Compartmentalizing

While I’ve written a bit about this before, it seems to be coming up quite frequently again. Wives will ask me how their husband can go and act out (via porn, masturbation, strip clubs, prostitutes, affairs, etc) and then, sometimes only minutes afterword, look them in the eyes and not be overcome with guilt. It seems like a split personality! But its typically not. It is a function of compartmentalizing. Here is a brief excerpt from Worthy of Her Trust where I address this.

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Men who commit sexual betrayal, especially those who are sexually addicted, are incredibly adept at compartmentalizing their behavior. Picture a closet wall with shelves from top to bottom, wall to wall. Each shelf holds as many shoeboxes, placed lengthwise, as will fit, with only a small gap between each one. Every box has a label that can easily be seen and read from the door of the closet. These boxes represent the fragmented, compartmentalized mind of a man consumed with sexual sin. Each box holds pieces of his life that when a person is healthy are all intermingled. But with an unhealthy person, these pieces are isolated so that one doesn’t touch another, except in rare cases of comingling for self-preservation or for an unusual, meaningful event.

On the very top shelf, to the far left side, is a box marked Family. This box contains the memories of the wedding day, shared assets like a house and bank accounts, kids’ birthday parties, family vacations, dinners with relatives, and Christmas mornings. It holds dreams of life together and the “happily ever after.” It also holds love, commitment, empathy, security, provision, care, concern, and the other raw materials that make up the fabric of a marital relationship. At a time when a man is doing family life, for example, on Christmas morning, he slides this box off the shelf, pops off the lid, and takes out the contents. He is fully immersed in the contents (not to be confused with being fully present in the moment) and thus not digging around any of the other boxes. His mind is on his family and the festivities of unwrapping gifts, putting together toys, finding batteries, and cooking breakfast. When he is finished with the Family box, he puts all the pieces back in it, places the lid firmly on the top, and returns it to its place on the top shelf.

On the bottom shelf, in the far right-hand corner, is a box labeled Sexual Sin. This box contains the destructive, painful, shame-filled, and exciting elements of his addiction. When a man pulls this box off the shelf and dumps out the contents, he is totally engrossed by them. Whether the box contains pornography, masturbation, strip club visits, an affair, or a full-on sexual addiction, his attention is solely focused on its contents.

By the way, some men describe a feeling of tunnel vision when they head toward acting out, as if they can see nothing else but the next high. This is a function of compartmentalization and, metaphorically, digging around inside this box. What’s important to understand is that when a man is preoccupied with his Sexual Sinbox, he is completely out of touch with and disconnected from his Family box. It’s as if when he is in one box, he is literally detached from all the others.

A wife will ask how her husband could commit the act of betrayal without thinking about her or the family? This is how: men compartmentalize their lives to the point where the singular focus of one area is all encompassing and becomes a barrier to his comingling the other compartments. The boxes are distinct and separate; there is very little overlap. When we’re in one box, we aren’t in another. There are rare occasions when a man is mesmerized with the contents of his Sexual Sin box that a moment of clarity and conscience will prompt him to take a quick glance at the Family box. For a brief, fleeting moment, he’ll think, I shouldn’t be in this box. I should pick up all these pieces, close up the box, and throw it in the trash. I should completely get it out of the closet. For good…

But then, like a flashing light, the contents spilled on the floor before him grab his attention again and redirect him, so he ignores what he has seen. Addictive, compulsive, coping, self-preserving tendencies prevail, and he continues in shame-bound denial. Once he has acted out and no longer needs what this box offers, he’ll quickly scoop up the contents, close the box, and return it to the shelf. He won’t think about it until the addiction beckons again. Until then, he’ll be able to operate in any number of other boxes in his closet.

When a wife hears me share this closet metaphor, she’ll say something about how frustrated the whole thing makes her. She’ll say that compartmentalization sounds like an excuse. Even Shelley had this opinion when she was proofreading this section! She felt a little frustrated, like I was providing an escape clause or something for the men who commit betrayal! It seems to tap a nerve in wives.

That’s okay. I’m not writing this to fix it or make it feel better, nor even to make a husband’s betrayal more palatable. I simply want everyone to be informed and to understand. There is a small part of me that hopes a wife will process this information in a way that decreases her inclination to vilify her husband. It does not apply to every wife, but some see their husband as a terrible monster who has deliberately stripped away her dignity and whose evil intent is to inflict perpetual wounds. Chances are, this is just not the case.

Anyway, it is safe to say that the boxes are self-soothing, coping strategies that men use to deal with life. The fragmented mind of a sexually addicted man often finds its origin in his childhood. For myriad reasons, the child needed and developed distinct boxes, each with its own set of rules, regulations, and relationships in order to make sense of or deal with the pain in his world.

