Ask us – Sexual Betrayal: A Taboo Topic

In this post we will briefly answer a question that was asked by one of our clients. Here is today’s question:

Why is experiencing sexual betrayal such an isolating experience? It feels there is no-one who really understands. If I’d been bereaved, or in a car accident, I know that lots of people would offer me support. Why is this so different?

There could be a number of possible answers to this question. Here are a few of my thoughts on the matter …

1. Committed intimate relationships are attachment relationships. Apart from the relationship we form with our primary caregivers (usually our parents), these are the closest relationships we form.

When we enter into a committed relationship with someone, we automatically expect that person to be trustworthy, safe, reliable and honest. We expect them to love us, care for us, and be there for us.  We don’t expect them to hurt and cause us harm.

In fact, we simply cannot function, and lead a normal life, if we’re constantly assessing if our partner’s still trustworthy.

Thus, when we learn that a relative or friend has been betrayed (and sexual betrayal is a serious betrayal), it is deeply disturbing and unsettling for us.

We realize we’re no different – so we too could be deceived. This is threatening and scary – so we want to keep our distance.

In a way, this strong reaction is a form of self-protection.

2. Another factor that might play into the way people react, is a fear of the emotions that a trauma can stir up.

People can imagine how they’d feel if it was them. They can picture the strong feelings, and how they might react. Again, this is unsettling to contemplate.

Hence, the safest thing to do, is to simply walk away. This keeps things superficial, and under their control.  

Note: Sometimes our friends would like to help is, but they feel they’re at a loss. They don’t know what to say so they feel inadequate. As a result, they just say nothing, and act like nothing’s changed.

3. A third possibility relates to the fact that many have experienced a trauma in their past. Hence, our pain and trauma symptoms now remind them of their own. And they don’t want to face it. They would rather bury it. Hence, they cope with their discomfort by distancing themselves. That way, they can pretend that everything in life is fine (at least for them).

Boundaries 101

“She set her boundaries and rebuilt her life.”

When your partner is battling a sex addiction, establishing boundaries is absolutely crucial. They are not going to silence all your doubts and fears, but they do give a sense of accountability. They are a fundamental part of re-establishing some trust (although, let’s be honest, that’s going to take years).

Essentially, boundaries are important as they help protect our relationships from becoming unsafe.

So, what might boundaries look like to you?

– Insisting that your partner or spouse regularly sees a counsellor

– Insisting that your partner or spouse has an accountability partner

– Insisting that you are the person who has administrative rights for the family computer

– Having all the passwords to your partner or spouse’s laptop, phone and devices

– Having your partner or spouse remove all dating apps from their ipad and phone, and insisting he deletes any accounts with companies like sex.com or Ashley Maddison

– Insisting you have the freedom to check your partner or spouse’s messages and texts anytime you want

– Having access to all his bank accounts – and going through statements together each month

– Going through credit card statements together each month

– Having your partner or spouse be accountable for his time – so you know where he is, who he is with, and what he is doing, anytime you are apart

– Requiring your partner or spouse to break off all contact with anyone he has had a previous relationship with

– Requiring your partner or spouse to tell you if someone from a previous relationship ever tries to contact him.

Some of these suggestions might seem a bit extreme, but it all comes down to your peace of mind. And there are other boundaries you might want to put in place, specific to your relationship. (These different boundaries might change as time goes on.)

Don’t hesitate to ask for what you want.

Boundaries are crucial. They are at the heart of every healthy relationship.”

Finding Yourself Again After Trauma

When you’ve experienced betrayal trauma, you may feel like you don’t know who you are anymore.

For a while, you are living in survival mode. And it takes all your energy to make it through the day.

But as you slowly start to process all the things that you’ve been through, you may start to miss yourself, and the person you once were.

But how do you connect with your authentic self again?

Here are some ideas that might help with this:

1. Consider doing something new and different. For example, experiment a bit to see if you can match an external experience with an internal experience. Teenagers do this all the time when they do things like dye their hair turquoise, or create a band with their friends.

Doing something new and different also includes giving yourself permission to break free from old narratives (or lies?) about yourself, and distancing yourself from the opinions, beliefs and expectations of others.

You might also want to mull over questions like: Who is the real me? How can I best describe her? How do I want to be seen by others? What kinds of things do I really want to do/ achieve, and why?

