One of the biggest things to expect as you begin to recover from betrayal trauma is that your healing will happen as a process. By definition, processes unfold over time. This means that your individual healing and, potentially, the repair of your relationship are going to happen step by step, moment-by-moment rather than very quickly as you might hope.
The healing process is not fast and cannot be rushed. It takes time to understand traumatic events and experiences and integrate them into the narrative of your life. You must grapple with loss. You must wrap your mind around the altered landscape of your life. You must feel your feelings and work through difficult and challenging emotions. You must connect to your longings and imagine a new future, and then you must do the hard work of building that future. This all takes time.
If you are anything like me when I started my recovery process, you will not like the idea that getting out of your painful post-betrayal reality is going to take time. I wanted answers now! I did not have time to deal with a processor to walk a pathor take a breath. I was in intolerable pain and I needed it to end this freaking minute thank you very much. Anyone who suggested that I needed to slow down and let the process unfold was not welcome at my table. I wanted the fast movers, quick thinkers, and direct talkers to show me the short-cut to making the pain stop and getting my topsy-turvy world right-side-up again. Today.
When I was in this place, I had certain thinking patterns and behaviors that I employed to try to make things go faster and get better quicker. Below are some of the things I thought and tried. See if you recognize any of these in yourself.
My betrayal experience was centered around being married to a sex addict. However, for a long time I did not understand that I was dealing with addiction. And even when I finally let that word in and started to connect the idea of addiction with my situation, I did not really understand what it meant. I had been taught (very erroneously) that to change a behavior you just need to decide to stop doing it. Any understanding of the ways in which behaviors can function unconsciously to benefit us and therefore be deeply entrenched and challenging to change was not something I knew about. And addiction… behavior that is driven by deep unconscious feelings and a neurochemical process in the brain? I had no idea about any of that.
So, for a long time I believed that my husband needed to decide to stop his behaviors. When he did not stop the behaviors, what that meant to me was that he didn’t love me enough to stop or that he was an incredibly cruel person who hurt other people willingly. I did not understand that without a surround-sound series of interventions and treatment he was not going to be able to stop the behaviors. I truly thought that he was in charge of his addiction. I did not understand that his addiction was in charge of him.
Every partner of a sex addict that I’ve ever worked with has had to go through a similarly steep learning curve about addiction. Most partners who acknowledge that their spouse is dealing with an addiction will tell you that they know what that means. But the reality is that learning about addiction is like taking apart an artichoke. Layer by layer you deepen your knowledge and understanding of what it truly means to be addicted and to recover.
Part of the reason I denied the existence of addiction in my relationship for so long and believed my spouse could just ‘stop it’ was that I wanted the solution to the problem to be easier than it was. I wanted relief to come sooner and change to happen faster. Which leads us to another thing I tried…
The Fantasy Island Honeymoon
When you are trying to fix the problem as quickly as possible and regain a sense of safety in the relationship, you can sometimes move toward your partner with a great deal of emotional and sexual intensity. Reconnecting with one another closes the relational and emotional gap created by the cheating. It can provide a sense of reassurance that you are still bonded with one another, still love one another, and still want one another despite what has happened.
I have had many betrayed partners tell me that after discovery of the cheating, they and their partner experienced a new level of connection and intimacy that they had not previously known. They talked for hours, their significant other was emotionally plugged in and engaged in a new way. There was romance and hot sex as the couple entered an intensity bubble, seeking to reassure each other that their relationship was still viable.
I like to call this the Fantasy Island honeymoon stage. During this stage, betrayed partners can quickly forgive the cheater in an effort to put the past behind them and move forward together. And why not? Suddenly they have the partner they have always wanted, and the future seems hopeful.
I rarely see couples who are in this stage in my counseling office. Things are going too well. There is a sense that they are working through things and they are going to be able to put all the hurt and pain behind them and move on. The problem has been conquered, they have gotten through it together, so they do not need therapy.
When I do see couples in my office is when this stage ends. And it does inevitably end. The Fantasy Island honeymoon is just not sustainable. In some ways, it is not even real. The changes that occur in the relationship during this stage are crisis and fear driven. The couple is coming together seeking reassurance that the cheating is not going to tear them apart for good. Their acute need for solace, comfort, relief, and reassurance lights a bonfire of intensity that cannot be sustained. Reality eventually creeps into the picture.
There is nothing wrong with this. It is a normal response to finding that your relationship has been pushed to the brink of possible ruin. However, as I said before, it is not sustainable. Eventually, things are going to calm down, the intensity is going to wane, and the fears and doubts that the intensity covered up or distracted you from are going to resurface. This is when a little voice in the back of your head that (for a time) seemed very faint and far away gets closer and louder. Questions like, “How do I know he won’t hurt me like that again?” “What actually caused him to cheat?” “How can I trust him again?” and “How can he just stop if he is an addict?” rise to the surface of your mind and present themselves for consideration.
The Fantasy Island honeymoon stage can last different amounts of time for different people. For some couples it lasts only a few weeks; for others, it might last for months. But for all couples, the honeymoon eventually ends because the pain of betrayal has not been adequately addressed. Eventually, reality sets in and the betrayed partner realizes that everything is not fixed and much more is needed to keep moving forward in the relationship.
Getting in the Way of Real Help
A couple came for counseling recently looking for help with the husband’s sexual addiction. The wife had discovered an extensive history of acting out behavior including porn, cruising, anonymous sex with men, and affairs with women.
They came in, they were assessed, and they began the recovery process. However, as the addicted husband started to settle in and get serious about his addiction and recovery, the wife began telling him that he needed to stop therapy. He was facing the reality of an out-of-control problem and was starting to put in place for himself the interventions and supports recommended by his therapist to help him arrest his behaviors and change his life. But the wife wanted a quicker fix. She, like me at the beginning of my healing journey, did not want a process that took time and included uncertainty. She wanted everything to get better now, even if that meant denying the reality of the addiction. So she began a campaign to have her husband quit therapy. And guess what? He did.
I don’t know what has happened to them. However, I suspect that her desire for the pain and anxiety to end will actually cause even deeper loss and pain in the long run. She and her addicted husband may have to cycle through more rounds of betrayal before she really understands and accepts that his problem is not a quick fix issue and she needs to open herself to the slower but more meaningful process of recovery.
These are some of the ways that you may find yourself trying to avoid the process that true healing entails. As you can see, trying to find a short-cut only takes you down multiple dead ends that waste time and energy. This, in my experience, is a paradox of recovery: going slower and accepting that recovery is a process is actually the faster route to healing. We will talk about this idea in-depth in next week’s post.