, “recovering sex addicts.” One stared creepily at my feet (I was wearing sandals) and ignored my husband altogether. Another accused me of shaming my husband if I cried during sessions. Another, a woman, wore thigh high boots and a low-cut blouse. She suggested my husband read “Walking on Eggshells,” implying I was Borderline. The final one saw my husband’s mask slip and refused to see us anymore. She knew how dangerous he was but never offered to see me alone.
Check after check after check, our bank account dwindled, with no relative recovery progress. All that was really accomplished was that the therapists got richer and taught my husband a hundred different ways to shut me down.
A decade later, partners are no longer overtly labeled co-addicts or codependents, but it remains in the subtext. It is now widely recognized that partners experience profound trauma, often resulting in PTSD. The big names and institutes are at least paying lip service to the Trauma Model of treatment for partners. However, they always stop short of calling “sex addiction” what it really is: domestic abuse. My first husband slammed my head into the dashboard of my Dodge Caravan, but that didn’t damage me nearly as much as my marriage to a sex addict. The long-term effects on my health and psyche were incomparable.
Why won’t they call it abuse? Because then they couldn’t urge you to stay. And they still rely on the wives and partners for their bread and butter. Would your sex addict have gone to treatment on his own? If he hadn’t been busted, would he still be binge-watching porn or visiting massage parlors? Most sex addicts go into treatment so their wives won’t leave them. The sex addiction treatment industry needs wives and partners involved in treatment, or there will be no industry. Hence, we have the prolonged process of the formal disclosure. The addict works for a few—or several—months with the therapist, preparing that disclosure. Cha-ching. Meanwhile, the wife or partner stumbles around in the dark and saves money for the polygraph.
Worse still, the formal disclosure has a caveat: Many treatment centers require that you commit to staying in the marriage for a year—to make sure you can’t use the disclosed information in a divorce or custody battle. That would be a trap for the addict. See, the reigning treatment paradigm puts the addict first; the woman’s right to all the information—the truth of her life—before she determines if it’s safe for her and her children to stay, is denied. Well, THIS is a trap for the partner. In Georgia, where I live, if you continue living with a cheater after learning of the infidelity, you can’t divorce on the grounds of adultery. The court sees it as “condoning.” Again, the partner’s value rests only in her capacity to keep the sex addict in treatment.
Today, I’m a licensed professional therapist. I treat a variety of mental health issues, but I make it known that I’m available for partners of sex addicts. I don’t see many partners more than once, because I refuse to tell them what that cowboy told me. I will not say what they so desperately want to hear: that the marriage can be better than ever, that they’re as sick as he is, that it can all be fixed.
I don’t believe it can be fixed. I believe that the kind of person who can live a secret life and cover it up with a growing web of lies—who can manipulate and gaslight his partner for years, who can risk his family for anonymous hook-ups, who can spend family funds on prostitutes and strippers—is not worth gambling the rest of your precious life on. I know too many women, myself included, who gambled and lost. That gamble cost me time, money, dignity, and, for a long while, the truest parts of myself.
When a woman comes to see me, I tell her that I can help her recover from the trauma and find the lost parts of herself. I offer a safe place to express all of her emotions, including her anger. I assure her that I will support her regardless of whether she stays with or leaves her partner, but I emphasize the fact that my focus will be on her healing and her safety. It will be about making sure she can protect herself from physical, emotional, spiritual, sexual, and financial harm. It will not be about him or the marriage. Chances are, she’ll leave, in search of a cowboy.
But maybe she’ll come back in a few years, battered and disillusioned but ready to heal.
Tania Rochelle, MFA MS LPC NCC
Tania’s decision to recover “the truest parts of myself” can also be yours. It is not too late. She is a counsellor, writer, and also spent several decades teaching creative writing. Her books of poetry are Karaoke Funeral (Snake Nation Press, 2003) and The World’s Last Bone (Snake Nation Press, 2010). Tania’s practice is in Atlanta, Georgia, and if you are ready to talk to her, let me know and I would be honoured to connect you! firstname.lastname@example.org