With the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, I’ve been thinking a lot about the wide-reaching and long-lasting effects of trauma.
The horrific and inhumane acts of last Friday have left a permanent mark on all of us. My thoughts and prayers go out to everyone who was directly impacted by these events, and the countless others who are mourning these senseless acts of brutality.
Most people think of trauma in terms of major events such as the Paris attacks, 911, earthquakes, or more personal incidents such as assault or rape. But the truth is, trauma can occur due to a wide variety of experiences.
Trauma is not defined by the event, but rather how the event is experienced.
This means that two people can experience the same event and one person will become traumatized, while the other will not be traumatized at all. How can that be?
Trauma is created primarily through two factors:
- The event is experienced as overwhelming; and
- The perception — or reality — that there is no escape, and/or a paralyzing feeling of helplessness to do anything about what is happening.
This is why children are so vulnerable to trauma. Because of children’s’ developing brains and their deep dependence on their caregivers, they often perceive events as overwhelming. They are also “stuck” in the situation or experience with no way to get out because of their dependence.
On the other hand, when faced with an overwhelming situation, some people emerge relatively unaffected because they were able — in the moment — to take action to either protect themselves or help another person.
So how does this relate to partners of sex addicts?
Imagine what it would feel like to:
- Discover that you have been persistently lied to.
- Discover that your partner has been having an ongoing (or series of ongoing) emotional or sexual affairs.
- Stumble across a graphic discovery such as pornography, sexting, or other sexually graphic image involving your partner.
- Get diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection when you’ve been monogamous for years.
- Receive a phone call out of the blue from someone who discloses to you that he/she has been having a secret sexual relationship with your partner for years.
Each one of these scenarios is traumatic for partners. Each is overwhelming, and at the moment of discovery or disclosure, there is no way to escape the reality of the information.
Of course, partners can choose to leave the relationship with the addict. However, this is a major decision that typically doesn’t (and shouldn’t) occur immediately post-discovery unless it involves the physical safety of the partner or a child.
Responses to trauma are impacted by a number of factors including the frequency of the experience and the person’s trauma history.
Generally speaking, repeated traumas have a greater impact and take longer to resolve than single incidents. This being the case, partners of sex addicts in long-term relationships will typically be more impacted than those in shorter relationships.
If the partner has an extensive family of origin trauma history, she will have more challenges in dealing with the trauma associated with being in relationship with a sex addict. This is especially true for partners who experienced repeated boundary violations as a child such as physical and/or sexual abuse.
If you’re wondering about the severity of your own trauma symptoms, read my post co-addict or trauma survivor? for a list of symptoms related to post-traumatic stress. The most common symptoms for partners are intrusive thoughts, panic episodes, and hyper-vigilance.
It’s important for partners to get support and healing around their trauma.
Exercises such as incident writing, exploring and processing triggers, drafting an impact statement, and therapies such as Somatic Experiencing, Eye Movement and Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR), or Sensorimotor Psychotherapy can be helpful. Partners can also greatly benefit from increasing their self-care activities.
If you’re struggling with trauma symptoms, be gentle with yourself and seek help as soon as possible.
© Vicki Tidwell Palmer, LCSW (2015)
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