Relational trauma occurs when there is harm done to one person by another in a primary relationship through any form of betrayal, abuse, addiction or compulsion (Dayton, 2007). I have primarily worked with women who have experienced their partner’s infidelity, addiction or compulsive use of Internet pornography. Betrayal has an impact whether a partner has engaged in one act of infidelity or had serial affairs; whether it is anonymous sex, cybersex or engaging in chronic pornography use. Partner’s typically become aware of the betrayal by one of two methods; discovery or disclosure. Discovery occurs when the partner finds or discovers the evidence and disclosure occurs when the partner is told upfront via their husband/wife.
The partners’ experiences
1. Shock is a typical initial reaction, followed by numbness, anger, jealousy, rejection devastation. Many individuals may experience shame, self-blame or embarrassment.
2. Denial: Partners report ignoring the “red flags” that something was wrong and may continue to deny there is a problem subsequent to discovering the truth. They may find themselves believing implausible explanations and stories from their partner or believing it will be a passing phase.
3. Obsession and Control: Women/men may become preoccupied about their partner’s actions and motives, such as spending hours looking through emails, Internet history, credit card and phone bills and following their partners’ movements outside the home. Strategies such as snooping, guilt, coercion, threats, and ultimatums may be attempted to control their partner but are unsuccessful and come with significant emotional costs to themselves.
4. Grief for the loss of trust, security, emotional and sexual safety. There is a grieving process around the loss of the dream one held about the relationship and they may question all aspects of the relationship and the authenticity of the relationship.
5. Compromise of self: Women may begin to compare themselves to the online women or ‘the other woman’. Women may agree to engage in acts they find objectionable or that go against values or moral beliefs. She may change her appearance to be more sexually appealing or increase the frequency of sexual intercourse with her husband/partner, falsely believing this will solve the problem.
6 .Impact on sexuality: Sexuality is impacted on multiple levels: physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. Dr. Barb Steffens (2006), in her study of female partners found that 70% met all the symptom requirements for a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Although most mental health professionals or therapists would not diagnose partners with PTSD, it is recognized that partners facing betrayal have experienced a significant, traumatic life event that produces painful and often debilitating symptoms.
Sexual wounds include: avoidance of sex, compulsive sexuality, physical pain and intrusive thoughts and images. Partner’s report avoiding sex for various reasons: fear, disgust, lack of interest or because of flashbacks. In addition, they report changes to their views on sex such as; experiencing sex as obligatory, shameful, negative, experiencing no emotion or intimacy , overly critical of their body or judging themselves as “not sexy enough.”
Self-care. The priority for all partners is self-care and support. Explore strengths, coping, resources and build capacity. Self-care can include: meditation, mindfulness training, yoga, exercise, journaling, walking, taking a bath, getting a massage, joining a support group, reading, talking with a therapist.
Boundaries. A boundary is a limit; physical, emotional, spiritual or sexual, that is meant to keep you safe. Defining, establishing and maintaining boundaries are critical for healing. Both partners are encouraged to set boundaries with each other, often with the help of a therapist.
Managing Triggering Thoughts and Images. Cognitive methods such Thought Stopping, mind-body methods such as Yoga, meditation or mind-body therapy’s such as Hakomi can be helpful in managing triggering thoughts and obsessive thought patterns.
Managing strong emotions. An important part of healing is learning that nothing can truly be controlled except what we do individually. Therefore ensuring that strong emotions are not expressed in attempts to control the partner or acts of revenge but rather having healthy outlets to process anger and hurt are impetrative. Things such as, writing letters and burning them, keeping affirmations on post- its on the mirror, wallet or in the car, telling your story, physical exercise, mediation, deep breathing or yoga, letting the feelings run their course, can all be healthy outlets.
Intimacy. Intimacy is more than sex. It is about the ability to be vulnerable with another person. The following questions can be used to judge the intimacy of the relationship and gauge where you are on the road back to intimacy. (Adapted from Carnes ,2008; Maltz, 2001).
• Can I be vulnerable with them?
• Can I be who I truly am in their presence?
• Do I feel like an equal in this partnership?
• Do I feel respected and trusted?
• Do I feel safe?
• Can I share the darkest side of myself with him/her?
• Am I willing to hear and share the darkest part of him/hear?
Healthy Sexuality. Reclaiming sexuality is empowering. Regardless of the decision to stay or leave a partner after a betrayal, healthy sexuality should be addressed. This includes:
• Sexual beliefs and attitudes prior to disclosure and after disclosure
• How have those beliefs changed?
• What has the impact been on sexuality?
• Improving perceived body image if needed
• Identifying fears around sex
• Create goals around sexual attitudes and sexuality
• Avoid exposure to sex negative messages (on TV, books, movies etc)
• Language can help create reality: Use positive language when referring to sex.
• Learn the differences between healthy and unhealthy sex
• Practice intimacy building exercises with one’s partner
• Letting go of any self-blame
• Encourage a health check for STI’s
Often the most difficult element in forgiveness is understanding that forgiveness does not mean forgetting. It does not mean absolving the other person of responsibility and it does not mean what they did was okay. Forgiveness allows the individual to move on and heal. When it comes to forgiveness, the following should be stressed:
• Do not forgive pre-maturely
• Allow time to fully grieve
• Take the time needed to process the negative feelings
• Do not put pressure on yourself or your partner.(Smedes, 1997)
Forgiveness is a process and not an event. The motivation for people to work through powerful feelings and painful emotions is one benefit of forgiveness (Dayton, 2007). Forgiveness involves a willingness to view “the same landscape through different eyes” (Proust). Forgiving may seem impossible, particularly when anger, resentment and hurt burst to the surface and obstruct the readiness or ability to see past these strong emotions. “But it is in addressing these feelings openly and honestly that we can move through them toward healing” (Dayton, 2004).
References and other resources
Carnes, S. (2008). What is co-sex addiction? In S. Carnes (Ed.), Mending a shattered heart: a guide for partners of sex addicts (pp.7- 23). Carefree, Arizona: Gentle Path Press.
Dayton, T. (2007). Emotional sobriety: From relationship trauma to resilience and balance. Health Communications Inc. Deerfield Beach: FL.
Dayton, T., & Moreno, Z. (2004). The Living stage: A Step-by-Step guide to psychodrama, sociometry and group psychotherapy. Health Communications Inc. Deerfield Beach: FL.
Dayton, T. The myth of forgiveness: Emotional freedom and transformation at midlife, A book for Women.
Maltz, W. (2001). The Sexual healing journey: A guide for survivors of sexual
abuse. HaperCollins Publishers Inc. New York: NY.
Smedes, L. (1997). The Art of forgiving. Ballantine Books
Steffens, B. & Rennie, R. (2006). The traumatic nature of traumatic nature of disclosure for wives of sexual addicts. Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, 13, 247-267.