25% of marriages may end after the disclosure process.
"If you ever want to regain your wife's trust, you have to come clean about everything you did, so she knows there are NO more secrets..."
The “infidelity recovery industry” is a large, lucrative group of therapists and other professionals such as private detectives and polygraphers who make their living “treating” the problem of sexual infidelity. This industry offers support to couples where sexual infidelity has been discovered, ostensibly with the hope of helping these marriages recover from this blow to their relationship.
A standard part of the therapeutic process is what’s known as “disclosure” or “full disclosure.” Logistics of the disclosure process vary between clinicians, but, in essence, it is a process whereby the person who has revealed or been discovered in infidelity must “fully disclose” and come completely clean of all of their secrets. In some cases, the partner who engaged in infidelity develops a disclosure document with their therapist and then shares that information with their spouse in the presence of their therapist. In other versions, the betrayed spouse develops their own list of questions that they want answers to and then questions their spouse, again, with the therapist. Oftentimes, therapists incorporate a polygraph or lie detector in the process, though polygraphy itself is an invalid and a scientifically unsupported test.
The disclosure process is a common tool in marital therapy as taught by the Gottmans, pioneers of bringing science to marital therapy. It’s also prevalent in therapists who provide sex addiction therapy, though full disclosure is not required in 12-Step treatment.
“Full disclosure is the pillar to a recovery process. As long as there are secrets, disorientation and disconnection will perpetually have a foothold in both the marriage and in the recovery process,” says Rick Reynolds, LCSW, Founder and President of “Affair Recovery.”
At the Gottman Institute, they describe that: “It is critical that the cheater understands their partner’s feelings and accepts responsibility without defensiveness. There can’t be any more secrets, and the cheater must confess. While full disclosure is painful, it allows for transparency, verification, and vulnerability.”
For such a critical “pillar” of treatment, one would assume there would be loads of scientific evidence to support this intervention. Sadly, this appears not to be the case. In fact, there’s very little research on effective therapeutic strategies to assist couples in dealing with infidelity. Integrative Behavioral Couples Therapy is one exception, a model with positive outcomes which does not include an explicit mandatory disclosure process. One study of IBCT found that couples with “secret infidelity,” which was not revealed before or during therapy, were far more likely to divorce, though more than 40% of couples who did reveal or disclose infidelity divorced as well.
A 1998 study involved 82 “sex addicts” and their spouses. This retrospective study found that half the partners threatened to leave the marriage after disclosure, and 25% of the marriages did end. Going through the disclosure process did not prevent later incidents of infidelity. However, a large majority of respondents reported that they felt the disclosure process had been “The right thing to do.”
Unfortunately, the research has serious limitations in its design, particularly in the sample selection and recruitment (it appears likely that couples who ended treatment and ended marriages may not have been adequately sampled), so it isn't easy to know whether these results apply to other couples. Regardless, this study raises a real concern – are therapists who conduct full disclosure sessions telling couples that 25% of marriages may end after the disclosure process?
Full disclosure sessions may be harmful in other ways. “It’s a brutal process, traumatizing for everyone involved, me included,” one former sex addiction therapist told me. Having conducted such sessions for years, she has now chosen to cease, citing concerns over the pain, suffering, and humiliation involved.
“Frankly, it empowers the other partner to engage in outright emotionally and verbally abusive behaviors towards the unfaithful partner. I’ve seen information disclosed in these processes show up in the news when celebrities were involved. The celebrity disclosed the details of their infidelity to their partner, and then the partner released it to the gossip rags as a part of their divorce. I’ve also seen the details used against the partner in their divorce or custody proceedings. The one partner thinks they’re sharing this information to save the marriage, but if the marriage fails, they just gave their partner’s divorce attorney a whole lot of ammo to use against them.”
“It basically felt like getting kicked in the nuts,” describes one man who went through a mandatory disclosure process with a sex addiction therapist. “The therapist allied with my wife, and the two of them just grilled me. It completely enabled my wife’s narcissism, her view of herself as a victim, and blaming me for every problem in our marriage.”
Another man reported that the therapist and his wife required him to disclose his affair to his wife in the disclosure process and disclose it to each of his children. “My wife resented that our kids got along better with me than her. She said that ‘they needed to know what a liar I was.’”
Mandated disclosure to children is apparently a common recommendation by therapists, though again, there’s no evidence for the value of this practice. A therapist told me that she had a patient whose mandated disclosure to his daughter ended their relationship and that he hadn’t seen or heard from her in a decade.
It is reasonable to have questions after the discovery of betrayal and violations of marital agreements. “Did you risk my health?” is a reasonable and important question, especially given research that finds that people engaging in infidelity often do not practice safe sex. But, many of the questions and details that may be asked for in the disclosure process go much further.
Another therapist told me, “I’ve seen them demanding precise details, such as what sex positions or sex acts they did. And then, they refused to ever engage in those sex acts with their partner ever again.”
Therapists who treat infidelity and believe that disclosure is critical appear to hold these beliefs based on convictions other than empirical evidence of positive outcomes. Snyder and Doss wrote in 2005 that therapists treating infidelity, “Need to concretely articulate their values that influence the treatment of infidelity.”
Informed consent truly requires that therapists who introduce a full disclosure process into the treatment of infidelity must explain the risks to their patients and the lack of evidence for this intervention.
Research in 2011 found that efforts to stop, prevent, and control infidelity may actually increase its risk and decrease peoples’ commitment to fidelity. Unfortunately, there's little real evidence that the disclosure process is likely to truly reveal "truth." Instead, full disclosure seems to serve as a form of penance and therapeutically sanctioned punishment. Rebuilding trust is an active process, requiring communication, acceptance, change, vulnerability, and compassion. Couples struggling with the effects of infidelity benefit most from interventions that support this process.
Originally published on Psychology Today.
Cover photo by Pixabay