Those of us who have been around PSA (partner of sex addict) circles awhile will remember the scathing, malicious article that appeared in Psychology Today a few years ago on the topic of partners of sex addicts and PTSD.
In January 2016, however, Psychology Today won back some of my respect by posting an excellent article by Dr. Kevin Skinner. Dr. Skinner – who has conducted the largest study I'm aware of on (male and female) partners of sex addicts says:
“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 have undergone and the resulting PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) in those cases where the trauma has not been treated and healed.
The Nature of Our Fear
Almost every aspect of our trauma is tied into fear. Fear symptoms include (taken or adapted from that famous/infamous psychology manual, the DSM):
- Extreme physiological reactivity – includes startling
- Avoidance of stimuli and situations – can include becoming house-bound
I would also add to this list (based on experiences of the women who participated in the 2014/2015 survey of wives of sex addicts I conducted for the Beyond Betrayal book):
- 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%)
- Difficulty staying present (with or without dissociation) (61%)
- Financial fears
- Fear of ending up alone
Skinner noted that “more than half” of his respondents reported feeling fearful. As you can see from the 2014/2015 survey results above 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.”
If debilitating fear is your situation, I am sorry. It is truly awful. As you work on healing (processing your pain with safe people, good self-care, creating a safer environment for yourself) 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 (as Shelley Martinkus says in our video interview) “that this would be my story.”
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 this happens…” (which is usually a projection into a catastrophic and powerless future where we are victimized again) to "If you…, then I…," i.e. using our personal power to create boundaries. Add to this 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.