We all do this to some extent. For example, we each have a unique set of parameters that guide our speech and behavior when we are at an important business dinner versus a meal at home. For me, the guidelines for a business meal say it is important to choose my words carefully, be interested in others, not talk too much, remember to chew with my mouth closed, and refrain from belches and other bodily harmonics. Those parameters are very different (hopefully) than a casual dinner at home, where I might dominate the conversation, talk while I smack my food, and gradually increase my volume to be heard above the cacophony of my boys clamoring for attention.

While we all have some compartmentalization techniques that help us appropriately through life, a man who commits sexual betrayal has more distinct and defined containers and stronger dividers between them. This facilitates his ability to willingly commit such hurtful acts and inflict immeasurable damage to his marriage and other family relationships.

Compartmentalization is not nearly as big an issue for women. They typically don’t operate this way. Most women think holistically. They have fewer compartments, so to speak, but those compartments are interconnected. What goes on in one container impacts others, because they are interwoven. As such, almost every wife I talk to says she could never imagine herself behaving in such hurtful ways and with total disregard for her husband and children.

The root word of integrity is integer, a whole number. It is not divisible nor disjointed. Thus striving for integrity means working toward integrating all the compartments. Extending the metaphor of the closet of boxes, integrity is a process by which all the boxes are removed from the closet and dumped in the middle of the floor, where all the pieces commingle. The contents of one box mix with the contents of the other boxes. Work melds with Family. Home gets intermixed with Fun. Sexual Sin is dealt with because it’s in the same pile as the God and Church box. In fact, this is one of the primary drivers for encouraging men to commit to full disclosure. The deconstructing of your boxes that hold all your secrets is a prerequisite for integration and connection with your wife!

 

 

11 thoughts on “Compartmentalizing

  1. Jason,
    This is a very good metaphor for dissociative identity disorder that can affect both men and women who have undealt with traumas in their past. Though all of us dissociate from time to time, for the addict it is a way to make one version of ourselves carry the evil deeds and harm, while the rest of us can be what everyone else thinks we are. Integration is the key that allows us to reconcile the lies that previous harm has done to us with the truth of the gospel. Then we can not only throw out the bad behavior but heal the wounds that drove us to an alternative “salvation” in the first place.

    • Hey Chris, its scary actually how some of this can mirror DID. But, it gets dicey trying to overlay the diagnosis. I’m not an expert in that area, so I try to steer clear. I like what you said about alternate “salvation”; how easily we can be distracted and be misled, even by our own junk!

  2. Wow, that really hit home, that was an apt description of me. I understand these things intellectually but the process of dissmantling those shelves is extremely difficult. I find myself unable to resist the siren song of lust.

    Thanks for your shares Jason, they are allways right on the mark.

    • Hey Wayne, thanks for the feedback. It is difficult; thats one of the reasons being in a good group where you can share all your thoughts is so important. We have to have a safe place to dump out our boxes!

  3. That was a good example. While it explained the process. It is still wrong. But it did take the sting just a little out of being betrayed. I a woman and your blog helps me a lot.

  4. I’m having a hard time understanding the compartmentalizing of sex. After discovering my husbands sexual addiction, one year and a half ago now, he has a hard time being intimate with me. He says he has compartmentalized sex, that nothing excites him, that is so hurtful to me. Even more so he didn’t want much to do with me before the discovery, I guess understanding because of the sex addiction before he didn’t, but now why not? I’m so confused he says it not me. I wonder often is he telling the whole truth, could that be a hang up? Or is he not ready to give it up, the box. We have been going to counseling, he goes every other week with me family counseling. I go every week working on me. I was abused my whole childhood thinking I had dealt with it, but this tore my world apart like blowing a house up and now finding every splinter to clean and piece back together. He has now said he’s ready to work on himself and start individual counseling next week, and asked me to be patient. I have been, and I want to jump out of my skin saying that. Some help plz. I’m so scared to post this but maybe it could help me, you, or someone. Plz God and ty

  5. This is such a well written piece, it has opened my sore eyes to a new perspective, and I think it offers insight, with depth, into a complex part of my husbands pain filled life.
    Thank you. I am a betrayed wife, happily married, I thought, for 28 years, and five months into the discovery of multiple “indiscretions”……….

  6. Compartmentalization is the what, or the function, not the why.

    Most of us would not forgive and/or restore the wife to her previous proximity and exclusivity of access to intimate parts of us if she had us in a carefully managed box.

