Infidelity can feel as crushing and disorienting as an earthquake. Sexual Betrayal is trauma. To help us navigate the aftershocks of discovery and pain; we’ve invited Dr. Barbara Steffens to the podcast. The Earthquake of Sexual Betrayal.
As the founder of the APSATS, the Association of Partners of Sex Addicts Trauma Specialists, Dr. Steffens points out this is more than relationship counseling. She walks us through sexual betrayal with both the expertise of a trained clinician and the heart of a woman who has been betrayed. The earthquake of infidelity is unexpected.
In the midst of your disorientation; we hope you’ll take this unique and deep offering as a first step to understanding your pain in a new way. And then, use it as a launching point to move you in your next steps to “Becoming Whole.”
If you want to read more on this topic, you can at Why You’re Still Angry at Your Recovering Spouse.
If we don’t understand it as trauma, what had been happening is that the focus goes onto the betrayed partner that says, “What was wrong with you that you would choose someone who would do this to you?”If Christians begin to practice thinking and talking about sex as a form of self-giving love, that’s what sex is designed to be.
Once we understand that this is trauma it provides hope because we know how to heal. This is my body given for you – given is the operative word
The aftershocks are usually finding out more information and the partner will ask questions. What does it lookIf Sex is an act of self-giving love, then tonight we didn’t reach climax but I’m going to love you where you are tonight. I’m going to love you in this space.
Here are some professional options to explore:
- “Therapeutic Disclosure “ – a process facilitated by a trained professional for your spouse (if willing) to offer a planned, intentional way to disclose the truth.
- Couples Crisis Intervention
- Group Therapy
“Your Sexually Addicted Spouse: How Partners Can Cope and Heal” by Dr Barbara Steffens, Ph.D., LPCC
Other resources we recommended for Marriage Recovery.
Click for Full Podcast Transcription
Everybody. I’m very happy today that we’re on the podcast with Dr. Barbara Stephens. She specializes in helping women recover from sexual betrayal. And she was the founding president for the Association for partners of sex addicts, trauma specialists. She’s also the co author of wonderful book, your sexually addicted spouse, how partners can cope and heal. And we’re looking forward to learning from her. She brings information, this conversation that is desperately desperately needed for both husbands and wives and for people to help them when sexual betrayal has been part of the marriage. But before we get into that, I’m here with Anne Donohue, and Barbara Stevens, Stephen. Sorry, Barbara, tell us a lot about yourself. What Where are you? And where are you in life to serve our listeners to know a little bit?
Dr. Barbara Steffens 0:48
Well, I am in the Greater Cincinnati, Ohio area. And we’re in the middle of a thunderstorm. So if you hear it, that’s what it is. It’s drastic. So I’m I am semi retired, which is a new position to be in have been that for about a year now. So I teach part time for Liberty University online in their masters of counseling program. So I’ve gone to teaching just one class at a time. And then I do some online virtual coaching with partners of sex addicts, on a limited basis. And then I do trainings to train clinicians and coaches and other interested people on how to help in this area of working with partners of sex addicts, working with the relationship working with the person with the addiction. So I do that through app sets, the Association of partners of sex addicts, trauma specialists, and I’ve been doing trainings, I think, for 11 years. 10 years. A long time. Yeah, yeah. I will. I was a lucky participant in two years ago. Come to that. Yeah. Yeah, we’ve had so many people come through, and it’s just been wonderful. Just been wonderful. And I’m a mom, and I have adult children. And I have one grandson, who’s Tim, and he’s pretty, pretty special.
Is he nearby? Or is he?
Unknown Speaker 2:12
Yeah, he’s he’s in Kentucky, which is just across the Ohio River. So I get to see him very, very often. And then I’m married and been married. It’ll be 48 years this summer.
Unknown Speaker 2:26
which is like a lifetime in half. So yeah, right.
Alright, so I have to ask this question. Recovery and helping with with spouses of sex addicts? Did you grow up thinking this is what I want to do when I when I’m older? retiree retirement, what how did you get into this?
