To disclose or not to disclose: Do I tell my partner all my dirty secrets?

by Dan Drake, LMFT, LCPP, CCPS-S, CSAT-S


If you’ve been around sex addiction meetings long enough you’ve no doubt heard people talking about “disclosure.”  While there are many different ways to go through the disclosure process, I thought I’d spend a few minutes discussing what disclosure is all about and why you might consider going through it.

First, what is disclosure?  There are two different types of disclosure: spontaneous and formal disclosures.

Spontaneous disclosures are those disclosures of information that are offered up, particularly after a spouse or significant other finds some evidence of their partner’s sexual behaviors.  These disclosures are raw confessions that are done without therapeutic or professional guidance.  They are typcially done in the spur of the moment when caught by a partner.  Frequenetly unplanned, they often involve the individual giving either too much detail or withholding important details.  Spontaneous disclosures of sexual behavior are often motivated by fear, remorse, or relational anxiety and can be very painful and even traumatizing to the partner, the relationship, and the individual giving the disclosure.

A formal disclosure is a professionally guided process, where an individual works with a therapist to prepare a document that lists his or her history of sexual behaviors.  This process is done in conjunction with the addict’s partner to determine what information he/she wants to know and what he/she does not want to know.  The addict then shares this disclosure in a professionally guided disclosure session with rules and parameters that both the addict and the partner are prepared for in advance.  I can’t emphasize enough how important the formal disclosure process is – It is common for addicts to err on one side or the other: sharing too many explicit details that can be traumatizing and trigger the partner, or as typically the case, withhold some painful details.  Because addictive behavior is conducted in secrecy, it is common for addicts to want to withhold certain pieces of information they feel would be too painful for their partner.  Yet, if a partner believes he/she has heard all of the details and discovers additional information later (which DOES happen), they become further traumatized.  Additionally, trust is further eroded.  The formal disclosure process helps provide a level of safety to both the addict and the partner.

Having briefly described spontaneous vs. formal disclosures, here are a few reasons why the disclosure process can be so important for men and women healing from sex addiction:

  1. A full disclosure of information in a professionally guided session puts the partner on an equal footing with the addict.  Many partners decide to stay in the relationship, even after sexual betrayal.  At the same time, it is only fair to the partner to allow her/him to have all the facts.
  2. The only true way to build back intimacy in a relationship is to eliminate deep secrets withheld from the partner.  Intimacy is based on vulnerability, authenticity, honesty, and trust.  Deep secrets will erode any chance couples have to rebuild intimacy.  At the root of sex addiction is a problem with intimacy, so one critical way to address the problem is to build intimacy through honesty and truth.
  3. The disclosure process enables a partner to find her/his footing again.  Discovering a significant other’s sex addiction can feel like the floor was ripped out underneath a partner.  Partners frequently assume the worst, so a disclosure helps a partner know where the bottom of the addict’s behavior lies.  While extremely painful, feeling grounded allows opportunities to move forward.
  4. The disclosure process can be an extremely valuable component of the addict’s recovery as well.  Exposing secrets to a loved one in a guided manner can be very freeing and can actually help the addict integrate the secret and shameful parts of their lives with the part of themselves they want others to see.
  5. Trust, particularly towards the beginning of this process, comes through action not just words.  Going through the formal disclosure process is a significant step for addicts in moving towards relational healing.

These are but a few of the reasons for going through a formal disclosure process.  I caution you again – Though it can be invaluable in a relationship to go through the formal disclosure process, it will bring up pain.  It should NOT be attempted without the guidance of a professional who can help you through the process.  This process is not for everyone, so it should only be considered with the careful guidance of a professional trained in the formal disclosure process.  Think of it like this:  When you have a seriously infected wound, you need medical assistance to open up the wound, clean out the infection, and stitch you back up.  While that process is painful in the moment, it is the best way to keep the injury from causing even further damage.

I hope this was a helpful introduction to the disclosure process.  If you have any questions feel free to email me or call me at (310) 415-5732.

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