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Understanding and Healing from Relationship Trauma

Depressed man sitting on floor crying behind his bed

You’ve recently discovered that your partner is keeping a huge secret: He has an addiction. His reliance on sex, pornography, or masturbation has left you shattered and questioning everything you thought you knew about your relationship. Things may seem surreal now, but you can find your footing again. It’s possible to heal from relationship trauma and move forward from what’s happening to you.

What is Relationship Trauma?

Relationship trauma is emotional trauma that happens in an intimate relationship when one partner severely violates the other’s trust. 

You may experience emotional trauma when you discover that your partner has a sex addiction and has been having sex outside of your relationship. 

You also may experience this type of trauma if you find out your partner is addicted to pornography or masturbation, making you feel like he’s being emotionally unfaithful or you aren’t enough to satisfy his needs.

This form of trauma makes you feel lacking. It also hurts because you know your partner was willing to lie to you and risk everything you have together to continue this behavior.

Relationship trauma is considered a form of abuse and has symptoms much like those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“When the addiction is discovered, partners react, understandably, with a mix of sadness, anger, hurt, and feelings of betrayal,” said Matt Wenger, Clinical Director at Begin Again Institute. “This discovery is traumatic, and the damage — the loss of safety and trust — can take years to heal.”

Signs and Symptoms of Relationship Trauma

It’s difficult to believe that betrayal can hurt so much — that it can make you emotionally and physically ill, but it can. 

“You put a great deal of trust in one person. When that trust is broken, it shatters your sense of self and what you thought you knew about that person and your life together,” Matt said.

Signs you’re experiencing relationship trauma include:

  • Intrusive Thoughts. Reliving painful or traumatic moments from your relationship, including when you found out about the betrayal.
  • Avoidance. Actively avoiding places, people, or activities that remind you of the traumatic relationship or experiences within it.
  • Emotional Numbness. Feeling detached or emotionally unresponsive, often as a defense mechanism against painful emotions.
  • Hyperarousal. Being in a heightened state of anxiety, which can include trouble sleeping, irritability, being easily startled, or feeling constantly “on edge.”
  • Inability to Trust. Difficulty trusting others because you’re uncertain if you can or if you’re equipped to make those decisions.
  • Low Self-Esteem. Feeling unworthy or like you aren’t good enough.
  • Not Feeling Physically Well. Experiencing physical symptoms for no medical reason. These symptoms may include headaches, gastrointestinal issues, or chronic pain.
  • Mood Swings. Experiencing severe mood fluctuations, from deep sadness to intense anger and extreme shame.
  • Isolation. Withdrawing from loved ones because you’re embarrassed about what’s happening or you simply can’t bear to be around others.
  • Apathy. Not wanting to participate in day-to-day activities like going to work or even something as simple as walking your dog.

These symptoms of relationship trauma result from what happened to you. They are your mind and body’s response to discovering that someone you thought you could trust was deceiving and maybe even blaming you for their unpredictable behavior or your relationship problems.

Impact of Sex and Pornography Addiction on Relationships

Sex, pornography, or masturbation addiction can destroy relationships. It makes you feel like what you thought you knew about your relationship was a lie, that you are somehow lacking, and that you can’t trust anyone. In other words, it leaves you traumatized.

Addiction impacts your relationship by:

  • Destroying Trust. How can you be in a relationship with someone who has shown you that you can’t trust them? This level of betrayal is difficult to heal from.
  • Creating Emotional Distance. As the addiction developed, your partner likely put increasing amounts of distance between you, emotionally withdrawing from your relationship and diminishing the intimacy between you.
  • Introducing Risks. Addiction creates physical, emotional, financial, and other risks. The person recognizes these risks but still can’t stop the behavior in spite of them. Still, it’s extremely challenging to get past your partner introducing these risks into your relationship.
  • Straining Finances. Addictive behaviors often lead to financial problems, either because of spending on the addiction or neglecting professional obligations.
  • Causing Legal Concerns. In some cases, addiction results in legal trouble, like solicitation charges.

