Sex Addiction & Partner Betrayal: Speaker Series featuring Marnie Breecker (interviewed by Laurie Watter, Director of Family Relations at APN Lodge)
Marnie Breecker: My name is Marnie Breecker. I am a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist. I’m also a Certified Clinical Partner Specialist. I own a center in Los Angeles and San Diego called the Center for Relational Healing, where we focus on working with people that have betrayed their partners. That includes those struggling with sex addiction -whether it’s someone who doesn’t relate the term sex addiction or somebody who totally identifies as being a sex addict. We deal with helping partners and couples recover from the impact of betrayal in their relationships.
I also co-facilitate a podcast called “Helping Couples Heal,” which is all about supporting and providing resources for people dealing with betrayal, trauma, and relational trauma. I do workshops called “Helping Couples Heal” around the country with a co-facilitator named Dwayne Austerland. We have about 68 couples in each of our workshops. Again, it’s about bringing together couples who are trying to heal their relationships after betrayal. We do have certain criteria that must be met to participate and get the best outcome. So we do a lot of assessments to determine who are the appropriate couples for the workshop.
Laurie Watter: So, that’s pretty amazing work that you do, and it’s really a specific need out there. I’ve certainly seen that our community is missing this. I want to know is there a way that you got into this area? Is this where you started initially in your career?
Marnie Breecker: Yes, I fell into it. I never thought when I went to graduate school that I was going to work in sex addiction, but what happened was, I was a trainee, and I was in grad school. I just ended up at an inpatient psychiatric facility. For the general rotation, I ended up on the sexual recovery program. So, I worked with a lot of sex addicts and offenders (non-violent offenders), and that’s what they did.
It was really a brilliant program that combined the sexual recovery program with the National Trauma Center. So, you’re able to see the connection between acute trauma and sex addiction. That’s where I developed a ton of compassion and empathy. Then everywhere I went after I left that hospital – because I had experience with sex addiction, and it was more of a relatively new, “let’s talk about” field – I was constantly given the sex addiction patients. That was how it started.
Laurie Watter: One of the things I’ve noticed over the last few years (especially working at Next Chapter) is that many of the men that have a history of sex addiction, porn addiction, or out-of-control sexual behavior also seem to have a history of sexual trauma. Do you find that to be the case in the work that you’re doing? How do you address that? And how do you treat the client who has been sexually traumatized himself and acts out on a minor?
Marnie Breecker: I will start with the last piece first. I don’t do a lot of work with people who have acted out with minors, such as sexual offenders. I have done that work, and I did that when I was at the hospital. If it’s a pornography issue with looking at child pornography, I will sometimes take that case. Typically, I will refer to the therapists out there who are more frequently practicing with sex offenders. That’s typically my go-to. I’ll refer out. To answer your other question, yes, a very high percentage of the clients I see who identify as sex addicts or meet the criteria for sex addiction have sexual abuse in their history.
I want to distinguish between sex addiction and porn addiction because with the advent of the internet, we see so much more porn addiction. Sometimes that doesn’t necessarily come from trauma. But when you have somebody that has a sex addiction, it’s been going on since they were young. It really is always rooted in some kind of trauma – whether that is sexual abuse or being exposed prematurely and way before developmentally appropriate to sexual material. We often see that those are real causes for the addiction to develop.
Laurie Watter: I imagine the betrayed partner is a very challenging individual to work with because, in the limited pieces that I’ve seen in that area, many of the partners have wanted to be forgiving, but the trust is so broken. They’ve been so hurt. I also find the role that they have assigned to themselves to even remain in that position can come from a long line of their own family-of-origin issues. So, I was going to say, how do you work with that individual? Is there a specific model that you use? Do you find that there’s a lot of support out there for that individual? Maybe it’s 12-step support or out of 12-step support for families that are really struggling?
Marnie Breecker: That’s a great question. When I first came into the field when I was an intern working with sex addiction, I was hired by a clinic in Los Angeles. That was the first outpatient sex addiction clinic. It was around until recently. I was brought in specifically to work with partners because the Clinical Director said, “None of my staff wants to work with partners of sex addicts. They think they’re crazy. They think they all have Borderline Personality Disorder.” I had never seen that in the partners that I had worked with at the hospital. So, it was a bit confusing to me after working with this population for a decade.
