Supporting the Significant Others of Sex Offenders, Part 2

To read Part 1, click here.

When people report success with group work they usually speak of what is known as ‘Universality.’ Clients will often say “It felt good to know that I’m not the only one with this problem,” “I felt very accepted by the other members,” or “It helps to be able to talk things through with people who understand, people who are struggling with this as well.” The therapist or group leader’s main responsibility is to facilitate group cohesiveness and disclosure to bring about the Universality phenomenon.

One important attribute for a group leader to help maximize success is known as ‘credibility,’ of which I had none. My age (25), gender (male), marital status (single), prior number of groups conducted (zero) and practical experience working with sexual offenders (none) essentially made me the worst possible person for this endeavor.

The morning of the first group I decided to play up my strengths rather than focus on my weaknesses. Like Stuart Smalley I engaged in an affirmation that quickly turned sour:

You, Rob Dobrenski, are…a nice person. You are fairly tall and…take very good care of your teeth. You’re a good listener. You know the basics of human behavior and what makes people tick. Someday you might be very good at sex offender work because you’ve been reading about it incessantly over the past few weeks. In fact you probably have a thousand more great qualities but your low I.Q. is preventing you from thinking of any of them. What the hell is wrong with you?? Shit! I’ll never be successful. Why did my parents have to get divorced? It was probably my fault because I’m so ugly. Only a blind dog would ever love me. Possibly a starving cat.

When I finished crying I thought about the first part of my mantra. I am a good listener. At least when I’m working. And I know about behavior and the dynamics of human interaction. If I could bring that to the table I might be okay and the group could thrive. That confidence lasted about an hour and I went back to being a shaky mess.

This particular group was conducted in an open format, meaning that there was no specific beginning or end. It ran weekly with members joining as their significant others were being treated as well as leaving if the offender completed or was removed from treatment. My supervisor told me that some women never left the group because they benefited from it so much and saw it as an important ritual in coping with their somewhat unusual situation. On my first night some of the women were there for the first time but others were seasoned veterans.

No one in the group was required to reveal the specific nature of their significant other’s offense but could if they so chose. Because I was simultaneously running the treatment group for the offenders as well (that’s another story for another day) I had that information at my disposal. Usually having 10-15 members this first group had only six people. Four of the women were the spouses of pedophiles, one the wife of a voyeur and one woman’s husband was a rapist.

The idea of even introducing myself to the group terrified me to the point that I spilled coffee on my khakis due to the shakes. They’ll never respect me as a professional. I’m going to be laughed out of the room. I’m poor and I can’t afford dry cleaning for these pants. I went with the most generic opening possible.

“Hello, ladies. My name is Rob Dobrenski. I’m going to be leading this group for the next several months. I’m a doctoral student and I’m also working with your spouses or significant others. Maybe we could go around the room and you could introduce yourself to me and anyone who is new to the group. Then we can talk about how we’d like to use our time together.”

“I’m sorry,” a woman said. “But do you mind telling us how old you are?”

Yes. I do. “I’m 25 years old.”

“And do you have experience in this field?” another asked.

“Not really, no. This is a training experience for me.”

“I don’t even know why I need to be here,” said a third woman, clearly at her first session. “But if I am stuck here I’d like to make it worthwhile. How can someone like you be of help?”

I went on to tell them about how good a listener I was, my understanding of group dynamics and my burgeoning knowledge of this particular area of psychology. Some of them looked a bit suspicious as I talked about Universality and how we could all contribute to make the group a successful one. After I was done I paused, waiting for one of them to take out a large rifle and shoot me with it, ending my miserable existence.

“Okay then,” a woman said. “This isn’t a job interview and I personally would like to make my time here productive. So let’s get on with it and see if you can help this group. If not we’ll just fire you.”

And just like that she began to talk about herself and why she was there. The other women followed suit. And at that moment a reality set in: the women weren’t too concerned about me, my schooling, my expertise or the stains on my pants. They were justifiably wrapped up in the chaos of their own lives. They just wanted me to lead the group to the best of my abilities. I was so hyper-focused on what they thought of me, all of which was horrible in my own head. It was like Reverse Narcissism or something one might see in Social Phobia. “They are all looking at me. I’m being judged. They will see I’m weak.” Once I got out of that mindset, once my mind shifted with an almost audible ‘click,’ once I realized that I could stop the negative, albeit self-serving, thoughts I was able to focus on the task at hand. I still had little to no clue what I was doing but at least I could concentrate on learning and helping, which was what I was sent to do there in the first place.

