Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Healing From Betrayal: Why We Must Tell Our Story

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. 
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.

18 comments:

  1. This is a great post. I am 18 months out from the 1st D day and 8 months out from final D day trauma. I have wanted to post my story, but haven't done it yet. Maybe I will now after reading this post. Your site has been a life-line to me. Thank you for sharing your own trauma.

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  2. This is an excellent article and I agree with Barb about this blog being a life-line to surviving this hell. I have probably gotten more help from this blog than I have going to my personal counselor in addition to couples' counseling with my husband, trying to sort this mess out. My husband has also started with his own counselor, so hopefully 3 counselors between the two of us will help our marriage survive, and for me, to find myself again. So thank you Elle and everyone who has shared your pain, triumphs, and fears.

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  3. My wife asked me to read this and I should have read it right away. It's right on for both side's. I have to call my wife and tell here I am sorry.

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    1. Thank-you, thank-you, thank-you for this comment. I think I'm going to cry. If just one guy (you!!) recognizes his wife's trauma/pain and understands how he can truly help her past it, then my life's work is done.
      One caveat: this might play out over and over again. Unfortunately, it isn't magically healed with one "I'm sorry." But consistently, over time, those "I'm sorry"s become less necessary because she comes to truly know you're sorry. To recognize that you would un-do your choices if you could and that you don't ever want to hurt her like that again. And that's when true healing takes place and your marriage becomes so much deeper.

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  4. Thank you for writing this. It's something that I needed. I have been trying to talk about my trauma and sometimes people just don't want to hear it. And it hurts. It feels good to know I am not being nutty.

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    1. Bobbi,

      I resisted it too. It felt "dramatic" to me. I kept thinking: I haven't been raped. I haven't been to war. But once you examine what prompts a trauma response, betrayal fits the bill. Once I could allow myself to respond as if it was trauma, my healing sped up and I was able to extend more compassion to myself, and my husband.

      Elle

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  5. Me too! I didn't want to talk about it I didn't want to be reminded of the pain I was going thru to the point I left so many unanswer questions out. I realized that in order for me to move on I needed to know those painful answers and talk about it.....I was in so much shock that I forgot most of the text messages I read between my husband and the OW I refused to go to that place but now that I know the whole truth and that he done with her I am ready to move on and start the process of forgiveness.

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    1. Yay! I'm glad to hear. It's amazing how much better we feel after hearing the story. Inevitably, what happened was never as exciting or wonderful as what we imagined happened.

      Elle

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  6. I have days or weeks even that I seem to be..ok. But then there are days like today, where out of left field I get slammed with a flashback or even the smallest memory of the trauma and BOOM...the tears start rolling out. So its days like today that I come to this site, I've read and reread some of the articles to help remind me that I'm not alone and that this part of my life won't always be so bad. I'm still dealing with humiliation of staying in my relationship at times. I don't know sometimes from day to day whether or not it will last or if I'll learn something new that will hurt me once again...but nonetheless this site has gotten me through many a bad day.

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    1. justAgirl,
      You're absolutely not alone. We all know that feeling where you're having a good day (finally!) and then something pops into your head, or you hear a certain song, or see a certain model car, or remember a certain moment and -- wham! -- you're right back there. That's a consequence of PTSD, which many of us experience. You experience those thoughts as IF IT'S STILL HAPPENING…but it's not. Remind yourself that you are safe, that it's over, that you're okay. They will get fewer and further between until you can think about it without very little emotion at all. It becomes simply part of your story, a painful part, but a part that isn't without its gifts, too.

