My journey of recovery from sex addiction has finally led me to look at the trauma piece I caused my former spouse. I must admit, I feel a little bit of guilt that I’m trying to understand this now, when I have almost seven years of recovery under my belt. I may have maintained sobriety, but my behaviors in recovery were far from being free from my character defects. I didn’t make her life easy.
“Seriously Rafiki, why did it take me so long?”
“Phoenix, it’s progress not perfection,” Rafiki reminds me. “It’s one day at a time. You weren’t ready to see. You needed to heal your own wounding to be present for your former spouse.”
“I caused this! All I did was cause her more trauma by not being present. I should have been there for her a long time ago.”
“When you ‘should yourself’, you just shit on yourself,” Rafiki declares.
“Yeah, I know,” I groan.
When you should yourself, you just shit on yourself. Click To Tweet
“Phoenix,” his voice softens. I feel myself become guarded. When Rafiki lowers his voice is when his words hurt more than his staff. “Your former spouse never asked you to help her heal. You’ve made that your mission. That wasn’t what she wanted. She asked for separation. She asked for divorce. She asked you to be her friend and to be on the same team as co-parents, nothing more. She wants to move on with her life without you as her partner. And yet, you still hold on. That’s why she feels like you manipulate. Because you hope for something that she has not wanted and does not want to this day.”
Hearing that reopens a wound, my stomach turning into knots.
“It’s admirable that you want to learn more about how your actions affected your former spouse. What a gift you’re giving her. Maybe through your blogs she can find something that will help her. What a gift you’ll give others by sharing it. Hopefully, by being open and vulnerable you can help both sex addicts and their partners understand how this addiction affects each other.
“However, from what I’ve heard, I don’t think it would have mattered if you learned this seven years ago, ten years ago, or even sixteen years ago. Your former spouse’s decision was made long before you even went into recovery. It just took her many years to step out of her comfort zone and have the strength to do what she has always wanted to do.”
Hearing that physically makes my body ache, the pain almost unbearable. I want to curl up into a ball and shut myself away from the world. “Distract, sooth, cope,” I instantly tell myself. It takes me a long time to come back to ground.
Is this how my former spouse feels when she’s triggered by my addiction?
Through my research, I realize, that I’m not even close to understanding the ramifications my past actions had on my former spouse.
My Journey of Understanding
I wrote Addiction Messes Up Our Partners March 2017, but I had not posted that piece until just yesterday. I felt it important to add that prior to digging deeper into the research I’ve been doing lately.
I find it interesting that I thought I wanted to look more into depth about partners and the trauma they experience in June when I wrote Father’s Day 2017. And yet, deep down, I’ve been wanting to look at this for quite a while. It hasn’t been until recently that I was ready to process this.
If you haven’t had a chance, please read Understanding PTSD prior to this blog to give you some background on the definition of PTSD and how trauma causes trigger-like reactions in people.
I’m grateful that the therapeutic community is now realizing a partner of a sex addict needs treatment like someone who’s experienced a traumatic event. This is still a relatively new field and many therapists haven’t fully embraced this method of treatment for partners. Just like recovery, it’s a work in progress.
Once again, I’d like to point out that I am not a therapist. I’m just a sex addict trying to learn more about myself and about how my actions affected my former spouse. The ideas I post are insights to help others who have experienced the same and to determine what they need for their own recovery. Again, this is not to shame or guilt the sex addict for his or her actions, this is to help both the addict and the partner understand the consequences of betrayal so they both can heal from this disease.
This is the first of a few blogs that will address how sex addiction causes PTSD symptoms in the partner.
Sex Addiction Induced Trauma and it’s Thirteen Dimensions
Prior to my research, I didn’t realize that there’s finally a name associated with what my former spouse went through due to my addiction. Our recovery almost seven years ago was focused around my addiction and my problem. There was not a support network that my former spouse could relate to. She was labeled a codependent who enabled my behavior.
That label created more unrest, additional trauma, and hindered her recovery from my actions.