2.You might find it useful to complete some personality inventories in order to get a better sense of your values, strengths and traits. Then ask yourself if the results resonate with the person you feel yourself to be. Maybe ask others (who know you well) for their opinion of the test results as well.

Make use of whatever helps you to understand yourself better; toss aside whatever doesn’t sit comfortably.    

3. You could ask people you trust and know well to help you identify one strength or positive attribute they can see in you. This can be very powerful, especially when we find it hard to see anything good in ourselves.

4. It’s also important to cast your mind back to the time before the trauma occurred, and write down the answers to the following questions (if it feels safe for you to do so):

a) What was I like before the trauma occurred?

b) What did the trauma take from me? For example, my confidence, my sense of security, my ability to trust others, my ability to trust myself, my sense of safety, my peace of mind, my ability to love and accept myself and my body.

Don’t be surprised if you find this upsetting. You can put the activity aside for a while if necessary. Don’t push yourself too hard. You are working on the grieving process here, and that is a slow and painful process.

5. After looking back, look forward to the future. In light of what you’ve discovered so far, ask yourself the following questions:

a) What parts of my old self have I lost contact with?

b) What can I work on recapturing?

C) What would be the easiest thing to start with/ where would be the easiest place to begin?

d)  What is one small step I can take to start to move in that direction?

You are now in the place where you can start creating a new you.

The you you want to be.

The you you can be.

Believe it.

Claim it.

Start working towards it.

The Unfolding Nature of Betrayal Trauma

Betrayal trauma’s not a one–time event. Life-shattering though it is, discovering the truth that your partner has betrayed you, is merely the beginning.

Why do I say that?

1. In almost all cases, that initial revelation is just the start of the discovery process. There are very few partners who are completely up front, and tell you everything, right off the bat. Instead it’s a slow and painful process of getting to the truth – often question after question, or discovery after discovery.

2. This dismantles our sense of reality, and we feel we don’t know who we are any more. The past, and our relationship, now feel like a lie. This is disorienting and traumatic.

3. However, when we think about the present, it’s traumatic as well. There are decisions to be made – but we can’t make them yet. We don’t have all the facts, and we can’t think straight. We can’t focus, concentrate, analyse, think logically … and there are so many things that we now need to consider.  

4. For some, there are serious consequences in the present. For example, there may be legal issues or financial concerns. You may have cervical cancer or an STD. These can’t be put on hold; they must be dealt with right away. 

In addition, there may be public scrutiny, and family and community issues to deal with (related to judgment, shaming, being shunned and isolated, effects on the children, and so on).

5. As if the past and the present weren’t hard enough to cope with, the future’s terrifying when you’ve been betrayed, or your partner or your spouse is addicted to sex. If it’s happened in the past, then it could happen again. Hence, you’re constantly haunted by questions like:

What if he relapses, or he cheats again?

How do I know if he’s really changed?

What if he lies or he hides things again (and he’s so good at lying that I likely couldn’t tell)?

What if he can’t change – no matter how hard he tries?

What if I end up with another STD?  

Layer on layer of questions. Layer on layer of fear. Layer on layer of worry and prolonged anxiety. The alarm bell’s always ringing. The trauma never ends. The trauma can feel chronic when the risks and stakes are high.    

Betrayal is so emotionally charged because it violates a couple’s core agreement – the promise to care for each other, and keep each other safe.”  Dr Carla M. Greco

What are the Symptoms of Betrayal Trauma?

Betrayal trauma makes you feel like you are losing your mind. It puts you on an emotional rack and pulls you in opposite directions until you are begging for mercy. It yanks your sense of security out from under you and puts you in a state of emotional free fall. It is severely emotionally distressing, and until you have experienced it, you really can’t imagine how truly life-altering the experience can be.”

–Michelle Mays

When you have experienced betrayal trauma you are living in a state of emotional devastation, something that is very hard to navigate. Its symptoms include the following:  

1. Adrenalin and cortisol are surging through your body as your autonomic nervous system (ANS) prepares for “fight or flight”.

2. Your body and mind are screaming danger and threat. You feel as if you’re living on high alert.

3. For many people, when they start to calm down, the whole unpleasant cycle starts over again, and is repeated and repeated in a series of waves.

4. The fear of future betrayals, and what that could mean, keeps the internal threat response system activated, and ready to go into over-drive again. This becomes chronic, and a way of life.

