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!

 

 

Handling Triggers – Refresher

Lately I’ve had several conversations with guys in recovery who look at eliminating triggers as an integral part of their recovery plan. Unfortunately, this is an incomplete and, possibly even detrimental, way to go about recovery.

Triggers are a very real part of life. And when we talk about triggers, we’re talking about sexual and non-sexual types. Of course sexual things can be triggering; from billboards to TV, internet sites to euphoric recall of our own experiences we can’t escape them. Beyond these overt, sexual triggers are the emotional triggers; fear, failure and loneliness to name a few for me.

For those of us who have misused our sexuality and struggled with sexual integrity issues, we want these triggers to go away so as to not struggle anymore. I can say for myself, there are times when I feel bombarded by temptation and triggers, and I just want to find a cave and hide. So how do we deal with these things?

Eliminating triggers is a good part of the recovery plan as it pertains to overt, sexual triggers. Don’t visit the websites with sketchy ads or blog teasers, take a different on-ramp where there’s no billboard, stop watching prime-time TV, sit somewhere else in church, etc. We cannot entirely escape our culture, and we needn’t do that anyway. Where we can’t eliminate these triggers, we can pray for God to help us see them through his eyes and from his perspective.

As it pertains to emotional triggers, elimination isn’t always the best option. In fact, these can become the cues we use to engage our hearts and connect with God and others. It is imperative to identify the emotions that propel you towards entering the addictive cycle, along with the situation where those emotions manifest. A few examples:

  • Feeling belittled because your kids ignore you
  • Feeling shamed by your boss
  • Feeling disappointed with yourself
  • Feeling overwhelmed with financial issues
  • Feeling frustrated with traffic
  • Feeling sad about someone forgetting your name

You can see why elimination isn’t an option; we can’t control other people or the situations we’re put into. Instead, a better way is to be aware of these, how they affect us, and how we want to handle them.

Early in my recovery it was difficult for me to even identify what a trigger was. It helped to realize there are particular (unhealthy) thought patterns that are associated with them. A telltale sign of something being emotionally triggering is a serious of thought patterns that specifically attempt to offset or eliminate those feelings. Continuing with the previous examples, here’s how those thought patterns might go:

  • Feeling belittled by your kids-
    • “These kids never listen. They have it better than I ever did. I slave away so they can have it so good and this is what I get in return. We’re too slack with discipline.”
  • Feeling shamed by your boss-
    • “He’s so critical. He’s always picking my work apart. Doesn’t he have anything better to do? I’m the only one he does this to. What’s his issue? If he weren’t friends with so-and-so he wouldn’t have this job”

The thought patterns are aimed at making the pain go away. Rather than simply acknowledging that it hurts, and the emotions are what they are, these mental gymnastics become a distraction. Recognizing and acknowledging them can be a sign to yourself that there is something to engage. Here’s where we can do life in recovery different than in our addictions- practicing intimacy.

Connecting with someone and sharing the frustrations, feelings of shame and being ignored can be healing itself. Especially when you talk about it with folks that get it, that can relate and know what its like to be in your shoes.

This can also be a good time to connect with God. Take that stuff to him, in prayer and petition. Perhaps go to scripture and see where the folks in the bible can commiserate. In some cases, this can even be the prompt to engage intimacy with the very people who are hurting you. It may be time to try a different approach to connect with your kids on their level. Or time for a new conversation with your boss.

Where you can eliminate triggers, do it. Where you can’t, engage it. See what kind of character change and relational mileage you can get out of working through it.

 

 

Exoneration or Empathy

How do you handle conversations when your wife is triggered…

When our wife is asking us questions it can often feel like an interrogation or cross-examination. Once we’re on the witness stand, we can easily adopt a defensive posture, where we try to say enough to satisfy our questioner but not so much that we incriminate ourselves. Genuinely, we don’t want to make things worse or hurt our wives any more. We also don’t want to be indicted for crimes we didn’t commit. So we get hung up trying to navigate the details rather than engaging our hearts and emotions.

Sometimes we end up responding to the questions (usually after there are a lot of them) in a way that looks like we’re seeking exoneration. Here’s a quick definition of exonerate:

-to prove that someone is not guilty of a crime or responsible for a problem, bad situation, etc.

I know my tendency is to get released on a technicality. In the past, when my wife didn’t have her facts straight, I’d argue the loophole. And, truthfully, we know were that ends up don’t we? Very little healing happens in those conversations.

Instead, a better way to engage is to practice empathy. To feel her pain. Answer the questions asked and try to connect the pain, fear, disappointment, shame and sense of betrayal that may accompany them. Most wives in my office say that when their husband try’s to argue/correct/restate the facts it seems like he is trying to get out of being responsible.

The next time the conversation unfolds and you start to feel like you’re on trial, remember that to pause before you respond and ask yourself: “Am I about to practice empathy or am I trying to be exonerated?”