Three Cofactors to the Betrayal Wound
Isolation, Empathy Burnout, and Brain Fizzle
“I’m still turned inside out 6 months later”.
“Thank God I have work and the kids to distract me. They make it easy to put on the mask and forget for a few hours each day”.
“My partner still doesn’t get how this destroyed me”.
“She’s remorseful but I just can’t open up again.
“If I try to talk about it I’m accused of living in the past”.
If you’ve discovered that your partner is a sex addict, your life and soul have been shattered.
The shock, rage and grief is overwhelming.
And as much as you want to be able to move on, you just don’t know how.
Friends offers advice, but it doesn’t seem to sink in.
And that’s one reason why, ironically, those with a strong support network often fare no better than people who have almost none.
But there are other hidden cofactors to the betrayal wound.
These are isolation, empathy burnout, and brain fizzle.
These cofactors can slow your healing journey to a crawl.
There are also myths about healing after learning about a partner’s double life. If you think that these myths are true, you’ll have even more emotional gridlock.
The good news is that getting a handle on the cofactors and myths brings clarity to the confusion that most partners of sex addicts experience. Many are mystified by their own choices, moods and interests during this transitional time.
Holding the secret of the betrayal cuts you off from those that you are closest to and usually draw strength from. You feel dishonest and exhausted from wearing such a heavy social mask.
Myth: Honesty is the best policy
In this age of transparency, we often confuse the healing power of honesty with the mistake of having no boundaries to protect our bruised and raw spirit.
The truth is that it can be healthier to build boundaries and choose privacy. Yet this does result in feeling isolated. You may feel like you are living a lie with those closest to you.
Below are some common questions that arise from the conflict between isolation, privacy and honesty.
Why haven’t I told my parents yet?
Your parents adore your partner and telling them the truth would break their hearts. And you may think, “What if they side with the him/her? Or blame me? Or tell me to forgive when I’m not ready? Or tell me to leave when I don’t know what I want?” Sometimes its easier to choose privacy than to deal with your parent’s reactions. You are not yet ready to feel their sympathy or their judgment. Your mask of normalcy may grow heavier each day, but that’s easier than involving your parents or watching them go through their own reactions about your partner. You trade the relief and strength that comes from sharing, for a mental haven of normalcy that their ignorance provides. Your relationship with your parents becomes a refuge of innocence from a bygone era each time you get together. Sometimes, that provides you with more strength than premature sharing.
Why can’t I bring it up with the kids?
Your kids would be heartbroken and shocked. They love you both. Not talking about it protects their childhood. Even if your children are adults, you are not prepared to have them question how they view the two of you.
Also, a big part of your damage comes from realizing that so much of your history was not what it seemed. You don’t want a disclosure about your marriage to make your children also question the integrity of their childhood.
Finally, its tough to accept that so much in the marriage has been out of your control. Owning that you are a gatekeeper about your information puts you back in control. And that can be stabilizing and healing.
Why am I hiding this big secret from my friends?
Some in your community may judge. The extent of his/her deceit is shocking. If word got out, what happens to your family’s standing at church, mosque, or synagogue? Or the way your book club, PTA, fitness group and neighbors see you? People talk. What would this do to the kid’s friendships? Your life is already on a roller coaster. You need your tribe to treat you the way they always have. Maintaining privacy gives you acceptance and sweet peace.
What to do:
Privacy helps, but you still will do better if you get the support that comes from talking it out. Find a group. There are so many wonderful support groups online and in your community. These people have been where you are right now. They can empathize, won’t judge, and will maintain your confidentiality.
Cofactor: Empathy Burnout
You know that you’ve burned out your friends but you just can’t stop yourself.
Myth: Venting is good for me
Your emotional overload has exceeded your capacity to contain it. As a result you have become a Niagara Falls of feelings. An unstoppable excess of anger and tears keeps pouring out of your broken heart. Normally we get a sense of relief from venting. For this, our friends are happy to hear us out.
But the extreme cut of perhaps decades of lies can trigger the opposite dynamic: the more you vent, the more upset you are. This contrasts with the familiar belief that if we just cry it all out, we’ll eventually be done. This is not always true.
The fact is that at times, making the effort to reign in your feelings may give your traumatized heart enough quiet time to calm down.
Also, this will relieve your friend’s empathy burnout.
Your friends have burnout if you sense their frustration and helplessness, or their fading interest.
