Discovering betrayal in your relationship plunges you into unprecedented stress and distress. For most betrayed partners, this high level of stress continues for several months as the tasks of understanding what has happened, finding help and support, and beginning the recovery process unfolds.
For many, though, the stress and distress of betrayal span not just months but years. Typically, these are the partners who have been living with rounds of repeated betrayals and discoveries. Each time, there are promises that the behavior has stopped and attempts to repair and move forward. But then more betrayal is discovered a few weeks or months later. These partners have often been in high-conflict relationships for years, and living with high levels of stress, distress, and chaos have become normal.
This is a pattern that I know all too well from my own relationship with a sexually addicted spouse. When I entered recovery and separated from my spouse, things began to radically change for me. After a few months, I suddenly entered a stage in my healing that was deeply uncomfortable. I began to feel unsettled, bored, flat. I had a gnawing, craving, itch that can’t be scratched feeling. I felt like I was crawling out of my skin and needed something to take the edge off my discomfort. I didn’t understand what was happening or why I suddenly felt so intensely bored and uncomfortable.
I went to my therapist and told her how miserable and bored and itchy and restless and flat I felt. My therapist looked at me with great kindness and told me that I was going to need to hold on and ride out what was happening. This was not what I wanted to hear. I wanted relief. But she explained to me that I was experiencing a type of withdrawal from the chaos and crisis that I had been living in. My brain and body were trying to adjust to life without a constant flow of adrenaline and cortisol because I had been living in a state of extreme anxiety, fear, and chaos for years. My brain and body had gotten used to it, and now I needed to adapt.
During my marriage I had panic attacks, broke out in hives, gained weight, had insomnia, and dealt with chronic anxiety. At the same time, I went to work, successfully moved along in my career, socialized, attended church, worked out, played, and lived my life. I had my own version of compartmentalized living going on where I was functioning externally while struggling internally with constant crisis and chaos.
As my therapist and I discussed the adjustment that my brain and body needed to make so I could live and enjoy life in a calm, safe, grounded way, I realized that it wasn’t just my marital years that I needed to deal with. I had grown up living with chronic stress and anxiety in my family of origin. Dynamics in my family created an anxious, fearful state inside me from a very young age. One of the family stories told about me is the way that I broke my highchair as a toddler by banging my head against the back of it. So I had spent my life moving my body – kicking my legs back and forth, twitching my foot, bouncing my knee up and down – trying to give the anxiety I carried in my body an outlet. When I got married and started dealing with the chaos of sexual addiction, it felt like a pretty smooth transition emotionally. I went from the anxiety in my family of origin to the anxiety of my marriage.
When I separated from my spouse and entered recovery, it was the first time in my life when I wasn’t living with a huge amount of relational chaos, pain, and crisis. The constant flow of adrenaline and cortisol through my body stopped, and that left my brain scrambling to regulate itself in a new way.
For me, this flat, itchy, bored, restless feeling went on for about three months as my body and brain adjusted to a new normal. Until I entered this experience of withdrawal, I had no idea that my brain and body had become physically addicted to the chemical rush in my brain that resulted from living in constant stress, distress, and chaos.
Many betrayed partners are used to living in the same type of crisis, stress, and anxiety that I am describing here. So used to it, in fact, that when they first come into counseling they often don’t realize that their life is unmanageable and the way they are living is not normal. I hear stories of stress and chaos on a regular basis that would drive most people into the ground. And yet, just like an addict develops tolerance for alcohol, drugs, or sex, betrayed partners can develop a tolerance for pain, anxiety, and chaos.
Recovery refers to this as a state of unmanageability. Recovery is about learning to move out of the unmanageability and to live life without the stress, crisis, and chaos that betrayal trauma creates. Doing this requires intentionality. You have to become aware of how you have adapted to living in intensity and crisis. You need people around you who can help you see when you move back toward it. You need support as you go through the process of your brain and body adjusting to the lack of adrenaline and cortisol that happens when you begin to live life in serenity and safety.
I remember a conversation I had with one of my good friends who has over 30 years of recovery from alcohol, cocaine, and love addiction. She was telling me about someone in her 12-step group and she said, “The chaos is over for her.” I was so struck by that sentence. What a powerful picture of recovery. The chaos is over. That is when you know your recovery is really gaining ground and growing depth. That is when you begin to live in the new normal of serenity and safety.