I believe that sexual betrayal of the partners of sex addicts has a two-fold impact. It is both a trauma and a serious loss. The trauma that accompanies the discovery of sex addiction shakes the spouse or partner to the core.
It calls into question everything they thought about their relationship. It undermines their sense of self and destroys basic trust.
Resolving betrayal trauma means gradually rebuilding your sense of reality and your sense of self. In order to do this partners need permission to get a great deal of outside support, nurturance, care and often professional treatment from the time of the initial shock.
According to the Institute for Sexual Health partners often exhibit symptoms of PTSD and rape trauma such as:
“…psycho-biological alterations, re-experiencing of the trauma, social and emotional constriction, constant triggering and reactivity, significant anxiety, emotional arousal and labiality, hyper-vigilance, dissociative symptoms, and sexual trauma symptoms similar to sexual rape…”
Healing from Trauma and Grieving the loss
Treating partners as trauma victims is totally appropriate and will aid in their recovery and empowerment. Along side this, I also observe in partners elements of bereavement and grief. Betrayal trauma involves a grave loss; a loss that is sometimes as powerful as a death.
You had a concept of your partner and your relationship that has vanished. Furthermore, you have lived with the debilitating stress of deception, manipulation and alienation that usually characterize the addict’s behavior in relationship. A kind of chronic loss due to chronic abandonment.
If you experience sexual betrayal, you have experienced not only acute and chronic trauma but also the loss of the relationship you had hoped for.
This grief is not about the loss a person or a relationship but an idea, of what that person or relationship was like. People in this situation are subject to prolonged symptoms of bereavement because, unlike with a death, there is no finality.
Living through this kind of open-ended loss is similar, I believe, to the process that families go through when they discover a disorder such as Autism in a child or experience the disappearance of a loved one.
The relative, or betrayed spouse, lives daily with the fact of what has been taken away from them. They face the more difficult task of coming to acceptance of the loss of a wish, something they were counting on in their future.
Stages in partner grief
I believe that part of healing from the trauma of betrayal is coming to acceptance of the fact that something unthinkable happened that was and is beyond your control. Acceptance of a loss is a grieving process. It never goes in a perfectly straight line and no two people do grief the same way.
Denial. Once the truth about all the sex addict’s past behavior has come out, there is no longer much room for denial of the facts. Denial can creep in if the partner chooses to think that the addict’s behavior was just a fluke, something that can be easily fixed and that the relationship will soon go back to the way it was.
Bargaining. Partners may latch onto the idea that they are to blame for the addiction, although they never are, as a way to feel some control. Learning about sex addiction and recovery is a good thing but not if the partner feels that they must work harder and harder in order to fix things.
Anger. The partner in this stage of grief is expressing the natural reaction to having been violated. Expressing anger toward the addict is natural and a predictable response. But too much revisiting of the traumatic events can re-traumatize the partner.
Depression. The loss in a situation of sexual betrayal is a real loss. It is a loss of a feeling of safety and innocence. And seeing that the situation can’t be readily transformed can bring up real sorrow and despondency.
Acceptance. Acceptance is what leads to true healing and empowerment. It allows the spouse or partner to move into a new phase of their life with confidence. It means accepting yourself and your partner for what you are, usually stronger and healthier than you were prior to recovery.
I believe partners of sex addicts in recovery are working through a process of trauma and grief resolution which always leads to growth and fulfillment in the future.