Many recovering sex addicts I work with have concerns about sharing their triggers with a spouse or partner. If you don’t know, a trigger is something you see, hear, remember, or otherwise experience that has the power to send you into the preoccupation stage of the addiction cycle. Triggers can put you in danger of relapse if you don’t address them well.
People give a lot of advice about whether or not you should share your triggers with a spouse or partner, and how much information to divulge. Let me share some of what I have seen work most effectively for the couples I work with.
Let the affected partner decide how much they want to know, in terms of level of detail.
Some may want to know exactly when the trigger happened, where, and the nature of the trigger. That is a right they have to help them feel safe about the seriousness of your recovery. Addicts tend to avoid sharing information about themselves with others. When you are willing to share, you look like a person who is taking recovery seriously.
Your partner may not want to know anything about your triggers. It may be too much to handle at this point in their recovery. Respect that.
But most spouses and partners of pornography or sex addicts tend to want at least some level of detail. The reason this is valuable is that it demonstrates what we call a “recovery narrative.” Sharing triggers in a healthy way helps tell the story of your recovery to your partner. This narrative is a key part of rebuilding trust.
When you share your triggers, share your recovery process along with the trigger.
Just sharing a trigger without any plan or insight can throw your partner back into trauma. They will worry if they’re supposed to be doing something to stop you from relapsing, or may just spend the rest of the day or week in a panic. It won’t go well, I promise.
So when you share a trigger, share with these items.
1. “I was triggered by _____________________”
If it was a memory, or something you saw, be honest about it. You don’t need to go into graphic detail. But don’t try to minimize either. Just tell what happened.
2. “This is what I think is making me vulnerable to triggers today”
Now you share recent pain or shame experiences, difficult emotions, or internal struggles that put you in a place where that trigger might put you at risk. Don’t pretend you are “fine.” Triggers happen. But when it really pulls at you and sends you into preoccupation, there is almost always something going on underneath that makes the trigger more powerful. If you don’t know, then you call your 12-step sponsor or ask your spouse, “Can you help me figure out what is going on in my life that is making me more vulnerable to triggers than usual?”
3. “This is my relapse prevention plan”
Spend time considering what works to pull you out of preoccupation and ground you in reality. What has helped in the past? What has helped your sponsor or others from your recovery group or support network? What are the specific steps you are going to follow to change your path to avoid relapse and to find serenity and stability? Share a detailed plan with your partner.
4. “This is how I will be accountable about my plan”
Will you call or text to follow up? When? Who will you be accountable to about your plan and follow through? When you follow up, share again what you did and how it worked. Did it help you stay sober? Is it something you will do in the future? Any struggles with it?
When you share more of your recovery narrative along with your triggers, you are much less likely to create trauma or panic in your partner. This builds trust in your relationship during recovery and helps you remain accountable for minimizing your slips or relapses through active recovery, not just “white knuckle” sobriety.