Discovering one’s husband is a porn addict is extremely painful. For many wives, this deep pain is actually the result of a deep emotional traumatic wound. We call this Betrayal Trauma. Trauma is typically defined as an occurrence wherein an individual sees or experiences a risk to their own life or physical safety or that of other people and feels terror, fear, or helplessness. The occurrence might additionally cause confusion, dissociation, and a loss of a feeling of security. Traumatic occurrences test a person’s observation of the world as a secure, just, and predictable place.
It is easy to see how this kind of infidelity can be traumatizing to a wife. The safe and secure life she once had is now gone, and her world is turned upside down. The man she thought she knew thoroughly is now a complete stranger. The marital vows she though he had upheld since their wedding day were actually broken on many occasions. The sacred gift of sexuality she thought they only shared with one another has been desecrated.
Barbara Steffans and Marsha Means (2009) list four general symptoms of trauma related to sexual addiction. Note that there is much overlap among the symptoms:
- Avoidance: Avoidance of activities or other reminders of the traumatic event. Some wives may choose to look at porn with their husbands to avoid conflict and hoping that he will turn to her for sex. Others will avoid sex altogether. Still others will numb their feelings or deny the situation. They will detach from their husbands emotionally.
- Re-experiencing: Recurrent and intrusive thoughts and memories of the traumatic event that cannot be controlled. A wife may be plagued with constant thoughts about what her husband has done. These thoughts can consume a person’s energy and intensifies the anxiety.
- Avoidance and Arousal: a wife may ignore her “intuition” or new evidence that her husband is acting out again. On the other hand, she may become hyper vigilant in trying to control her environment. She may try to control when her husband uses the computer, how long and what websites can be accessed.
- Arousal: this is intense emotional pain. This can include feelings of depression, anxiety, fear, and shame. Some women have panic attacks and/or uncontrollable crying. She may wonder what she did wrong to cause her partner to turn to pornography. The shame and embarrassment may keep her from telling others about her situation. She might try to control every aspect of her husband’s life to prevent being hurt again.
When a wife is traumatized by her husband’s pornography addiction, her response is not limited to just one of these reactions. Often she responds using a combination of the four. This was Heather’s experience. Because of her pain and disgust toward her husband, Joe, she avoided all sexual activity with him (Avoidance). She was plagued by recurrent thoughts of how she had been betrayed by him (Re-experiencing). To feels safe, she tried to completely control his use of the Internet, where he went and with whom he spent time (Avoidance and Arousal). She cycled through many painful emotions (Arousal).
The Cycle of Emotions
One of the scariest experiences of dealing with betrayal trauma is the strong emotions that wives can cycle through. One moment they may feel a deep sadness and the next moment an incredible rage. They may have uncontrollable bouts of crying. At times, they might even feel love and compassion for their husbands. Common emotions a wife might experience include:
Pity for husband
While it may feel maddening to be cycling through such emotions, it is perfectly normal. This is part of the trauma wives experience. As a wife recovers from the shock and pain of the betrayal, these emotions decrease in their intensity and become more manageable. Still, husbands must understand how terrible this experience is for their wives and take full responsibility for it.
For many wives, these emotions can severely affect their ability to function in daily life. When this occurs professional help is needed. Seeing a family doctor or psychiatrist can help. They can prescribe medications to help.
Heather experienced many emotions as a result of this hurt and betrayal. The strongest were anger, hopelessness and depression. Just thinking about how Joe had hurt her could send her into a fit or rage or uncontrollable sobbing. When their children were around, Heather tried to put on a smile and act as if nothing was wrong. But her teenager kids knew there was a problem. She tried to think rationally about her situation and view Joe’s pornography addiction as a disease in need of treatment. However, the pain of her broken heart more often overshadowed this. The fact that there was no one to talk to about her emotions made it worse. She felt as if she were doomed to suffer in silence.
Joe, while very sad and remorseful for hurting Heather, was at a loss for how to deal with all the emotions Heather was experiencing. When she was sad he would try to give her a hug, but that triggered anger for her and she did not want to be touched. Whenever Heather would appear somewhat compassionate and forgiving, Joe would think they were making progress in healing their marriage. Unfortunately, a few moments later her anger or sadness would return. Both Heather and Joe felt trapped. They wondered if they would ever recover and restore their marriage.
The intensity of the emotions can vary among women. Some emotions are felt intensely while others are felt mildly. Regardless of their intensity, many wives report they wished they could get off the emotional rollercoaster and have a few moments where they simply didn’t have to think about their pain.
While the pain of betrayal trauma is very real, the good news is this experience won’t last forever. However, one cannot recovery from this alone. With professional help, and the support of other women and couples who understand this struggle, a wife can find relief and peace. Through an effective recovery program for both the addicted husband and his wounded wife, both can experience healing and restoration.