Understanding the difference between full-disclosure and honesty, and how they both apply to recovery, can have a life-changing impact on your relationship.
In our marriage, one of the most dreaded statements for my wife was, “I need to tell you something.” I would approach her, yet again, with my head down and eyes diverted, feeling the need to confess another relapse, or series of relapses, into pornography. These guilt-laden confessions became a regular part of my 10 year binge-purge relationship with sexual addiction.
In each instance, I thought I was “doing the right thing” by being open with my wife about the reality of my ongoing struggle. The sad truth, however, is that even in my approach to confession I was actually perpetuating the hurt in our relationship and enabling my sinful pattern to continue. How could that be? How is it that confession, which the Bible teaches is core to healing, could actually be making things worse?
Here’s why: what I was doing was neither completely truthful, nor an accurate full confession. In those days, I was locked in a place of half-truths and sugar-coated excuses that held the whole system in place. I had to learn the hard way that truthfulness in a marriage happens a different way.
At Pure Desire Ministries, we encourage someone struggling with sexually compulsive behavior to gain a minimum of six months of sobriety before offering a disclosure of behaviors to their spouse. This statement confuses and confounds many. How can we wait that long to be fully honest, while engaging fully in a recovery program that is teaching us to be truthful and vulnerable? How can a hurting spouse wait that long to hear vital information that may be needed to facilitate his or her decision about the future of the relationship and their own healing? How can waiting possibly be good?
I hope to help you answer some of these questions. In order to get at these answers, we all need to recognize the difference between full-disclosure, current honesty, and emotional or guilt-driven spewing.
First, let us look at what full-disclosure and honesty is not: spewing.
What do I mean? Emotional or guilt-driven “spewing” is usually about making the one confessing feel better. We know what we are doing is wrong and hurtful to others. We believe that if we can just “get it out,” we will feel better and be able to move on. And for a time, we do. We feel better in the same way we do when we vomit. But our desire to change is not typically matched by an ability to change. We use our words to try and fix the situation, offering more promises and assurances to our loved ones.
But without support, community, and tools for change it won’t be long before we slide back into isolation, secrecy, and return to old behaviors. What is worst of all, in our attempt to “get it out there,” we leave a spouse or family member to deal with the mess we have created, and will probably create again. This kind of “confession”—which is really not confession—is to be avoided. In emotional or guilt-driven spewing, we usually tell just enough of the truth to get it off our chest, but withhold the details or facts that make us feel particularly bad or would be painful to our spouse. Our cleaned-up confession lacks the level of honesty needed to create true change.
So, if this kind of confession isn’t advised, what is?
First, every addict or person recovering from sexually compulsive behavior must learn to be fully honest. This happens initially in a safe, confidential support group (like offered through Pure Desire) or with a professionally trained counselor who is certified to work with sex addiction. As we learn to be completely truthful with others of the same gender, we begin to break through denial and delusion. The gentle challenge and questioning of others who care about us can take us through the fog of our own deceit and enable us to face the true depth of our struggle. Most people who have struggled with sexually compulsive behavior will need about three months of radical commitment to a group before they realize the depth to which they have been lying to themselves.
At the same time, or in close proximity, we must begin to be honest with our spouse. What I mean by honesty is truthfulness about current struggles that cross specific lines in order to create the kind of redeeming pain that leads to change. Depending on how much your spouse knows of your struggle, the initiation of honesty might sound like this:
Honey, you may know that I have struggled to always live in complete purity. I have not been perfect. But I am taking steps to change my behaviors by attending a Pure Desire group weekly and engaging in homework and accountability throughout the week. I want to get to the place where I can be completely transparent with you. But right now, I am so stuck in denial that I fear my transparency would be partial, or that I would blame you or others for my problem. I don’t want to do that. But I want to learn to be completely truthful with you starting today. From now on, if I __________, I am committing to tell you within 24-hours. I invite your help in creating some logical consequences so that I will learn from my behavior and grow.
What goes in the blank above? That would be specific to your situation. What behaviors are you committed to no longer doing? For many people, the blank might be, “if I view pornography or masturbate.” For others, the blank might be, “if I am sexting or go to an inappropriate chat site.” For some, the blank might be, “if I read an explicit romance novel or flirt at work.” You know the behaviors that need to stop—you need to commit to honesty with both your group and your spouse if they occur.
You don’t need to get this statement exactly right, but this gives you an outline of what your spouse needs to know: I am not perfect. I am taking observable steps toward health. I will tell you everything as I get healthy. In the meantime, I am committing to absolute truthfulness with you. These are the elements that can set your spouse on path to being a help and a support in this journey.
Now, you might be thinking, “If I say this to my spouse, it will be very painful. And if I do that behavior in the blank again, then they will know!” Yes. That’s exactly the point. This is the kind of pain with a purpose that we need in order to change. If we continue to hide relapses from our spouse, we won’t have the kind of relationship tension we need to experience change. Plus, in this situation, you must recognize that you are not ultimately concerned about hurting your spouse: your concern is actually about personal pain avoidance! The more committed you are to being honest about any current or future relapses, the less likely you will need to be! Knowing you have committed to being honest is one choice that gives you the strength to say no to temptation and avoid relapse!
If that’s what it means to be honest, then what is disclosure? What’s the point of a full-disclosure if we’re already being honest about current struggles with our spouse and our group? A full-disclosure is an accurate, thought out, written down, fact-based recounting of our sexual history that includes, at a minimum, everything that has occurred in the timeframe when we have known our spouse.
