Celebrity sex addicts from high profile politicians to iconic sports stars whose secret behavior is exposed are quick to apologize.
One’s first and maybe cynical impression is that they are not so much sorry for what they did as they are sorry that their life has been turned upside down. And indeed, in sex addiction treatment, it is not unusual for the addict to initially experience a flood of emotion and remorse just from realizing the full meaning and enormous impact of their behavior. A colleague of mine refers to this outpouring as “narcissistic tears.” They have come face to face with their own human flaw.
What is involved in real remorse?
In some instances, one can be truly sorry right away. If a bus lurches and you step on someone’s foot, you immediately say “I’m sorry.” In this instance you really are sorry, because you could not control your hurtful behavior. You have immediate empathy and concern for the person even if they are inwardly – or outwardly – cursing you for being such a clod.
The betrayal of other people (and oneself) that accompanies the ongoing sexual acting out of an addict is a different kind of hurt. Losing your balance on a moving bus and stepping on someone’s foot has, at least for most people, no particular connection with their sense of who they are. It is an involuntary act that says nothing about us. Hence it is easy to accept that we have (involuntarily) hurt someone.
When an addict habitually acts out to secretly meet their needs at the expense of other people then “I’m sorry I hurt you” doesn’t seem to cut it.
In the immediate aftermath of the disclosure of a sex addict’s secret life, it is clear to everyone, except maybe the addict, that he or she is still the same person. There cannot be an instantaneous transformation. Every bit of fear, conflict, low self-worth, and lack of integrity is still there.
Real remorse and victim empathy can only happen when the addict has done enough self-exploration and acquired enough self-awareness to function in an entirely different way. Major basic change of this kind involves;
• A shift from impression management to honesty and transparency
• A shift from a habit of avoiding, controlling and placating others to a genuine ability to express feelings, needs, and vulnerabilities
• A shift from grandiosity and self-centeredness to an ability to listen to another and to be comfortable being influenced by a partner
• A shift from a compartmentalized life to an ability to share all the parts of oneself with another person
In other words, the addict becomes integrated, stronger, more centered and more available to bond. For those who know the person well, these changes are often very obvious. We feel the addict to be more sincere, more serious and more grounded. And perhaps the most obvious way that this new found integrity is expressed is in the addict’s commitment to recovery for its own sake. The addict is no longer going to meetings and therapy to please someone else or burnish his/her image. Recovery will have become unmistakably important in and of itself.
Implications for partners of sex addicts
The initial feelings accompanying disclosure may be an important motivator in getting the addict to commit to his/her own recovery going forward, including the wish to make it right with the partner.
But although the addict feels some immediate relief in knowing that he has come clean and that help is on the way, the partner who chooses to stick around will often have a much harder time recovering. A large part of the reason for this is that the process of bringing about deeper inner change sometimes seems glacially slow.
The literature on sex addicts and partners reports that on average it takes a year to begin to rebuild trust. Often it seems to take longer than that. I believe this is not only because the addict needs to “behave” for long enough to establish credibility, and not only because the addict must walk the walk of making amends. It is also because the partner can tell whether and to what extent basic inner changes are taking place. And in the long run, this is essential to the credibility of the addict’s expressions of empathy and remorse.