A woman I’ll call Mary remembers clearly the day her life turned upside down. It was a day that started like most others. She returned home from grocery shopping and saw her husband was home. As she asked how his day had been, his eyes filled with tears and he said, “We need to talk.” He told her his work had found that his work computer had been used to access pornography — and they had a zero tolerance policy.
At first he denied it was him, insisting that it was a virus or a hacking attempt. Eventually, though, he admitted it was him and even more devastating, he had struggled with an addiction to pornography their entire marriage.
Mary was devastated. She couldn’t eat. She couldn’t sleep. She had nightmares. She blamed herself. She found herself crying in the closet and hyper-vigilant with anything that seemed different with her husband. Five minutes late coming home from work? He must be looking at porn. She tried to control his recovery process. Eventually, Mary sought help for herself and learned that what she was experiencing was normal — and it had a name: betrayal trauma.
Betrayal trauma is defined as the trauma experienced when perpetrated by someone close to the victim and to whom they are physically and emotionally close to. In a romantic relationship, it can take the form of domestic violence but it also takes the form of infidelity in all its form — physical, emotional and virtual.
Typical responses show up in many of the following ways: anger, shock, fear, anxiety, hypervigilance, feeling overwhelmed, withdrawal and isolation, difficulty concentrating, flashbacks, nightmares, avoidance, numbness and depression, a loss of hope for the future, a loss of stability and security, a total loss of trust in your intimate partner and even for the victim, intense feelings of shame.
Kevin Skinner, a therapist in Utah and creator of AddoRecovery for men and Bloom for women, developed a trauma-assessment scale almost 15 years ago as he realized the spouses of the men he was treating for sexual addiction were displaying symptoms very similar to those seen in post-traumatic stress disorder.
According to a speaker at the annual Utah Coalition Against Pornography conference earlier this year, seven in 10 men deliberately access pornography at least once a month. Although at a much smaller percentage — approximately 25 percent - women are also accessing pornography regularly.
Jill Manning says that research on pornography consumption is associated with the following six major trends: Increased marital distress with an increased in separation and divorce, decreased marital intimacy and sexual satisfaction, physical infidelity, increased appetite for more graphic and violent forms of pornography, a devaluation of marriage and child-rearing and an increase in compulsive/addictive sexual behaviors. Pornography can also lead to an increase in PIED, or pornography-induced erectile dysfunction and a host of other problems.
There is growing recognition that survivors of intimate betrayal are not to blame, and not “co-dependent,” but are traumatized victims. How devastating is it to learn that your partner betrayed you and then have people ask if you were “available” enough, if you “took care of yourself,” or imply if only you had been more “adventurous,” your partner would not have strayed into unhealthy, addictive behaviors of betrayal.
The reality is that sexual betrayal is a deep, deep wound for most victims. Not only is there betrayal, but it almost always is accompanied by deception — living a secret life by its very definition means that lies are being told and often elaborate cover stories are being created as the betrayal continues. When the innocent partner finds out, like Mary, the very foundation of their relationship, their trust, is destroyed.
Victims of betrayal trauma need to know: It is not your fault. If you think that it is, if your partner thinks that it is, just stop. It is not your fault. Your healing, however, is all about you. It can happen. Your relationship may or may not survive, but you can heal. There is hope. There is healing. And you are not alone.
Holly Richardson is a regular contributor to The Salt Lake Tribune.