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Questioning Reality: Gaslighting and Emotional Manipulation in Relationships

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It’s happening again.

Your suspicions about your spouse’s behaviors are increasing.  The late nights at the office, not answering his phone when you call, strange text messages.  You could’ve sworn you smelled perfume on him when he came home last night. 

But when you bring it up, he immediately lashes out.  “Seriously?  I’ve told you a thousand times that I’m not having an affair!  You’re seeing things that aren’t really there.  Just because your dad cheated on your mom doesn’t mean that I’m doing the same thing!  Who knows, you bring this up so often it makes me wonder if you’re having an affair and feeling guilty about it.  You’re crazy.”

Once again, you walk away from the conversation wracked with guilt and self-doubt.  Maybe I was reading into something that wasn’t there.  It’s probably nothing.  He’s right, I’m just acting crazy.

As the weeks and months go by, the evidence keeps stacking up against him.  You catch him on his phone late at night talking to another woman.  There are charges on your credit card for dinners you didn’t attend.  Several nights he doesn’t come home at all.

And yet he keeps denying that anything’s wrong and dismissing your concerns.  What at one time would’ve been convincing evidence that he’s doing something suspicious now becomes more fodder for you to doubt yourself and believe that you’re crazy.  His emotional manipulation tactics are working: he’s perfected the art of gaslighting.

What is gaslighting?

Gaslighting is a form of emotional manipulation in which the individual being questioned denies the truth and leads the questioner to doubt their own perception of reality.  The term comes from the story in the 1944 film Gaslight, in which the husband gradually and systematically convinces his wife that she is insane. He does so by changing small details in the home, including the dimness of the gas lights, and denying any difference.  The more he denies, the more she believes him and buys in to his assertion that she’s going crazy.

This process is slow and gradual, almost imperceptible.  The questioner eventually believes he or she is misperceiving reality, learning that they can’t trust their instincts.  Gaslighting influences the balance of power in relationship in favor of the one who denies any wrongdoing.

Gaslighting is commonly present in addiction.  Typically the partner can intuit that there is a problem with the addict’s behavior, but when questioning him or her, receives a response of denial.  Eventually the partner believes their spouse’s lies and doubts their own self-worth.  However, when the partner discovers the addiction and begins to see the past in light of this new awareness, they realize they weren’t crazy after all.  Yet prolonged conditioning to doubt their own perceptions can lead to difficulty learning to trust their gut moving forward.

How do I know I’m experiencing gaslighting?

If you find yourself confronting an issue with your spouse consistently and getting nowhere, pay attention to how you feel in response.  If you leave those conversations feeling as though you were in the wrong for bringing it up, or questioning your perception of reality, you may be experiencing gaslighting. 

Gaslighting also has a strong effect on self-esteem and feelings of self-worth.  As your spouse or partner denies evidence that indicates deception or an issue with addiction, you might notice yourself using negative self-talk, beating yourself up, or doubting yourself more often.  Your confidence may suffer.  Pay attention to how your self-esteem has been affected since you entered the relationship with this individual: did you have self-doubt or issues with self-confidence beforehand?  Have they increased or worsened since being in this relationship?

“Crazymaking” is a synonym for gaslighting that gets at another symptom: feeling like you are crazy or losing your mind.  This is often a defensive denial strategy of the gaslighter.

Notice if your partner turns your accusations against you: for example, if you bring up concern about his alcohol use, notice if he or she flips it around and begins accusing you of having an addiction.  Often the gaslighter will project whatever issues they’re dealing with on their partner in their defensiveness.

How do I stop the gaslighting?

The first step toward change when you’re facing gaslighting is owning your own reality.  Slow down and acknowledge the information or data you’re seeing.  Be open to possible alternate explanations for the data, but realize that if enough evidence points in a concerning direction, there’s likely some validity to it.  Don’t allow your partner to twist your reality and lead you to believe you’re seeing something that isn’t really there.

Learn to recognize the signs of defensiveness in your partner.  If you bring up a concern to your partner, see if they turn back to criticize you or lash out.  Often defensiveness is a sign of insecurity or weakness, and it can indicate denial or deception.

Explore and build up your self-esteem apart from your partner.  If you accept their negative words and assumptions about you as truth, then your confidence will likely suffer.  Instead, empower yourself by owning that you have value and worth.  Learn that your perspective matters and your intuition is valid.  Pursue your own self-care and support to build up your confidence and boundaries.

Remember the old adage that actions speak louder than words.  Addicts are great at making promises, but not always skilled at follow-through.  Instead of basing your trust on your spouse’s words, look at their actions and behaviors as representative of the truth.  Gaslighters can easily persuade you with their words, but their actions often tell a different story. 

If you know you’ve experienced gaslighting before, as when you’ve recently discovered a spouse’s addiction, use your feelings of self-doubt or crazymaking as red flags to ask yourself if the gaslighting is happening again.  Go back to reviewing the data to see if there is evidence of deception or denial.  If so, detach from the gaslighter, build up your own self-esteem, and set or enforce appropriate boundaries for your own safety.