Unknown Speaker 2:46
Oh, my goodness, no, it was the last thing I would ever think that I would be doing anything around. So no, I was a trained mental health counselor, I was doing counseling, both in private practice and agencies and stuff like that. So I had had my master’s degree. And then like, for a lot of us, a crisis occurred in my relationship with my spouse where I found out about his secrets. And that really propelled me into kind of the state of the field at the time, I found that everything I read about that I thought would help me provided just more pain. And it was saying things about me that didn’t make any sense that were true. And how in the world could they assess me and determine I’m a co addict, if they’ve never met me, they don’t know my history. So I just got, yeah, once I was really through a good chunk of my own healing and our healing in our relationship, I just really believe that it was something that God had for me to do, his way of redeeming things, was for me to start on this path. And so I started just by offering space and time to other women. So I started with a group in a basement of a church for free, and started to listen to those women and then really learned from them. And as I compared what they were experiencing with what I was experiencing, and what was in the current books. I said, This isn’t right. And so that really propelled me then to go back. Get a doctorate. So I could do dissertation research, which is another crazy thing I never ever thought I would do. To find out about levels of trauma and partners. And so I did that and that’s what changed everything. Wow. So yeah, it just has been a journey and and really what I believe a call on my life.
Great. Yeah, thanks. Yeah.
So one, one question I’ve got maybe we can start with this. So for the for a let’s It’s we’re talking about a wife who, whose husband has been involved in some type of extramarital sexual activity, pornography or another person. Without the understanding the role of trauma. You mentioned just hearing things that that were really hurtful, really unhelpful? Where does that leave us with? Without understanding what’s happening in the realm of trauma? Where does that leave a spouse?
Dr. Barbara Steffens 5:27
If we don’t understand it as trauma, what what had been happening, and sometimes still happens is that the focus goes on onto the betrayed partner saying, what was wrong with you that you picked someone that would do this to you. And so holding someone responsible for someone else’s choices and behaviors, and almost always behaviors that occurred in secret that the partner didn’t know anything about. So what I have found is once we understand that this is trauma, and and I showed that, and that’s what we train around. It provides hope, because we know how to help people who are traumatized. And we know that people not only are traumatized, but if they get support and care, and the right kind of help, they can grow and not only survive it, but really thrive. So it gives a direction and hope. When it was the old model of you’re a co addict. So you have an addiction to the person with the addiction was basically what a lot of women were told, that left them in being in perpetual recovery for their own seeds, which made no sense. So that’s where we go.
Yeah, thank you.
Dr. Barbara Steffens 6:54
Could you share what you learned in from your research about how trauma was showing up for women and what you first started noticing? Can you describe what trauma looks like? Well, what I first started to notice, again, I was already a trained clinician, and I had worked with people who have been traumatized in other ways in relationships, so people who have been sexually abused, I worked with children who were abused, I worked with people who had other kinds of trauma. And so I saw the that kind of shock trauma symptoms in the women, especially right after discovery, where they would have trouble focusing, they couldn’t remember things, they felt foggy all the time, they were hyper vigilant, so kind of feeling on edge all the time. And anything could spark a memory of what happened, either the moment of discovery or the things that they were concerned that they still don’t know. And that would lead to trauma symptoms. I’m mostly hyper vigilant, but also just the sense of it’s happening all over again, or it’s happening right now. So not feeling safe. Even just their their spouses voice, or a place in the house or a place going out and driving and passing. Maybe a place where he was acting out could trigger that memory and cause flashbacks. So it was really clear to me that this is PTSD or PTSD, like. And so that’s what I looked for in the research. I asked them on what was it like for them. And so I have a lot of quotes from the women who were in my study. And then I had them complete two assessments on on post traumatic stress symptoms. And one of them was a diagnostic scale that can really be used to help diagnose Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. So the shock of my life was when I found 70% of the women in my study met all of the criteria for post traumatic stress disorder. Wow. That’s a big number. Wow, that would be some give it 69.9 to be accurate. Wow. Yeah. So helpful to to have this research and this information for these women who are wondering, what is happening to them? Yeah, because they feel like I’m a crazy person, what’s going on with me? How can I one day want my husband to love me and hold me and the next day, not want to even look at his face? I can’t tolerate his voice. And so it just feels crazy. They feel like their body’s been taken over in a lot of ways it has been their mind has been by the trauma.