Addiction can leave you and your partner experiencing a range of negative emotions, including anger, confusion, self-doubt, shame, embarrassment, and depression. You likely both wonder how you got to this point and long for what you thought your relationship and life would be.

It’s challenging to address addiction — with each other and in partnership with mental health professionals — but failure to do so will only make the problem grow and will likely mean the end of your relationship.

“You didn’t cause this to happen, so you aren’t responsible for fixing it,” Matt said. “Your job is to heal yourself, then determine if your relationship can also be healed.”

Healing and Recovery

The good news is that you can heal from relationship trauma. The first step is to recognize what’s happening to you and understand that it’s not your fault. From there, you can take steps to get the help you need from a mental health professional and be on your way to recovery.

Recovering from relationship trauma requires:

  • Acknowledging Your Feelings. Recognize what’s happened to you, that you may be experiencing trauma as a result, and that you need and deserve help. Accept that you’re going to feel a range of emotions as a result of discovering this addiction, and those feelings are valid.
  • Understanding Trauma. Learning about trauma and how your mind and body respond to traumatic happenings can help demystify the feelings you’re having. It also can assist you in developing coping strategies.
  • Developing a Support System. It can be challenging to rely on others after what’s happened, but you shouldn’t have to grieve alone for what you thought your relationship was. Lean on understanding loved ones to support you.
  • Prioritizing Yourself. You’re likely concerned about your partner and your other loved ones, but you must put yourself and your healing first. You can’t force your partner to get the help they need or be there for others until you’re feeling better.
  • Setting Boundaries. You must decide what you’re willing to do (or not) to save your relationship. Then, it’s vital to adhere to the boundaries you’ve set, even when it’s difficult.
  • Allowing Yourself Time. The addiction didn’t develop overnight. You won’t heal from discovering it that quickly, either. Show yourself grace and give yourself the time you need to heal. 

Trauma doesn’t go away if it isn’t addressed. Seeking professional mental health support and relationship trauma treatment will assist you in understanding and healing from relationship trauma.

“A mental health professional can really help you uncover your feelings about the betrayal and move you through the process of coping with what’s happened,” Matt said. “While you won’t forget the betrayal, you want to leave it in your past as much as possible.”

Begin Again Institute’s Approach

Begin Again Institute specializes in treating men with sex, pornography, and masturbation addictions, as well as other intimacy disorders. Because of this specialty, we have a unique understanding of these types of addictions and the relationship trauma they cause. 

We know that you need help and support recovering from the trauma of addiction, too.

Our partner programs help you:

  • Understand trauma and how it impacts your mind and body
  • Learn self-regulation and stress management techniques
  • Heal from betrayal
  • Set healthy boundaries
  • Embrace self-care strategies
  • Establish the next steps in your relationship

Treatment Options at Begin Again Institute

Begin Again Institute offers two options to meet your unique needs in understanding and healing from betrayal trauma.

Partner Support Program

The Partner Support Program is for women whose partners are enrolled in one of our intensive programs. The virtual program is free for you and includes:

  • Daily support and check-ins with a program facilitator who is certified with the Association of Partners of Sex Addicts Trauma Specialists (APSATS)
  • Education and care from a betrayal trauma specialist
  • A “partner damage letter” session with your spouse
  • Group counseling with other program participants

5-Day Partner Intensive

The partner intensive, Resilience Through Betrayal, is a joint program with our friends and experts at Bellevue Trauma Recovery Center.

The five-day intensive is specifically for partners of sex addicts who’ve experienced the pain of betrayal trauma.

The intensive in Boulder, Colorado, includes 30-40 group and individual therapy hours from an expert team of betrayal trauma specialists. The goal is to provide you with the support you need to heal from betrayal and move forward with your life.

Starting the Journey to Recovery

You didn’t ask for sex, pornography, or masturbation addiction to destroy the image you had of your relationship, but it happened. Now, you’re left grieving while experiencing relationship trauma. You don’t have to fight these feelings alone, and you deserve to heal. Contact Begin Again Institute today to start your journey to recovery.

  • Category: Relationships
  • By Begin Again Institute
  • February 7, 2024

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