Supporting the Significant Others of Sex Offenders, Part 1
Posted Oct 23 2008 11:20am
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."
"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."
"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."