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Are you wondering if you’ve been subject to gaslighting in your own relationship?  Do you feel like you’re going crazy in your relationship?  Have you found out about your partner’s addiction and are wondering how to learn to trust your intuition again?  At Restored Hope, I offer specialized counseling for partners of sex addicts who are reeling from the discovery of their spouse’s behaviors.  Give me a call today at 734.656.8191 or email me to schedule your first appointment and hear how I can help.

Finding Your People: Social Support in Addiction and Trauma Recovery

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In an early season of the television show Grey’s Anatomy, Christina, one of the main characters, has to undergo a medical procedure.  To do so, she needs to designate an emergency contact who can help her out if needed.  (If you’re a fan of the show, you know which scene I’m referring to.)  She writes down the name of Meredith, leading to an iconic phrase the show repeats through the seasons: “You’re my person.” 

We all need our “person.”  Or, in all honesty, our “people.”  We need those who can support us and help when we’re facing crisis.  But what if the biggest crisis you are facing is your own or your spouse’s struggle with sex and love addiction?

Maybe your spouse has just found you out and the behaviors you thought you could keep hidden from everyone are now coming to light.  Maybe you’re on the other side, discovering your spouse’s addiction, and you feel isolated and alone because of the shame tied to revealing his or her secret to others.  Having people to turn to and rely on when battling against sex and love addiction and trauma can be incredibly difficult, but it is essential for effective recovery.

Why is it so important?

For the Addict

We know that addiction thrives in secrecy, and accountability to others is a necessary component of maintaining sobriety.  Fear of feeling ashamed or rejected can keep you quiet.  But when you have people who know, they are more likely to hold you accountable for your actions because you’ll have to talk with them about it.  Honesty with your therapist is a great place to start, but you’ll also need to talk to people you can access more easily when you’re experiencing craving or wanting to act out. 

Speaking up about your addiction releases you from shame, paradoxically enough.  When you hear others’ stories and find similarities with their experience, you know experientially that you’re not alone.  Addiction is isolating because you can feel as though you’re the only one who struggles, and yet knowing others’ stories helps you rely on them for reassurance and validation when shame threatens to take over.

Talking to other individuals who have struggled in this area can be a helpful way to get feedback on what’s worked for them in their recovery.  When you’re on your own, it’s difficult to know how to stop.  But you can learn so much from people in recovery and notice your experience change as you integrate that new information.

For the Partner

Partners of sex and love addicts need to break through the feelings of isolation that come with discovery of a spouse’s addiction.  The pain and agony of finding out can lead to feelings of sadness, anger, grief, fear, and hurt.  These can be overwhelming when experienced on your own.  You might feel guilt or fear about sharing about your spouse’s addiction with others because of how it reflects on you or your self-esteem.  And yet you need to find a place where people can support you and help you not to feel so alone on this side of the trauma.

This support also allows you to have accountability for self-care and boundary setting.  Sometimes hearing from others about their experiences setting boundaries with their addicted spouse can help you have a better picture of what boundaries feel right for you.  These people can also connect with you if you’re having a hard day, listening to your difficult emotions or even offering practical help like taking care of your children.  Talking to others can remind you of your right to stand up for yourself, give yourself a voice, and practice self-care.

Another reason for connection is to find a safe place for yourself.  Lack of safety and stability in the home is a symptom that crops up often for partners in the wake of addiction.  Triggers can send your mood swinging back and forth as you relive the past years of your life in light of the addiction.  Finding a place where you can be with a friend or group on a regular basis can ease that burden by providing a consistent safe space in your life.

For Both

Sex and love addiction is an intimacy disorder often related to attachment wounds from earlier on in life.  Partners in trauma may also experience triggers related to their attachment style.

Attachment is a word that describes your experiences with caregivers at a young age.  These early attachments influence how you see others and the world around you, and they affect later relationships in life.  If your parents or caregivers were comforting, nurturing, and responded to your needs such that you felt loved, you’re set up to have a secure attachment.  But if your caregivers were unable to comfort and nurture you effectively, either by offering too much attention or not enough, you may have grown up with an insecure attachment style.  This is common if your caregivers dealt with their own experiences of addiction, depression, anxiety, or other mental health struggles. 

The good news is that these attachment styles aren’t permanent.  You can “earn” secure attachment through involvement with safe individuals in your life who offer nurture and comfort to you through their relationship with you.  Creating secure attachments in your adult life is a major reason why social support is so essential in the recovery journey for both the addict and their partner.

How to Find Support

12 Step Groups

12 Step groups are an effective starting place to find community with other people who understand what you’re experiencing.  Find a group that’s a good fit for you by attending at least six times and seeing if you feel connected and supported.  The best groups for sex and love addicts are Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA), Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA), and Sexaholics Anonymous (SA).  If you’re local to Michigan, these fellowships are particularly active and have several meetings in the Ann Arbor area.

