Partner's Workshop: Stage Two; Lesson Three

The Traumatic Response

Not everyone responds to the discovery of a partner's secret life in the same way. Few are able to put such a discovery into immediate perspective — thus recognizing that sexual addiction is symbolic of their partner's life management skills, not an edict on their relationship or themselves. Fewer still are able to offer immediate compassion and support — recognizing that it is their partner's core that is unstable, not their own value system. If you are one such person, count whatever blessings remain in your life, as you are the rarity. The great majority of partners — even the healthiest of partners — exhibit a common response pattern that can be seen in the context of the following three-stages: Disorientation, Awareness and Separation.

The Disorientation Stage

The initial response to a traumatic discovery of a partner's secret sexual life is often a destructive, debilitating bundle of emotions, thoughts and actions. The emotional roller coaster of this disorientation stage often lasts from a few months to a year or longer — depending on the support available and the active healing that has taken place. And while this chaotic pattern is often a destructive one, it is also almost universally necessary to facilitate the long-term healing process that must run its course in order for stability to be restored. Those who 'rush through' these healing experiences often find themselves trapped in the aftermath of their partner's recovery, as they experience unresolved issues with no way of seeking resolution. If they bring them up after the recovery process has begun, they are accused of sabotaging their partner's growth or of 'never letting things go'. It's a no-win situation.

Throughout the disorientation stage, the partner can experience a disruption to all aspects of his/her life. The extent of this disruption results from the realization that their partner — whom they have likely used as a pillar for their life's foundation — has completely obliterated the value system for which that relationship was based. This destabilizes not only the shared relationship values such as sexuality and trust, but also the personal values like confidence, judgment and awareness.

Internal vs. External Expression

In general, there are two major categories for the expression of traumatic response: internal and external. Those engaging in an internal response will turn everything inward. They will feel trapped. Helpless. Rather than to reach out to others for support, they will internalize the shame and humiliation that comes with their partner's behavior and allow themselves to get caught up in maintaining the secrets to protect that behavior. They will look for reasons within themselves as to why their partner resorted to such behavior to begin with. They will engage in self-blame, self-loathing, self-criticizing thought patterns which will serve only to perpetuate the emotional instability that they experience. Depression, suicide and indecision are frequent marks for the internal expression.

Those exhibiting external expression will often be confrontational, concrete and punishing. They will try to regain control over their lives by aggressively pursuing such control in a matter of fact, no mercy, no compassion approach. While not purposefully, they will desire vengeance and retribution in their partner's recovery — often masking this pursuit under the guise of accountability and 'taking responsibility'. Both critical needs in recovery, but not always in the manner desired from someone still under the effects of the traumatic response. They will often seek to dehumanize their partner — removing basic adult rights and responsibilities from them. Extreme, spontaneous and major life decisions are characteristic of the external expression.

Is the response to the traumatic discovery always so polarized? Of course not. Many will exhibit characteristics of both of these response patterns throughout the healing process.

The General Traumatic Response

No matter which expressive style/combination of styles may be invoked in response to the initial discovery, there is a common pattern observed in the majority of people that are forced into dealing with such a crisis. Initially, this response will be utter disbelief. Shock. Many will experience extremely intense emotions, followed by relative numbness, followed by a return to emotional intensity. When the person responsible for the crisis is their lifelong partner, a deep sense of betrayal and personal insignificance is experienced. If the discovered patterns were particularly bizarre or long-term, or if they involved people with whom the partner had developed emotional attachments to (e.g. friends, family, enemies), the partner's belief in themselves and their own judgment will take an exceptionally vicious hit.

Following the shock and disbelief experienced in the disorientation stage of the discovery, a partner often experiences a vacillating range of mood swings. They may feel rage, hatred, despair, hopelessness, helplessness, shame, humiliation, degradation, vengefulness, disgust, sadness, loss, etc. Each response representing a natural part of the healing process. To a point. There are times when these responses may be detrimental to your long-term health and for which professional counseling should be considered:

However, you should seek immediate professional assistance if you are experiencing any of the following:

  • A pattern of intense, volatile emotions that have lasted longer than one month and you have seen NO IMPROVEMENT in the frequency/stability of this pattern
  • You are considering/contemplating a violent reaction that may cause you or another harm (e.g. suicide, homicide, mutilation)
  • This crisis has triggered additional intense memories of previous crises or trauma in your life
  • You become so preoccupied/disoriented by the discovery of your partner's behavior, that you begin neglecting basic life skills (e.g. feeding, bathing, home safety) for yourself or those who depend on you.
  • You find yourself becoming increasingly withdrawn, anxious or apathetic

The following lists some of the more common responses observed in a traumatic discovery:

  • Ruminations relating to the partner's sexual behavior
  • Obsessive checking behavior
  • Hyper alertness to partner's activities, moods and mannerisms
  • Paranoia
  • Depression
  • Inconsolable, spontaneous crying
  • Significant appetite changes
  • Insomnia/Nightmares/Excessive sleeping
  • Exhaustion
  • Sexual apathy/disgust
  • Feeling "scattered" and unable to focus on daily activities
  • Difficulty with concentration, forgetfulness, decision-making and problem solving
  • Feeling emotionally "numb," withdrawn or disconnected from others
  • Increased reliance on alcohol, drugs, shopping or other mind-altering activities
  • Social isolation from family and friends
  • Inability to attach importance to anything other than discovery-related issues
  • Hypersensitivity to sexually-related stimuli (e.g. advertising, attractive women, movies/television, business trips, etc.)
  • Violent (revenge) fantasies
  • Engaging in sexual behavior that contradicts personal values (e.g. promiscuity, anonymous sex)
  • Frequent mood swings
  • Generalized distrust and anger towards all

The Awareness Stage

In the awareness stage, a person has begun to seek unbiased information to help them in understanding the role that the addiction has played in their partner's life. In the disorientation stage, recovery books are read with an almost desperate necessity. Here, such resources are used to actively effect change. In the disorientation stage, confrontations and inquiries were often used to extract information from your partner to gain control over a situation in which you realistically had little. Such information could then be used to test your partner's sincerity, their willingness to open up to you completely or to catch them in lies/inconsistencies. Now, such interviews are used to gain true awareness into the underlying process that has gone into the development/maintenance of this addiction. The awareness stage is the true healing stage.

The Separation Stage

The final stage in a traumatic response to the discovery of a partner's secret sexual life is separation. This is where the partner, after actively participating in the awareness stage of their healing, comes to the realization that their happiness and fulfillment is no longer attached to their partner's recovery. That they are separate from their partner's addiction. Interestingly, the separation stage can occur at any point in the healing process; it does not have to occur only upon completion of the awareness stage. In general however, the earlier the separation occurs, the better.

The majority of the Partner's Support Workshop is geared to assist those through the awareness and separation phases of the discovery of a partner's sexual addiction.

Exercise Twelve

A. Describe where you are now in terms of your response to the discovery of your partner's addiction. Not where you were last month, or where you hope to be next month. Where are you right now?

Example: "I continue to struggle with obsessive thoughts about where he and what he is doing when I'm not around. I have no sexual desire whatsoever. My moods range from apathy to despair. When we talk, I feel intense rage at what he has done to my life."

B. Because you have experienced a traumatic event in your life — and the discovery that the foundation of your life has been jeopardized is severely traumatic — there are common patterns that you should expect and even prepare for in the months and years to come. Discuss what these patterns might be and how you will deal with them. There are no right or wrong answers here. The goal is to begin looking ahead with a realistic and constructive eye. To realize that with even the best healing process in place, the trauma that you have experienced will have a lasting — albeit not permanently destructive — effect on your life.

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