Supporting the Significant Others of Sex Offenders, Part 3

Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here

The group met in a large conference room at the mental health center. It was empty save for the large table that could have easily sat 25 people. Because we had less than one third of that we scattered around the table, maybe to make the group seem larger which would magically mean that even more people struggled from the same troubles. I always got to the room first and sat at the head of the table to establish my faux-authority as the group leader. Most of the ladies would come in one at a time, except for a few veteran members who had become friends and arrived together. Most women always had at least a perfunctory smile and no visible distress. Some came in with cups of coffee, others with bottled water and one woman even brought in cupcakes for the group. Sometimes I thought we were about to begin book club rather than talk about sex offending. In retrospect I think the women arrived still holding on to the façade they showed to the outside world: strong, put together, functional. Some women maintained that stance throughout their time in group. “I want to be in control and I’m going to fake it ’til I make it.”

Lengthy introductions were not required at each meeting. Instead people just went around the room and gave their first name as a reminder to the other members. Even though my self-loathing anxiety had dissipated I generally managed to flub even the simplest of introductions. “I’m Roberr. I mean Robert. Just Rob is fine. I’m the leader. Or facilitator. Whichever you prefer. Let’s go with facilitator.”

When a new member came to group each person gave a more detailed account of who she was and why she was here but only if she so chose. The new member was then asked to say hello and share whatever information she would like.

“My name is Ann. I’m…not sure why I even need to be here. My husband is…well he did bad things to our neighbor’s daughter. He spent some time in jail and now he’s home and getting…help here. She became teary-eyed. “I just can’t believe this has happened. My husband is a convicted sex offender. Just saying that makes me sick to my stomach. I feel horrible for the girl he did this too and I’m so embarrassed. I don’t even know what to say to her family.”

She cried for a few moments and a group member reached for a tissue to give to her. “NO!” shouted a woman named Jill, a seasoned member of the group.

“What? Why not?”

“You’re interrupting the healing process,” she said.

Jill was right. Crying can be a form of processing, a way to make sense of everything that is happening. Most people become uncomfortable watching someone cry and will try to comfort the person in distress. By doing so they also control their own discomfort. However it is important to let this process take its course in this setting.

Ann sniffled and said, “No no, it’s okay. I’m alright. This is just…hard. So hard.”

“It is hard,” Jill said. “We understand that here.”

Many groups have their own leader outside of the facilitator. Someone tends to assume the Alpha role. When not self-serving or narcissistic it can be a good thing because this person can serve as a hybrid of a therapist and client, where words of wisdom come from someone who has truly experienced what the group is going through. Jill was that person and, while sometimes a bit rough, brought her own therapeutic element to the room.

After new members introduced themselves I reviewed the goals of the group.

“Our job here is to support each other as you work through a very difficult situation. Only you know how you feel about everything that has happened to you but hopefully the people here can use their experiences to help you make good choices and feel better about everything that has occurred. In this room no emotions are inappropriate. I hope that you will feel comfortable to share anything that is bothering you with fear of embarrassment or shame. The members of this group ideally care for each other and it’s our mission to help everyone get to a better place.”

Ann raised her hand.


“That was well said. Did you memorize that?”

Yes. “I review my notes periodically.”

“I’ll bet you have that on an index card in your pocket, Rob” Jill said with a smile.

This was also true and I went over it a half-dozen times in the bathroom prior to each start time. The ladies laughed and it was clear early on that many of them appreciated a lighter feel when dealing with heavy topics.

In the early weeks I found myself not saying much. New members needed to be comforted by more senior members as they opened up. “It will get easier,” “we will help you,” “you’re strong and you’ll be okay.” Although not always helpful these words tended to stick and help the new women get acclimated and trust the group’s cohesiveness. In fact there were times I hardly spoke at all as the women would launch into conversations about holding one’s head high in the community or how to talk to their children about what their father had done. While all of this was going on I found myself sitting with a thought that no one had spoken: Why did these women stay in their relationships?

“Ladies, I need to ask you something to help me understand you better. Given what’s happened to you, your family and your relationship why do you decide to stay with your partner. Why not just leave?”
The question came out more as a judgment than I had wanted because I wasn’t necessarily thinking that every woman in the group should leave. I actually had no idea what anyone should do in this spot which was a part of my initial anxiety about taking part in this project. Fortunately no one seemed offended by it. I suppose it was because they were used to defending their choice. Jill spoke.

“Rob, let me ask you something first. What do you think about what they’ve done?”

I had thought about this question many times since I was told I would be a part of the treatment team. Treatment. That meant that this was an illness, didn’t it? The research on the effectiveness of ‘treatment’ wasn’t very promising though. Recidivism rates are high. Many don’t improve at all. Did that mean that their behavior was simply a conscious choice?

