Penelope Trunk, who was in the World Trade Center when the towers fell, knows a thing or two about trauma.
We women, who've been betrayed by exactly the people we trusted with our hearts and bodies, also know a thing or two about trauma.
[Before there's a pile-on about how being cheated on doesn't even rate on the same scale as 9/11, let me say that this isn't a pain race. Pain and loss is pain and loss. And all pain and loss deserves to be acknowledged and grieved.]
Here's what Trunk has to (brilliantly) say about trauma:
The way to deal with post-traumatic stress is to tell your story over and over again. The theory is that when you are in the moment of trauma, you have to turn off all your emotions to get yourself through it. After the fact, in order to stop having nightmares and panic attacks, you have to experience the emotions you missed.
And this is the step that cheaters, including reformed cheaters, just can't get.
We need to talk about what happened to us. We are desperate to talk about it.
It doesn't prolong our pain. It does exactly the opposite. It doesn't deepen our pain. It does just the opposite.
By talking about our trauma, we are processing all those emotions that were stifled when we were going through the experience.
How many of you describe your response to D-Day as "shock"? Or say, "I felt numb"?
I know that I somehow got myself dressed, out of the house and managed to make chit-chat with the other moms while picking up my kids. It was like some weird out-of-body experience. I could watch myself making small talk and smiling at the teachers and pretending with my kids that everything was A-okay.
That, my friends, is a trauma response. That is survival instinct kicking in. And it's helpful. It's helpful to ensure that children get picked up from school, that dinner gets put on the table, that jobs get done, that life goes on. But, over the long term, it's not helpful, it's harmful.
It produces post-trauma. It might show up as a numbness that simply doesn't go away even when it becomes safe to process feelings. It might show up as depression, or self-loathing (which is anger turned inward). It might be nightmares. It might be anxiety. It might be an out-of-proportion response to something seemingly benign. Like completely panicking when your husband is five minutes late coming home from work.
I once went berserk when I couldn't reach my husband on the phone and he was at the grocery store. I went ballistic on him. To him, what was the big deal? To me, not being able to reach him was EXACTLY what had happened the morning I found out. This wasn't about him being unreachable at the grocery store. This was about me being totally transported back to that awful, horrible morning when my world fell apart. To that consistent 33-second wait while I listened to his phone ring until it went to voice mail. 33 seconds. I watched the clock. Over and over as my brain caught up to what my body had known for weeks.
This was about post-trauma.
And, as Trunk points out, the way to turn post-trauma into PAST trauma is to talk about it.
The key here is talk. This isn't about raging and screaming and dredging up every last unkind thing your spouse has ever done. In fact, that won't get you anywhere. It's about telling your story. It's about someone bearing witness to your fear and your confusion. It's about someone confirming that this happened. And it was horrible. It's about reminding yourself over and over again, that this happened...but it's not happening now.
You survived to tell your story.
It can be really tough, however, to convince your husband of this.
You tell your story and he hears, over and over again, I'm a total asshole who did this. I'm a cheating, lying scumbag. No matter that you're not exactly saying that (though you might be thinking it), that's what he hears. And he doesn't WANT to hear that. He doesn't WANT to be reminded of what he did. Who would?
Though a therapist or good friend can also listen to your story, it's often those who created our trauma who we want to listen to our story. We want our husbands to listen to our pain and reassure us that we will never have to go through that again. That it's over. That they are doing everything they can to make sure they never walk down that same path. That they never want to hurt us like that again.
That's it. Most of us don't want our husbands to beat themselves up. We don't want the focus to be on them at all. This is about us.
And the opportunity to tell our story, or part of it, each time we're triggered moves us forward. It helps us heal. And each time our husband is able to be with us in that pain, to listen without defending himself, or minimizing our experience, or telling us why we shouldn't feel that way, our marriage is strengthened. We're on the same team, trying to beat back trauma.
But each time we're silenced, told we're "living in the past", told we're hurting ourselves, that we need to "let it go" and "move on", our trauma goes deeper underground and our marriage fractures a bit more. We're on opposing teams, each trying to nurse his/her own wound at the expense of the other.
The story of our betrayal is a key part of who we are, whether our husbands or we like it or not (and most of us...not so much). But sharing that story carries with it the power to heal, not only ourselves but our marriages.
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