Supporting the Significant Others of Sex Offenders, Conclusion

Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

My time in this group was preset from the day I walked through the agency’s door. September to May. And when May came, I didn’t like the idea of leaving. After such an unusual and intense training experience the thought of going back to doing research on projective tests wasn’t overly appealing. With the group it felt like I was doing real work but more importantly, I knew that I would miss a lot of the women there.

Shrinks who say they love or even like all their clients are either delusional or lying. Not everyone who comes into therapy is likable and often their psychological problems can make them very difficult to deal with. Other times people are just disagreeable and make no mistake that the reverse is true as well: no shrink is going to be a perfect fit for every client and certain clients will actively dislike their therapists. That being said I was fortunate in this particular situation because I did like many of the women there and the feeling appeared to be mutual.

Even though our support group wasn’t a formal therapy setting, many of the women improved to the point that they didn’t need the group anymore (assuming their significant others were no longer in treatment). Others reported that they would stay in the group for as long as it existed, that they always took something new from what the members had to say. I believe that some of the women saw themselves as role models for new members and relished the opportunity to serve as a sponsor of sorts for new participants.

For the last group I had a small speech planned: review what we learned together, tell them how proud I am of them, never stop growing, rah rah rah! I’ve never successfully delivered a pre-determined speech and I knew this would be no exception so I scrapped it before group and decided to let the final session flow organically.

My supervisor had some charts and notes for me to sign before I left the agency for the last time so I took care of all that before group began. I arrived a few minutes late to find the women already there talking up a storm.

“He did what? That’s horrible.”

“He should be lynched for that.”

“String him up by his balls!”

“Hi ladies,” I said. “I think I’m missing an interesting conversation here.”

“Jill’s husband was late for their anniversary dinner. Being late…is something we don’t tolerate around here,” Anne winked.

“Ah, my supervisor warned me about negative reactions toward me. This is because I’m a man?”

“Yep. You’re all the same,” Jill said.

“Fortunately not everyone is like our men,” Anne said with a small frown.

“No, not everyone is like that,” I said. “You all have a very unique situation.”

We talked about this notion of ‘being different.’ Some women challenged the idea, stating that plenty of people have family members who are murderers, thieves, rapists, or even a combination of those things. “No one has a perfect family,” one woman asserted. “People are messed up, they do messed up things. Sometimes really messed up things. Do you know how many thousands upon thousands of people are in prison? Well those people have families. That’s us.”

Others held fast to the idea that the lives of the women in this group weren’t like anyone else’s. “I don’t know anyone who is married to a Pedophile,” said Ann. “I know these people exist but when I picture them they’re just hypothetical figures, blank faces on generic bodies. So it’s only here that I feel I’m with my own kind.”

“That’s why I’m here and I’ll probably never leave. Because we’re different.” Jill said. “However, this one,” she said pointing at me, “is leaving us,” and smiled.

I couldn’t help but think there wasn’t at least some resentment behind that.

“Yes, as we had discussed, today is the day.” I said. “I’d like to ask each of you how you feel about this.”

“And are you going to share as well?” one woman asked.


Jill spoke. “I have mixed feelings about this. Our last two group leaders were women so this is a new experience for me.” She paused and looked down into her lap. “I’m happy for you in some ways. You’ve taken another step toward getting your Ph.D. You probably learned a lot between working with us and our partners. And you were helpful and I’m grateful for that.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“But part of me is very jealous. You get to leave here and when you do your life is your own. We have to stay the ‘significant others of the sex offenders’ and you don’t have to carry that burden. I resent that and I feel that you’re abandoning us.”

We had spent a small number of sessions talking about how the women might feel about me leaving. This is always good clinical practice but not always easy to implement, especially in groups. The members have crises and problems to attend to and not everyone is comfortable sharing thoughts about their group leader. So this was our first foray into deep feelings about…termination.

“Do other people feel this way?” I asked.

One woman nodded and then Ann spoke. “I feel abandoned but I don’t resent you or feel jealous. I’ll just miss you.”

“I wouldn’t blame anyone for feeling resentful or abandoned,” I said. “This is how the system works and unfortunately people come and go through this revolving door that is our lives.” Revolving door that is our lives? Christ, you are walking cliché.

“I want you to know,” I continued, “that I will miss this group terribly. You’ve all been through a lot and those of you sitting here decided to fight back against your problems. Even if that meant leaving your spouse you didn’t bail and hide under a rock. You sat here, week after week, and worked through the feelings. I’d like to think I was a part of that process. I didn’t always agree with your decisions but to say I respect you for your work is an understatement.”

“Well we respect you too, soon-to-be Dr. Rob” said Ann. “And I’ll bet you’ll make a lady very happy someday with all of the knowledge about sex you learned from our discussions.”
At the end of the session the ladies gave me a card. It had just a tree on the front. Inside it had all of their signatures scattered about and, in the middle, it said:

Stay Warm
Stay Safe
And for God’s Sake Stay Legal!