Dr. Omar Minwalla,who founded The Institute for Sexual Health, has challenged the sex addiction field since 2006 using the “co sex-addiction model” to clinically treat partners of sex addicts. He advocates the importance that partners be treated as one would treat a trauma survivor. He developed the Sex Addiction Induced Trauma (SAIT) model of describing the trauma partners end up having due to the actions of the sex addict.
Dr. Omar Minwalla identifies thirteen different aspects of trauma relevant in the partner. Each feature has a cluster of traumatic impacts, traumatic processes, and post-traumatic symptom sequences. Not all characteristics may be present for every partner or spouse; trauma is subjective and individuals are completely different and unique.
For more in depth information, please read his article, Thirteen Dimensions of Sex Addiction-Induced Trauma (SAIT) Among Partners and Spouses Impacted by Sex Addiction where I pulled this information from.
1. Discovery Trauma
Discovery introduces fear into the psychological system, often inducing “flight”, “freeze”, or “flee” mechanisms based in human survival. Discovery does not mean a full awareness of reality. It means that the partner’s sense of reality is unknown, often inducing severe panic, terror, and intense fear, horror, or helplessness.
It’s also important to realize that each single discovery is a trauma-inducing event and different from any other discovery incident. As with all traumatic incidents that repeat many times and have a similar theme, this then constitutes a form of complex-PTSD and will often induce many symptoms well before any initial disclosure.
Discovery can be a first awareness, a slow evolving consciousness, or an intuitive sense.
2. Disclosure Trauma
A disclosure is the process of being told about some aspect of the deceptive, compartmentalized reality. Just like discovery, each disclosure is a critical trauma-inducing incident and traumatic process. Multiple disclosures end up re-traumatizing the partner and can create more complex-PTSD symptoms. This is why it’s important for the partner to have only one disclosure from the addict, not multiple disclosures at different times (“oh, by the way I forgot to tell you…”). This is another reason why therapists may wait to give a partner a full disclosure from the addict. Therapists need to break through the addict’s guilt and shame to be able to allow them to be honest about everything they’ve done so as not to continue to re-traumatize the partner with later disclosures.
Disclosure breaks the ego. It can be one of extreme and sudden ego disintegration (like the metaphor of a “car accident”) and/or it can be a subtle and slow evolution, dissolving of the ego (like the metaphor of “ink in glass of water”).
3. Reality-Ego Fragmentation
The ego is the organized conscious mediator between the psyche and reality, specifically functioning in both perception and adaption of reality. The ego and our ability to both perceive and adapt to reality adequately is essential for psychological health and stability. When a partner discovers and goes through disclosure, this dynamic inter-relationship between reality and ego becomes traumatized and “shatters”.
A traumatized, fragmented, and injured ego causes functional impairment, similar to brain injury.
Alterations in self-perception include:
- a sense of defilement or stigma
- a sense of complete difference from others
- utter aloneness
- sense no one could understand
- a sense of nonhuman identity
4. Impact to Body and Medical Intersection
This involves the trauma to one’s physical body, which can be significant for partners. Psychosomatic traumatic manifestations are profound.
The following are just some of the hundreds of physical and medical symptoms that occur among partners:
- impact on body image
- triggering of eating disorders
- weight loss or weight gain
- hair loss (sometimes extreme)
- insomnia and sleep disturbance
- psycho-emotional dissociation
- crying episodes
- physical expressions of rage
- muscular constrictions
- stomach sickness
- falling to the ground
- fetal position
- vaginal spasms
- aversion to physical or sexual touch
- sharp pains
- uncontrollable primal screams and screaming sounds.
5. External Crisis and Destabilization
This includes the practical sudden or long-term external changes and the overwhelming chaos that ensues and often endures as a result of the sex addiction.
Some of these concerns are related to:
- separate sleeping arrangements
- changes in routine
- sudden shifts in residence
- childcare routines changed
- co-parenting dynamics altered
- impact on the family system
- what to say to whom
- how to find treatment
- being stalked by others
Furthermore, it is imperative to note, that because the addict is the “identified patient,” the partner or spouse may end up “holding down the fort” and being “the together one” in the early stages of the process. This may result in a profound submerging of trauma, a form of extreme traumatic constriction based on survival.
