Choosing to Stay
Fresh Air, hosted by Terry Gross, produced an interview between Gross and Greta Gerwig (Fresh Air, November 16th, 2017). Gerwig’s newly directed movie, Lady Bird (2017), was the reason for the interview, but the “Me Too” movement seemed to be the backdrop to many interviews with celebrities at the time (and even now). Gross inevitably asked Gerwig about the many stories in which actors, politicians, and other well-known men were being accused of sexual harassment and/or sexual assault. This short segment of the interview captured my full attention – so much so that I want to recap it here.
Gross reminded the audience of Gerwig’s admiration of Woody Allen, noting that she starred in a film directed by Allen in 2012, To Rome With Love. This despite the fact that Allen has been accused of sexual assault and indiscretions. Gerwig is also married to Noah Bomback who directed The Mirowitz Story, starring Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman was accused of sexually exposing himself to a minor in 2017. After this review, Gross asked, “I’m just wondering as someone who is feminist oriented and someone who’s given a lot of thought to these things what your thoughts are about that and having been in one of his (Allen’s) movies?” Gerwig’s discomfort was immediately obvious. She responded slowly, thoughtfully, “It’s all very difficult to talk about. …I think I feel this moment has been a long time in coming and …there’s this fear that you’re going to somehow address this not correctly.” Not known for her timidity, Gross pressed on, “Can you elaborate on that more? What are you worried about inadvertently saying?” But Gerwig turned the tables by asking Gross, “To give you an idea…you’ve interviewed Louis CK (also accused of sexual harassment) many times. When I ask you that question, do you have a moment of fear inside you?” The host’s own discomfort became plain. She said, “I do. I’m heartbroken. I love his show, Louis, and his stand-up comedy. I enjoyed so much my interviews with him. I’m heartbroken for the women who were exposed to [his abuse] and I’m heartbroken that he had that compulsion to do what he did. It makes me sad.”
Wow! What a poignant exchange. Even now, reviewing it again, I’m struck with the notion that Gross and Gerwig were dancing around something (maybe a few things) they couldn’t quite figure out how to say. Of course, I haven’t talked with these women directly, but I find myself guessing at what they wanted to say but could not – what Gross came close to saying, but didn’t quite. Not to overstate her intentions, but maybe it was something along the lines of: “What he did was so offensive, beyond anything that can be ignored. Painful and devastating. Yet, I know him. I know he is a good man. A talented man. Knowing this man has brought gifts to my life. I don’t know how to reconcile the awful things he has perpetrated on others with my own experience of him.”
Betrayed partners of sex addicts often express similar qualms. How often have I heard a partner express doubt because she or he chose to stay in the relationship rather than leave. A partner might say, “I feel ashamed because I’m not leaving. I’m a fool,” or “I’m such an idiot for staying. I’m just weak and dependent.”
The truth of why people stay in such relationships is complex. Finances are often a factor. Especially for female betrayed partners, considering the financial losses she would experience as a result of separation or divorce is no small matter. When children are involved, this is even more so. Sometimes partners stay so that children will not experience a loss of relationship with Dad or Mom.
Often, however, partners stay for the very reason’s Gross and Gerwig struggled in their interview: they genuinely love and even like their significant other. Partners often express confusion at their conflicting feelings. On the one hand, they are furious, hurt, baffled, rageful, and afraid that their loved one has betrayed the relationship in such a devastating way. How could he? Has our whole relationship been a lie? I can never trust her again! On the other hand, they so enjoy the time spent with their loved one. They get along so well and are able to talk about almost anything. They have shared interests and really value their time together. They have a beautiful family together. How could such vastly different experiences be true of the same person?!
Here's a few things I want to say to betrayed partners who are facing the decision of leaving or staying with someone struggling with a sex/porn addiction:
People are never all good or all bad. Its o.k. to recognize your partner’s good qualities, the things you like about him and what made you want to be with him in the first place. In addiction language, we talk about the “disease of addiction” as a PART of who the person is, not ALL of who the person is. You can continue appreciating who your loved one truly is while also being angry, hurt and betrayed by what the person did in his addiction.
Leaving is an acceptable choice. Staying is also an acceptable choice. Even knowing that you love your partner and all her good qualities, you may still choose to leave. That’s o.k. It is important for you to make decisions you can live with. Betrayed partners are usually facing significant pain, anger, grief and trauma. Sometimes, the best way to heal is to get distance from that which is hurting you. This is especially true when the sex addict refuses to seek and live a recovery lifestyle. Staying is also perfectly acceptable. This does not make you weak, dependent, or shameful. It probably means you recognize that your partner and your relationship are worth salvaging. It’s o.k. to say, “I’m ready to do the hard work of healing with you.” Dealing with sexual betrayal in a relationship is complex and no one can know the right answers for you. With knowledgeable support, you can work through your pain and determine what course you want to take.
Seeing the good in someone does not nullify consequences and boundaries. Just like presidents, politicians, actors, directors, supervisors, executives, and news personalities should have professional (and perhaps legal) consequences for their inappropriate sexual behaviors, sexually addicted loved ones need to be held accountable for their behaviors. More importantly, betrayed partners need and deserve to take care of themselves and their children with healthy boundaries. The betrayed partner needs to get support in determining and implementing boundaries for the physical, emotional, and spiritual safety of herself and those in her care. This will look different for every relationship. Healthy boundaries may mean an in-house separation. It may involve leaving the relationship if the sex addict refuses to get treatment. It may mean divorce or permanent separation. Unfortunately, for some, healthy boundaries means the involvement of law enforcement or seeking sole custody of the children due to the risk a partner’s sexual addiction poses to them. As painful as these decisions may be, the betrayed partner can practice self-care, even while acknowledging the good qualities of the addict.
So, if you struggle with confusing and conflicting feelings about your sexually addicted partner, know you are not alone. Seeing sex addicts in black and white terms is easy, but it fails to take into account our humanity and the complexity of relationships. You do not have to have the debate with yourself. Love your partner’s good qualities; express your anger, hurt, and betrayal regarding his addictive behaviors; practice self-care; get support from qualified professionals and others who have walked this journey. Most importantly, be willing to do the work of healing, regardless of the outcome of your relationship.