How Do I Share Triggers with My Wife or Significant Other?

This question has come up quite a bit, both for me personally as an addict working my own recovery, through the contact form here at SALifeline.org, and in meetings I’ve been a part of. “How do I safely share triggers with my wife or significant other?”

Have you ever had this question?

What’s the “right answer,” or is there one?

A few answers I’ve heard in reply to the question include:

“You want to be totally honest.”

“You don’t want to just dump all the garbage on her, thinking you’ll feel so much better but leaving your wife in huge trauma and fear.”

Talk to your sponsor – he will give you good direction…”

“You need to tell your wife EVERYTHING…”

“Don’t tell her about your triggers, it will hurt her too much.”

For the record, some of the answers I’ve heard are NOT what I would do. But I do feel the “correct” answer is a little gray: after all, I DO want to be completely honest, I DON’T want to hurt her more than I already have, and I DON’T want to just dump all my feelings and thoughts on her to “get them off my back.”

What’s the answer then?

Dr. Adam Moore, a qualified therapist specializing in sexual addiction recovery and betrayal trauma, shared some of his ideas based on his experience working with hundreds of couples dealing with these issues.

share triggers

First important clarification: What is a Trigger?

“A trigger is something you see, hear, remember, or otherwise experience that has the power to send you into the preoccupation stage of the addiction cycle. Triggers can put you in danger of relapse if you don’t address them well.”

Dr. Moore shared that “people give a lot of advice about whether or not you should share your triggers with a spouse or partner, and how much information to divulge.”

Here are some of the things Adam has seen to be most effective.

1. The affected partner can decide how much they want to know.

If your wife wants to know exactly when, where, and the nature of the trigger – tell her. It’s her right to know and can help her feel safe about the seriousness of your recovery.

As addicts, we tend to avoid sharing information about ourselves with others. If we are willing to share, it’s a good indication to our wife that we are taking recovery seriously.

If your wife doesn’t want to know anything about your triggers, respect that too: it may be too difficult and traumatic for her to handle at this point.

Dr. Moore has seen that most wives of sex addicts want to at least know, at some level, what’s going on. The benefit of knowing what’s happening demonstrates a “recovery narrative,” where sharing triggers in a healthy way helps tell your story of recovery; it’s a key piece in rebuilding the trust that you’ve damaged because of your addictive behaviors and actions.

2. When you share triggers, share your recovery process as well.

If all I’m doing when I share a trigger is telling my wife what I saw, when I saw it, and what that did to me physically, mentally, or emotionally, in my opinion that’s just a “guilt dump” and will often throw my wife right back into trauma. This tactic will NOT go well.

When sharing a trigger, follow these suggestions:

“I was triggered by __________”

The blank could be a memory, something you saw, a song – be honest about it. You don’t need to use graphic details, but avoid minimizing. Just tell what happened.

“This is what I think is making me vulnerable to this trigger today…”

This is your opportunity to share pain, shame, and vulnerability with your wife or partner. Negative emotions are at the core of addiction; how we choose to deal with them is the fork in the road between sobriety and falling back into the addictive cycle.

Don’t pretend everything is “fine.”

Triggers happen. But when the triggers have a power to pull you back into preoccupation with acting out, there is almost always something going on deeper that’s making the trigger that much more powerful.

This is a great time to reach out to a 12-Step sponsor, share what’s happening, and ask them what their experience has been. A question like, “Can you help me find out what’s going on that’s making me feel more susceptible to triggers today?” can help get the conversation started.

“This is what I’m doing today to work my recovery…”

For me, this includes the surrender process:

Reaching out to God >
Writing things down >
Reaching out to my sponsor or others in my 12-step group

When I write, I ask myself three questions:

  1. What am I feeling right now?
  2. Why do I feel that way?
  3. What’s the next step I can take?

Sharing my feelings with a sponsor or another recovering addict has ALWAYS been helpful. This is where true connection, not isolation, comes. My sponsor can listen, reflect, and share his own experience of what has (or even hasn’t) worked for him in situations like mine. But in order for it to help me, I have to put what he shares into practice.

Sharing a detailed plan with my wife on what I plan to DO to work recovery will help rebuild trust.

“This is how I will be accountable about my plan…”

For me, making a list of the things I WON’T do has often been a bad idea. As an addict, it’s what I SHOULDN’T be doing that has always drawn me back to my drug of choice.

Instead, making a plan that focuses on what I CAN do has been much more helpful.