6. SAIT Hypervigilance and Re-Experiencing
PTSD is often characterized by heightened sensitivity to potential threats, including those that are related to the traumatic experience. Hyper-arousal and re-experiencing is a well-established symptom of trauma in which specific internal/external, and objective/subjective stimuli, perceptions, thoughts, feelings or sensations will remind the psyche of the trauma. Once the psyche is reminded of the trauma, the system will react to the stimulus – causing psychological cognitive and emotional changes related to fear, panic, and feelings associated with traumatic memory.
SAIT reactivation and re-experiencing among partners and spouses can become crippling in terms of clinical and functional impairment due to intensity, frequency, and pervasiveness of reactivation cues.
Triggers are different for every partner, but could include:
- bill boards
- other women
- cell phones
- blond hair
- sexual positions
- Hispanic women
Agoraphobia, panic attacks, dissociative and fear-based perceptual lens will pervade and the consequent psychological-cognitive defense systems of protection will emerge and be present. These “safety-seeking behaviors” are seen by many as co-dependent traits, but under the description of trauma, they are survival techniques protecting the psyche.
7. Sex Addiction-Induced Perpetration (SAIP)
Many clinical researchers give psychological and emotional abuse considerably less attention than physical abuse, based on the traditional definitions of domestic violence. However, psychological and emotional abuse can impact a human being just as much as physical abuse, in terms of harm, symptoms, and traumatic impacts.
- emotional abuse
- psychological abuse
- family and relational domination
- covert management of deceptive-compartmentalized-reality
- sexual abuse and coercion
- child neglect and abuse
- and other patterns of harm to human beings and violations of human rights.
Some patterns of emotional abuse are:
- blaming the partner
- covert emotional abuse that results in emotional trauma and wounding
Gaslighting is the process in which the addict intentionally manipulates a partner’s reality in order to protect reality and the truth from becoming known or discovered by the partner. It’s a form of psychological manipulation and covert psycho-emotional abuse and perpetration. The serious damage that can often result from gaslighting is that it erodes or ruptures the person’s relationship between their psyche and their intuition or “gut instincts.”
8. Sexual Trauma
The sexuality of a partner is often impacted by sex addiction or compulsivity disorders. The sexual symptoms that partners often experience correlate with symptoms of rape trauma syndrome (RTS).
Some of these symptoms may include:
- avoidance or lack of interest in sex
- sexual shutting down
- collapse and numbing
- somatic genital and sexual symptoms
- sexual traumatic constrictions
- fear and panic about having contracted a disease or infection of a sexually transmitted disease
- psychological sense of “being dirty and feeling contaminated”
- confusion around self-blame
- impulse to hide in context of shame
- fear and anxiety when reminded of sexual SAIT intrusions
- internalized obligatory sexual pressure (as a victim)
- varied aversions to touch or intimacy
- aversion to physical contact.
9. Gender Wounds and Gender-Based Trauma (GBT)
Partners and spouses often experience significant gender-based trauma based on patterns of gender-based violence and abuse associated with sex addiction-compulsivity patterns and perpetrations. Partners are often profoundly impacted at the core of their gender and gender identity.
This often includes damage to ego and their core gender constructs such as:
- sexual being
- worthy being
- body image
- core gender esteem.
Gender identity and gender esteem is a primary and core dynamic in self-construction, core self-esteem, and self-worth.
10. Relational Trauma and Attachment Injuries
Healthy and secure attachment to human beings is essential to psychological health. Disconnection from human beings results in pain, dis-regulation, and disease. Rupture from what was experienced as a secure attachment, which included psychological and emotional dependency, is a traumatic and critical event.
The relationship, the “us” itself, is traumatized. The relational ruptures, attachment injuries, and relational dis-connection and inability to re-establish healthy of even regulatory attachment becomes a source of traumatic experience.
