In our last blog we looked at cognitive distortions, particularly the cognitive distortions used by people with sex addiction or porn addiction to give themselves justification to act out. We saw how a cognitive distortion is another term used for the lies we tell ourselves when we want to do something we really know we shouldn’t do, and how all of us are guilty of this at times. But there are other ways that cognitive distortions are used; ways that are particularly relevant to partners of people with sex addiction or porn addiction.
When we experience something painful or shocking, our minds will often twist our thinking to either make sense of what we’re feeling or to protect us from further hurt. For example, if we’d been involved in a road accident with a red car we might find that for many months afterwards we felt anxious whenever we saw a red car. To explain our feeling of anxiety, or perhaps to justify sudden braking, we might tell ourselves that people who drive red cars tend to drive too fast, even though the car we have just seen was well within the speed limit. Or we might blame the driver of the car in the accident with broad generalisations such as ‘red car drivers can’t be trusted’. These defence mechanisms are a natural and common way of protecting ourselves from future hurt, but over time they can erode our confidence and damage relationships – especially if someone close to you drives a red car!
Partners of sex addicts and porn addicts are often traumatised when they discover that the person closest to them, someone they knew and trusted, has been lying to them and living a double life. For most partners, once they have got over the initial shock of what they have discovered, it’s not the compulsive sexual behaviours that devastate them but the deception. Many partners also find they struggle to believe their own reality, because the reality they thought they were living turned out not to be true. Subsequently, an important element of partner recovery is learning to have faith again in your own judgements. Like anyone struggling with a trauma, especially a betrayal trauma, it’s inevitable that doubts remain and recur. But recovery isn’t just about learning to trust a partner, it is also about learning to trust yourself and your thoughts again.
Whilst cognitive distortions seem on the surface to be protective, in the long run they can get in the way of learning to trust your own judgement. Rebuilding trust means taking risks and, initially, that means taking the risk that maybe your thinking is wrong. Have a look at the common partner cognitive distortions below and then the possible alternatives offered which could be more helpful.
- Jumping to conclusions – for example: ‘My partner’s late and hasn’t rung, so they’re probably acting out again.’
Alternative: There are lots of reasons why he may be late and hasn’t been able to ring, so, instead of worrying, I will tell myself that he is stuck en route and his phone is out of signal. When he gets home I can find out what’s happened.
- Justification – when you drink too much alcohol or become angrily abusive but tell yourself: ‘It’s OK for me to be like this after all I’ve been through.’
Alternative: Yes, it’s certainly understandable that you might engage in damaging behaviours, but it’s not helpful. Self-care and living by your value system, even if your partner failed to, is what’s most important right now.
- Minimisation – this is a thinking strategy for not taking responsibility for your behaviours or justifying doing something you know is unhelpful. For example: ‘I know looking through old photos is painful for me, but I’ll only do it for 10 minutes.’
Alternative: Looking for 10 minutes is indeed better than looking for hours, which I’ve done in the past, but it would be even better for me if I didn’t do it at all and I take a positive choice towards helping myself to heal.
- Catastrophising – this is the opposite of minimisation, for example: “He’s been looking at his phone, which means he must be on the adult apps again and must have acted out.”
Alternative: There are a lot of reasons why he may be looking at his phone. Rather than panicking about a possible worse-case scenario, I will tell him that I’ve been triggered and ask him to agree that I look at his phone for reassurance.
- Victim Stance – this is when you give up on yourself and put yourself into the role of a victim who has no choices. For example: “I will never be able to survive this,” or “she will never be faithful to me and I will never be able to leave.”
Alternative: It’s certainly understandable to feel like you’ve been persecuted by your partner. But instead of allowing yourself to feel like a victim, make the choice to be a survivor of trauma. A survivor of trauma would reassure themselves that they will survive, however painful, and that there can always be hope in the future.
- Blame – this is similar to justification, but rather than justifying via circumstance or environment, the responsibly is given to another, thereby disempowering the self. For example, saying: “It’s my partner’s fault that I feel like this or behave like this.”
Alternative: Whilst your partner is fully responsible for the actions and behaviours that have damaged you, you are ultimately responsible for how you respond to them. Keep reminding yourself of that and take the power back by making a choice about how you are going to feel.
It takes time and practice to overcome the cognitive distortions that increase your fears and disempower you, but with perseverance you can develop a mindset that fosters safety, stability and personal growth. If you want help moving on from the trauma of discovering sex addiction or porn addiction, then please do get in touch. We can help you through individual support or through joining one of our partner groups – where you’ll also learn from the experiences of other partners. You can find more information at: https://thelaurelcentre.co.uk/services/support-for-partners/
In the next blog we’re going to focus on emotional reasoning, which is a cognitive distortion often used by people with addiction, and their partners.