Handling Sexual Infidelity: Should You Tell Your Partner?

Sharon O’Hara is the former Clinical Director of the Sexual Recovery Institute and sees private clients for individual, group, and couple therapy both in Beverly Hills and San Pedro.

One of the trickiest ethical dilemmas in 12-Step recovery is the problem of sexual disclosure. Should a woman who had affairs while she was drinking or using drugs own up to her spouse about the infidelity once she has gotten sober? What about the married man who compulsively sees prostitutes and sometimes “forgets” to wear a condom? Should he assume that because he has a negative HIV test that he’s off the hook? When do you tell, and how much? These are the questions that are debated endlessly in 12-Step meetings and telephone calls.

It’s interesting to take a historical look at how the founders of AA handled this question. In the AA Big Book, much emphasis is laid on the importance of honesty: “Rarely have we seen a person fail who has the capacity to be honest,” it says right at the beginning of Chapter Four entitled “How It Works.” However, when it comes to the question of making amends, the founders emphasized caution, suggesting in Step Nine that it is a good idea to make direct amends “except when do to so would injure themselves or others.” This sentence has generally been interpreted to mean that, since it would injure the wife to find out about her husband’s affairs, it would therefore be better not to tell her.

Founder Bill W. writes on page 81: “If we are sure our wife does not know, should we tell her? Not always, we think.” The basic idea here is that the alcoholic should tell the truth about infidelities to his sponsor and to God, then pray for forgiveness and the willingness to change his ways. The justification for this lapse in AA’s otherwise strong advocacy of total honesty is that sexual disclosure might cause the wife to end the marriage, potentially compromise another person, or perhaps cause the alcoholic to risk relapse.

However, as Dr. Jennifer Schneider points out in her 1998 article “Surviving Disclosure of Infidelity,” published in the Journal of Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, it is likely that AA founder Bill W’s inconsistency on the question of honesty may well have derived from his own personal struggles with sexual addiction, which was not a recognized disorder at the time. She quotes Nan Robertson, author of Getting Better: Inside Alcoholics Anonymous (1988), as follows:

“Particularly during his sober decades in AA in the forties, fifties, and sixties, Bill Wilson was a compulsive womanizer. His flirtations and his adulterous behavior filled him with guilt, but he continued to stray off the reservation. His last and most serious love affair . . . began when he was in his sixties. She was important to him until the end of his life, and was remembered in a financial agreement with AA. (p. 36)”

This last mistress, Helen W., actually received 1.5% of the royalties from the Big Book after Bill’s death. As for Bill’s wife, Lois, “she never mentioned his philandering,” writes Robertson in this history of AA’s founders. Dr. Schneider then makes the point that perhaps it would be wise to consider that the recommendations of the AA Big Book concerning sexual infidelity may be best understood as a reflection of Bill W’s denial process as concerns his own sexual addiction, “rather than as a reasoned recommendation of a group of recovering people (p. 213).”

Although the Big Book has many brilliant insights for helping alcoholics and addicts to stay sober, its author may not be the best guide for sexual recovery. The influence of the Big Book is also felt in the White Book of SA called Sexaholics Anonymous, and in SAA’s similar book, Hope and Recovery. Both books caution sex addicts not to disclose to their partners/spouses too quickly or too much, and to talk to their group members first.

In all of this, it is very interesting that until recently, nobody asked the partners what it was that they wanted. Since the 12-Step book writers were predominantly male and the partners predominantly female, whatever the addiction, it turns out that the men were deciding what was best for their female partners without actually consulting them. Dr. Jennifer Schneider surveyed 82 couples in various stages of sexual recovery in 1998. She discovered that the partners of sex addicts overwhelmingly wanted: 1) to be themselves in charge of how much was going to be disclosed, and 2) to have their feelings of violation and distrust validated by both the addict and any therapist they might be seeing as a couple.

As a result of this research, Dr. Schneider strongly recommends that disclosure be “guided by the spouse’s desire to know,” rather than by the addict’s desire to minimize. She went on to note that, although 60 percent of the partners threatened to leave upon the first disclosure of infidelity, 76 percent of those who threatened to leave never did so or even separated temporarily.

For a further discussion on this topic of infidelity, you might want to peruse some of these “Q & A on Love & Sex” dilemmas, culled from past issues of Sharon O’Hara’s column in the Steps For Recovery newspaper:

Q. I’m a 39-year-old recovering alcoholic, sober 5 years. I’ve been married 10 years, and I have an 8-year-old son. Last year I had an affair with a woman at work, whom I’ll call Fay. She was married, too. A couple of lunches turned into a torrid 8-month relationship of stolen afternoons. I fantasized about Fay all the time. I never seriously thought I’d leave my wife for her, but I just couldn’t break it off. I felt guilty but the forbidden element was so compelling. Finally Fay moved to another state, and we called it quits. I haven’t even talked to her in months.