“I’ve wondered about this since I learned we’d be working together; I don’t know if my answer will surprise you.”

“At this point I’m getting used to surprises,” Ann said.

The ladies laughed. “It’s like…your husbands or loved ones have done some horrible things. They have hurt other people, possibly beyond repair. In that sense I’m really disgusted.”

I waited to see or hear any reaction but the women just looked at me and waited for me to continue.

“But I also know that your husbands have a lot of psychological problems: depression, low self-esteem, anxiety, substance abuse. Whether these things are a result of what your husbands did or a cause of it I don’t know. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they co-exist. Maybe if they hadn’t ever engaged in deviant sexual behavior then they wouldn’t have developed this obsession with it that they talk about, like the way a cocaine addict doesn’t become addicted if he doesn’t try it. But that’s neither here nor there because they all did it and now need treatment.”

Ann pushed me a bit on this. “So what are you saying? They’re ill?”

“Yes. I think they suffer from a real disorder, an illness.”

There were a few suspicious glances, a few nods of agreement and one stare into space as if deep in thought.

“You answered your own question then,” Jill said. “That’s why I stay. My husband is a sick man and I’m going to stand by him.”

“Well I don’t agree with that at all,” another woman spoke out. “He didn’t have to become a Peeping Tom. He chose that. He made his bed and now he has to lay in it. I’m only here to be with other people who cope with this. When our kids are eighteen he’s out.”

“I don’t know what to think,” Ann said. “I flip-flop. Sometimes I think he’s mentally ill and other times I believe he’s simply a monster. I was hoping this group would help me to figure out what I really know and want.”

“So Rob, since you’re an active member of the group now, why don’t you share with us what you would do if you were in our spot?” Jill asked.

Over time it became apparent that the women wanted to hear my personal opinions on many topics.

Whether it was for my ‘expertise’ or simply for a man’s take on this problem they clearly wanted to draw me in to the discussion. Not knowing a lot about the protocol of support groups I wasn’t sure how I felt about this dynamic. And with my supervisor on an “extended vacation” that really seemed more like a sabbatical I was left on my own to figure it out. Did I really have all that much to offer other than honesty?

“I don’t think I would stay with someone who did this,” I admitted. “I don’t judge anyone for their choices in this group and as I said I do believe it is an illness, but I’m pretty sure I couldn’t handle the betrayal.”

“So you’d leave someone who became Schizophrenic?,” Jill said in a way that seemed less challenging than as a way to more fully develop the discussion. “That’s an illness as well.”

“It is and I would like to think that I wouldn’t leave a person who developed Schizophrenia. But of course I can’t say for sure because that hasn’t happened to me at this point in my life.” Not much at all has happened to me at this age which is why I’m completely naïve to the world and sound like an idiot when I try to talk about anything important. “But the nature of the illnesses is different. One involves hallucinations and the other involves sexual activity with another person. I don’t see them as fair comparison points.”

“I agree,” said Ann. “If my husband were Schizophrenic I don’t think I’d feel this anger toward him. And if Pedophilia is an illness then okay. Fine, I get that. But that doesn’t change the fact that he broke our marital vows. That part doesn’t change even if it’s due to ‘illness,’ which is why I struggle with what to do going forward.”

Jill spoke. “That’s why you’re here. I’ve made a choice to stay and work it out. This woman has chosen to leave when the time is right for her. Other women just leave and don’t look back. We’ll help you figure that out. Even Rob here seems like he could contribute to helping you with this problem and he probably hasn’t even started shaving yet.”

As the weeks went on with me at the helm the group started to develop a positive routine. We tried our best to answer very difficult questions: Why did their husbands do this? How could they have risked losing everything: their family, their jobs, their freedom? What does it mean that they are ‘sick’? And what about the victims? How would their lives be altered?

The women would give advice to each other. They continued to ask for my opinions. They never hated on me for being a man as my supervisor had suggested they might. We talked about how the women could handle themselves in the community. We discussed coping with the gamut of emotions that come with this new life that they now needed to deal with. We even talked about their sex lives. Sometimes people in the group would cry, sometimes they would get angry, and other times they would make jokes. Often at my expense:

“My husband and I try to be sexual but after all that’s happened I can’t relax and of course can’t have an orgasm. I’m not sure how to talk to him about this. Rob, your girlfriends probably complain all the time about not having orgasms with you. How do you handle the criticism?”

One woman brought it a small bag of sex toys for the women to examine just in case they wanted to “go it alone for awhile,” according to the woman. “Let’s see if Rob knows what each of these wonderful pieces of technology do!”

