What you can do to support partners:
Allow partners time to process the information
Preliminary research and our own experience strongly suggest that it is unrealistic for professionals to expect the partner to always be concerned about the offender’s risk at the time of the arrest and confession. Attempting to assess the partner’s understanding of the situation and its implications in the days and weeks following the arrest is unlikely to be fruitful and, for reasons discussed below, may jeopardise the subsequent working relationship with the partner and family.
Be aware of how they are coping
In some cases the arrest of the offender will be so distressing that the partner may struggle to cope and experience mental health difficulties. The recent research by Stubley (2015) found that some participants self-harmed. Added to the distress and confusion of the loved one’s illegal behaviour, the study found a wide range of other stressors, such as:
- Fear of others finding out (family, friends, neighbours, the wider community, employers, colleagues, the media)
- Fear of rejection
- Employment problems (the partner’s and/or the offender’s)
- Involvement of Social Services
- Financial problems
- Going through the legal process
- Waiting to find out about criminal charges and sentencing
- Media coverage
In some cases the partner may find just talking to someone close to them about how they are feeling will be sufficient. However, any of the following may be indicators that the partner could benefit from being signposted to a GP or counselling service:
- Persistently (i.e. for weeks/months, rather than days) having difficulties with eating and/or sleeping
- Drinking more alcohol than usual or drinking alcohol more frequently
- Frequently crying
- Low mood that affects their ability to go about daily activities
- Persistently unable to go to work due to how they are feeling
- Becoming socially isolated (avoiding family and friends)
- Difficulties with separating thoughts and reality
- Loss of interest in the things they used to enjoy
- Persistent feelings of fear or anxiety
The above is not an exhaustive list. Any persistent changes in mood, thinking or behaviour that do not subside after a few weeks are worth checking out with a GP.
Understand the problem
To help the partner make sense of her situation, it helps to understand the phenomenon of internet offending. Practitioners lacking an understanding of internet offending are likely to fall back on what is known about contact sexual offending. They may assume that any viewing of sexual images of children is indicative of paedophilic (i.e. preferential) interest. Partners perceiving these assumptions are unlikely to feel understood or able to fully engage, be it in therapy or social work practice.
A recent study (Stubley, 2015) found that partners who voiced highly negative experiences of social workers perceived that these staff lacked proper knowledge about internet offending. There is a risk that the practitioner potentially sets up for the partner a self-fulfilling prophecy in which the partner’s defensive behaviour is not seen simply as a reaction to the professional, but a symptom of some underlying vulnerability with adverse safeguarding implications. Alternatively, the practitioner may persuade the partner to verbally agree with a ‘high risk’ narrative regarding the offender, but one which is likely to be a matter of lip service.
You can find out more about what’s important to know when working with internet offenders here.
Try to understand the partner’s reaction from their perspective
The social psychological literature is saturated with studies that have explored human responses when beliefs or values are threatened, and the compensatory behaviours to which the experience gives rise. Janoff-Bulman (1992) developed shattered assumptions theory, which proposes that individuals may experience a state of high anxiety when their core assumptions about themselves and their world are violated by a traumatic event. According to the theory, when individuals experience an event that damages their worldview they no longer perceive the world as benevolent and predictable, or see themselves as competent and robust. Janis-Bulman argues that the individual in such circumstances experiences a “double dose of anxiety”. In addition to the traumatic event itself, the individual suffers an assault upon their conceptual system: “The very assumptions that had provided psychological coherence and stability in a complex world are the very assumptions that are shattered” (p. 64).
The secretive nature of sexual offending – and the ease with which internet offending in particular may be perpetrated – means that the vast majority of partners have no idea of the offending prior to the arrest. If one accepts that the majority of these individuals would have had no idea that their loved one was capable of sexual arousal to images of children, one begins to understand the sense of turmoil and upheaval that this information represents, in addition to the devastation of the arrest.
“It tore my world apart. Everything I thought I knew was taken away with that knock at the door.”
In seeking to make some sense of what has happened, some partners may accept the offender’s account as the only way in which their prior understandings of him and of their relationship can still hold true.