I can say that partners come in and often might seem crazy. But let me tell you, with my own trauma that I had in my life, I know that I’ve seemed crazy. I think trauma does that to us, right. In terms of working with a traumatized partner, yes, there are absolutely cases (many cases) where they come in and when you get to it, you find out they did have a lot of family-of-origin trauma. They might identify as being codependent, but what’s really important to me, at least what I have found very valuable to the clients, are the partners specifically.
To assess them into triage, meaning when they come in because they just found out that their marriage – to their husband of let’s say 20 years, who they have three children with and have built this life together – they found out that it’s all been coated in secrets and lies. There’s this whole secret life that they never knew about in this dark sexual secret basement that they didn’t know about. They need help for what they’re coming in for, and they need help for betrayal. Traditionally, what would happen, is that a partner would come in, and instead of being triaged and saying, “Okay you’re here for betrayal. You might have some other stuff that we can get you help for one day if you want, but right now, let’s heal these wounds.”
People would jump quickly into family-of-origin issues and codependency, and I found that was unfair and unethical to the partner. Much like when a sex addict comes in. If a sex addict comes into my practice and says, “Hey, I have a sex addiction, and I want treatment,” I don’t just take them at their word. I assess them and give them a sexual dependency inventory. I do a thorough assessment, mental health history, and I ask a lot of questions.
Before just going with, “Yes, you’re a sex addict,” it’s important to remember that we often can present as something, and we’re not necessarily that thing. Right? So, I’m assessing a partner, asking her why she’s there, and what she wants from treatment. Because I’d say 9.9/10 times, when a partner comes in for help, she’s not looking to open up her own family-of-origin. That stuff can definitely come later if they choose. Of course, I want to recognize that family-of-origin can impact how a partner handles and deals with the trauma of betrayal. Maybe somebody who had a lot less trauma could be more resilient and have a lot more emotional resilience. In contrast, if someone has a history of betrayal from family-of-origin, it could be a recapitulation of past trauma. It can make it much harder for the partner to cope with the current circumstances.
Laurie Watter: They’re looking to deal with the current circumstances and then anything that you can get from that point on. You can go back and look at family-of-origin. How often do you feel that that the relationships get healed? I mean, do you find that there’s more hope than not to keep these relationships together?
Marnie Breecker: Yes, in my experience with the clients that I see – and even my colleagues with a rapport – way more relationships survive and heal from betrayal than I think many of us might think. It takes a lot of work though, and I really emphasize that. So, when people come in (especially addicts) and say, “I’ll do anything to make my marriage work, to heal it, anything they need in order to heal,” they need to stand by that. Oftentimes the relationships that don’t work are in the circumstances where the offending party is not doing everything it takes to reestablish trust.
Rebuilding intimacy creates safety. That’s the most important thing. I’ll call people out on it and say, “I’m so confused. I remember you saying, ‘I’ll do whatever it takes.’ Now she’s making this request, which sounds very reasonable, and you’re very defensive and very resistant. What’s going on there?”
So yeah, I would say a lot of relationships heal. There’s a lot of hope. I would never ever do this work if I didn’t see a lot of healing because it’s tough work. It’s a lot of pain, but it’s exciting to see how couples can survive this and ultimately end up thriving in their relationships. The relationship will never be the same. I think that’s important to say. It’s sort of like, for me, losing my mom was a horrific experience right, and I had so much grief for such a long time. I’ll never be the same. Recovering from grief doesn’t mean that I feel the same way I did before. I’ll never be the same way. My life will never be the same without her, but I’m thriving in my life right, and it looks different, but it’s fantastic.
Laurie Watter: Thank you so much for being here. You were such a pleasure, and it was such a pleasure to meet you. I just feel like there’s such a nice connection with you. You’re easy to speak to, and you’re lovely to have around. I know that you’re ready to get down to sea level, but we really enjoyed having you with us.
Marnie Breecker: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure being here, and I can’t wait to come back and visit. It was really wonderful to meet you. Thank you.