Supporting the Significant Others of Sex Offenders, Part 1

As more time passes between graduation and the present I realize how good school was to me. When it came to training opportunities I usually happened to be in the right place at the right time. Whether that was due to luck, solid professors or even by dint of the Psychology Gods smiling upon my naïve, albeit incredibly good-looking face I got to see and experience a lot in a relatively short period of time. In fact by the time I had my degree in hand there were few clinical populations or diagnoses that I hadn’t worked with firsthand. Compare that with my “real doctor” colleagues who had obtained their M.D.’s yet hadn’t even seen a spear through a patient’s head or a gall bladder on their office floor. How lame is that?

When it comes to the human condition you don’t learn all that much from textbooks. You learn by doing. You get into the room with the person and you interact. While you try to remember what the books and the professors said and you memorize the jargon, the real learning is by trial and error. Sometimes the training opportunities present themselves before a you have had any book knowledge whatsoever. For me this occurred when I facilitated a support group for the spouses/significant others of sexual offenders, a group comprised entirely of women.

“Support groups” generally differ from “therapy groups” in the sense that they often don’t have a specific outline for each session, the members of the group tend to have varying levels of participation and attendance, and that their purpose is exactly what it sounds like: to simply provide support to the members who are dealing with a particular issue. Sometimes they are facilitated by non-professionals. Therapy groups, by contrast, are theoretically designed to treat a particular psychological problem. They are run by professionals and usually have an overarching objective or goal for the participants.

The Significant Others of Sexual Offenders Group was unique in the sense that enrollment in the group was required. If you wanted your partner to be treated for his sexual offending, you needed to be a part of the group. If you were not there during the regular meeting times, your man was kicked out of treatment, plain and simple. This requirement was based on certain theoretical principles:

1) Sexual offenders suffer from a psychological disorder that can, in some cases, be treated via a comprehensive program.

2) The process of becoming an offender involves experiencing various psychological problems such as low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. The process includes certain behavioral problems in addition to the offending, especially lying to both oneself and others.

3) Without complete disclosure of the offender’s thoughts, feelings, actions, and history of his psychological growth, both sexually and non-sexually, rehabilitation is not possible. This disclosure needed to be done in the presence of the treatment team, other offenders in the treatment group, and the offender’s significant other.

4) Without an adequate support system to help the offender deal with the purging of the innumerable lies and egregious actions, rehabilitation is not possible.

5) Unless the significant other was involved in the offending itself the complete understanding of offending behaviors and their consequences are simply overwhelming and cannot be tolerated on one’s own. Support is required for the significant others to deal with numerous emotions that come with sex offender treatment, so that the significant other can be a useful resource for the treatment. This benefits both the offender and the community who is considered at risk for future violation.

The philosophy behind these principles is that finding out that your significant other is a sex offender is incredibly difficult to deal with and it is unlikely that either of you will successfully cope with it alone. If you can’t keep it together, there’s no way your partner will, which puts the community at risk due to the increased likelihood of recidivism on his part.

The group took place at a local community mental health center where I was completing a one-year externship program. Some externships allowed you to pick and choose what type of work you do throughout the year. This one didn’t and my leadership of the group was mandatory. The supervisor for my work was a psychologically strong, confident and intimidating woman who pulled no punches and gave it to me straight. She believed that every student should take on novel and challenging populations because a good Psychologist has “experienced the world.”

“Like it or not, Rob, sex offending is a part of real life. Don’t hide from the world, experience it.”

At our first meeting together my supervisor broke down the possible dynamics involved in the support group. “Very few women are pleased, especially at the onset, to be ‘going to fucking therapy’ every week for a disorder that they do not have. Many of the women – and much of society in general – do not even see the offenders as “ill,” at least not in the way one might view someone with Schizophrenia. They are incorrect but that is their belief. A male group leader, in this case you, will likely receive very strong transference reactions from the women who will see the facilitator- again, you – as an easy target for the gamut of negative feelings toward men that they understandably are experiencing. In other words prepare yourself to be a punching bag for a lot of rage.”