After a few months the group membership reached a plateau. While new women had come in to the group a small number of others decided that they were leaving their partners and didn’t want the group’s support any longer. This position was never challenged and members were always told that the door was always open if they changed their minds about needing help.

With a set number of eight people we continued to work on living this new life that the women didn’t ask for. Week after week the support everyone gave to each other was powerful. The women changed because of it. You could see them grow as people. They became empowered. They processed what had happened to them through talk and reflection. Sometimes the women would bring in letters that they had written to their husbands. The women would read them aloud and talk about the feelings of anger, betrayal, embarrassment and sometimes empathy they felt toward the partner’s illness. They would read, cry, yell and usually they said they felt better because of it. Not only because of the catharsis but also because they were not judged for any of their thoughts or feelings. Sometimes the women gave the letters to their husbands, other times the simply wanted to express what they felt in a safe forum.

Sometimes the women wrote letters to the victims, apologizing for their husbands actions and saying that if they had known, if they had only known that something like that could happen they would have stopped it. The group members focused on reducing guilt about being powerless to stop such actions by being empathic and pushing each other to be kind to themselves. Again, no judgments.

What ultimately developed was a grieving process: the loss of the life they once had and what they thought their lives would be going forward. When the women embraced that things had changed, that their husbands were not the people they once thought, that life was different but certainly not over, the women changed as well.

When springtime came I was ready to complete my internship and would be leaving the group soon. That meant saying good-bye to the women I had spent each week with for almost a full year. I thought a lot about how difficult it could be on them to see me go. And then it dawned on me that this was the end of the relationship for me as well which meant addressing my own feelings about them.

To be continued…

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17 Responses to “Supporting the Significant Others of Sex Offenders, Part 3”

  1. Amber says:

    ~~”Jill was right. Crying can be a form of processing, a way to make sense of everything that is happening. Most people become uncomfortable watching someone cry and will try to comfort the person in distress. By doing so they also control their own discomfort. However it is important to let this process take its course.”
    Does comfort truly block the procession though? I’m really concerned by this now because, I’m not a person who comforts out of uncomfortablility, but I comfort because I want to shoulder some of the pain for the person. I guess that isn’t right either but is it really that wrong of me to step in and literally let a person cry on my shoulder rather than figuritively? Doesn’t that make me seem cold if they cry and I sit there like stone so I don’t interrupt any processing that may be going on?
    ~~”Well I don’t agree with that at all,” another woman spoke out. “He didn’t have to become a Peeping Tom. He chose that. He made his bed and now he has to lay in it. I’m only here to be with other people who cope with this. When our kids are eighteen he’s out.”
    As for the woman who said this, did you ask her why she was waiting until the kids were 18? Did she think the kids wouldn’t know something wasn’t right? Her words have actually made me quite angry. What is her reasoning in it?

  2. TJ says:

    “Even Rob here seems like he could contribute to helping you with this problem and he probably hasn’t even started shaving yet.”
    Bwahaha! You owe me a new keyboard, Dr. Rob.

  3. Roxxy says:

    I was a child of sexual abuse for 11 years by my neighbour. It never dawned on me to think of how the wife of the man who did this to me might feel…this gave me a new found prespective on the situation. Kudos.

  4. Roxxy says:

    To reply to Amber, I believe she’s was waiting until the kids turned 18 because then there’s no custody battles to fight and there’s no chance that your kids will have unsupervised visiting rights with their father who could possibly harm them (knowing his past record).

  5. crow says:

    Divorce is very unhealthy for kids. Possibly even more unhealthy than having a bad parent, assuming said bad parent isn’t a child molester.

  6. James Wolfe says:

    This whole series of posts was interesting, and very insightful for someone whose never had to go to a group therapy of any kind. I’m just curious though, do any of your patients every try to “follow up” and let you know how they are doing since their particular form of therapy has ended?
    Dr. Rob Note: Every now and then…

  7. Blank says:

    Dr. Rob, I’d just like to thank you for a really great post. It was simple, to the point, and I could feel your fondness for the group…Or maybe it’s the runner’s high, I don’t know. =P
    Anyway, thanks again. I’m looking forward to part four.
    OH, by the way, did you hear that some scientists have found a cure for some cases of advanced melanoma? It’s crazy.

  8. Dr. Rob,
    I think this series has been some of your best work to date. I have children, so for me to feel any feelings other than disgust and vicious anger toward abusers (and their families) is difficult.
    I have never been sexually abused. I pray long and hard that my children never are. But the amount of pain that the families of the abusers deal with is substantial. Thank you for showing the other side.