Some of the traumatic consequences are:
- loss of dependency
- loss of trust
The heart of the relationship is often “shattered and is hemorrhaging” and according to the model, requires immediate clinical assessment, stabilization and the couple needs clinical intervention around safety and functionality. This is explicitly not “couples therapy” in any way; the traditional sex addiction’s model of “stay on your side of the street” for couples is often harmful.
11. Family, Communal and Social Injuries
While trauma impacts a partner’s internal world, it also has far reaching implications on other relationships including:
- the parent-child bond
- the social world
- the experiences of being in public
- the sense of communities that provide stabilization and dependency
- relationships to others in general
It’s common for many of these often extremely painful dynamics to go unacknowledged and excluded from discussions on sex addiction. However, these consequences on social functioning and interpersonal functioning can be a significant source of trauma and may involve multiple attachment injuries, significant grief and loss over many relationships, and profound, sudden and prolonged shifts and alterations in the ways a partner relates to other human beings on the most basic level.
SAIT also impacts children. The loses of realities and the ongoing reality of others being impacted and harmed, will no doubt provoke deep instinctive reactions and biologically-based protective parental or maternal instincts and reactivity, as often reflected in nature (“Mama Bear” or “Hornet’s Nest”). Extreme rage may be expected when one’s home, children, or family system is threatened or altered. For a partner to witness her young children having trauma symptoms due to sexual acting out in the family system, even in the midst of recovery, can often be a reminder and a significant source of traumatic re-experiencing.
In addition, partners may end up holding secrets from loved ones and family, experiencing a loss of integrity with others she had always cherished. Partners may lose friends and may find out their friends colluded or also violated her.
12. Treatment-Induced Trauma
Treatment induced trauma involves both the induction of trauma and the traumatic symptom sequences experienced by the partner or spouse. This dimension of trauma is caused by clinical interventions that are fundamentally organized around the traditional co-sex addiction model (COSA), single-concept codependency model (CODA), and other traditional interventions, such as sex positive therapy, based in the omission of recognizing or treating SAIT among partners.
Many “sex positive” counselors will prescribe “date nights or sex nights” for traumatized and sexually abused partners and couples. To reach out for help and be “let down”, “let go”, or “hurt instead of helped” is of the utmost of serious violations in both medicine and human ethics and attachment relationships.
13. Spiritual and Existential Trauma
One healthy dependency relationship for the human psyche is with the Universe, God, or that which is beyond one’s self or one’s ego. The traumatic shattering of a person’s existential reality and their relationship with divine systems of benevolence or protection can be altered. This trauma by SAIT could fall and collapse deep within her soul.
I Need to Speak with Rafiki
At the moment, I feel the guilt and shame starting to wash over me. I have the sensation of my own trauma reactions based in childhood about being “bad” and “screwing up” circulating through my body. It’s interesting to note how on one hand I can personally relate to many of the symptoms of trauma because of my own past, however the reasons for those symptoms are greatly different than what I perceive my former spouse has gone through because of my actions.
“Shit, Rafiki,” I breathe. “That list is extensive. I can see how each of those thirteen variables affected my former spouse.”
“Yes, without properly identifying the partner’s issues and focusing on that trauma piece, a partner will struggle recovering from the actions of the sex addict.”
“I feel so much compassion and empathy for her. I wish there was something I could do.”
“Phoenix, just by writing this is doing something.”
Rafiki cuts me off, “The emotions you’re feeling are normal. Of course, you have guilt and shame. You love your former spouse and you didn’t intentionally hurt her. Deep down, she knows that too. However, it’s not your job to help her, nor does she want you to. She will find her own way.”
“My former spouse was significantly short-changed in her treatment,” I continue, ignoring him. “Her trauma was never addressed. She was labeled as a co-dependent and about a year and a half through treatment, our sex addiction couple therapist said we ‘graduated’ and now could see a therapist that focused on couple therapy because our issues were now ‘normal issues that couples deal with.’ Of course, me as the addict, was ecstatic. I was sober and our therapist could see how far I had come. Whoo Hoo! But that was at the expense of the healing my former spouse needed.”
“Sounds like your former spouse had to deal with dimension twelve, Treatment Induced Trauma.”
