Have you seen this highly popular video of the man pushing his girlfriend off a cliff? The video begins with a woman preparing herself mentally for her ominous cliff jump, then repeatedly deciding not to take the plunge. It is excruciating watching her, especially when her boyfriend enters the screen. He attempts to reassure her with the words “I’m not going to push you”. Moments later, he shoves her off the ledge. She falls, screaming down into the ravine. As the rope swings her across the valley, her voice echoes “I’m breaking up with you!”
Let me ask you: If you were the girlfriend in this scenario, would you be afraid of getting near that cliff again? Might you have “trust issues” after an experience like this? Would you be less likely to believe your boyfriend next time he promises “I won’t push you”?
This is similar to the experience of partners of sexual addicts. That frightening “push” is the moment of discovery or disclosure. When partners learn about their loved one acting out sexually, it can feel like they’re being pushed off a cliff. It is a devastating betrayal they didn’t see coming.
Is that hard to believe? If the addict “only” looks at pornography (or worse), can their partner really experience it as a “trauma”? As a therapist who works with partners, I can attest to the validity of this assertion. In fact, what we know is that the kind of “relational trauma” partners experience is comparable in many ways to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
In an interview with Barbara Steffens, PhD, LPCC, author of Your Sexually Addicted Spouse: How Partners Can Cope & Heal, she called this experience of betrayal an “assault” and a “shattering of trust”. She shared that the “typical” symptoms of relational trauma that partners experience include: shock, denial/disbelief, fear/terror, feeling helpless, feeling unsafe (emotionally & physically), physiological symptoms (like nausea), difficulty focusing, confusion and foggy thinking, dissociation, memory loss, intrusive thoughts/memories, nightmares, hyper-vigilance (heightened anxiety & awareness), and overreacting to triggers (click here for the full interview).
Additionally, the LifeSTAR workbook called Creating Safety When Trust Has Been Betrayed explains how “this type of trauma shatters the internal world of the partner of an addict. They will naturally ask, “Who can I trust? Who will be there for me now?” Their identity, security, and stability are destroyed. All aspects of life are affected. Their ability to function in their employment, household duties, and parenting is disrupted. Their sense of self is altered. Often their spirituality is affected as well.”
These are serious symptoms. Yes, the relational trauma that partners of sex addicts experience is much like getting pushed off a cliff. Except, unlike in the video, partners are not strapped safely in with ropes and harnesses. And, sadly, these traumas often recur over and over again, leaving partners questioning reality and unable to trust the addict in their life.
The irony of the experience filmed up on that canyon ridge, is that after the girlfriend’s shocking fall, she climbed back to her boyfriend and revoked her statement that she was breaking up with him. Needless to say, many partners trust too quickly, only to find themselves free-falling again. In reality, the journey back to trust is often a long one and will be impossible unless the addict seeks help, which will likely include treatment.
Even if the addict does experience healing, it is essential for both parties to understand that this does not erase the partner’s pain. This is why we strongly encourage partners to get the help they need as well. When a partner is “pushed” and injured, it doesn’t make sense for only the person who pushed them to get help. The wounded must be tended to. Those injuries are beyond skin-deep. Those are soul wounds.
There is help available for partners in many forms. I recommend partners educate themselves (see our Partner Resources section) and find a supportive group (see Steffens interview to learn about the different types of groups for partners – hint, some of them are not helpful). In the article I wrote for the XXXChurch website called “Five Things You MUST Do If Your Spouse Is Hooked On Porn“, I emphasized the importance of partners “finding a group that sees the [partner’s] experience as “trauma”, not simply as a co-addiction or co-dependency issue. In our groups for partners, we view the partner’s experience primarily through the trauma lens.
It is my hope that partners who are pushed into the overwhelming circumstances of sexual betrayal will find the healing they need, rather than simply encouraging the addict in their life to get “fixed”. There is hope and healing for both partners.
For information about our LifeSTAR groups for Partners call us at (559) 323-8484.
Click here to see if a LifeSTAR program is in your area.
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