  9. Maggy says:

    DocRob, really thanks so much for sharing this story with us.

  10. Amber says:

    Roxxy~ The US in general favors the mother in any custody battle. With a record like the father has no court would grant full or even partial custody or unsupervised visits.
    Crow~ I’m the product of a broken home and I can tell you that those friends of mine with parents that stayed together until after are far more fucked than I am. How is constant tension, lack of affection, no love in a home more healthy than a confident, happy, and secure single parent? Now granted most single parents aren’t really financially secure, my mother struggled for everything, but she never made us feel like we were going without and she’d work insane hours at a factory to make sure that we were taken care of. At least then she was only caring for two kids instead of three, my father rarely had a job work out and even now he owes my mother over $50,000 in back child support. Instead of spending years watching my mother huddle and cry in a corner I watched her raise her chin, brush away tears, and fight. That makes her my hero. She was better off getting out than staying in and if she had stayed I probably wouldn’t be the confident, headstrong woman I am today. I’d rather have no father (or mother) than a bad one in my home. I’m sure a lot of kids would tell you the same, it’s more harmful to be ignored and watch one parent get hurt, stepped all over, emotionally and/or physically abused than it is to watch them fight to keep their head above the financial water.

  11. Anonymous says:

    I didn’t make it all the way through this post–the pithier posts are more my style–but I found myself thinking of a particularly powerful episode of Law & Order SVU, the one in which Elliot goes undercover in a sex offenders’ group in order to entrap a recidivist played by a well-known actor who is not Robert Duvall but someone who reminds me of him. I don’t remember many details of the sex offenders’ group as it was depicted in the episode–although I do remember being generally disappointed that Mariska Hargitay did not have more screen time–but I think one of restrictions was that the offenders could not interact outside of the group setting. If that is indeed the case in real life, it strikes me as a very different kind of group dynamic than the one Dr. Rob describes in this narrative of his own experience as a group facilitator. (And of course the experiences of these women–that is what this narrative is really about, to my mind.) Anyway, my question is whether sex offender groups do in fact prohibit their members from associating with each other outside of the group, and if so, how such a policy is viewed by those in the psychological profession.
    Dr. Rob Note: In the sex offender groups I ran there were no restrictions on socializing. In some other groups people were asked to not become romantically involved and if so, please tell the leader so he/she could find another group for one of the partners.

  12. Travis says:

    Dr. Rob,
    Great post as always but I keep getting hung up on this sentence:
    “When the women embraced that things fact, that their husbands were not the people they once thought, that life was different but certainly not over, the women changed as well.”
    The first line of it is a bit clunky and could use rewording.

  13. Borderline Betty says:

    I admire Jill’s strength and knowledge, but I would have been annoyed, had someone bellowed at me to not proffer some tisses to a crying person. It’s truly A Gesture Of Support, not something that is done to shut a person down. Crying people use tissues, so as not to get slobbery, snotty goo all over their faces (duh). In terms the illness view, it makes alot of sense. I think, however, that a man who goes after a 14 year old, truly thinking she’s 18, is Not the same as someone who deliberately and repeatedly preys on toddlers and children. I’m constantly amazed at how this culture sexualizes Everything. Celebrities like Miley Cyrus wear revealing and suggestive little outfits, but Disney cries: “Foul”! when she poses in Vanity Fair, back to the camera, clutching a sheet in front. We are so skewered and hypocritical about these topics.

  14. Paula says:

    Hi Rob
    I’ve just read part 3 … I’ve been lapsing a bit. I guess I pose this question with reference to your comments about whether you would leave somebody who has a mental illness and schizophrenia was the comparison. What if the halusinations lead to actions that crossed the line for you? More of a retorical question really, I was pondering this as I read your entry.

  15. 1. Totally agree with the crying part…group participants are too often comforted before the rest of the feelings come out, and it can stunt the process.
    2. Slippery slope on the, “what do you think?” stuff….I go with reflection. I’ve found that once there is an “in”, the group will continue to go back there for their own curiosity, to alter the relationship, and/or as a way to avoid their own issues.

  16. Dorothy says:

    Dr Rob, was there ever a time when the women tried to make you the ” bad guy” and turned on you?
    I would think you being the only man in the room, that the transference might be strong…

  17. Rob Dobrenski says:

    @ Dorothy: Not really. I rarely stated my opinion unless it was asked and I never “defended” the men in a traditional sense. I often talked about the “illness” model of sex offending, but that helped them more often than not. Most of the women were pretty psychologically savvy and didn’t get into “man bashing” in a very serious way. They were so hell-bent on having other women to speak to, those who had “been there,” and problem-solving around what they were going to do with their lives, often times they forgot I was there.