Here’s my problem: My wife found some bills for a motel I used to see Fay last year. I denied her accusations of infidelity, but she keeps asking, saying that she can handle the truth, that she’s more upset by my lying than she would be if I admitted to an affair. Meanwhile, my sponsor says that the 8th and 9th Step on making amends suggests that I shouldn’t tell my wife, because the truth would hurt her. What do you think?

A. I think that you want an easy way out, and there is no easy way out. Yes, the amends steps in AA have often been interpreted as “it’s better to keep sexual secrets if the truth would hurt your spouse.” And if you had had an affair years ago that she didn’t know about I might be inclined to suggest that you leave the sleeping dog in peace.

However, you have a wife who has caught you with evidence, and now you have to keep lying, and it appears to be eating you. This is actually good news. It means that you hurt because you are out of integrity with yourself. Perhaps you are a fellow who doesn’t really like lying to someone you love.

If you tell your wife about the affair, however, I would like to predict that she is unlikely to take this news as calmly as you might think from your description of your wife’s words (“I can handle the truth”).

I’d like to know some more about the entire situation. Is this the only affair you’ve had? Or is there a pattern here? Do you have other secret sexual behaviors? If so, you might have a true sex addiction problem, and in that case, secrecy usually escalates the obsessive thinking. Many sex addicts in recovery have discovered that telling the truth to their spouses (often with the help of a therapist) meant that they could finally make headway in re-establishing trust. So you have a dilemma. Yes, your wife might leave you if you tell her the truth. But your relationship might stay sour if you don’t tell, because on some level you both know you’re lying.

Q. I’m a 45-year-old man, and I’ve been in recovery from cocaine and marijuana for about 10 years. I’ve been married for 18 years and I have 3 children who mean the world to me. Before I got sober I had a couple of short affairs with women who got high with me. I never told my wife because I got a sponsor who said that the 9th Step in CA means that you don’t make amends by hurting someone. He said that if I told my wife about the affairs it would be dumping on her. I was kind of relieved, to tell the truth. And for the last 9 years I’ve been faithful—I guess I was really grateful that she stuck by me. Then last year I started flirting with one of my wife’s coworkers. It was just one of those crazy things that happened. I was sure it would be over in a couple of weeks but now it’s been going on for 10 months. I keep telling myself to stop seeing this coworker on the sly but I can’t seem to stop. I’m thinking of telling my wife, because then maybe it’ll make me stop. I don’t want to get divorced. What do you think?

A. I think you’re risking a number of important relationships right now. Your marriage, the respect of your children, your wife’s relationship with her coworker, just to name a few. If you want to stop having this affair you might consider doing one or more of the following, before you talk to your wife: 1) Get a therapist who specializes in problems of sexual compulsivity. 2) Go to SAA, SA, and/or SLAA meetings. Get a sex recovery sponsor from one of these meetings. It’s not enough just to show up and talk. You’ve got to walk the walk. Don’t get a CA sponsor for your sexual/romantic problems—talk to someone who has had to face his own sexual recovery issues. 3) Check out a treatment center, either outpatient or inpatient. 4) Read Patrick Carne’s book Out of the Shadows—there is a revised edition that is still one of the best introductions to understanding sexual addiction.

Don’t turn your wife into your personal sheriff. It’s not fair to her and you’ll resent her for it. Eventually you may need to get honest with your wife, but you really need to do a lot of work on yourself first.

Q. Last year I slept with my girlfriend’s husband. It was stupid. They’d had a fight, and Tommy wanted comforting, and I was lonely, and you probably have heard all these kinds of excuses before. Anyway, it was only the one time. The problem is, I haven’t told my girlfriend Karen about this incident, but it’s eating away at me. I don’t know what to do. Tommy keeps giving me these looks when Karen isn’t looking, like now we have this little secret. To tell the truth, I didn’t even like having sex with him, and now I feel creepy when he gives me a goodbye hug or something. I just don’t want to lose my friendship with Karen because I was so stupid. Should I tell her?

A. If you want to tell Karen simply to unload your own guilt, this seems to me to be adding insult to injury. You are right to acknowledge that this little “incident” has affected your friendship in a profound way, because the truth is that you now have a secret with the husband that you’re keeping from the wife, your friend. And you may just have to live with how that feels, because behavior does have consequences.

I don’t know if you are in a 12-Step program, but the Ninth Step says that you make direct amends to a person you’ve harmed unless doing so would injure them or others. I think your best bet is to stay clear of Tommy and see this episode as a major learning experience. Talk to a therapist about safe ways to accept appropriate responsibility. If this kind of thing has been a pattern in your life, you may want to check out Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous for further help. You can use this mistake to grow, or to beat yourself up until the next millennium. Remember, it is possible to be imperfect and worthwhile, both at the same time. But you can only really grow if you’re willing to learn from your mistakes.

(If you copy this article for others, please copy the following author bio as well):

Sharon O’Hara, MFT, CSAT, has offices in the Beverly Hills and Torrance/San Pedro area, specializing in treating sex addicts and their partners. She can be reached via email at sharonoharamft@gmail.com.

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