Early on in the treatment of sex addiction, some psychologists began documenting that partners of sex addicts acted erratic, or “out-of -control”. They saw that partners were controlling, and angry. They automatically assumed these wives needed intervention and they were partially to blame for the addicts behavior. These psychologists have had a severe LACK of EMPATHY. Unfortunately, I have sat in the office of one of these psychologists, I felt misunderstood, criticized, belittled and alone.
I will argue that the reason for the “erratic” behavior, the control and the anger is because we no longer have a sense of warmth, joy, trust, fulfillment and safety.. AND when that intimate attachment can no longer be counted on … the relationship becomes a source of DANGER. AKA: relational trauma, and here’s what I know about prolonged trauma: It causes PTSD, and PTSD symptoms can sure look a lot like “erratic” behavior. Does that mean I’m automatically a co-addict? or a co-dependent? When you are in DANGER the brain will find very creative ways to seek safety and avoid pain.
In our fear, our Post Traumatic Stress symptoms can intensify and we may experience:
- reliving the event resulting in helplessness and horror
- avoidance of all people, places, things, associated with the trauma
- increased hyper vigilance (controlling everything in your environment because you don’t want anything bad to happen again, or trouble falling/staying asleep)
- restricted concentration at work or unable to function in other areas of your life
For some of us – repeated attachment injuries have been going on for decades. I lived with my husband’s sexual addiction for 12 years. When betrayal becomes a recurring pattern, he acts out again or discloses new information yearly – your healing will be repeatedly interrupted. The new scab that has been working to heal the wound is ripped open once more and blood comes gushing out all over again. This means DANGER has returned to your relationship, the pain of your trauma will intensify and the PTSD becomes chronic. This can result in changes to personality, and long term physical health. Sister, if this is you – I know exactly how you feel. It is imperative for us to be met with empathy, validation and compassion – rather than a label of co-dependency that places the responsibility of the marriage back on you. I have heard myself and others say, “If I could just fix myself – then the marriage would be fixed.” The co-addiction/co-dependency model does not address the special circumstances and needs of partners of sex addicts. When that label is tossed in our face we are left feeling we are at fault for the addict’s behavior. In her book Moving Beyond Betrayal Tidwell Palmer states, “The co-addiction model says that partners of addicts play a role in the addiction cycle by refusing to acknowledge that the addict has a problem (denial), by enabling the addict’s behaviors.” My dear sister, that is NOT you. You are here now, becoming educated and empowered.
YOU are SEEKING SAFETY where there has been no safety, for a very long time. If your partner is unrepentant and not engaging in his FULL recovery program, then he is UNABLE to give you any of the safety you desire. If you are reading this blog, I commend you because you are doing what you can to meet your own needs and become safe and empowered.
Marsha Means and Barbara Steffens say this about their work with betrayal trauma:
Back in the day, when there were no resources for partners of sex addicts -counselors and psychologists relied on the 12-step model for treatment for the addict, just like they would for Alcoholic’s Anonymous or Gambler’s Anonymous; the 12-step program can be effective and some sex addicts have found freedom by incorporating this into their recovery plan. However, as a by-product they also adopted the 12- steps philosophy for the partners, labeling them as a co-addict. Palmer describes the history of this process in her book as; “throwing partners out into the world with no resources, no empathy, no support – essentially the betrayed partner was on her own or simply treated with Al-Anon.” I have personally read the Al-Anon book and I have found it very helpful in DETACHING – however it does not take into account the unique needs of a partner experiencing betrayal trauma and abuse.
When it comes to abuse inside a relationship with a sex addict, the co-dependent label doesn’t work for us partners, because the victim is far from enabling abuse, often times – the victim isn’t even aware that the abuse is happening. In addition, even when I did try to create consequences to help promote change in the abuser/addict – he manipulated and wiggled his way out of consequences over and over no matter what I did.