Perhaps they start either saying the wrong things or avoiding you.
What to do:
Switch it up. Ask for help in enforcing your ban on talking about it. Aim to replace talking about it with having more fun.
If your emotions start to ramp up, distract yourself. Change the conversation, get out, move to another room. Drink less to help maintain your inhibitions .
Cofactor: Brain Fizzle
You secretly fear there is something physically wrong with your head, and you want an MRI.
You may have brainfog, or you’re incredibly forgetful, or everything feels surreal, or you feel stuck on autopilot. Perhaps the traffic tickets are piling up because you just don’t seem to be able to focus while driving. This is part of the neurochemical response to the stress of betrayal. It is completely normal under the circumstances.
What to do:
Learn to laugh about it, remain mindful, and carry a clipboard. This too shall pass.
Myth: Its all in my head
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Neurobiology shows that the molecules that govern our every emotion can be generated within every organ of our bodies. The many feelings of betrayal are not just top down from our brains, but also bottom up and site specific in the body. When we feel our heart breaking, it is because those messenger molecules are being produced within the muscle fibers of the heart.
When those same molecules makes us feel weak in the knees or like we have a heavy weight on our shoulders, we can also feel physically off balance.
It is not unusual for the betrayed partner to be covered in bruises and nicks from minor accidents at work or home. Or to recognize that the last time you were so clumsy was when you were nine months’ pregnant.
It’s also well proven that severe change, especially loss, temporarily weakens the immune system. One is more susceptible to infectious illness, coughs and colds during the first year of an extreme emotional recovery period.
What to do:
Please make the effort to take extra good care of your sleep, diet, exercise at this time.
Maybe you’ve gained weight despite barely picking at your food because you’ve been so distraught.
Our bodies were designed in the stone age for wilderness survival. At a primitive emotional level, betrayal feels life threatening. And any big threat to our nervous system registers as ‘I’m in danger, and might not be able to find food, so I will conserve my calories for now.’ Voila! The strong feelings from the betrayal can cause weight gain.
What to do:
This will reverse as your stress resolves. Roll with it for now.
All of this is normal.
You are having a typical reaction to a very bad experience.
There is a way out.
Over half of couples who want to stay together do, and report having a better partnership than they ever dreamed of.
If you choose to separate, it can be from a place of strength, calm, wisdom, and an expanded sense of who you are. Not from feeling broken, angry and lost.
What to do:
The healing journey is easier and faster if you hire a seasoned guide with a good compass and the right maps.
Therapy works. Counseling can end your wondering about how to move on.
But I can’t afford therapy!
Add up the costs of a slowly destructing relationship, attorneys’ fees, or the consequences on your social, emotional and physical health, or of poor job performance.
In the long run, seeing a therapist is cheap compared to this.
But if therapy isn’t for you, here are some tips.
- Improve Your Self Care Plan
I repeat – in the year after a big loss, one’s risk for infectious disease, coughs, colds, and flu skyrockets.
Trauma, grief and depression weaken the immune system.
So be extra good about your diet, exercise, and sleep.
Make an effort to eat well and move your body. If you are not sleeping well, please talk to your doctor.
- Channel Your Strong Emotions
You are probably feeling waves of more raw emotion than you thought was possible. And because you have no prior experience, you are underprepared to manage them.
You may feel like you are losing control, and you may need to protect yourself from such emotional intensity and numb out. But emotional energy is alive, and will sneak back and cause you mischief. Unless you address it, you can harm yourself by either exploding or imploding.
You know you are exploding if you are:
Driving too fast, shouting and screaming too much, getting aggressive, impatient, careless, or wreckless.
You know you are imploding if you are:
Having drinking, eating, sleeping or shopping binges. Or you feel too thin skinned, easily overwhelmed or fretful, or notice that you are avoiding friends and fun.
- Get Physical
Work it out – at the gym, track, dance class.
Smash it out – destroy something harmless, like old mementos, mirrors, pictures, or his/her gifts.
This is cheaper, legal, and far more safe than having a car accident or shouting/texting fight with your betrayer.
Find meetups, support groups, classes and friends. Everyone I know who has grieved a betrayal from a sex addict says it is well worth the initial hassle to get back out there.
Read about what you are going through. This will give you confidence that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and that you are not going crazy.
In Part 2, we’ll look at what sex addicts must do in order to win their partner back.