What What role does this truth play in this is learning the truth. Hearing the truth being told the truth, play a play and just the role of trauma and recovery from trauma for a spouse.
Dr. Barbara Steffens 9:58
Okay, well The first time that most partners experience truth is around discovery. And that’s a traumatic event.
And tell us tell us what you mean by that. But for the for our listeners,
Dr. Barbara Steffens 10:10
it’s that moment in time when everything changes for a partner. So before they had this idea that maybe something was going on, there was some tension, their loved one, it changed, but they didn’t know what it was. And perhaps there were a lot of excuses around, you know, I’m tired, work is stressful, those kinds of things. So there’s this point in time, where suddenly they find out about a part of reality they didn’t know anything about. Yeah. And my study, 75% of the time, it was the spouse who uncovered it, going to a computer and something pops up a phone, whatever that was, could also happen from child finding out, then being the first one to discover and that child then goes to the partner. But it’s that moment in time. And so that’s what we really think of is shock trauma. That’s like an earthquake. You didn’t expect it. You weren’t anticipating it. It happened in it shakes up everything. Yeah, yeah. And then there’s aftershocks, and the aftershocks are usually finding out more information, the partner will ask questions, because now this thing has opened up. And they think, well, this can’t be all of it, it doesn’t resonate in my body, in my mind that this is all. And so they continue to ask questions or look, to try and discover what is truth. The truth is vital for partners. But the process of finding truth for a lot of partners is really painful, because it’s left to them to uncover or discover. And then if the there’s truth seeking, and they’re met with more lies, or ignoring or minimizing, I can’t even imagine then what it must feel like, yeah. Again, it’s kind of like the aftershocks after the initial earthquake. And some of those can be worse than the first earthquake. And the same way if they find out or they asked a question. And let’s say that they already have evidence, they found it. And then they ask the question, and their loved one says, I don’t know what you’re talking about, I didn’t do that. So deny them, you know, to their face, is another way that even more injury is put upon the partner. Because now they know that the person is intentionally lying to them. For a lot of partners, they didn’t have any idea that the person they love had the capacity to keep that big of a secret or that long of a secret from them. So that’s shattering as well. You know, finding out all this stuff, but I’m also finding out I didn’t know this person the way I thought that I did. Um, the other shock for most partners is they have their sense of what their history is in the relationship. And so now they’re finding out all this other information. And so their own sense of time and history for themselves, is shattered in some. So they’re going to be trying their brain tries to make sense. That’s just what brains do. Yeah. They’re going to go looking and finding trying to make sense of what really happened and what else Don’t I know. And I put it this way, they know that what they didn’t know hurt them. Don’t ever want to be in that place again. So would you say Barbara when a person is trying to find truth and gather truth to make sense of it for her own well being she may start to look, places look in their wallet, she they make she may look on his computer or phone? Yeah, somebody might say that that isn’t healthy behavior. Like Could you speak to that? Sure. In the old model that we talked about with CO addiction, that would be a symptom of her co addiction by going and looking and how I really understand it, is it safety seeking. And it’s seeking what’s true. So it’s reality testing. So it feels crazy for a lot of people because they feel compelled to do this. Because their brain is saying I don’t feel safe yet. I don’t feel safe yet. I need to find out everything. So I know. Am I safe right now. So there’s this drive of what’s real. So I know am I okay? right now. So they will they will go and go to great lengths to try to figure out what’s real. Now, I will never ever shame a partner for doing that behavior. Because that’s what she’s doing. She’s trying to find out what’s real, and Am I safe.