They all laughed and smiled as I read the card aloud and I gave a perfunctory smile. Even though the women knew I was not flawless, Freud might have said that, in addition to using humor to protect against psychological pain, the last line was a warning to not shatter the positive image they had of me. This isn’t unheard of in therapy where clients will give admonishments and pieces of advice that underneath the surface are really saying “Please don’t change, don’t become something bad. I need you to stay exactly who you are!”

And just like that it was over. Some women gave me a hug good-bye, others simply waved as they walked out. The next week a new intern would be in my spot, doing my job and forming a relationship with the women. My women. I was jealous that someone else was going to be helping them going forward.
That was my first experience with the “loss” involved in a therapeutic relationship, at least of one that had some significant time behind it. Even today this part of the job doesn’t get much easier. The best therapy relationships are the ones that are hard to let go of, even when you’re ecstatic for the person who has made the gains they sought out.

I left the agency that night and met up with my fellow students, many of whom had finished their internships as well. We were that much closer to graduation. One year to go. We drank beer and wine and partied to start the summer off right. I even got the phone number of a woman I had my eye on at the bar (although she never did call me back). But for a few weeks after the group ended I had a nagging feeling that I can only describe as grief. All of us grew as people because of our experiences together but I still lost them and they lost me. I eventually got past that feeling and moved on to other groups and other therapy relationships, but the women were never forgotten.

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

  1. Amber says:

    A new facet of Dr. Rob is shown. Beautiful. Have you come upon any of these women since?

  2. Anonymous says:

    I have enjoyed this series, and I’m sad to see it go.
    One suggestion: Fix that last sentence. You don’t want to break up the flow of the closer like that–take the clause out of the middle. If you have to include it, put after “…woman I had my eye on at the bar.” in parenthesis: (she never returned my call).

  3. Linda Metzger says:

    I am still searching for the perfect therapist. I’ve had a few great ones, a few lousy ones (read: he hit on me!)and there are just the occassional ‘we are obviously not getting anywhere here’ therapy relationships. I’ve given up for a while but plan on returning in the future and will hopefully find my therapy-mate. Why doesn’t someone start a website for therapist/client matching? Kind of the eHarmony of psychology where each has to take a personality test. YAY!

  4. Jenna says:

    I wish you were my therepist Dr. Rob. :p

  5. April says:

    “The best therapy relationships are the ones that are hard to let go of…”
    That’s nice to hear—I’m dealing with a loss right now (I moved away from my shrink) and I like to think I’m having a hard time letting go because it was so good…
    Sounds like you did a great job with those women and they helped you, too. Congrats and good luck with the next vignette.

  6. Wayland says:

    Very cool man.

  7. Jen says:

    I’ve been avidly reading to see how this played out. It’s a beautiful story and you wrote it amazingly. I just wonder as well as the first commentor, did you ever talk to the women again?
    I hope so, honestly, that you do a follow up on the subject of this.
    Dr. Rob Note: I haven’t heard from any of the women since. I will post on “relationships” after therapy soon.

  8. Nicole says:

    Hi Dr Rob,
    Beautiful story. I must admit when I read part 1, I was not sure where you were going with this. Also, I was quite conflicted about why these women would chose to be with people who have committed such hideous acts. I guess we all find pedophiles so revolting, we never really stop to think about the people behind them and how it affects them. But, I now have admiration for their courage, strength and determination. It must have been an amazing learning experience for you, not just for your PhD but for you as a person. Kudos!

  9. Borderline Betty says:

    Jill was honest and direct, which I admire. You were able to leave and get your degree (with all the potential it could bring to you) while she had to stay and be the wife (or ex-wife) of an offender. I doubt any of those women were wealthy, or even close to it; the wealthy have much much better lawyers. Probably they were middle to lower-middle class and having to deal with alot of shame and resentment and pain over their ordeals. I think Jill said goodbye with compassion, dignity and real affection for you. I think you bid them all farewell very gracefully, too.

  10. Paula says:

    Hi again Rob
    I am catching up on your posts and have just read part 3. This is a timely reminder that we shouldn’t under estimate the role the people we work with play in our lives, and us in theirs. I hope you’re having a good day and look forward to your next entry which must be coming soon????

