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More About Trauma in Partners of Sex Addicts

I’m finding that the desire to continue to learn more about the trauma I caused in my marriage is fading. I feel burned out. I feel beaten and whipped. I want to take a break. I know that’s avoidance, me evading what I need to do.


If I take a break, will I even want to come back to this?


Probably not.


I know I need to continue. Not just for myself, but for my Fledglings. I want all of you to have the information and knowledge I didn’t fully understand at the beginning. I want us all to rise from the ashes.


We can only get there by walking through the fire.


Are you ready to die so you can be reborn?



To reiterate what I’ve discussed in Sex Addiction Induced Trauma: How Sex Addiction Impacts the Partners, partners of sex addicts often have symptoms that match symptoms similar to Rape Trauma Syndrome (the group of reactions – emotional, physical, and behavioral – reported by victims of attempted or completed rape) and Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (a condition that results from chronic or long-term exposure to emotional trauma over which a victim has little or no control).


Some of these symptoms include:

  1. psycho-biological alterations
  2. re-experiencing of the trauma
  3. social and emotional constriction
  4. constant triggering and reactivity
  5. significant anxiety
  6. emotional arousal and hyper-vigilance
  7. fear and panic of potential disease and contamination
  8. fear of child safety and potential of child molestation
  9. social isolation
  10. embarrassment and shame
  11. intense relational rupture and attachment injuries


Unfortunately, many partners and spouses of sex addicts continue to be harmed, confused, disorientated, and re-traumatized by the traditional co-addiction treatment model of educating partners with their “own disease” called codependency. What gets ignored is the treatment of trauma and PTSD that’s prevalent in the partner.  A partner needs to address the trauma to fully recover from the actions of the sex addict.



Your Sexually Addicted Spouse

Your Sexually Addicted Spouse is a book written by Barbara Steffens, Ph.D. and Marsha Means, MA, that explains how partners of sex addicts are not codependents, but post-traumatic stress victims.


I read this book a couple of years ago. It was the first time I had looked at the trauma piece I caused. I will admit, it was a very difficult read for me. The first two thirds of the book discusses the trauma caused from sex addiction and betrayal. As I was reading, my thoughts kept returning to, “ok, stop talking about the problem, what’s the solution?” I could claim that’s due to my 12-step meetings where we try to focus more on the solution than the problem, but that would be untrue. I was battling deep shame and guilt realizing what I had put my former spouse through.


Eventually, the final portion of the book talked about the different ways a partner healing from betrayal could get help.


“I had forgotten how hard that book was to read a few years back,” I mention to Rafiki.


“Admitting that we have severely hurt our loved ones and how deep that trauma goes is very difficult,” Rafiki agrees.


“What I just remembered was how when I found the solution all I wanted to do was tell my former spouse and show her ways that she could heal from what I did.”


“That’s understandable.” Rafiki doesn’t add anything else.


“And yet,” I continue, “she was frustrated with me because it seemed like I was telling her what to do.”


“Nobody likes to be told what to do,” Rafiki interjects. “How long did it take before you got into treatment? How long did it take you to accept that your former spouse felt you were still in your addiction even when you believed sobriety meant you weren’t? You also didn’t want to be told what to do. Looking back on when you were suggesting ways to help her, where was your energy coming from?”


“How did I know you were going to go there?” I reply. I think a minute. “My energy was the belief that if my former spouse was ‘healed’ or felt ok, then I would be ok. I mean I do want her to heal, but back then it was more to salvage our marriage and to make me feel safe.”


“So, your suggestions of healing had expectations attached to them?”


“Yes, I guess they did,” I murmur.


“That’s one of the reasons why your former spouse felt you were trying to fix her and control her. You needed her to be a carbon copy of what you wanted so you felt safe. No wonder she resisted your recommendations.”


I’m tongue-tied.


“Look, Phoenix,” Rafiki breaks the silence. “Your former spouse has access to all the same information you do. She has her own therapist, she’s part of POSA, she’s been in COSA, and she’s also done a lot of work on herself. She has the tools. And I make up, she’s farther along in her personal journey of recovery than you give her credit for. She was the strong one and let go of the unhealthy relationship the two of you had. You need to stop worrying about her because it seems to me like she’s doing well on her own.”


I’m still quiet.


“Phoenix, you can’t micromanage your former spouse’s recovery. That’s her path. She will do what’s best for her. You, need to continue looking out for what’s best for you. Stay on your current the path. It’s done well for you this year.”



