This week, Barb Steffens, founder of the Association of Partners of Sex Addicts Trauma Specialists (APSATS) answers a Beyond Betrayal community member's questions about the frustration of setting boundaries around her husband's subtle acting out behaviors, hiding and gaslighting.
For those who would like to partake more directly of Barb's wisdom, she will be part of running a one-day workshop for partners in Houston this coming April 11.
Community Member's Story
1st year: I found hidden porn. (Boundary—no more!)
Subsequent years: Ogling women all the time in front of my face in public (Repeatedly pleas to stop—embarrassing, hurtful, disrespectful)
20 years in: Ogled woman while sitting at a round table with friends in front of me and people we know. Full head turning and following (Humiliation ensued. Told him that evening I would no longer let this go on. I wouldn’t divorce him by leaving, but would remain in the home as housekeeper, cook, and mother to our girls, teenagers at the time. He showed remorse to the point of crying, saw a counselor one or two times, gave me flowers, showed improvement.)
Subsequent years: ogling became much more subtle, but still there. It still bugged me, but I pressed on.
Last year: while on vacation, long lingering look at a young, high school (college aged) woman ensued. After leaving the store, I grew livid. Told him he needed to control his eyes. He acted like he didn’t know what was up. We drove the entire trip (12 hours) home in silence. A week later he says in an email the girl looked like she had anorexia. I said, a normal person would have communicated that right away. He says, “ I’m sorry for hurting you.” That’s it.
I shut down. I haven’t talked to him since except for things that need absolute answers. He keeps trying to talk about things that have nothing to do about the “problem.” I won’t engage. I’m stuck. No intimacy. It feels like 33 years of not being good enough. I’m tired of being triggered. Does he still have a problem? It seems so. What should I do? Looking back I see now how he lied, lacked vulnerability, didn’t fully engage with his family, operated from a fear-based mentality. I’m weary of being compassionate. He probably won’t divorce me, but this isn’t a good way to live.
Limbo. That is the word that comes to mind that describes what partners experience when their loved one is not accepting responsibility, not changing their heart, yet not overtly acting out online or in person with another human. Partners experience this sense of “it’s not that bad” and “this is horrible” at the same time. The acting out partner may have stopped some or all of the acting out behaviors, but there is nothing that shows any deep change. I also read that the acting out partner is operating from a sense of defense and avoidance of talking about the real “problem.” In these situations, partners are in limbo- between wanting to leave and hoping she doesn’t have to- and feel a growing sense of death of who they are and of their passion for life. It is costing this partner her sense of who she is and what gives her purpose and life.
When I’m coaching or supporting partners in this place, I work to help the partner determine what she needs. If there were no external pressures or expectations- what actions might she start to take to live life in reality? What is the reality in this situation? What are her absolute needs to remain in the relationship? This partner sounds like she is hurting due to repeated offenses with no remorse. There is not the kind of change that it sounds like this partner desires. So, the reality is the relationship is broken. She can’t fix it on her own. She can live with a broken relationship and hope the hurt stops—I haven’t found that happens—or she can order her life to reflect the true state of the relationship. She can be empowered to make the change she needs to heal.
There is a statement that caught my eye: “He probably won’t divorce me” I would want to know if she is considering taking that action herself to reflect what it sounds like in reality has already occurred. If not divorce, she might consider a separation that better reflects the reality of the relationship. Rather than living in hope that he’ll change, or that he’ll end the marriage, consider what you can do to effect the change you need. It is not easy. But these are actions that are yours and that can reflect your needs and values.
I hear women say, “God hates divorce.” They say this meaning they don’t want to get a divorce because it would not please God. I respond: “There are many things God hates; the reality is, we are impacted by things that God is sad about or would not want for us. He hates what leads to the state of divorce. The legal action just mirrors reality of what has already occurred.“
God loves you, no matter what. He has grace and mercy and healing and help for the brokenhearted. He is for you, not against you. He is your ally for truth-telling and promises to never leave you. He can restore what has been stolen and give you beauty instead of ashes. —Isaiah 61: 1-3
In addition to the one-day day pre-conference in Houston, Barb and others who work with partners of sex addicts will be speaking on a host of pertinent topics during the two-day Redeeming Sexuality and Intimacy conference that follows. I hope some of you can make it!