I can make a call, send a text, or write an email to follow up on how I’ve executed my recovery plan.

I can be specific on when I’ll make this connection.

I can tell my wife who I will be accountable to: her, my sponsor, another person in my group.

As part of my follow up, I can share specifically how the plan went, what I learned, and how I feel now.

I can also assess what I could do different in the future if/when the trigger comes back.

Conclusion

Sharing the recovery narrative, in conjunction with the trigger, gives a much higher probability that trauma or panic won’t occur in my wife.

My goal is to rebuild the trust in our relationship that I’ve destroyed because of my terrible choices. I want to be humble, honest and accountable – that’s what real recovery looks like. I want to practice active recovery from my addiction instead of falling into the “white knuckle” sobriety that has never worked for me.

What are your thoughts?

Thanks to Dr. Adam Moore for his willingness to let us reference his counsel. Dr. Moore has provided individual, family, and couple counseling services since 2005. He specializes in sexual addictions like compulsive pornography use. He also has worked extensively with couples healing from the effects of extramarital affairs, and enjoys working with individuals and couples with many types of presenting concerns. Dr. Moore oversees clinical work at Utah Valley Counseling and provides training for the therapists in sexual addiction treatment processes.

8 thoughts on “How Do I Share Triggers with My Wife or Significant Other?”

  1. I appreciate this post, and I feel like I’ve been lucky enough to have a good communication pattern with my wife long before working recovery to help mitigate some of the pitfalls of trigger-sharing. One thing we’ve done is take full advantage of evening checkins, where we both go over the contents of our day, including thoughts and feelings, within some preset categories (physical, emotional, spiritual, sexual, triggers, etc.). This helps me in particular when there may have been something seemingly small during the day that wasn’t fully surrendered that is continuing to agitate and disrupt my peace in some way. I may not have even realized it in full UNTIL the checkin, but because my wife and I have previously determined exactly what should and shouldn’t be shared in checkins for her safety, anything that I share in full integrity and openness actually adds to her views of me and the safety I’m providing her, even if it’s uncomfortable for me to want to share it. If there has been a significant trigger, especially if it’s sexual in nature, that I haven’t previously surrendered to my sponsor, then that indicates to her that there is a lack of commitment in that moment to my recovery, and she can then determine if she needs to enforce any boundaries/bottom lines for her safety. Thankfully those moments haven’t been necessary since the first few months of my recovery, but they’re there for a reason. This falls in line with what Dr. Moore said about having not only a recounting of triggers but recounting the recovery actions taken when the triggers were recognized. When I can share the full experience of my feelings and experiences—good, bad, ugly, messy, etc.—within the context of working recovery, then safety and growth are much easier to realize for both me and my wife.

    1. Thanks JR. I believe strongly in check-ins too. Sometimes, for me, check-ins have helped me discover things about myself that I would have never even realized without them – I would have just stuffed the feelings and “moved on,” something I’ve done my entire life as an addict.

      Creating a plan has helped me show my wife, through my thinking and awareness, that I really am working recovery, not just going through the motions.

      I appreciate your insight.

  2. I can personally relate to this week’s topic, as I was struggling with sadness, regret, and guilt this week. This quickly got stuffed and was presenting as resentment towards my spouse within the blink of an eye. It wasn’t as strong as it used to be, but something was off and I wasn’t dealing with what I was feeling very well. I wasn’t able to surrender it for a couple of days. It was fuel for my addiction, a tool in my pouch that has been an old favorite of mine for decades.

    Before recovery, this resentment would’ve given me the justification for acting out in my addiction. My wife senses I’m upset with her, and I know this. But I’ve held on to these negative feelings long enough, that it’s messing with my connection with my wife.

    At this point, I want to hide what I’m feeling. How does a conversation that should start with “I’m sad, feeling guilty, and my heart aches because of the bad decisions I’ve made” somehow in my mind become “I’m mad at you because I can’t have what I want. This is because of the mistakes I’ve made and the trauma I’ve caused you”.

    My addiction is how.

    What a mess my mind and skewed rationalization have made of things! I have always struggled with reporting to a sponsor because I’m afraid of opening up to a stranger, but also because I want to have complete openness with my spouse. She has also echoed this sentiment. She wants me open and sharing with her, not some other person. But that just doesn’t work all the time for me.