“They never addressed any trauma. To this day, she feels like she was left out, unimportant, and discarded. No wonder it has made no difference in what I’ve done in recovery. She has never had anyone help her heal.”
“Phoenix, my heart goes out to your former spouse and to other partners who have gone through the same thing. I’m not going to defend the therapeutic community. How long have they taken to admit that sex addiction is actually a disease? Wait, they haven’t yet. It’s not characterized as a disease in the DSM. It makes sense that the community still hasn’t completely embraced all the nuances that sex addiction causes in both the addict and the partner.”
“Well, it does sound like that’s changing.”
“It is,” Rafiki sighs. “Just not fast enough that is necessary for the partner. Dr. Minwella has said that ‘a disorder of chronic lying in a family system is a pathology and requires treatment, regardless of sexual acting out or not.’ To deceive another in an intimate relationship is harmful. It goes way further than simply compulsive pornography or sexual acting out.”
“Isn’t that considered gaslighting?” I ask.
“It is,” Rafiki responds. “Gaslighting is the process of intentionally, over time, psychological manipulating a victim’s reality. It’s considered a form of emotional and psychological abuse.”
“Why is that?”
“Because it erodes and damages the victim’s survival instincts and intuition.”
I feel my own perfection issues surfacing again. “What if someone isn’t aware that they’re doing that?”
“I don’t believe someone isn’t aware that what they’re doing is wrong. Our psyche will protect us by rationalizing what we do and say, but deep down, most of us intuitively know right from wrong. When a sex addict compartmentalizes and keeps what they’ve done secretive, they know what they’re doing isn’t right. Protecting that secret manipulates their partner’s reality.”
“I really wish I could have been more present for my former spouse.”
“There’s two things you need to remember Phoenix,” Rafiki addresses me in his lecture tone. “First, both you and your spouse only followed the advice from your therapists. You two did not know any better. The field is changing today and it will probably be different in a couple of years. This is just the beginning about learning how to treat partners. Think about it. Patrick Carnes wrote Out of the Shadows in 1983. Thirty-four years later and sex addiction is still not labeled as a disorder. It’s a blessing that partners are finally being recognized as needing help.
“The other thing I want you to remember is that you did what you could at the time. You’ve always wanted to help your former spouse recover, but you had to battle your own demons, your own childhood trauma. You tried to be there, but your triggers only sent you down the rabbit hole every time. There was no way you could have been there for her when you couldn’t even take care of yourself.”
“That doesn’t make it any easier,” I argue.
“Phoenix, look at what you’re doing today? The past is the past. As I once told Simba, you’re continuing to learn from it. And, as a result, you’re indirectly reaching out to your former spouse and being the person you couldn’t be before. Not only for her, but for others. To be as open and vulnerable as you’ve been takes courage. Both sex addicts and their partners will benefit from your journey. You have given them awareness, the first step to change. The rest lies in their hands.”
At the moment, it doesn’t feel right to accept any praise from Rafiki.
Whew! I’m a bit worn out from writing this.
I’ve included links below that further discuss Sex Addiction-Induced Trauma.
This blog ended up being more clinical in nature. My next one will focus on the reactions that partners go through following disclosure and I’ll eventually discuss recommended treatments for the partners. However, it’s important to add, that each person is an individual and you need to find what is best for you. My suggestions are merely just suggestions, nothing more.
I do hope that the sex addict reading this can learn to have some empathy and compassion about what your partner is going through due to your choices and your actions. I understand how difficult it is not to fall into that guilt and shame spiral that feels like Dorothy spinning around in a tornado. Yes, we aren’t in Kansas anymore. Use fellowship, your sponsor, and a therapist, if you have one, as your Wizard to help you find your way home. Unfortunately, in the beginning, you can’t help your spouse and your spouse can’t help you. To keep with the analogy, as harsh as this sounds, you dropped the house on top of her.
And for the partner, my wish is that you address the trauma issues that will come up due to the sex addiction. Work on that piece so that you too, can learn to love yourself. Look at For the Partner portion of this website for resources and use the community to reach out to one another.
You both are not alone.
You both will recover.
Together We Can Heal.