To be continued…

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9 Responses to “Supporting the Significant Others of Sex Offenders, Part 2”

  1. chad says:

    doc, i usually enjoy your writing, but found this entry to be very….anti-climatic
    Dr. Rob Note: Good point. It’s not over yet though.

  2. Borderline Betty says:

    I’m really curious to find out what they talked about in the group. Was it mundane sorts of troubling things, such as the more generic kind of stuff that almost anyone, anywhere might talk about? Or, due to the very extreme nature of the crimes of their husbands/significant others, did they hyper-focus on That, beyond all else? And also: what, exactly, is it like to be involved w/someone who has committed such crimes as these? What their partners did are some of the very worst kinds of crimes. Such crimes are very scorned and feared, to the point that the perpetrators seem to be complete freaks, monsters and sub-human to most people. I defintely am looking forward to another installment. Re: Doc Rob’s fears and preoccupations, I think they are completely understandable, but it strikes me that what we often fear, often does not happen – or happen in the way we feared it would. It’s hard to believe this, though, when “under the gun”, and such a belief is, even if readily accepted by the worrying mind, still not likely to do much good in calming fears. Fear seems absolutely impervious to reason, when it’s strong enough. I think a cognitive approach is great, but has its limits, due to this fact.

  3. Amber says:

    I think, or at least hope, everyone falls into that ‘reverse narcissism’ as you called it, at some point. I get that on every job interview I go to, I fake the confidence, and once I get offered the job the confidence is real. Why is it we, as a society, feel the need to be accepted by others? Or when acceptance doesn’t come easy we feel the need to be something else?
    I can understand you feeling that way with these women though. Of all shrinks to stick with a group of women in a relationship with a sex offending male…why another man? There had to be some kind of lost of trust in the male species when these women found out about their significant others.

  4. Sean says:

    Well Amber, most people do feel that way at some point. For a lot of folks it happens in adolescence (see: The Spotlight Effect.) Almost every young teenager is overly concerned with how others perceive them. Oddly, it seems to me that those of us who are a bit more introverted take longer to get over it, or never really do.
    People who are always down on themselves still hold a narcissistic belief that people care or even pay attention to them. It sounds harsh, but the realization people just don’t give a shit is liberating. If people don’t really care all that much, you’re free to be yourself. Often, there is a failure to ask: “when was the last time you even paid half as much attention to some random stranger as you assume random strangers are paying to you?”
    Dr. Rob’s example of himself getting over that is what makes the post interesting. Hopefully the next will answer out questions about specific issues these poor people have to deal with, since that’s something I think most of us can’t even begin to comprehend on our own.

  5. Being a former drug runner in a major drug cartel, I NEVER lost perspective, so I don’t get it. I always knew that there was a line that I could NOT cross, because NO ONE ever came back from that point. So I don’t get the spouse supporting a sex offender. Label it with whatever fancy term you want, but its still wrong.
    A crime of commerce is a crime of commerce, look at wall street…but sex offenders are a whole different breed of evil. And they wonder they have to be isolated when they are in prison…even the evil that lies within the penal system understands that it needs to be purged.
    Someone needs to slap those….

  6. Pete says:

    As a cognitive behavioral therapist (or at least someone who uses CBT as an approach at times), I would have thought that you would have picked up on the cognitive distortions in your mantra more than you did. I suppose it’s easier to analyze other people… or maybe that mantra was just an attempt at humor?!

  7. Borderline Betty says:

    I wish some commenters would ease up on Doc R., for his admission of the worries and preoccupations he had, prior to the start of this group. I admire his honesty, and I think that most people in the situation he describes would be undergoing Exactly the same, inner experiences as he did (unless they are ridiculously self-assured to the point of smugness), including most clinicians. So, get off your superior cognitive mountaintops of lofty disdain. Really, some of you remind me of why I cannot abide a great many professionals in the mental health field.

  8. Wow…your first group was for spouses of sex offenders?! I did social skills training….you win.
    I think it it refreshing that you were honest about what you thought you brought to the table. Groups can be rough, particularly when they are niche pops like that.
    So did they fire you?

  9. Brandy says:

    Once again ill post I’m a girlfriend, a daughter, a caregiver, and a friend to many sex offenders and I’m sorry for the ones who hate us just because of a label the world put on us. To be honest with the rest of u my boyfriend and many sex offenders have mental disabilities and inless u know the case I feel u can’t judge the men or there famillies. However I will not disclose our cases because its against my residents and friends and family members rights to do so. If u honestly look down on me I’m sorry for u.