  11. Jackmo says:

    yo Rob,
    I read this series a while ago but didn’t end up commenting but there is a point that I’ve been reflecting on for some time.
    I work as a trainer for a corporation and will often have new groups of employees for 3-4 weeks. During this time the group bonds a lot – with each other and myself – but inevitably everyone ends up moving on.
    I’ve often wondered about the phenomenon of people seeing you as an authority figure, becoming very depended on your support and approval then once its suddenly ‘all over’, they wonder whats happened and some people will take it personally if you dont ahve the time for small talk as you walk past.
    I know being a trainer is no where near as serious, meaningful or hard as being a therapist but I still see a lot of parallels from what you write about, particularly with group-led activities – anyway, to stop babbling I have a couple of questions if that’s cool:
    Is it normal and or reasonable for people to become so depended on you in this situation? Is this a natural relationship or when you are the leader of a small tight knit group do people place unrealistic expectations on you? If so, would it be in my or their best interest to keep a distance or even discuss it openly perhaps at the beginning of the relationship?
    also, I can’t recall the exact post but one comment you made in passing really got me thinking. You mentioned that as a leader of a group, people will appreciate it when you make them confront a situation that makes them anxious then overcome it.
    I never thought about it that way but I know in training we often do silly shit like presenting to teh group or doing something creative like drawing (haha). I always used to feel stupid asking grown men 10 years + older then me to do this shit but the reality is these are situations that no doubt make them anxious and silly or not, they still probably grow as a result of just doing it.
    There are loads of examples but honestly I get 35 year old dudes I’ve trained 6 months ago walking past in the office saluting me while calling me legend and shit. Sure, it’s great for the ego but I often wonder how training could of had such a massive impact on people. Can you elaborate on the psychology of leadership and helping people grow through gently pushing them into situations that make them anxious?
    Sorry for the long ass comment and keep up the sweet work.

  12. I’ve always broached termination over at least 2 sessions, sometimes 3 if they are long-term patients….as I’ve found it to be easier for people to process the sometimes complex feelings that come up.
    As a facilitator, it can be odd to have your people “leave”…but I like to remind myself that I was part of their journey, and now they are moving into the next leg of it.
    Getting an update can be good, but it can also suck when the update is, “it’s all gone to hell”.
    You should check out Akeret’s “Tales from a Traveling Couch: A Psychotherapist Revisits His Most Memorable Patients” The polar bear story is my favorite…I’d be curious what you think about it.

  13. Katie says:

    Dr. Rob-
    I just wanted to thank you for posting this. One of my siblings was arrested as a minor on sex offender charges, which was world-changing, to say the least. It’s been a hard road for my family, and it really helps to be able to read about other people going through similar situations.

  14. P-dub says:

    I’m not a significant other, but a friend of a newly convicted sex offender and stumbled onto this series while aimlessly searching for anything that might help me understand or deal with or (after a year of corresponding with him in jail while his case was unfolding) decide whether to keep him in my life. (Not that anyone asked, but I have tentatively decided yes, at least for now. I’m not in the mental health field, except for my own, but it seems to me that — not unlike alcoholics, for example — although sex offenders can choose their behavior, and therefore are accountable for their behavior, the impulses that lead to that behavior aren’t of their own volition, and therefore, there but for the grace of [your deity here] go any of us when stress or whatever leaves us vulnerable to our weaknesses. Thankfully, for me, it’s food, not 13-year-olds. So, I try to view it with compassion. And I suspect — hope — that treatment is more successful for offenders who have encouragement from loved ones than for those who don’t.) Anyway, my pain is minuscule compared to that experienced by my friend’s parents and his son (who is not the direct victim of his abuse, but is collateral damage), and I just wanted to thank you for treating an abominably ghastly and horrifying subject with sensitivity and humor. I think I’ll have to check out the rest of your blog.

  15. inlimbo says:

    I really appreciate this post. i have a close friend that was sentenced as a sex offender. he never had contact with anyone underage, but was shown to have ‘intent’. and it is a daily struggle to rationalize what happened and what to do moving forward.

    to love someone is to want to be there for them… it is an internal struggle as well as a struggle against society at times.

    anyway, it was so refreshing and reassuring to read this post. 🙂 thank you so much for sharing your experiences with us.

  16. Mindy says:

    I can relate to “inlimbo.” I recently broke up with my boyfriend, who is being charged with a sex crime, & I am having so much difficulty dealing with it all. I can’t tell anyone, it’s really not my place for one, & it so shaming & embarassing.

    There is a 12 step group called S-Anon that I have been calling to find out meeting times. It is for the significant others of sex addicts. They do not publish meeting places & will not leave messages due to confidentiality. I totally do not understand this. I need this group so much & it is just more shaming to not have the information publicized so people who need support so desperately can get it easily. I’ve been calling for about 1 month now. If anyone knows anything about these meetings, please respond!

  17. Krystle says:

    My husband is a registered sex offender. It is very hard to find the right therapy for me, and I’m bipolar. There are details to the incident that are not needed here, but my therapist bailed on me when I needed her most. Yes, I was rude to her. But there is limited help to someone like me and she knew my situation. All the feelings I went through. The escalation.

    Will you be my doctor possibly? I have never found someone with so much passion to help someone in such an awkward situation. If you can’t be my therapist, please be kind enough to mail me. The world needs more understanding of this complex subject. It’s been two years for me, and I still cannot understand my own feelings about this.