    I’m getting better at it, but it can be extremely difficult for me at times. I think, as an addict, there will always be deep caverns in my mind where I stash a secret, or dangerous thought that I can’t (or don’t, I should say) share with my spouse because of the trauma it will inflict on her. But this is the addict’s justification, right? Even if I’m afraid to express how I feel, I MUST share it with my wife. If I can’t do that, I MUST surrender it to a sponsor or another brother in recovery. If I don’t, it will eventually consume me. If she is open to hearing everything, I need to share everything.

    If there’s been a boundary set, that of course must be respected. Are boundaries set in stone forever? Sometimes yes. Sometimes they are not. Some boundaries have changed in our relationship as trust is earned and the relationship is strengthened, others have not and probably never will. Having a sponsor is an important element to working recovery no matter what the comfort level is and the degree of openness a sex addict has with their spouse, yet having a sponsor is something I have really struggled with.

    I love having check ins with my wife, and as JR also shared, there are days when I don’t even know what’s agitating me until I do have that check in and I’m able to connect with what’s going on with me emotionally.

    I do know, however, that there is no single solution for all addicts and spouses dealing with betrayal trauma. What works for one, won’t necessarily work for another at that particular moment or that particular level of recovery.

    Except SAL. And therapy.

    SAL and therapy provide a lot of strength in giving me greater understanding of my addiction, as I’m sure it does for all of you. I know I’m not alone. I have each of you in SAL to help, guide, and support me in this endeavor. My strength in recovery comes from God; actively seeking strength, light, and hope from my higher power. My strength in recovery also comes from each of you, my brothers in recovery.

    My desire to keep going comes from my family and the love I have for each of them. I don’t want to risk losing them again. Any power I do have over my addiction comes from knowing that the problems I have in my life that cause me the most pain and sorrow are directly tied to my decisions and actions as a sex addict, and the changes that bring joy, peace, and happiness are also my decision. I can’t undo what’s been done, but I can do today right.

    Today I can choose what I do. Today I choose the light. Today I choose to connect with my emotions. Today I choose to be mindful of my thoughts and actions, and surrender those that aren’t uplifting. Today I choose to not hide what I’m feeling. Today I choose recovery over my addiction.

    One day at a time.

    Tomorrow I will have to choose again.

    1. Your comment reminds me a lot of a video I saw recently from Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski. He talks about how anger is a negative emotion that I have no control over – it just happens from time to time.

      How I react to that anger, especially if I fight back, is called “rage.”

      If I let the anger fester and I “stuff” it or hold it in for a period of time (hours, days, even years), that’s resentment.

      So I see the path like this:

      Anger leads to Rage.
      Anger without Surrender leads to Resentment.

      And from there, I become a magnet to lustful thoughts and feelings and temptations.

      If I’m able to surrender my anger to my sponsor and others, especially if the anger relates to feelings about my wife, I can then share how I “cleaned my side of the street” with my wife.

      I agree as well that SAL meetings and qualified therapy have been miraculous tools in real recovery for me. I don’t know where I’d be without these tools which help me uncover all the wreckage of my past and connect with God in a deeper more meaningful way.

      Thanks so much for your comment.

  3. I’ve talked to my therapist about this topic. She emphasized for me that when I tell my wife about a trigger that also I need to have a plan about how I will deal with the trigger going forward.

    That way it helps my wife feel safe and that I’m actively working my recovery.

  4. Hello I’m Brad Sexaholic I think it will vary for each person in recovery. For me and where I’m at today I come straight out and tell my wife if something triggers me.

    In the beginning which was a little over a year ago since my sobriety date, I was very timid about telling her, from the fear of how she might react. I did an out patient program in Utah that taught something that I used a lot in the beginning of my recovery. It goes something like this. Whenever my wife has a trauma attack or I need to tell here something that I was hesitant about telling her, I simple would stop and say, no wife or person should have to feel the way that your feeling. “Because truly we don’t know how they’re feeling”.

    Then they taught me to continue by saying I’m working my recovery and want to be there for you, is there anything I can do for you at this time.

    Sometimes it would result good and sometimes bad but what it taught me was that my wife needed her own time to recover from the addiction also. I guess what I’m trying to say is I would sometimes lead with, No wife should ever have to feel the way you do…. then go on with telling here what triggered me.

    Thanks for including me on this thread.
    Brad, Sexaholic.

  5. I agree, I have no idea how I’ve made my wife feel due to my horrible actions throughout and even before our marriage.

    My experience is similar – sometimes my sharing results in an increase in trust and emotional connection – sometimes it causes distance and detachment.

    Thanks for sharing your experience.

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