So I so appreciate this. And I get the I get a kind of picture of almost like I remember as a little boy, before I could swim. You know, if I drifted into water that was too deep, just kind of doing all I could to get my feet back, you know, just trying to get my toe on the ground. So I have something solid Stand on again. And then add to that just a tremendous amount of fear and the earth is shaking. And I, I can’t see straight. You just I think you’re describing it really well, I’m so grateful to hear it.
Dr. Barbara Steffens 15:12
It’s a really good analogy, by the way you’re trying to find where’s the ground here? Where’s solid ground? Because it seems to have disappeared.
Yeah. So what you’re describing now, would you? Do you have any say there’s somebody listening right now? And they’re, that’s about where they are there. They’ve just discovered something in the last month? And what kinds of what what would you counsel them, you know, in that search for solid ground, and that in that the grasping for the searching for safety? What do you have any counsel for a husband or wife in that, in that space,
Dr. Barbara Steffens 15:46
I would just say it’s a normal response to something horrific and abnormal that happened. The hope would be that your loved one will want to disclose to you confess to you in an open, honest, prepared way. And so if you go and work with someone who’s trained on how to help you through this, and if your loved one is willing to work with someone, there’s this process we call a therapeutic disclosure or full disclosure. And so it’s a planned intentional way of getting the partner all the truth that they need. It takes a while to prepare for it, it’s usually several weeks, that if I can let a partner know, if your loved one is willing to confess this to you in a plan therapeutic process, then you’re going to get answers to what you need. But we understand you need answers, you need to know, Am I safe right now? Are there places I’m in danger, I just don’t even know. And so what trained clinicians and coaches would want to do is help provide for a setting where that can happen. And because hearing all that information can be so difficult, it really needs to be done with people who are trained on how to do it, that the partner and the person who is confessing has plenty of support in preparation for that process. But we find that that’s that’s a healing process, because it provides that kind of that foundation that you were describing before, you know, where’s the solid ground? Once they have answers to all those questions that are in their mind, the anxiety, a lot of the hyper vigilance can really start to quiet for a partner. But find someone who has training on how to assist a betrayed partner, how do I hit assist someone who has been dealing with compulsive sexual behaviors? And they should have adequate training to be able to help you if they don’t, they can find you someone who does. That’s ultimately the way to get it is planned, careful, supported way?
I’m also while the partner is waiting, you know? What are your suggestions and coping mechanisms for her while you know, she’s still carrying this trauma waiting for the truth? document the truth time? And if her husband is still in recovery, and he’s taking his time with the disclosure, what are your suggestions for her? She waits,
Dr. Barbara Steffens 18:39
I think that she needs to do everything she can to be as healthy as she can for herself. So finding good supports having safe people to talk to about what it’s like, if she’s really flooded with questions, one thing that I do is I invite them just to write them down every time they come up, write them down, right? And then bring them to me. And let’s talk about what is it about this question that is just so compelling for you. And the questions are important, they usually have meaning in all of it. I have lots and lots of questions about Did you have affairs, a lot of times partners will go into a lot of questions about well, what did they look like? How tall were they are? What color was their hair? All those things? And what I tried to do with the partner is help them see that the underlying question there is Didn’t you love me was not enough. And so talking to someone about the questions helps unpack some of them. But some of the questions are really truly about safety. I’ve had way, way too many partners. They have concerns about their financial safety. And then they find out that finances have been misused in the family and she didn’t know so that’s another area of not feeling safe as financial support Number one, writing the questions down, I’m working with someone that’s trained in helping a betrayed spouse, even if it’s an online support group or a group in a local church, that places you with other people going through the very same thing. And it’s an amazing thing when you get partners together in a group on how they really become almost family for one another in terms of the level of support that they can provide, because they get