    Unfaithfulness through extra-marital affairs is not possible without deception and lack of integrity–regardless of whatever euphemisms and technical, uniquely-male esoterica we want to provide women.  In any other situation, having nothing to do with the woman we claim to love more than anyone and the children we claim we’d die to protect, we would take exception to the mere IMPLICATION, let alone explicit assertion, that we are being controlled. 

    Therefore this “compartmentalization” is NOT, actually; because it is not complete and it is not tiggered in a way where most of us dissociate enough to compromise our status in society. That is, we do not suddenly become oblivious that we HAVE a wife and children.  Most of us don’t allow our “boxes” to lose us lucrative accounts at work.  And most of us know that we would not like to have to explain in plain, non-euphemistic, non-face-saving terms how we set their existence aside long enough to indulge our adolescent urges with someone we say “doesn’t mean anything”, to our children.  If these “boxes” presented real danger to our standing in society or our membership in the “manhood club”, so to speak, there would be no “boxes”.

    We have to be honest about how a vast, intricate indoctrination and socialization teaches us that we are entitled to sex, what sex represents (which in some ways itself is problematic), and to have a kind of power over women’s emotions, as evidenced by how we de-prioritize the seriousness of what they feel and ultimately don’t care what they feel.

    It’s all too convenient and ultimately ends up servicing the entitlement that we feel to never “look bad” despite the bad we do; shining a light on our wrong is somehow always MORE WRONG than whatever we did to initiate damage to people’s trust, people’s bank accounts, and the worldviews of children (particularly the ideas our sons get about what females, women are for).

    It is not women’s obligation to accomodate our failures in character AS A MATTER OF HER BEING TRULY FEMININE.  We have to be honest about how most of have been beneficiaries of a generational tradition that makes women think they are falling short of “What the Lord would have them to do” if they don’t choose to continue absorbing what ultimately amounts to our lack of self-control and lack of respect for them as persons–period.
    If she sticks around, it’s for her own reasons, but some of us make the mistake of assuming that it is indicative of her lacking respect for herself, the way we do when we start mansplaining and pressuring her to hurry past or not mention our sin against her.

    I think a point of maturity is to ask ourselves if by wanting her to “understand”, we really just want her to cease expecting us to be accountable or pay any type of consequences for our wrong.  Because if you think about it, God gets put in one of our “boxes” too, which means we subordinate Him too for the sake of what we want; so why would we treat her with any respect!  The only way out is if we truly want out, and to stop playing like we are victims of what we ourselves choose.

    • What you have explained this so true. I agree with you completely that sexual sin by the mail is totally his responsibility and his wanted actions. I spent four and a half years trying to forgive my partner sexual addiction. I tried to talk myself into that mindset that I had forgiven him and I hadn’t. I always lived in fear that he would leave me for another. At five and a half years he did. 6 months later I accepted God into my life and took Jesus as my savior. All my life I thought I was a Christian but I really wasn’the, at least not like I am now. Only now have I truly forgiven him for everything he has ever done. The lying, the abandonment, covered up by More lying no longer matters. I am no longer a Slave To Fear, for I am a child of God. Very lonely but never alone with Christ in my life.

  7. This is very interesting. I would love to read another article on the causes of compartmentalization and what therapies have been successful in connecting people with their boxes. It sounds like trauma is one cause. Are there others?

  8. I agree with much of what Marvin says though there are things I do not agree with. Correct that the affair is about deception and integrity but I add selfishness and a separation from God. However I disagree that a person who is struggling with sexual addiction will not deny they are being controlled. In fact, that is Step 1 of the 12 Step Program. We begin a recovery first realizing that we are being controlled and cannot control our lives.

    This harm and damage is usually not isolated to the wife/husband and family. I have found in my case and those in my support group that the damage is or has ben widespread affecting work, church, friends and more. So yes, all those who are confronting their addiction in a real way, we will all tell you that we have had severe damage done to us on all fronts. Humility is the key to recovery but no fun along the way. Owning one’s actions and decisions, realizing the harm we have caused, taking a personal inventory of how truly depraved we are, confessing those sins to those affected and truly being sorry for those actions. This a VERY difficult process and very humiliating, especially when one does this not just with your wife and kids, but to your immediate close friends, in-laws, and other family members.

    I do agree with the writers wife that the boxes could be looked at as an excuse. The real reason in my mind we create boxes is that we disassociate ourselves from feelings, speaking for me. Emotions and feelings were not allowed in my life, so creating boxes became normal for me. Because I was not allowed to be scared, or to feel insecurity, or to be sad, I found that I could wrap all those emotions up in a box, and store them away. Since my parents wouldn’t deal with them, why should I?

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