“He explained he’d actually had a secret problem with looking at porn, all sorts of porn, and it had just spiralled out of control and he was getting all these links and just clicking on anything. I know it’s no excuse for his behaviour, but it helps me understand it a bit more, knowing it’s a porn addiction thing rather than a child thing.”
“He told me he was abused as a child. He told me he viewed the images as a way of understanding what had happened to him. I felt awful that he’d kept it a secret all these years.”
Some partners may present as emotionally very fragile and struggle to process the information about the offending. Some may simply be too distressed to talk or even think about it. Others may dwell on the ambiguity and become anxious.
“I didn't understand any of it. I wasn't sure I knew who he was anymore or what he was anymore. I was really worried that he might be a paedophile, that he could hurt children.”
Remember the partner is unlikely to be without reservations
Whatever the partner thinks of the offender’s behaviour and risk, most partners have a sense of ‘red lines’ beyond which they would not stay in the relationship. These are typically a repetition of the offending or the discovery of actual or attempted off-line child sexual abuse.
“If I found out he had done anything sexual to a child, he’d be out the door straight away. No second chances, nothing.”
Just because a partner states that she does not consider the offender to represent a risk of harm, does not necessarily mean that she condone the offending or is without concerns. A recent study (Stubley, 2015) found that even when the partner remains committed to the relationship, her acceptance of the offender’s account is not without reservation and may be accompanied by an awareness that the commitment may not survive into the long term, despite what she publically declares to friends and professionals.
“He said it was just about sharing stories. Whether that’s true or he’s kidding himself, I don’t know.”
“I want us to make this work. But whether I can come to terms with what he’s done, I just don’t know. I worry that it’s always going to be in my mind that he did this.”
Encourage and facilitate appropriate disclosures
Preliminary research and our own experience indicate that partners benefit from making some appropriate disclosures, but the process is understandably a difficult one. Unless precipitated by external events, such as media coverage or third party disclosures, few disclosures are likely to be made in the initial weeks following the arrest. Concern for the wellbeing of significant others, particularly children and elderly parents, is likely to play a large part in the (non)disclosure process.
Anxiety about what ‘may’ happen in the future is common. In the absence of ‘knowns’, partners (and indeed offenders) can be prone to filling in the gaps with worrying images of what may come to pass. No wonder, then, that non-disclosure is often the preferred stance.
In our experience, most of the feared consequences of disclosure do not materialise, or at least are much reduced by the benefits of the relief and support that disclosure brings. This indicates that timely education and support for partners around making appropriate disclosures could be instrumental in buffering against some of the distress generated by the arrest.
Disclosure avoidance can be regarded as a reflection of the social stigma attached to the phenomenon and in large part therefore as a self-preservation strategy, but it carries the cost of being emotionally draining. In the absence of disclosure a partner may try to ‘carry on as normal’, but be prone to over-sensitive ‘mind reading’, and avoiding people she feels would judge or even reject her if they knew about the offending.
“It’s made me really guarded about who I speak to and who I see. I’m always thinking, ‘Do they know?’ or ‘Would they even want to know me if they find out?’”
In contrast, the act of disclosure appears to some degree to lift the burdens of shame, secrecy, and the vigilance of self-preservation against being ‘found out’. Exploring these barriers to disclosure sensitively, and facilitating appropriate disclosures wherever possible, seems key to helping partners access the social supports that appears significant to the recovery from the experience. You can read more about disclosure here.
“It was a bit of a relief other people knowing. It meant I didn’t have to make things up about why we were having problems.”
For those partners who remain unable to disclose the offending to those close to them, you could encourage them to talk in confidence to trained staff on the Stop It Now! free and confidential helpline - 0808 1000 900.
Help the partner manage risk
It can be hard to understand why partners stay with people who have sexually offended against children; particularly if they have children and you recognise the offender is a risk to children. Whatever you may think about their choice, there is work that can be done to alert parents to warning signs of risks to their children and to strengthen their protective capacities. Useful resources are found on http://www.parentsprotect.co.uk/ particularly regarding Family Safety Plans.