When Katie first learned that her husband of ten years had been viewing porn, it rocked her world. She’d known he had struggled with pornography in college, but he had promised it was a thing of his past, and she had no reason to doubt him. Until she discovered porn on one of their devices.
When she confronted him with what she found, he eventually confessed that his old habit had started again after the birth of their second daughter, six years prior. Six years? His words felt like a gut punch.
That was a year and a half ago. Since then, her husband had joined a recovery group and started seeing a therapist. He was getting better. The pornography had stopped and he seemed to be more engaged with their kids and with Katie than he had been in a long time.
Sometimes, watching him now, Katie felt gratitude for what God had done in his life and in their family.
Other times, seemingly out of nowhere, Katie would want nothing to do with him, and she would say or do things to push him away or she would recoil at his touch, especially when he wanted to be sexually intimate.
And sometimes, she found herself thinking it would be easier if he would fall back into his pornography addiction again and leave.
What’s going on for Katie?
She’s experiencing the effects of betrayal trauma.
Often when we think of trauma, we think of the soldier who has faced armed combat or of a tragic and sudden accident or disaster. But when a person discovers that his or her spouse has sexually betrayed them, this too is a trauma. It may be invisible on the body, but it is still a very real wound and one that imprints on the body.
This makes sense. Katie, for example, was going about her normal life side by side with her husband, and then in a matter of moments, she discovered that her life was not what she had known it to be. The operative word here is known. Think of it this way: For years and years, Katie had put her full weight on the ground of her marriage over and over and over again without hesitation. Then, with little to no warning, that ground gave way under her feet, sending her tumbling and disoriented.
What does the average person do when she falls? She reaches for what is closest, most trusted, most reliable. But what does that person do when what is closest, trusted, and reliable is not only exposed as deceptive, distant, and also the cause of your falling?
This is traumatic.
So, what is Katie to do? What are others like her—betrayed wives and husbands—to do? Assuming that your spouse is willingly and actively in recovery, here are three things that can help:
- Acknowledge the reality of this very real and very damaging trauma. The emotional ups and downs, the surges of fear or anger, the ongoing mistrust even in the face of a spouse’s good progress, all this is not a sign that you’re crazy. These are signs of trauma. Your heart, mind, and body were certain before, and so you will naturally struggle to know or trust what seems certain today.
- Discuss how your spouse can help you. It’s vitally important to recognize that your healing is not an automatic by-product of your spouse’s recovery. On the other hand, a spouse who is working hard at their own recovery and also working to be transparent, empathetic, patient and supportive to you, that can help you heal.
- Get professional or experienced help from a betrayal trauma specialist. You didn’t cause the earthquake, so it isn’t fair that there is rubble in your life that requires your attention. But you are worth attending to. I also know that deciding to pursue healing for trauma can feel extremely vulnerable at the outset. What if he/she deceives me again? This is absolutely a legitimate concern, and a trained betrayal trauma specialist or knowledgeable coach can be an immense help to you. Again, you are worth it.
I think here of the many wounded men and women Jesus encountered in the Gospels. I suspect that most of these did nothing to cause their afflictions, had already done a lot to try to heal, and would never have chosen to be in the situation they were in. Jesus received them with tenderness and healing, and He has that same tenderness and healing for you. Let us know if our team can help.
If you would like more resources on betrayal trauma you can see our resources list here. If you want to listen to our latest podcast check it out here at The Earthquake of Sexual Betrayal: A conversation with Dr Barabara Steffens.
I’d love to hear from you: Let’s do something different this week: Leave a prayer below, either for yourself or for others who have been traumatized by betrayal.
Thank you for exploring, verbalizing and affirming the role of TRAUMA for the betrayed spouse. It has been too long an ignored, minimized, un-explored arena, in my own journey and countless others.
You’re welcome, Ruth. Dr. Barbara Steffins has been a big help to our team in better understanding this. We recently recorded a podcast conversation with her here.