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.
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:
- What am I feeling right now?
- Why do I feel that way?
- 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.
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.