When Practitioners Can't Bear "Bearing Witness"

It’s taken a lot to get you to this place. First, you had to get him to go to an appointment with this sex addiction treatment practitioner. That process took hours—searching for information and resources, learning vocabulary and approaches, finding practitioners nearby, and choosing which one seemed the best fit. Then began the bargaining, begging, threatening, and arguing needed to convince him to go to the appointment that you had to make on his behalf. After he went he told you how caring and understanding she was. And now it’s your turn to go. 

Settling into your chair in the therapist’s office, you are nervous but also anticipating the first scrap of caring and safety you will have received since this whole nightmare began.

The therapist smiles, and invites you to “just start with what’s on your mind.” It pours out of you—grief, shock, heartache, anger, questions, trauma symptoms, fear, self-doubt, STD’s, money, love. At the end, you look up and ask “But, why didn’t I know?” 

It’s like that question turned on the switch in the therapist. She “harrumphs”, sighs with exasperation, looks away, shakes her head, then turns back to face you with a patronizing smile, saying “Oh, you knew. You knew.” She leans back in her chair looking very pleased with herself and continues, pointing her finger at you, “You enabled him. You’re sicker than he is.” You can feel the color draining from your face. You’re afraid you’re going to vomit. Still you defend yourself “I did NOT know! And I certainly did not enable him!.” Tears of frustration follow.

This therapist keeps going, “What do you mean you don’t know who he is anymore? You’ve always known who he was. You picked him because he would do this to you. You’re not his victim. You wanted this to happen. And you won’t get better and he CAN’T get better if you don’t take responsibility for your role in this.” She shrugs her shoulders and ends the attack with “I feel sorrier for your husband than I do for you.”

You realize you have to get out of there. You have to leave. You can’t think of anything except how you will get out of there. You pick up your purse and get to your feet, tripping over the chair leg on your way out. She’s started talking again but your life depends on getting away from her.

You stumble through the reception area and out into the atrium area of the building, trying to remember where the escalator is. You finally see it and head over, grabbing the moving handrail and stepping down on the first step. You exhale. Then, unbelievably, you hear your full name being called loudly from above. You look up and there is the therapist leaning over the railing yelling down at you while people all around you in this busy public space try to figure out who she’s yelling at. The last words you (and everyone else) hears from her is “running away won’t fix you or your marriage!” You are stunned, embarrassed and also afraid. Is she coming after you? By the time you get out of the building and find your car you are sobbing. You lock yourself inside and cry and cry and cry. It’s a long time before you feel able to drive home. You shake for hours when you get there. You can’t believe what just happened.

As with compulsive-abusive sexual-relational disordered men, I don’t have to make up or imagine material about sex addiction treatment practitioners. I just have to share the real life experiences women have with them. This story is several of those put together. And yes, that includes the moment when the wife looked up from the escalator to find the therapist leaning over the railing yelling put-downs at her by name in occupied public space.

You also might want to know that some version of “I feel sorrier for your husband than I do for you” is the “go to” line therapists and treatment staff use most often when wives and partners don’t cower and obey. They hear it thrown at them across the desk, in group meetings, over the phone, in the hall, in emails and on the way out the door. I heard this line yet again in a new client’s story just last week.

Belittling, insulting, accusing, threatening and shaming wives and partners is what therapists do when they are clinically incompetent and are without personal capacity to bear witness to the experience a wife or partner sets before them. Some practitioners seem trained into responses that are abusive, and some do seem to enjoy it. But let’s make this clear:  this clinical choice has nothing to do with effectively caring for anyone telling you a traumatic story from her life. It has to do with intimidating a wife or partner through character assassination, shaming, blameshifting and gaslighting. These tactics are all known signs of an abusive relationship.  

So what is “bearing witness” and why is it so important to your safety and recovery? 

Here’s what Dr. Judith Herman says in Trauma and Recovery. The Aftermath of Violence—From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror: “The best way the therapist can fulfill her responsibility to the patient is by faithfully bearing witness to her story…”  Bearing witness is the choice to be fully present with the person in her story as she tells it, and to provide a safe and affirming transition out of the story until they learn how to do that themselves. 