“Codependency is a self-focused way of life in which a person is blind to his or her true self- continually reacts to others being controlled by and seeking to control their behavior, attitudes and/or opinions, resulting in spiritual sterility, loss of authenticity and absence of intimacy.” -Nancy Groom
In her book, Reclaiming a Lost Soul Peg Roberts offers some insight on characteristics of codependency (I would make the case that these are also a response to trauma and we may mirror these characteristics out of survival)
- Neglect of Self
- Isolated or Socially Stunted
- Enmeshed Relationships
- Poor Coping Skills (lack of emotional capacity due to past trauma)
- Fear of abandonment
- Fear of conflict
- Unaware of Emotions/Emotions out of control
I want to offer yet ANOTHER perspective – it is the more painful reality, as if we could get anymore painful, I know…
Oftentimes, we genuinely believe it could be our responsibility because the addict/abuser has told us this so many times – in very covert, manipulative ways.
The painful reality is that for some of us – we have been targeted for our strength, empathy, compassion and health. We were consumed and devoured by men who saw what we had, and in the process of taking it from us – they have destroyed our sense of self. Add to that the layered destructive behaviors that accompany addiction and it’s not surprising that us women act “erratically” – we have been trained and groomed by the addict to question our reality. We MUST consider thatwe have actually been TRAINED to look outside ourselves for our thoughts because our intuition has been so damaged! “Codependent-like” behavior is our trauma response. It is our maladaptive way to cope. The deck was stacked against us. An unrepentant addict’s number one goal is to avoid any setting, topic or conversation that would lead to exposing his addiction. His top priority is to protect his addiction at ALL costs – including you. Tidwell Palmer states, “Addictive thinking is fundamentally DISTORTED, CONTRADICTORY and ILLOGICAL… as tempting as it is to get inside [his head] -you will [only] gain clarity, safety and serenity by rebuilding trust in your OWN perceptions.”
As we are repeatedly lied to and deceived we begin to feel crazy. We might even be labeled by the addict as paranoid or irrational. My ex-husband went so far as to tell me that “he wished there was a pill I could take to fix my crazy”. Was I crazy or was I seeking TRUTH? Sadly, many of us have experienced decades of deception, psychological manipulation, covert abuse, physical and sexual abuse. When we live in this EXTREMELY dangerous and toxic environment our PTSD often presents like this:
- Panic attacks (when your intuition is screaming at you and you know the other shoe is about to drop with another discovery or disclosure)
- Loss of sense of safety (living with triggers every day like when he shuts down emotionally, gets aggressive, anger outbursts, lies, forgets to tell you things, cold, distant, kids’ behavior that you have less emotional capacity to address because your mind is preoccupied with the relational trauma, ect)
- Obsessive thoughts
It is almost impossible to deny that our behavior is fueled by a lack of safety and post traumatic stress that has been sitting untreated for years. To paint the picture, I have taken a few “characteristics of codependency” and added the TRAUMA RESPONSE which MIRRORS the exact same characteristic. Let’s consider…
- Neglect of Self and Avoidant (PTSD symptom: Trauma Abstinence, as a result of prolonged trauma women tend to deprive themselves of things that are wanted, needed or deserved. We have a difficult time asking for help in meeting our needs. Trauma Aversion (avoidance) helps us to reduce fear and gives us a false sense of control. This could present as trouble with weight gain/loss and binge-purge cycles with chosen substance (food, Netflix, exercise, drugs, alcohol, fantasy, ect.) (Ref. Patrick Carnes)
As you consider that list keep this quote in mind from Shannon Thomas, “Toxic environments bring out poor behaviors in even the most patient of individuals.” As betrayal trauma survivors, who seek safety, we find ourselves often behaving in ways that don’t fit our normal personalities. Most of us would describe ourselves pre-abuse as having a “generally happy, loving, positive outlook” type of people. We have been deceived and deeply wounded – even the most compassionate and kind woman- will lose her cool upon losing her most intimate attachment.
You are not alone.
Resources used for today’s blog: The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, Susan M. Johnson. Healing from Hidden Abuse, Shannon Thomas. Your Sexually Addicted Spouse, Means and Steffens. From Bondage to Bonding, Nancy Groom. “Co-addict or Truama Survivor” and “Moving Beyond Betrayal” by Vicki Tidwell Palmer