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Risk Factors in Recovery From Sexual Betrayal

recovering coupleAt the recent CSAT convention in February the emphasis was on partners and couples recovering from the posttraumatic stress of sex addiction. The numerous lectures covered a wide range of topics, but several things stood out to me.

What follows are some snippets I gleaned which are by no means meant to address betrayal trauma as a whole or the many issues involved in disclosure, assessment and treatment.   Rather they are suggestions regarding some of the relevant risk factors and healing strategies.

Factors that increase the traumatic stress

  • Deception is an essential factor in sexual betrayal. Without secrecy there is not likely to be the same level of sexual trauma. There is of course an experience of stress and betrayal, even when the of infidelities or other sexual betrayals are out in the open. And it is certainly a stressful and degrading betrayal to live with someone who is openly hooked on porn or flirting. Add to that the fact that sex addicts may try to manipulate their partner’s reality so as to make the partner feel they are being unreasonable or are to blame. But the history of lying and leading a double life seems to take the betrayal to another level.
  • Emotional isolation appears to be a significant risk factor in dealing with acute stress, and it surely plays a role in worsening the reality collapse, role destabilization boundary confusion that accompany betrayal trauma. Dr. Gabor Mate in his keynote address cited a study in which a group of ordinary women with breast lumps were evaluated prior to biopsies as to their level of stress and their level of emotional isolation. Biopsies on all of them showed that isolation or stress individually did not increase cancer risk. But when both stress and emotional isolation were present the woman was 9 times more likely to test positive for cancer.
  • Dr. Ken Adams and his colleague Hope Ray, who run a comprehensive treatment program for partners of sex addicts in Detroit, point to attachment style and a history of prior life trauma as risk factors for some partners experiencing betrayal trauma. In my own experience in doing critical incident debriefings of assault victims I found that a prior life history of trauma was present in those who were most devastated. The literature on those suffering PTSD in the military also points in this direction. It seems that traumas build on each other and amplify the emotional reactions to subsequent traumatic events.
  • Adams and Ray also identify the temperament of the partner as a factor in the partner’s symptoms, with what they call a “sensitive temperament” as adding to the stress. By sensitive temperament they mean those who by nature are more vulnerable to emotional activation, more prone to emotional dysregulation, and may take longer to recover from events producing emotions like anger and anxiety.
  • The physical consequences of prolonged stress are serious. It is normal for a temporary stress reaction to produce an increase in the levels of adrenaline and cortisol which help propel us to respond to an immanent danger. But if the traumatized person is often triggered, repeatedly stressed to a state of alarm over a longer period of time, then those stress hormones become hazardous. This is not unusual in the aftermath of sexual betrayal. The partner will often re-experience the acute stress reactions when certain situations arise. Gaining a level of emotional detachment can be a matter of survival. Trauma repetition deepens the trauma wound

Healing factors

  • Regaining a sense of reality and relative safety in the immediate situation almost always means finding support. It is normal for the partner to question who they are and whether they are to blame. But isolation only perpetuates the feelings of shame and role destabilization. It is usually important to disclose the general situation to close friends and trusted family members if at all possible. Alternatively or in addition, partners need the support of counselors and support groups.
  • Equally important to the regaining of the sense of self is to set appropriate boundaries. This often means taking a stand; not taking responsibility for the problem, but demanding that the addict get serious help. It is a case of: “I will live with a recovering addict but not with a practicing addict.” Boundaries may also mean that the relationship is not going to be on a “normal” footing. The partner will likely not feel “comforted” by the addict. Creating separateness and withdrawing in some ways, including sexually, are ways to set boundaries.
  • Lashing out, hyper vigilance and self doubt are common initially. But over time partners need to become aware of behaviors leading to “self-betrayal”. This means coping mechanisms that derail the partner’s vision for his or her own life. Addiction therapists who work with partners have a tool box of techniques for reducing anxiety when it is triggered and regaining a sense of competency and self compassion.
  • The partner therapists who spoke at the conference describe the search for safety as evolving over time. In the beginning the partner tends to see the addict as “guilty until proven innocent”. Gradually hyper-vigilance gives way to an attitude of “probable cause” as a reason for the partner to search for information. They stressed that appropriate boundaries and conditions allow the partner to stop “dancing with the addiction”, which means “not entrusting your well-being to the presence or absence of the addictive behavior.” This requires accepting that there is no absolute safety. Gradually goals become more realistic and the worth of the relationship is not defined by what it once was or what it is supposed to become.
  • Lastly there is the issue of grief. Dr. Pat Love, another of the keynote speakers said “grieving is correlated with the ability to trust.” For many partners this means grieving for a departed relationship; accepting that the past was a nice fantasy. And we know that it is often harder to grieve the loss of a fantasy than a reality. I believe that such grief is essential to a recovering relationship. Failing to grieve and accept the loss of what was never real to begin with perpetuates resentment. Ultimately grief must replace grievance in order to move forward.

Find Dr. Hatch on Facebook at Sex Addictions Counseling or Twitter @SAResource and at www.sexaddictionscounseling.com

Risk Factors in Recovery From Sexual Betrayal


Linda Hatch, PhD

Linda Hatch is a psychologist and certified sex addiction therapist specializing in the treatment of sex addicts and the partners and families of sex addicts. Linda also blogs on her own website at Sexaddictionscounseling.com


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APA Reference
Hatch, L. (2015). Risk Factors in Recovery From Sexual Betrayal. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 16, 2019, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/sex-addiction/2015/04/risk-factors-in-recovery-from-sexual-betrayal/

 

Last updated: 12 Apr 2015
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