In ministry, I always knew when someone in my office was there to tell me something really difficult. And I also knew that I had the power to create the hospitality they needed to tell that story. Afterward, the way I responded to the story would determine if they would ever tell me anything ever again. I knew I had that power and made a conscious choice, no matter how tired or afraid I was, to make it safe for them, to encourage and affirm them, and maintain that safety in my response. Why did I know to do this? Well, I learned this in seminary. It was standard operating procedure for practicing ministry with people in crisis. This is what we were called to be—witness-bearers to lives worth everything to God.  

The rationale behind the hospitality of bearing witness is profound, and Dr. Herman draws on the power of it. Bearing witness is all about empowering people to survive whatever it is they are telling you, because they are often afraid that they are dying from the story they tell you.

When the practitioner won’t bear witness, it tells the person that even she is terrified of her story, powerless against it, and has no hope for her client’s life. It locks the woman alone in the story. When you do bear witness, that one act will communicate hope that maybe the story-teller will not die from this, after all. We offer presence, compassion, safety and empathy. She senses hope for her life. 

For you who are wives and partners of men called sex addicts (compulsive-abusive sexual-relational disordered men), there already is almost no one who will bear witness to your story. It’s a social taboo story and asks people to form a point of view that they don’t want to have. It complicates their relationship with your husband or boyfriend, and that may have business, social, religious, family or work-related implications they would prefer to avoid. They may not be able to entertain their own sense of powerlessness when you tell your story. They may not have access to real hope in their own lives. They will avoid those uncomfortable implications at your expense. Finding someone to bear witness is no easy task. So, when the therapist won’t do it either, hopelessness results. They leave you trapped alone in the story. Wives and partners teeter on the edge of self-harm and begin to think about wanting to die, or even consider suicide. This is no exaggeration. It is what despair that is isolated and punished does to wives and partners.

So imagine what it’s like to tell your story to someone who won’t bear witness to it and who  immediately attacks you with lines like:

  • You knew.

  • You enabled him.

  • You picked him.

  • You’re pain shopping.

  • You’re a co-sex addict.

  • You’re sicker than he is.

  • You’re just as responsible as he is—or more responsible!

  • You like being a victim.

  • You’re too angry. I can’t work with you.

  • If you won’t face your part in this there’s no point.

  • I can’t fix him if you just make him sick again!

  • I feel sorry for your husband.

This travesty has to stop.

Let me close with how hope manifests itself in my clients when I do bear witness.  

First, it doesn’t all happen at once. It times time, compassion for and belief in the woman in front of you. Slowly, her panic dials down. Women learn how to calm themselves again. They begin to remember themselves in small bits. They grieve mightily for what is gone and for that which never was. They learn coping tools for managing symptoms. They are smart, funny, and kind. And they are piercingly accurate in what they identify at work in this mess. They find beauty birthing itself in the ugliness. They keep their hearts loving for themselves, not just for others. They are transforming their pain into wisdom. They consider their options. Most want to give their husband or boyfriend time to get on a better path. That time passes (often measured in years.) They grieve again, seeing the impotence of their love in his life, the absence of his love in theirs, and the game afoot in recovery fantasies sold to them. But still, even still, in the face of seeing things as they really are, hope happens in the many moments when they see they are stronger than the people who cannot bear their story. They are so much stronger. They are stronger than those who must deny, diminish, excuse, shift blame or ignore what these men did to them and what it reveals as truth. They are stronger than most sex addiction treatment practitioners. They are stronger.  

You are stronger, too. But you may not know that yet. 

If you hear or have heard any of the horrible scripts of abuse outlined here from a recovery centre or practice, please save yourself and find someone who can bear “bearing witness.” Release the hope that is already in you for a life worth living.

Your story is safe here. You can book a special discounted trial session here:  https://www.yourstoryissafehere.com/coaching/  If you have further questions, contact me: Diane@yourstoryissafehere.com

With you,

Diane

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Diane Strickland