Early Stages of Recovery
The Hurting Spouse
This article appeared in our June, 2015 newsletter . It is being posted here for online reading.
“Betrayal trauma shakes the foundations of our beliefs about our safety in our marriages and it dissolves our assumptions about trusting our spouses” (107)[i].
The early stage of recovery for a couple whose marriage has been affected by someone struggling with sexual brokenness is one of the most intense, raw, and fragile stages. A spouse often feels like her whole world has been turned upside down or shattered. The traumatic experience of finding out a spouse is struggling with sexual addiction and has been keeping secrets can cause a spouse to feel shocked or unable to accept what is really happening. The searing pain of discovery for a spouse may send them into a tail spin of intense emotions, fears, and feelings of betrayal. On the other hand, a spouse may also begin to feel numb and disconnected. In the initial “finding out phase,” it feels like the darkness is engulfing you and your sense of safety could be lost forever. Recovery requires a lot of hard work and a ton of grace. Although it is not simple, God promises to not leave us in darkness (Isaiah 42:16).
“And I will lead the blind
in a way that they do not know,
in paths that they have not known
I will guide them.
I will turn the darkness before them into light,
the rough places into level ground.
These are the things I do,
and I do not forsake them.”
Recovery for the couple is never a linear path. There are many ups and downs and circling back in the process. Everyone heals at their own pace, it is painful and takes time. Recovery can also be different for spouses depending on if their husband is still acting out. Everyone’s story is different, however, there are some general principles that can help a spouse early in her journey.
1. Find Support and Connection Immediately – for both husband and wife
• Often we want to hide the problem, hide the hurt and keep it all private. Or we have been hurt deeply by friends, family, clergy by receiving unhelpful advice or superficial support.
• God wants us to experience His healing and to know Him in the context of real and authentic relationships with others. Nate Larkin said, “Private solutions are contrary to God’s purpose. He doesn’t reinforce isolation. God won’t help us be morally self-sufficient.”[ii]
• Support for both husband and wife that allows you to feel heard, validated, and understood.
• Husbands can support their wives in tangible ways like watching the kids, doing laundry, etc.
• Couples counseling – Crisis counseling helps the couple decide on a plan for recovery, helps couples talk through difficult conversations, and even learn how and when to talk about recovery (ex. not late at night). This is not traditional couples counseling. Traditional couples counseling can be possible much later in the process.
2. Learn about Trauma Symptoms and a bit about Sexual Addiction
• As couples are ready, talk to each other about what they are learning.
• Understand Relational Trauma – As a result of betrayal within the marriage, a wife often experiences intense emotions. This high stress time highjacks the brain and puts us into survival mode. Triggers can be both internal (memories, past trauma) or external (TV, billboards, places in the house, situations, etc). The roller coaster that you are feeling is normal, you are not losing your mind. Nothing can prepare you for trauma, no matter how great one’s childhood, education or training is.
• Understand sexual addiction – Spouses need to understand they didn’t cause and can’t change their partner’s sexual addiction.
3. Avoid “Forced Forgiveness”. Explore the differences between Forgiveness, Trust, and Reconciliation[iii]
• Incremental – trust grows with visible behaviors, not mere words. It takes time.
• Extend trust by testing the waters — choosing to trust a little bit at a time. It is not all or nothing.
• Trust where you can — by asking what do I know to be true, what do I trust? Once husband can show even more, then trust can grow in time.
• Husband’s responsibility to demonstrate trustworthy behaviors
– Consistency – the wife will be drawn to trust when her husband behaves in a trustworthy way.
– No surprises — if there is a change in routine, schedule, etc the partner needs to be alerted before, not afterwards. Giving information freely and before it happens.
– Willing to do what it takes/take responsibility — does not put pressure on the wife to trust too quickly. Give spouse space and time to heal.
• Is not acting like it never happened, condoning it, or excusing it.
• Forgiveness is not trust. — Forgiveness means, I’m not holding this against you and seeking revenge.
• People can forgive AND walk away from the relationship, people can forgive and not trust anything the other person says.
• Forgiveness is not reconciliation — the relationship does not have to be intact.
• Forgiveness is for self, as the offended partner. It may be a gift to the offender, but it is for the offended to let go.
• It’s a process and a choice, they have to know what they are forgiving, they have to grieve what they have lost in order to forgive.