Barbara Steffens Interview

While doing research I found the following two videos. It’s an interview of Barbara Steffens, co-author of Your Sexually Addicted Spouse, hosted by Laurie Hall, author of An Affair of the Mind.


I have included the videos below for both the sex addict and the partner to watch. I’ve taken notes and added my personal insights. However, I want to explain that these are what I felt were important to me or resonated with me through one sitting. I’m sure there’s a ton of information I missed or something that may ring truer for you. I recommend that when my Fledglings have chance, please take the time to listen to what Barbara has to say.


Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Spouses of Sex Addicts Part 1

-Laurie Hall Interview of Barbara Steffens



Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Spouses of Sex Addicts Part 2

-Laurie Hall Interview of Barbara Steffens



Basic Information 

The depth of a partner’s PTSD symptoms are made more profound by:

  1. the number of events of trauma (such as the number of disclosures – each time a partner hears a new disclosure, the PTSD symptoms become more complex)
  2. the more dramatic the events are
  3. how long did the partner believe the addict was one way, then found out that he or she was a different person


“I don’t even know you. Everything up to now was a lie. The awareness that my whole life wasn’t real. It felt like the life was just drained out of me. What’s almost more terrifying than finding out that your husband was a sex addict, was losing the sense of self and who we were because of the traumatic event.”


In The Sexually Addicted Spouse, 70% of the partners interviewed experienced PTSD symptoms.


Some of the PTSD symptoms include:

  1. inability to concentrate – the brain is so preoccupied with trying to assimilate what happened that partners end up losing things
  2. intrusive thoughts that just flood the brain
  3. extremely distressing feelings (the grief, anger, and rage that takes over the body)
  4. losing the sense of who they are and their history
  5. not being able to read
  6. very, very frightening and very, very intense
  7. sleep difficulties
  8. eating difficulties
  9. any kind of strong stress response is magnified
  10. startle easily


It’s difficult for partners to get proper treatment because it’s very hard and scary to verbalize what’s going on within you to someone else. You feel crazy and don’t want other people to know you feel crazy. We feel ashamed, we feel out of control, and we feel responsible. On top of that, we are told we are responsible.


It is very hard to reach out for help.


However, part of healing is getting support and talking about it. Share your story so someone else can witness your pain.


It’s very serious for partners to get help for the trauma they’re experiencing. Just like people who struggle with PTSD who went to war or people who have been sexually abused, if partners don’t get help, life will be difficult for them.



Trauma is a Full Body Response

Trauma is neurological, physical, and emotional. It’s not just in your head. It’s not imaginary or if you were a stronger person you would be ok.


Extremely strong people are susceptible to trauma.


Extremely strong people are susceptible to trauma. Click To Tweet


Trauma can happen to anyone, anytime, anyplace.


Trauma can happen to anyone, anytime, anyplace. Click To Tweet


The body has this way to reacting to a potential threat. When you’re feeling all those crazy feelings and behaviors that come with that, it’s the body’s response to that trauma.


“I’m finding it easier to look at some of my past actions.”


“Good,” Rafiki encourages, “Please do tell.”


“Well, my former spouse used to tell me I had this ‘craziness’. And I did. I would get triggered and react. I can bring up specific situations in my mind where I lost it as if they just happened yesterday. My reactions weren’t the angry, raging reactions that people think of. They were emotional break downs where I lost the ability to function, felt panicked, scared, alone, or an overwhelming sense that nothing I could do was ever right. Because I felt physically and emotionally out of control, I believed what my former spouse said, that I was crazy. And afterwards, all I would do was berate myself for once again not being able to ‘control’ myself. It was a perpetual cycle of reacting and then putting myself down. A cycle of self-hate instead of self-love.”


“Yep. Sounds like PTSD triggers to me.”


“Understanding that I, too, was dealing with trauma reactions has allowed me to have empathy and compassion towards myself. I’m learning how to recognize those triggers and when they come, how to take care of Little Phoenix. Not always easy, but it’s at least manageable now. I treat myself with love instead of disgust.”


“That’s all we can ever hope for, Phoenix.”



How is Betrayal Trauma like PTSD?

Something is labeled as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that is life threatening, potentially life threatening, or we have witnessed something life threatening. Betrayal is traumatic, especially when looked at how the partner finds out about the situation and the things that are happening in the relationship at the time.


Threats to the partner include:

  1. contracting diseases
  2. financial instability
  3. stability of the relationship


This attacks safety on every single level. What makes this much harder to heal from, is that trust was violated. There was an expectation of safety that was betrayed.