“I really don’t think I’m qualified…”

Dismissing me with a brief wave of her hand she continued. “You have to strike a balance between empathizing with their feelings of anger, betrayal, and embarrassment they have with a confident knowledge of the nature of sexual offending and its underpinnings as an illness that impacts not only the offender and victim but also the community at large. Can you do that?”

“Actually I’m pretty sure I can not do that. I’m not even sure what you are talking about.”

“Hold old are you Rob?”

“I’ll be twenty-six very soon.”

“How soon?”

“Ten months.”

“And how much experience do you have with sexual offenders?”

“About as long as this conversation.”

“Alright then. You look like you’re about 8 and have virtually nothing to offer in terms of life experience or knowledge to these women who are victims in their own right. As your supervisor I will guide you along as best as I can but I don’t have the time to watch you moment to moment like they do at the university clinic. You’re going to need to do a lot of this on your own.”

I’m sure I looked panic-stricken and in need of deep breathing exercises or wine or scotch or an illicit substance so she took my hand and her firm, clinical and almost cyborg-type voice softened somewhat. “Rob, you’ll do this and will someday thank me for my tough love. Remember, no matter how many books on support groups or Frotteurism you read, you need the growing pains of practicing as a professional.”

“What’s Frotteurism?”

“It usually involves sexually touching and rubbing against nonconsensual partners.”

“Who does that??”

“Some of your clients’ husbands so get comfortable with it. I will tell you this again and again until it sticks: don’t hide from what’s different and scary.”

I left that meeting confused and nervous with a lot of questions and hardly any answers. I hadn’t chosen to run the group and didn’t see what an amazing challenge and growth opportunity it was. All I envisioned at the time were angry women who would see me as a possible enemy because of my gender.

I didn’t know what to think about them. I’m sure many of them had children and didn’t want to break up their families. Others were probably scared to be alone. Some probably truly loved their husbands and wanted to help them. In all likelihood most of the women were a combination of all of those types and didn’t know what the hell to do about this issue. That I could completely understand and I suddenly felt sorry for them for being in such a horrible place. If I can just remember this feeling I’ll be in a better position to help them.

Unfortunately the feeling didn’t last and anxiety returned. I had the responsibility of helping a group of people with a problem I knew nothing about and who in all likelihood didn’t even want to be there. On my own. With my 8 year-old face. Maybe I would get lucky and they would simply pity me for being a neophyte. Doubtful. On the night before the first group my final thought before falling asleep was “Set the bar low. If they don’t castrate you consider the first session a success.”

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17 Responses to “Supporting the Significant Others of Sex Offenders, Part 1”

  1. Jenna says:

    So is this going to have a part 2? I’d like to know how the therapy went.
    Dr. Rob Note: I’m guessing 2-4 parts.

  2. Yasmin says:

    Wow – interesting! I can’t wait to read more. Empathy is definitely the most important part of this kind of job, eh? Too many people would just say “how could you stay with a person who did x?”

  3. Nick says:

    I’m not even remotely capable of being a clinician, let alone a practitioner of any kind. However, I thought of psychology and the topics that therapy dealt with were as simple as “I don’t love myself”, or “how do I cope with the feelings my ex-wife hates me?”, or something like that.
    Rob, your site has helped learn that being in the care giving field of mental health is so much more, so in depth, and so beyond my means of understanding, that I think you are doing the literary world a major service by providing the extent of the care you give. That way we can all understand how serious your work really is for your patients, and all your colleague’s patients.
    Thank you.

  4. Scootah says:

    Jesus Rob, I volunteered at a shelter for abuse victims for a while as a kid. My anger and loathing for their abusers was probably not healthy – but it seemed like the only thing that let me share enough empathy with them enough to keep my nuts attached.
    I can’t imagine how you coped with that.
    On a side note, you think Frotteurism is whacky… a friend of my wife’s is into being walked on by non consenting, unaware third parties. Most people I know couldn’t even think of a way to live out that fantasy, let alone find a regular outlet for the fetish.

