Secure Attachment, Empathy and Boundaries in Sexual Addiction

Boundaries are one of the buzz words of sexual addiction recovery and therapy.  And there is a good reason for that…it’s because if you don’t have boundaries in place, no matter how much therapy you pay for, how many 12 Step meetings you go to, how often you call your sponsor…you are never going to make any headway in recovery.

As David Emerson, creator of Trauma-Centered Trauma-Sensitive Yoga, has said in regards to the treatment of Complex Trauma: “If we don’t take care of safety in relationships, we’re never going to get anywhere.”

First and foremost, trauma recovery requires a safe space.

I was lucky to find Rhyll Croshaw’s book What Can I Do About Me? in the very first weeks after my husband dropped the bomb that shattered my world.  Even though I was largely alone, had not found qualified therapy yet, and was just barely dipping my toe into 12 Step, I was able to take a solid, crucial step forward just by reading her book.

How? By setting boundaries, just how she told me to. I remember the days and weeks I spent prayerfully typing on my computer until I created a list that seemed to fit the bill.  Although I was entirely clueless at the time, my Higher Power was able to guide me through this process along with the guidelines I found in What Can I Do About Me? This first, faltering step provided the framework that served as a safe space for the on-going recovery that my husband and I would grow into over the coming years.  Without it, I doubt we would still be here today.

What are Boundaries?

Boundaries are a crucial set of if/then statements that define what is safe in the relationship.  They are, as Rhyll points out in her book, a most important way of showing love for my husband, for myself, and for God.

Although my boundaries might refer to my husband’s behavior, their point is not actually about his behavior: it is about mine.

When I started recovery, I was so shocked and terrified at the unimaginable things that had been happening that my boundaries started there.

“If you have an affair, then I will…” Initially, this helped calm the terror-stream of “What-ifs” that plagued my mind.  There was a palpable calming effect that came from having a back-up plan if the worst-case scenario materialized. This helped ease some of the obsessing that I felt trapped in, night and day.

Later, as both my husband and I found some grounding in daily recovery routines, and life didn’t seem quite so dangerous anymore, I was able to deepen those boundaries by listening to and getting curious about my unique triggers.  Becoming aware of what behaviors or circumstances brought chronic or consistent feelings of trauma or fear gave me helpful information: these feelings could help show me where I needed a boundary.

When my husband came home from a Business Networking Meeting and started casually telling me about the long conversation he had with a woman there and their upcoming lunch appointment, I felt my trauma creeping up my throat, filling the pit of my stomach with ice chips.  These physical symptoms become a helpful “Boundary Barometer.”

When my body inadvertently goes there, I need a boundary here.

Sometimes the boundary is around my husband’s behavior, sometimes it is around mine.  Whatever action or attitude brings me back to that place of swirling panic and fear is a behavior worth looking at.  When I recognize addict behavior in the way my husband reacts or attacks with defensiveness, gas-lighting, or blaming, I need a go-to boundary:

Detach with love.

Create physical and emotional space.

Reach out to my sponsor.

Hold my boundary and work my steps until I can figure out what I need to feel safe again.

Communicate that need clearly in a humble, honest, and accountable way, using “I” statements.

These type of boundaries keep me from getting sucked back into the old drama triangle of addict behavior and trauma reactions. They give me space to center myself, a way to check myself, and time to communicate what I need in order to feel safe enough to re-engage.

In early recovery, when a partner may still be acting out and you feel out of control and powerless, it may be tempting to try to use boundaries  as another scheme to try to impose or guarantee an outcome.  But boundaries are not a set of rules and punishments where one partner is “in control” and the other is the bad boy trying to win back favor. This is just more game-playing that feeds into dysfunctional parent-child patterns in the relationship, depleting any chance of mutual respect and authentic connection.

Rather, I have come to see boundaries as fences that define what is within the bounds of what I will accept and what I won’t.  They give me direction and purpose, and create the space I need to truly feel God at my center.