5.  This means you are on an emotional roller coaster where emotions rise suddenly, are extreme, overwhelming and intense, are unpredictable, and hard to control. As a consequence of this, life feels frightening, chaotic and difficult to navigate.

6. When the ANS response system is triggered, it interferes with mental functioning. This affects your ability to focus, pay attention, concentrate, apply problem-solving skills, think logically, or analyze and process almost any information. Also, your memory is affected, and you can’t remember things.

7.  You feels as if you’re constantly being “rubber-banded” back into the past. Because of the intensity of this experience, it is hard to separate the past from the present; to feel grounded; and to be fully aware of, and responsive to, what is happening here-and-now.

8. When you’re living with emotional dysregulation, it is rare to experience prolonged periods peace and calm.

However, once you can identify what’s happening to you, and can start to articulate the trauma and pain, you can begin the long process of recovery. Hold on to that hope. You are starting to heal.

Quote of the Day


Trust me when I say that I know how it feels to cry in the shower so that no-one can hear you.

And having to wait for everyone to fall asleep so you can fall apart.

For everything to hurt so badly that you can’t see a way out.

I know exactly how it feels.

But I also know that there is always hope and that the tide always turns.

Hang in there, and know that you are not alone.”

– Ella Hicks


Beautiful words.

Take them to heart.

Hold on to hope.

You are not alone.

Betrayal and the Dark Night of the Soul

but somehow the page stayed empty

Learning that you’ve been betrayed by your partner plunges you into a painful cycle of loss and grief.

Often the discovery comes as a shock, and the losses are more than you can even calculate.

– To begin with, you can no longer trust your partner or spouse (as they deliberately deceived you, and lied to your face.)

– Also, you feel you aren’t able to trust yourself (because you didn’t see the signs, and you experienced gaslighting.)

– And there’s the loss of the relationship you thought you had (which now feels like a lie and a fantasy.)

– Plus there’s also the loss of the future you expected, and had planned (as you cannot think ahead; and the whole of life has changed.)

Kubler-Ross and the Grieving Process

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, who studied death and dying, has identified five common stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These are experienced in betrayal trauma, too.

Note: These stages are experienced a number of times, and are neither discrete nor linear. Also, grief follows its own schedule, is unpredictable, and often hits us unexpectedly.

For example, if betrayal is related to a sexual addiction, you might attempt to reduce the shock by telling yourself that at least your partner didn’t have sex with a real person (This relates to bargaining and denial).

But later you remember that he used webcams, and he paid real women to take off their clothes. Your response to this might be rage and disgust (which could also be equated with experiencing anger).

The next day, you feel too worn out and sad to motivated yourself to do any work (a sure indication that you’re feeling depressed.)

Then, as time goes by, and you start to find out more about the changes in the brain of a sex addict, you might have days when you feel you understand why your partner had succumbed, and done all those awful things. (This is the acceptance stage.)

Note: A crucial point that should be made related to acceptance is this doesn’t mean excusing what your partner has done. It will never be OK – and should never be OK.

Instead, acceptance is more about coming to terms with the fact that reality has changed for you.

It is also about starting to rebuild your life.

This is not possible in the first stages of grief, when time stands still, and you cannot think at all. With acceptance there’s a movement. We feel there’s been a change.

The Reality

The grieving process takes time. A lot of time. It takes much longer than you think it will take. It takes a lot longer than you want it to take. The losses are like tree roots that spread out underground. The roots go down so deep.  They’re extensive and wide.

How to Treat Yourself when you are Grieving

First, be gentle with yourself. Allow yourself to feel the pain and sadness. Let the tears flow. Allow yourself to rant and rage. Allow yourself to be antisocial. You’ll also feel exhausted a lot of the time.

And be patient with yourself. Grief and loss are terrible.

But it won’t go on forever. The pain will subside. You’ll emerge from the tunnel, and eventually you’ll feel those positive emotions you cannot picture now.

 

What you Need to Know About a Sexual Addiction

flowers grow back

Sexual addiction is extremely complicated. It’s a powerful addiction and one that’s hard to break. To understand what’s caused it in your partner or spouse, it takes a lot of deep digging with a therapist.

Some underlying issues which have likely played a role include:

1. There’s a significant change in the brain over time. Hence, their neurotransmitters now compel them to engage in the destructive, compulsive addicted behaviors.