it. They get it right away. They don’t have to explain. Yeah, and they, I bet instantly, they don’t feel so alone. Someone shared sorrow. Yeah, I remember a time I was leading a group in a church. And this beautiful woman walked in. And she looked around the room at all the other women there and she said, What are you all doing here? You’re beautiful. Which really showed kind of what she was thinking there must be something wrong with me, I’m not enough, where this wouldn’t have happened to me. And so she could see that there were other women very similar to her who had gone through a very similar thing. I would also say to my groups, welcome to the sorority you never asked to join. Right? Well, just this connection, connectivity, because they have shared experiences. Yeah, I’ve heard women say, I just, I never thought this would happen to me. Yeah, other things might happen. But not death, but not this. And this is the one that’s so hard to talk about. You know, if a spouse suddenly dies, there are all sorts of things terrific. But there are structures in place, and it’s a socially acceptable thing for people to know about. And then support comes, this tends to be the thing that happens in particular to women. That’s why I work with where they’re afraid to tell anyone. And so they’re in the greatest pain of their life. And they’re afraid to tell a soul about what just happened. I remember we were doing an app sets training, and in our training group was a man who, as part of his work, had to go and give death notifications. And he said, how we see partners respond to this discovery of this information is very much like a death notification because something is died. But there’s there’s no one around provides support. Wow. It’s just not the thing you tell your church family, your mother, your father, it’s very, very difficult kind of thing to share right now.
So hard. And I can I can, I can see the multi layered pieces of it there. For some there may be a sense of not wanting to throw their spouse under the bus. For some there may be, especially when you talk about the woman who walks in and says, you know, what, why are you what are you all doing here? You’re so beautiful. The sense of it means something about me, and so Sharon’s others, it’s just throwing myself under the bus. Boy, so another question that comes to mind. For me, though, we’ve been talking about a spouse who’s whose partner is, is seeking help is, is willing to move towards therapeutic disclosure and work the work in recovery. What about for the spouse where there, there is no such thing there’s denial, there’s there’s ongoing refusal to be truthful. Or maybe even even worse? Just a? Yes. So what I mean, what, what would you recommend? What What do you have to say for a spouse? He’s in that kind of situation? How can she or he respond?
Dr. Barbara Steffens 23:57
Well, I think initially, it would be the same. You know, get some support, make sure you’re not walking through this alone. Find someone who’s trained to walk alongside you and help you find what your resources are. And then since then, this is true, even if their loved one does get help. A focus really needs to be on what’s going to help you feel safer, that we can start to institute in your life. So establishing some boundaries, a boundary, just being a line that I say if you cross this line, I’m going to do this to protect myself. So it’s getting strong and having tools and strategies for making sure they’re as safe as possible. Again, a partner whose loved one does take responsibility and does go into treatment is still going to need those same kinds of tools. So it’s just safety related. Then. So it’s really helping the partner find what do I need right now? And what resources do I have? Or what what additional resources do I need? What kind of space might I need in the relationship? What will I do? If I feel really unsafe? Where will I go? So I spend time talking with partners around if you had to leave immediately, what can we have in place so that you can do that? So just a safety plan? For how do they take care of themselves so that the focus is really on the partner around? How do you take good care of yourself, because what you now know, is this other person in recovery or not, still may not be the safest person for you not because they don’t want to be necessarily, but because they’re not. So reality says you need to take good care of you. And so that’s what we focus on. And then ultimately, they may get to a place where they have to make decisions. And that’s a longer process. And a lot of times partners will put pressure on themselves to make a quick decision. Do I stay in the relationship? Do I have to separate? And so we just try to help them slow it down to what’s manageable for them? sweat, I
hear it. Yeah, it sounds really giving them anchors, support, to feel their they have a voice, they have options, they have resources, and that defaul you know, by fall, there’s a net to catch me the boundaries sound really critical, you know, point.