The purpose of this exercise is to expose the full history of our addictive behavior and allow us, and our spouse, to deal with the full ramifications of our actions. If we only deal with the present behaviors (through honesty), we will continue to battle with a cloud hanging over us. This dark cloud will be the voice whispering, “If others knew everything you have done, they would reject you completely!” Such threats can keep us confined in isolation and secrecy, even while currently maintaining sobriety. If true vulnerability isn’t achieved through full-disclosure, we are unlikely to stay in a place of healing for long. Healing always includes transparency and openness with others, not simply avoiding the problematic behavior.
Another benefit of disclosure is that it creates “ground zero” for your spouse. When addictive behavior is exposed in a marriage, the betrayed spouse can feel like they are falling into a dark, deep hole. With every confession or new realization, they begin to wonder if they will ever find the bottom. An appropriately done full-disclosure can help the spouse find the bottom, and no matter how deep it is, begin to work on restoration from this place of reality and truth.
So, if a full-disclosure can create so much positive momentum, why wait for six months of sobriety?
The truth is that as we come out of an addictive cycle, we need this long for all our patterns of denial, rationalization, and minimization to come to an end. When we attempt disclosure earlier than this, we are likely to leave parts out, omit important facts, or cover over pieces that are attached to deep shame. If this happens, and we end up going back later with further disclosure, our spouse can end up with tremendous wounding and unnecessary additional trauma. When disclosure happens, you want this time to be a full and final reporting so you don’t have to revisit this challenging exercise again!
In some cases, a full-disclosure simply can’t wait. If you have been involved in illegal activity, wrapped up in affairs, or had your behavior exposed by a spouse or superior who already knows many of the facts, a disclosure may need to happen soon. In such cases, at Pure Desire we recommend walking through this process with a certified counselor as soon as possible. In fact, if you find yourself in any situation where sexually compulsive behavior has your marriage on the brink, get professional counseling help as soon as possible. Don’t go it alone! For more information on this, or how to walk through disclosure in general, check out this free resource on our website: Disclosure Tool
As you consider and prepare for full-disclosure, here are some things to keep in mind:
Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (NIV) The New Living Translation strengthens this idea even further, calling our heart “desperately wicked.” This is our reality—in our fallenness and in our old nature, we are all depraved and wicked. When we share lustful thoughts or fantasy, we are exposing these dark, ugly truths. The benefit of this—in a group setting or with someone of the same gender—is that we can begin to see that these thoughts are not random or universal. Rather, they become windows into our pain and why we struggle as we do.
However, sharing these details with your spouse is NOT helpful. For a spouse, it can be incredibly difficult to navigate what is a real concern, and needs to be addressed, and what is simply an ugly by-product of our fallenness. Many wives, in particular, will feel the need to “know everything.” I have found repeatedly that this is the biggest mistake couples make. When fantasy gets shared, nothing good comes of it in the marriage. As Jeremiah says, we may find ourselves trying to understand something that truly no one can understand! Focus on facts and actual behaviors, not on fantasy.
As you share your disclosure, be very, very careful to not make excuses for what you did or justify your actions in any way. If you even hint at this kind of language, your spouse will likely feel blamed for your problems or that you are not willing to take full responsibility for your actions. In disclosure, simply state what you have done without trying to explain or clarify why. For example, instead of saying, “Because we were only having sex twice a month, I would masturbate and look at pornography twice a week.” Skip the first part and state, “For a period of three years, I would masturbate and look at pornography twice a week on average.” Also include how you were able to access pornography. This honest, fact-based information will make it clear that you are taking ownership of what you have done.
This is the exact opposite of the emotional or guilt-driven spewing. Rather than a focus on making ourselves feel better, the focus in full-disclosure is to create a bottom line of truth and help facilitate the restoration of your relationship. This means that disclosure should be done at a time and place most conducive to a positive outcome for your spouse. Are they in the middle of a busy, stressful week at work? If so, it’s probably best not to do disclosure during a mid-week lunch break! Does your spouse have responsibilities with young children at home? If so, arrange for childcare both during and after disclosure. You want to be able to share your disclosure at a time that is unhurried, in an environment that is comfortable and private, and with the opportunity for your spouse to have time after the disclosure to process either alone, or with trusted friends.
If you are struggling, you need a group that can help you break of out the lies and denial. Your support group, like the kind of groups offered through Pure Desire, will help you find the safety and security to tell your whole story and become a transparent person. Your full-disclosure will be the outcome of the vulnerability and truth you are already practicing.
Your spouse also needs a group for support and encouragement. Just as an addicted person struggles with the shame that they are all alone or uniquely bad, the betrayed spouse can feel this same kind of isolation. When a spouse who has suffered betrayal has others around them who have shared a similar experience, they can find strength and hope through that group. If you are not currently in a group and are seeing the need for full-disclosure, find one as soon as you can! A list of Pure Desire groups can found at our website: www.puredesire.org/find-group.
While both honesty and full-disclosure can be a very difficult process, they are well worth it. Not only do we expose our secrets and learn to be a truth-teller, we also find new levels of intimacy and growth in our relationship.
No longer does my wife fear the words, “I need to tell you something.” We still have our ups and downs like any other couple, but because we are in a place of full-transparency as a couple, we are able to face new challenges together. Honesty can still be a tough pill to swallow, but it always leads to great conversations, growth, and change.
I invite you into this new way of doing life! You can do it. And as you do, you will join the thousands of couples who are experiencing the joy and security of a truth-filled, loving relationship.
Nick is the Executive Director of Pure Desire Ministries. He has been in leadership for 15+ years. He was in Pastoral Ministry at East Hills Alliance Church in Kelso, WA for 14 years. Nick is the author of Setting Us Free and Safe: Creating a Culture of Grace in a Climate of Shame.