2. They had formed a dysfunctional attachment style – first with their parents, and then with their spouse. This caused them to detach and pull back (unconsciously) from relational connection and intimacy.

3. The shame that they experience – because of the addiction – pulls them back into cycle, as they seek for some relief.

4. Unaddressed emotional pain, and sometimes PTSD, has created a drive towards self-sufficiency and a drive to isolate, and put up walls.

As the partner or spouse, it is absolutely crucial you understand your role in their and your recovery.

So, here are some important things you should know.

1. If you feel disconnected in your relationship, there’s a very good chance that your suspicions are real. Don’t ignore or downplay them. It is likely they’re red flags. Your partner might even be gaslighting you. In fact, there are very few addicts who volunteer the truth; they need to be discovered to admit what they have done.

2. It isn’t about you and isn’t your fault. This is easier to accept intellectually than it is to believe on an emotional level. After all, they “chose” us for specific reasons – so if they’re choosing someone else it means we’re lacking in some way. Right? Wrong!

In almost all situations this behaviour began long ago, before you were a couple, and had formed a life together. This is really a connection and an intimacy issue. It isn’t about you – not in any way at all. Don’t take the blame for his choices. Don’t let this define your value. Also, he can only recover if sees things properly, and he willingly accepts full responsibility.

3. We can’t manipulate our partner into choosing faithfulness. There are always ways around accountability devices. And spying or reminding him of how he needs to change will only increase your own anxiety levels. He has to want this for himself. And that’s a scary place to be. But you can take care of yourself – and you can also require that he gets professional help, and is accountable to someone.

4. Treat your feelings with absolute respect. Don’t feel guilty. Don’t downplay them. Don’t ignore them. Don’t repress them. For you owe it to yourself to experience all the pain … and to process all the feelings that the trauma has unleashed. It’s going to be a long, hard slog, and there’s no way to escape it. But self respect begins by honouring all that you have suffered. You’ll also need support, and your story must be heard.

5. Remember you are powerful – though at times you might feel broken. You have the power to enforce boundaries. You can choose to stay or go. And you can also take your time – as you think through all your options. Don’t bow to any pressure. At this moment, you come first.

Let’s Talk About Sex

cheating isn't an accident

Betrayal leads to trauma, and betrayal shatters trust.

And … after the explosion, when the shock wave has moved on, the radioactive fallout still contaminates our lives. We’re talking endless triggers, and PTSD.

And like lingering radiation, these create a serious threat. They taint and disrupt life, and they corrupt relationships.

And this radioactive fallout … it takes ages to disperse.

One area that’s affected – but less openly discussed – is how we view and feel about our sex life afterwards. Betrayal complicates this in so many different ways. For example

  • Usually, sex is viewed as special to our relationship. It’s deeply intimate and meant to represent our love. It’s not an itch you scratch. It’s sacred, and it’s meaningful.
  • It’s meant to be exclusive. A commitment you both made.. You’re not just one of many. It’s only you and him. Also, you likely weren’t told that the parameters had changed.
  • Your sex life should be private. We don’t take off our clothes for anyone who asks us, or wants to be aroused. It’s meant “for your eyes only” – at least that’s what we thought
  • The kinds of things you do and say to turn each other on, to make you each feel wanted, desirable and loved feel sordid, trite and empty once they’ve been shared around.
  • Sex feels like a performance, commodity or act … if he moves on to others because he wants a change. You feel used and discarded – like something he’s outgrown.

Has sex now changed forever? Can we feel desirable? Can we ‘make love’ together, or is just some act? Can sex feel truly special? Can we believe today that sex is an expression of what we mean to him?

Are We There Yet?

trauma shatters our most basic assumptions

One of the awful things about betrayal trauma is it feels like the symptoms just never go away.

They plague you in the night-time and they interrupt your sleep.

Your heart is pounding loudly and you find it hard to breathe.

The sweat is pouring off you and you’re shaking like a leaf.

Your mind and thoughts are screaming – God, I need to find relief.

And that’s just the night terrors.

Days are filled with landmines too.

Who knows what triggers wait us.

There’ll be something, that’s for sure.

Yes, there’s breathing exercises, and some talking therapy.

And there’s always meditation – if you’re able to do that.

At times these can be useful. But recovery is slow.

You’re living in a time warp.

It’s a long and torturous road.