Dr. Barbara Steffens 26:40
Yeah. And back to the analogy that you gave before around, you know, being in water not being able to touch the ground. Our role, my role, either as a coach or clinician or support person is to help that person find that solid ground. Yeah. If they’re a person of faith, you know, what in their faith right now can be that kind of solid ground for them. A lot of partners, who are people of faith, and this happens, it becomes a crisis of faith for them as well. So being able to find other ways of finding support, if their faith their church, their community is not a place for them at that time. So we just try to find what does that partner need that’s going to help them feel steady or stronger? More Sure.
Can you say a little bit more about how this this time can be a crisis of faith for somebody I can, I can connect the dots. But I’d love to hear from you. And then Anna, she’s talking kind of nearing the end. So if you have any final things that we didn’t get to that we want to make sure to include in this episode, I’d love to love for you to ask now. But sorry. So Barbara, we talked a little about creating the crisis of faith piece,
Dr. Barbara Steffens 27:52
or a lot of partners of faith, I’ll speak specifically to Christian faith. They may think, well, I did everything that you told me to do God, I was a faithful wife, I was did this, I did that. And they you let this happen. And so it’s that sense of being let down, our promises not being kept. Maybe this is the worst thing they’ve ever faced in their life. And they just can’t comprehend how a God who supposed to love them would allow this to occur. So that’s, that’s a big one. The other big one is that I did everything I was supposed to do. And yet this horrible thing happened. I’m not another crisis of faith is when they go to their faith community, in hopes of providing some that community will be a support. And sometimes, unfortunately, some faith communities don’t know how to respond. They may try to and say things that are hurtful. They may say things that sound to the partner like somehow or another she’s responsible for what happened. So that other part of crisis of faith is really feeling cut off from their faith community, from the clergy, from your friends in that community. And that just, I think that’s in large part because our communities don’t know enough about this don’t know about it being traumatic. And so they don’t know what they don’t know. Yeah, big work we have to do is help our faith communities know how to respond.
So good. I’m glad you brought that up. Thank you.
I know and that’s kind of a if we have time for one last point, it kind of launches me into if they do. Then go see a counselor and the counselor mentions Well, let’s talk about your family of origin. Right or you go to your faith community and they say okay, well let’s start marriage counseling. That’s that’s the first place we’ll start Can Can you share, you know, some insights and some directions for our partner who then when she goes She, in her gut, she senses This doesn’t feel safe. You speak to trust your gut if it doesn’t feel safe.
Dr. Barbara Steffens 30:08
That’s why I really encourage people, I know that it’s hard to do when you’re in crisis to find someone that is trained on how to help. Um, this isn’t about doesn’t have anything to do with how you grew up your family of origin. This is its own thing. And so that should not be the first question. It was pretty much the first question I got when I went to go see a counselor and I was a counselor, and I knew you shouldn’t. So that’s not a good question. And another thing people a lot of times don’t know who to go to. So they will go to a marriage counselor. And a lot of marriage counselors don’t have any training and really understanding betrayal trauma. So so if you’re hearing this, and you’re thinking about, well, maybe our first step is marriage counseling, no, wait, because this is not about the marriage. It’s something that is affecting the marriage that is devastated the marriage. But it really is the the problem really lies with the person with the problematic behavior, and their deception, and then how that is traumatized to you. So that’s really two individual support places, with the goal of coming together as a couple to help just get through the crisis. So it’s not traditional marriage counseling. It’s more like a couples crisis intervention. But it’s not his part, your part. It’s, this has happened, what do you need to be safe right now? And then maybe having some sessions together on how do you maintain safety in the middle of this turmoil in that relationship, but it’s not relationship counseling.
It’s really good. Barber, thank you so much for all this. I know, there’s, I know, you’ve got, you know, a wealth of wisdom and other things you could bring in. And we’ll record another podcast at some point. But I’m so grateful for what you brought today. And I know that there’ll be husbands and wives and hopefully, some pastors and maybe some counselors to really be helped to kind of redirect and start in a different direction from when brought today. So thank you so much. Thank you.
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