      Elle

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  7. I just re read this today. Certain parts of this site are more meaningful as I go through my journey. That's why this site is so great. I read it every day. Thank you for being here.
    A friends husband had an affair over 6 years ago and came through with a stronger marriage, she did not ask questions and thinks I'm wrong to. (she is also a friend that has kept away from me and does not contact me, only seeing me in couples) My husband did make the comment that they worked through it without talking about every point, so why do I need to! I said that everyone is different. I'm confused-if you rob a bank or commit murder and get caught you have to account for your actions. So why is it different for a cheater??
    He is trying really hard, and says he made a mistake and wishes he could turn back the clock. But it was not one occasion. It lasted 7 months. Each action, phone call, text, meeting was a mistake he knew it was wrong. He is a grown up and understands right from wrong.

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    1. Jane,
      The fact that your friend isn't contacting you and only sees you as a couple speaks volumes to me. I doubt she's truly healed from her husband's betrayal and would find your pain too much to bear. I had a similar experience with a friend of mine. She was quite impatient with me as I struggled to understand my husband's betrayal. She had left her husband after an affair. It was only years later that she confessed to me that it took her years to get over the devastation, long after she'd left him, because she chose to simply "forget" about it. Our bodies don't forget. They hang on to trauma, which is why we need to exorcise it. To replace it with understanding.
      Your husband is also unfair to expect you to respond the same way to what he's done. It's common -- most of these guys would prefer to just move past what they did. But it's unreasonable and unrealistic. And ultimately unhealthy.

      Elle

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  8. Thank you so much for this site. I just found out on October 4th and am feeling.very lost. I don't have any friends that have gone thru this. I feel that I have to be with my husband every day all day. I think I might be trying to hard to make things right again. When I'm not with him I think to much about the ow. At this point I'm just completely clueless and feel very lonely.

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    1. Welcome…and I'm so sorry you need to be here.
      This is pretty raw for you. I can remember that feeling of believing I needed to be with him every minute to assure myself that nothing was happening. Be gentle with yourself. You've experienced huge trauma. Try not to obsess about the OW (you'll find lots of stuff on this site to help you with this). And give yourself time to get over the shock before you focus on making things "right". This is a marathon, not a sprint.

      Elle

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    2. I'm very sorry for your loss. I am 3 months out, and after an initial upsurge in confidence that things are going to be OK, I am struggling still. I just want to be with my husband all day long, but with both of our schedules, it is hard to find any time during most days.

      Today is a bad day, and I'm not sure why. Except that I feel the dread that the rug is going to be pulled out from under me again. I think that I should be asking for reaffirmation from my husband, but he is also going through a pretty scary stage of grief, and is not able to be there for me as much as I would like. It leaves me feeling sad and rather isolated, as you describe. I wish that I could say something, anything more comforting than "you are not alone, and you will be be OK". I hear this, and know it to be true at some level, but it is hard to FEEL that one will be OK on days like this. Hang in there.

      I'm not a very patient person- thinking about running a marathon is rather daunting for me today.

      Jen

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    3. Jen,
      Three months is still incredibly new. I know it seems like a long time. But at three months I think you're still processing your new reality.
      I know that feeling of wanting to be with your husband all the time -- to cling to that. But yes, you will be okay, even on days when you're not so sure. Don't worry about the 26th mile of this marathon. One foot in front of the other will get you there.

      Elle

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  9. Hi Elle.. my husband said that.. he is a man. He is not like me. He does not need to talk about it.

    Which brought me to the question of .. how would betrayed husbands handle betrayal?

    He hates moments when I bring anything about what happened up.. he always says that it 'spoils the mood' or any good time we may seem to be having.

    He finds it so hard to be patient to sit through me crying and having to keep hearing certain things or to have to say certain things repeatedly.. but that said.. is there a standard way of how the WS deals with the BS?

    I would like to think that there is still an ounce of conscience in him.. but he did say very hurtful things to me in the past month but i dont know.. is him forcing himself to make things somehow work.. a bad thing? Sigh.

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    1. He doesn't have to be "like" you to recognize that you've been deeply wounded by him…and that he needs to do whatever it takes to help heal that hurt. It's really that simple. He seems a master at putting his needs before yours. Not any more.

      Elle

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