  5. lyla says:

    I must say I completely agree with your supervisor. I’ve worked some tough forensic cases and sweeping the embarrassing or hardcore facts under the rug never helps those involved and that goes for the community as well. And it’s true what she said about the books, too: they’ll never prepare you for what’s ahead. You just have to go and try to keep yourself together and hopefully you’ll have someone for help and guidance through it.
    Love the site, I’ve laughed A LOT with some of your stories and I’m looking forward to read the rest of these posts. They seem as a welcome change from the usual funny stories. (Not that I don’t enjoy them, I really do, but it’s great to read about something different and challenging.) Keep it up, Dr. Rob!

  6. Aunt Fifi says:

    This piece was so well written. As usual, you intrigued and entertained me concerning a subject that most of us would shun. I’m awaiting the next segment(s). Way to go, Rob!

  7. Rosie says:

    I don’t doubt that sexual offenders are usually dealing with some type of mental illness. But I thought that repeat sexual offenders have a very high recidivism rate and a very low recovery rate. Am I mistaken? I’d be interested to learn more about treatment methods for sexual offenders. Are they basically treated the same way gay people are treated by “conversion” programs? Telling them that they’ll always feel inappropriate urges but will have to resist them?
    Dr. Rob Note: You are not mistaken and I will definitely write at some point about the sex offender treatment program.

  8. Borderline Betty says:

    Oh, dear. Well, as I read through this, one thing stood out for me, Absolutely Crystal Clear: your supervisor Sure knows how to run a good line of b.s. when the occasion calls for it!
    In terms of the treatment for the offenders, I think it can become quite abusive, itself. A very Intense level of intrusiveness toward the offenders is permitted, even Required. However, the line between being tough-yet-helpful and/or detrimental toward the offenders strikes me as being a very thin one. The potential for extremely negative countertransference (did your Supervisor mention this?) is, no doubt, quite high. So, with this in mind, I look forward to reading more…

  9. Think about it from a flip side. I have 3 very young & beautiful daughters, a young son, and a COMPLETELY dysfunctional marriage. But I stick around and suffer personal indignities and the ups & downs with the wife, because I don’t want her to introduce some possible future sex offender to my kids, because I question her judgment. And that is hilarious…because you don’t even know half the story of my life.
    Things aren’t bad in the house. We live a happy live, but our marriage is admittly unfulfilling and a chore. I think that if more people would take the time to put others first, rather than themselves, that they could better protect those around them. One day, sometime in the future the time will come to address my needs, but right now I have to stick around and address (protect) my kids.

  10. Jo says:

    I love reading your stories….I’m a grad student, doing an internship at a mental health agency, and my first day i was asked to co-facilitate a group for men who batter and/or sexually abuse. I look like a 16 year old girl and had no experience with this client population……this story was comforting and made me smile.

  11. Rarely can “Frotteurism” be worked into conversation, and you used it twice! As for sex offenders (and related), I’m glad there are people out there willing to work with them, I am not.

  12. […] that point my cell phone rang. “Robert? It’s your mother. I just read your latest piece on the Sex Offenders’ Wives (note: that piece was written about 9 months ago). There are a lot of problems with it. Can you go […]

  13. Brandy says:

    I’m a girlfriend, daughter, a caregiver, and a friend of sex offenders and every day its a challenge for me to cope with this issue but I’m a strong girl. Just knowing there’s support groups for me is awesome and I wish there were more out here in this world. To be honest I’m so glad ur supervisor put u in this group and I hope u learned a lot about it too! To everybody who says I couldn’t work with somebody like that I’m sorry but they normally suffer enough and so does the family so sorry that u look down on us!

  14. Angela says:

    “Hold old are you Rob?”

    “I’ll be twenty-six very soon.”

    “How soon?”

    “Ten months.”

    … Loved that. You’re hilarious

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