Several years ago Psychology Today posted a scathing article attacking the idea—proven in multiple studies— that betrayed spouses experience trauma.
However about a year later the journal posted an excellent article by Dr. Kevin Skinner, including the results of his own study in this area. Dr. Skinner – had conducted the largest study on partners of sex addicts and concluded:
“When a spouse acts out sexually, more than half of those who responded to the survey felt unsafe and experienced intense fear.”
This fear, he goes on to argue, is all part and parcel of the “relationship trauma” we spouses have undergone, and may still be undergoing if he is continuing to act out, lie and hide, or if there is abuse tied in with his addictive behaviours.
The Nature of Our Fear
Almost every aspect of our trauma is tied into fear. Fear symptoms include (taken or adapted from the DSM):
- Extreme physiological reactivity – includes startling
- Avoidance of stimuli and situations – can include becoming house-bound
I would also add (based on my 2014/2015 Survey of Wives of Sex Addicts and observation):
- Anxiety that affects focus and concentration (84% of respondents)
- Profound distrust of our husband, and others, including (in many instances) God (68%)
- Panic attacks (46%)
- Waking up in a panic (48%) or with dread
- Difficulty staying present (61%)
- Financial fears
Skinner noted that “more than half” of his respondents reported feeling fearful. As you can see from the results above (from my survey conducted only on women, not husbands or male partners of sex addicts) fear, in some form, shows up in the vast majority of us. In many cases the fear is to the point where it is making life very difficult. Said one respondent:
“I have had three severe anxiety attacks. After the first one was witnessed by my children, I began to keep a paper bag in my nightstand drawer.”
Debilitating fear is truly awful. As you work on healing (processing your pain with safe people, good self-care) the fears should slowly subside. Understand, though that this is the work of months (possibly even years), not days. (More on this next week).
If your husband is in recovery and really engaging it, this will help you overcome your betrayal-related fears. If you leave a recovery-resistant husband: same thing. If, however, you are trying to live with a husband who continues to act out, lie, hide, minimize, rationalize, blame, act in, etc., your own healing process is going to be continually damaged on multiple fronts—but especially on the fear front.
Stuck in Fear
The result can be that we end up stuck in a state of perpetual anxiety or fear. Patrick Fleming in Shattered Soul: Five Pathways to Healing the Spirit after Abuse and Trauma has this to say about living in ongoing fear and anxiety:
“Fear becomes a soul sickness when it is a way of life, when it is your basic stance in and against life. Fear freezes you into paralysis, controls you, robs you of joy, peace, serenity, and connection. Fear constructs a frozen fortress around your soul, which becomes its prison. Fear can also become a life-script and a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Now the original bomb that went off in our life was almost always out of the blue. It wasn’t a self-fulfilling prophecy because we never thought “that this would be my story.” (To quote the lovely Shelley Martinkus.)
However, the fear of further bombs is a slightly different matter. A bit of knowledge changes the game. A bit of healing can move us out of “What if…” (which is always a projection into a catastrophic and godless future where we are victimized again) to “If you…, then I will act to protect myself”, i.e. boundaries. Add to boundaries a growing understanding of what God means when He say, “I will never leave you,” and hope, or at least determination, begins to replace fear.
Next week, I’ll look more closely at what helps us break free of a life of fear… and what doesn't.