When your partner is a sex addict, you may inevitably have to face this ultimate question: what am I really willing to put up with here??

Secure Attachment

For me, I didn’t even realize what that answer really was until recently.  So often, we think of boundaries around specific behaviors. But, I have come to understand that my deepest boundaries, the ones that I feel in my guts, go way beyond behaviors. They go to the heart of relationship.

At the SAL Women’s Retreat this past April, therapist Tami Jones came and shared a presentation about trauma and recovery.  One of the slides she presented listed these questions based on Secure Attachment Theory:

  • Will you be there for me when I need you the most?
  • Do I matter to you?
  • Am I a priority in your life?
  • Will you value me and accept me even with my imperfections?
  • Will you stay close to me?

These questions jumped off the screen at me.  We were discussing these questions in the context of empathy for our spouses. She was pointing out that most of our addict loved ones had been raised in a situation where these basic needs were not met, and asked us to picture them as little boys, feeling lost, alone, and afraid.

While I appreciated this exercise and had practiced this type of empathy for my husband as part of my recovery work, I couldn’t shake the profundity of these questions as they related to me and my primary relationship with my spouse in recovery.

I realized that these questions are, in effect, the very boundaries that I claim in my relationship today.  As I have faced my husband’s addiction, and all that has meant for me in the ways he has treated me, my children, and every aspect of our life together, I have come to claim these questions as the boundaries that define any relationship that I am willing to work toward.

  • Will you be there for me when I need you the most?
  • Do I matter to you?
  • Am I a priority in your life?
  • Will you value me and accept me even with my imperfections?
  • Will you stay close to me?

For me, a husband who is actively choosing addiction, whether in actions, behaviors, or attitudes, cannot honestly answer “yes” to these queries.  When an individual is choosing addiction, there is just no possibility for a secure attachment with them.

Empathy for our husbands is a good thing–even a crucial aspect of our recovery. But, empathy without boundaries becomes enabling as we transgress our own basic human worth.

In the past, our husbands, or maybe even ourselves, may have been a victim of a childhood where our Primary Attachment needs were not met, through no fault of our own.  We may have been powerless to do anything to change this. This is a travesty and a deep loss for anyone who has experienced it, and one that has undoubtedly resulted in a great deal of pain, suffering, and often addiction.

But today, I am not a child. My life is my own to claim. My relationships are my own to define. And for me, the biggest step I took toward a healthier relationship with my spouse was to decide that a healthier relationship was the only relationship I was interested in.  Not for him. Not for my family, my neighbors, my mortgage, my job security or anything else. But for me.

For me and my self-respect.

For me and my ability to feel God in my life.

All human beings deserve a Primary Relationship that is a Secure Attachment.

When children don’t have this, research clearly shows that they are unable to function optimally in society; they are unable to live fully. Why would we be any different?

This doesn’t mean we demand perfection, but it does mean we can ask for trust, fidelity, integrity, and an honest effort.  And we must be willing to give the same.

Humble. Honest. Accountable.

The only person who can decide that you’ve had enough is you.  Not for him. Not for anyone else.  But for you.

Boundaries can be the vehicle to bring you back to a place of power in your life.

Power to choose. Power to live. Power to love. Power to grow.

They’re not about him. They’re about you.

What do you want out of your life?

2 thoughts on “Secure Attachment, Empathy and Boundaries in Sexual Addiction”

  1. Becky, I always am so inspired by what you say! And seeing your level of recovery. I’d recommend “What to do about me” in several stages of recovery: I read it again after attending the retreat and it was like a different book than the first reading. I recently ran into this quote: “If we are not kind to ourselves, we have stopped believing we are worth it.” So true.

  2. This is a wonderful article. I remember how confusing and complicated I thought boundaries were at the beginning stages of recovery. The more I researched and practiced boundaries the less scary they became to me. I feel The same about recovery, I could go to all the therapy and 12 step meetings I want, but if I am not choosing boundaries in my life then I won’t see much progression. Great reminder thank you.

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