Trauma and Codependency

When it pertains to sex addiction, codependency in a partner is a way to explain trauma responses. These responses are behaviors that people learn to do to survive crazy traumatic situations.


Codependency in a partner of a sex addict, is a way to explain trauma responses to create safety. Click To Tweet


Let’s use an example of a child doing whatever it takes to survive in a dysfunctional family. This becomes a survival technique that they learn. Can we take this set of behaviors and pathologies and say you have a disease of codependency? No. I’m sorry, it was a learned behavior, a way of adapting.


They are in a place where it should feel safe and they are doing whatever they can to create a sense of safety because it’s not safe. The question to ask is, what is your motivation? Are you doing this because you’re trying to find safety or because you’re trying to control the other person?


“Once again I sense a shift in how I used to perceive things.”


“So, this research is also helping you too?”


“It is. I was always told I was manipulating and controlling. That I was doing things because I was trying to control my former spouse…”


“Be careful of where you’re going with this Phoenix,” Rafiki interrupts. “Don’t start to read too much into it and minimize your past actions.”


“I know, Rafiki. That’s not it at all. I’m just thinking back these past couple of years. I know I was controlling and manipulative. When we separated and my former spouse was spending more time with her male friend, that feeling of being replaced, not important, and easily discarded permeated through my body. When she asked for divorce and we were still living together, the anger, the distance, the entire environment in the house felt unsafe. As I think back, I don’t even think I felt that much anxiety and stress living under my parent’s house.”


“Divorce does create that kind of household environment. Emotions for both couples while going through a divorce is all over the place. Add your childhood trauma issues becoming activated, especially your abandonment piece and the PTSD triggers your former spouse was going through with your addiction and it’s a bomb waiting to explode. It sounds like it did, time and time again. The sad thing is, it wasn’t just you and your former spouse that experienced that toxic energy. Phoenix, your two girls had to live in that environment. And they weren’t at an age where they had the emotional intelligence to take care of themselves. While you and your former spouse were caught up in your own destructive behaviors towards each other, your kids got stuck with the harmful side effects. While you were supposed to be parenting and providing a loving, nurturing environment for them to grow up in, the two of you created a chaotic environment that they had to learn how to survive.”


I sit, stunned and speechless. For so long I’ve looked at my piece and my former spouse’s piece. I hadn’t really put together how deep the devastation my addiction and our divorce went.


“Before you start putting yourself down,” Rafiki quickly adds. “Both you and your former spouse are aware of your patterns and are working towards growing and changing. You have put your girls first, you two are still amicable through all this, and you two have not stopped looking inward to learn how to love and nurture your inner child. So many people don’t look at their issues and jump right back into similar relationships, recreating the same patterns. You’re trying to break those patterns. And that work will help your girls in the future. They’ll see that we are imperfect, that we will make mistakes, and that we can grow from them. You may have modeled poor behavior in the past, but the transformation that has happened through your work does not go unnoticed. Your girls will be ok, Phoenix.”



Trauma Therapy vs. 12-Step Communities

Twelve step communities can have a detrimental effect on partners of sex addicts. The first step is to admit that you are powerless and that your addiction is unmanageable. However, someone who has gone through trauma needs to have a sense of control. They need to feel empowered not powerless. They need to have a say about what is happening to them.


Someone’s traumatized when they feel they’re completely out of control because of what something or somebody has done to them. We want to empower them so they can feel safe. As soon as possible, they need empowerment, they need boundaries, they need to take action, and they need to start making decisions. You provide support, not tell them that they are powerless.


We must remember that for trauma survivors it’s psychological as much as it is emotional and relational. There’s a reason why I feel this way. It’s OK that I feel this way. And it’s predictable that I feel this way. That’s what trauma survivors do. You have a say about what you will allow, what you won’t allow, and what goes on with your life. That is empowering. And it validates the partner’s pain.


“I had to move out, Rafiki.”


“Yes, both you and your former spouse needed that space to heal.”


“How is it one minute I have a flashback to how crazy and painful living together felt to where I just want to shut down and then the next minute I have that dissipate and all I feel is compassion and empathy towards what I did to my former spouse?”


“Welcome to the world of trauma. Pat yourself on the back that you can ground yourself more easily. Also, it’s commendable to see that you understand both aspects of the trauma. Knowing how you reacted to your stuff gives you an insight to the struggles that your former spouse goes through.”