• “An active commitment to the restoration of love and trustworthiness by both injured party and transgressor so that their relationship may be transformed” (237)[iv]
• Reconciliation is a two sided process. Both parties must do the hard work. They both have to want it. There is a time in the process that both are not sure that they want reconciliation. But being at least open to the idea can start the process.
• Reconciliation takes forgiveness (extending forgiveness)
• Reconciliation requires restoration
• Restoration requires the offended to risk — risk trusting again and building the relationship. What have they noticed in the recovery process that lets them know there is something to stand on to trust? It is the offender’s responsibility to do what it takes to show they are trustworthy.
• Asking a partner to risk to soon can be damaging if there are not things to look to.
• Restoration requires the offender to seek to compensate for the offense. The offender takes responsibility for actions, seeks forgiveness and is willing to work on restoration.
• Reconciliation is a re-birth of a relationship. It’s a new thing. Dream and envision what you want this NEW relationship to look like. What are the essentials you want to make sure are there?
• Offender has to take the first step, the offended party then needs to be open to the idea of reconciliation.
• If it happens too fast, we should be worried.
4. Make a “Stabilization Plan”-
• Think about, “What do you need to feel safe with your husband?”
• Husbands can begin rebuilding trust by respecting and supporting this safety plan. He can work to avoid behaviors that cause his wife to re-experience feelings related to betrayal.
• Polygraph test – Sometimes couples choose to use a polygraph test before or after full disclosure to add another layer of assurance that there are no more secrets being withheld.
• STD testing – As hard as this is for a spouse, it is at times necessary for your own safety.
• Full Disclosure: Work with an experienced therapist(s) to guide the couple through disclosure. Honesty upfront, no matter how painful, can allow a healthier recovery process to begin, instead of experiencing a lot of disclosures over a longer period of time.
• Sexual Abstinence for a time if needed
• Temporary separation – even within the same house
• Understand financial ramifications of addictive behaviors
• What is needed for change? – This can look different for each couple. This can include: recovery group for husband, group for spouse, individual counseling for both, marriage counseling, etc.
5. Set Boundaries
• Set aside time for non-recovery conversations.
• Boundaries are meant to be healthy and loving. These are meant to help re-establish safety.
• Consider if you need sexual boundaries during beginning stages of recovery.
• Communicate need for safety within your own home. That can include internet filters at home, when and how a spouse wants to be told of a relapse or slip.
6. Give Yourself Permission to Take a Break
• Give yourself permission to take a time out when your emotions are high or you get triggered by internal or external situations.
• Grieving is normal following any trauma.
• The beginning phase of recovery can be emotionally draining. Take a nap, a walk, or participate in an activity that can help you recharge in a healthy way.
7. Make Self-Care a Priority
• Seek medical help and/or medication if necessary for sleep, anxiety, or depression.
• Ask for help with daily activities or time alone.
• Speak openly and clearly: Wife needs to not hide her pain from her husband, but be able to speak clearly how his actions have affected her. This does not mean using her emotions as a weapon or not allowing herself to have anger either.
• Learn self-regulation, grounding or breathing techniques with the help of a therapist to help the spouse better navigate the overwhelming emotions that come up.
• Identify and reduce stressors: Plan ahead as a couple if family comes to visit, business travel is required, or ask for help if needed with children.
• Find healthy outlets for pleasure and joy, both individually and as a couple when ready.
• Join a spouse group or recovery group for support.
• Pursue spiritual, physical, emotional self-care
• Permission to say “no” when needed to commitments.
• Allow yourself to feel what you feel when you feel it. Acknowledge your feelings about the betrayal as they arise and accept them. Accepting your feelings is part of the grieving process and is necessary for healing.
These suggestions and ideas are written to help you think about how you can support a family member or friend during the early stage of recovery. If this is your own current story, take the risk to reach out for support through this difficult time. The whole family is affected, so do not forget about what the couple or family may need in ways of support and care. During this time, the deep fear and pain that a couple feels is intense, but God has promised to not leave us, even when it is hard to believe those promises during times like these.
[i] Steffens, Barbara. Your Sexually Addicted Spouse. Print.
[ii] Larkin, Nate. Samson and the Pirate Monks. Print.
[iii] Steffens, Barbara. “IACSAS Redeeming Sexuality and Intimacy Conference.” Crowne Plaza Hotel. Saint Louis, MO. 2 May 2015. Breakout Session.
[iv] Holeman, Virginia Todd. Reconcilable Differences: Hope and Healing for Troubled Marriage. 2004. Print.