The partner’s response
Professionals working with internet offenders’ partners may encounter a range of responses and not all of these may align with the professional’s expectations. For example, some partners may be more preoccupied with the actions of the professionals involved than with the behaviour of the offender, particularly where they do not consider the partner represents a risk of harm to children. Some partners may be more convinced than professionals by the offender’s explanation of the offending. Conversely, some partners take a more negative view of risk than professionals and end the relationship. It is also worth bearing in mind that a partner’s thoughts and feelings about the offender may change over time.
“I said I thought he was low risk and they said they thought I’d been groomed by him.”
“Probation thought he was low risk, but I was really worried. I went to see a Family lawyer.”
Little research has been carried out on internet offenders’ partners and families. In Terry Philpot’s (2009) book Understanding child abuse: The partners of child sex offenders tell their stories seven partners of child sexual offenders give first person accounts of their experiences. Only one of these is the partner of a man convicted for downloading indecent images of children. Themes repeated across these women’s accounts include the emotional impact of the discovery of the abuse, conflicting feelings and doubts as to what to believe, and the impact of being scrutinised by Social Services.
Rachel Condry’s (2007) book based on her doctoral research, Families shamed: The consequences of crime for relatives of serious offenders describes the experiences of 32 relatives of individuals convicted or accused of serious crimes, including sexual offences. The majority were relatives of convicted or accused sexual offenders, seven of whom were wives or partners, although there were no partners of internet offenders in this study. Shame, stigmatisation, and a loss of identity are highlighted as common themes.
More recently, Annie Stubley’s (2015) doctoral research explored the experience of internet offenders’ partners. Participants in this study experienced negative emotional and cognitive responses. In addition to shock, distress and anxiety, the offending challenged their perceptions of themselves and/or their partner, leading many participants to question their ability to make judgements or good decisions. In the short-term, partners tended to feel unable to go to work or to mix with other people; some experienced mental health problems. Avoidance of disclosure for fear of negative judgement and avoidance of other people due to lack of disclosure were common responses, leaving many participants feeling isolated and afraid of the future. Some individuals reported that they felt the experience had changed them. Partners who had, or worked with, school age children and who had not chosen to end the relationship reported highly negative experiences of their contact with Children’s Services, characterised by feeling negatively judged, a sense of intrusion in family life, and feeling disturbed by misinformation presented about the family.
Why might they want to stay in the relationship?
Not all partners will choose to remain in the relationship, but many do. It should be remembered that some will remain ambivalent about the relationship for a long time. Related to this is the lengthy time period over which the criminal justice process typically extends in such cases, mainly due to the police investigation. As a result of this, many partners do not feel able to make clear decisions about their future while things are ‘up in the air’ and the sentencing outcome remains unknown.
“I feel like I’m in Limbo. I can’t plan anything, because I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
A partner’s decision about the relationship and about the level of risk represented by the offender is likely to be informed by several factors, including but not limited to:
- View of the seriousness of the offending
- Dependency on the offender (psychological, social and/or financial)
- Level of investment in the relationship (children, duration of relationship, shared family and social ties)
- Existence of alternative social supports
- The offender’s past behaviour
- The offender’s account of his offending
The quality of the relationship prior to the discovery of the offending is likely to have a significant bearing upon the partner’s response. A study by Lydon, Meana, Sepinwall, Richards, and Mayman (1999) found that the impact of adversity within intimate relationships appeared to be mediated by levels of commitment. They reflected that high commitment influences the appraisal of adversity in a way that serves to enhance the commitment. Hence, adversity, which may include the reactions of others, may be seen by a committed couple as an ‘investment’ in the relationship rather than as ‘losses’, and as ‘challenges’ rather than ‘threats’.
“My friends can’t understand why I’m staying with him and they don’t approve. They think it won’t last. I want to prove them wrong. We’ve still got a future, just a different one from the one we thought it would be before. I mean, you don’t just stop loving somebody.”
Commitment to the relationship may also be influenced by whether the partner believes there are desired alternatives to the relationship
“I mean the relationship hadn’t been great anyway. This was just the last straw.”
“I didn’t want to be on my own and I missed him. My friend said you’ll find someone else, but I realised I didn’t want anyone else.”