Partners Are in Constant Danger

For many partners, they feel like they’re in constant danger. They feel trapped. They have no one to turn to. Financially she’s in jeopardy. Physically she’s in jeopardy.  Emotionally she’s in jeopardy. Relationally she’s in jeopardy. Her support system is in jeopardy. Everything is in jeopardy.


A partner has no one to turn to because the safety of her lifestyle and her family is in jeopardy. She needs to decide to get enough support to get out of this traumatic environment, even though she knows it’s going to bring on more pain. This compounds the initial trauma and everything else continues to add up on top of it. So, she just continues to be a victim of trauma, becoming more traumatized until she decides to speak up. She feels silenced, as if someone put a gag in her mouth. She is like a battered woman trying to get out of a violent relationship.


For example, there was a woman whose husband was named father of the year. She couldn’t turn to the church because he would lose his job. Loss of his job and her family loses the financial stability his job provides. She was always sad and crying and the kids wanted to know what was wrong. But she couldn’t turn to them because that would dismantle their father. She had no one to turn to. So instead, she remained silent.


There’s a part of our brain that allows us to put our emotions or feelings into words. When it’s functioning, it works really well. Unfortunately, trauma impacts this area; it freezes it and immobilizes it. When our feelings come up, the brain can’t put those feelings into words. It’s all in there, but has no release. This is called speechless terror, the inability to express emotions, and is something that partners may encounter.


All of this creates a stressful environment for the partner. The partner is on edge because of the constant danger in their lives.



Hormones and Chemicals in the Brain

When the body is under any kind of stress, it releases chemicals and hormones, such as cortisol. This is the body’s way of getting ready. It’s getting ready to fight or run away. When one is in a chronic environment where there is continual high stress, the body is like it’s submerged in a bath of these hormones.


Over time, high levels of these hormones in your body can start to break things down. It can increase blood pressure. It can increase insomnia. It can cause eating issues and bring about depression. It can bring on anxiety. It can suppress the immune system so that we are more susceptible to diseases. Headaches, chronic bodily pains, and a whole bunch of physical ailments that a partner may have had for years, but didn’t understand they were under stress until discovery. The body knew they were under stress, but the mind had no idea.



Final Thoughts

“I think this is a good time for a break. Maybe I wasn’t ready to keep going.”


“You are doing well, Phoenix,” Rafiki places his calloused baboon hand on my shoulder. “Remember, you felt these things after your former spouse made the decision to separate and divorce. She finally spoke up because she had felt this way in your relationship for many years. She needed that separation to heal. And you needed that separation to understand what you put her through so both of you could heal.”


“I know. But you’re not making it any easier.”


“How about looking at it this way,” Rafiki suggests. “As you’ve written this and discussed it with me, I make up that your trauma has been triggered. Meaning the feelings and emotions that are going through your body right now are not necessarily yours, but you are re-experiencing your past trauma. Your past trauma deals with abandonment and not doing something perfectly right. In other words, you failed. Your past trauma deals with the belief that something happened TO you.


“Your former spouse didn’t do this TO you, Phoenix. She did this for her. Your past actions caused her to lose herself. There was no way she could find herself while you held on to her with everything you had. She had to break those bonds so both of you could heal. That was probably one of the hardest, bravest, and most loving things she could have ever done for your family. We just talked about it a few minutes ago. The environment the two of you created was toxic for both of you and your girls. She gave the family a gift. She started the fire that allowed you to become reborn. She never left you Phoenix. She gave you life!”


That does ease the “craziness” that’s raging through my body. I never really thought of my former spouse as being the one that ignited my fire of my rebirth. I mean, I have said that I needed to move out of the house and needed the divorce to become reborn.


And yet, it was my former spouse that had the strength and the courage to make it happen.


This reminds me of a song that was written by Keith Urban, ironically it popped up randomly while writing this.


This song was written as a dedication to his wife, Nicole Kidman, addressing the difficulties of their early marriage when he was in rehab with his long struggle of substance abuse. As Keith said, “I really feel that I have been given a life by someone who’s loved me in a way I’ve never been loved before. This was my way of saying ‘Thank You’.”


I dedicate this song to my former spouse. Thank You!



Thank You

-Keith Urban



Don’t run away from the pain thinking that’s the easiest path.


Don’t wait to do what you need to do to heal.


Don’t wait to start your fire.


Embrace the pain of the flames so that you can rise, become reborn, and fly with me. Let’s all fly together.


Together We Can Heal.


PS: I think I’m going to have a bit of down time tonight. A movie sounds awesome!

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