There are also 12 Step groups for partners of addicts to address their own trauma.  COSA and S-Anon are great options for finding a safe place to talk about your experience and receive support.  If you aren’t comfortable attending a group specific to sex and love addiction, or there aren’t options in your area, Al-Anon is another great resource as a recovery program for friends and family of alcoholics.

Church-Based Support Groups

Finding a support group at your local church is also a helpful option.  If you’re a Christian, a church-based support group can be a helpful way to integrate faith into your recovery journey, as well as find support systems and accountability. Celebrate Recovery is a Christian 12-Step based program in churches around the country.  In the Ann Arbor area, churches such as NorthRidge and Oak Pointe offer groups for addicts and partners of addicts.

Therapy Groups

Many therapists offer group therapy as an additional option for extra support in your recovery.  There is often an extra layer of safety in these groups because they are run by therapists who maintain confidentiality and manage group dynamics.   

Existing Relationships

As an addict, you may struggle with telling anyone you are close to due to the shame of how their opinion of you might change.  But part of recovery involves coming clean in all areas of your life, including with people who are important to you.  While early in recovery, identify the people who are safest for you: those who are least likely to judge you and who you would trust to hold you accountable or support you.

As a partner, safety is incredibly important, as you are likely experiencing intense emotions and may be deciding whether to stay or go in the relationship.  Telling someone who’s going to bash your spouse or, alternatively, try to convince you to stay isn’t always helpful.  Instead, look for people who would be supportive of you no matter what you decide and share with them.  Consider your motivation to tell and the long-term ramifications of telling others. 

In Intimate Treason, Claudia Black and Cara Tripodi recommend using the image of a stoplight to decide who might be safe to tell.  Make a list of people you’d like to tell and rank them in terms of the three lights: red, yellow, and green.  Green individuals are supportive, safe people who you can trust with just about anything.  People in the yellow category may not feel safe to turn to for emotional support, but need to know for logistical reasons.  Those in the red are people who are unlikely to be supportive, will toss around blame, or may minimize the behaviors.  You might find, in this process, that family aren’t always safe to rely on emotionally at first, but may need to know for logistical reasons, such as when you are separating.

Have a conversation with your spouse and decide together who you will tell about the addiction and the corresponding trauma.  For the addict, you might feel challenged and uncomfortable by being asked to share your story, but openness is key to recovery.  For the partner, having a conversation allows you to feel free to talk to people without feeling guilt about telling your spouse’s story.  For individuals who are in the “yellow” group listed above, write out a short script as a letter informing them of the necessary information without going into too much detail and agree upon this together before sending it or talking to them.

While recovering from addiction is one of the most painful experiences you will likely go through in your life, the gift of lasting and supportive friendships that can come from that experience is one that can’t be matched.  Lean into this chance to build connection and community.

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Are you feeling isolated and alone after finding out about your spouse’s addiction? Are you an addict who is struggling with feelings of shame and having a hard time opening up? Have you felt disconnected from others as a result of your struggle with trauma? At Restored Hope, I offer counseling services to help you work through the roadblocks that are in the way of recovering from addiction or trauma, including the experience of isolation and loneliness. Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment.

Learning to Be Yourself Again: A Review of Codependent No More by Melody Beattie

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If you’ve been the spouse, child, sibling, or in another connected relationship with an addict, you know the havoc it can wreak on your sense of self and peace.  It can affect your self-esteem and make you feel like you’re crazy or out of control.  You may begin to feel like your life is dictated by the addict’s using and your efforts to manage the aftermath of his or her addiction.

With sex and love addiction, particularly for spouses of the addicts, this takes its own unique toll.  Partners can feel responsible for their spouse’s behaviors because the issue is sexual.  Sometimes addicts will blame their spouses for “not getting it at home,” so they seek sex out elsewhere.  Even if the addict isn’t blaming the spouse, he or she may still deal with insecurity about body image, sexuality, worth, and value.  This can lead to behaviors that could be deemed codependent.

What is codependency?

Codependency, or co-addiction, is the name derived from early models of helping those married to addicts.  Codependency is a word that describes dysfunctional relationships where there is an over-dependence on another individual to provide you with security, safety, sense of self, or value.  It involves losing yourself in someone else.

A codependent person is one who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior.
— Melody Beattie

Unfortunately, in recent years, codependency has gotten a bad reputation. Spouses felt blamed or held responsible for their spouse’s acting out, as this communicated they had to change for their spouse to stop using. This does not sufficiently address the reality of the trauma caused by a significant other’s addiction.  While codependency may exist for some of these individuals, the pain of the trauma needs to be addressed and healed before looking at the possibility of codependency.

Codependency is still worth exploring, however, because it can shed light on how behaviors can change as a result of trauma.  Understanding codependency can help men and women feel empowered to change their lives through understanding the dynamics of control in a relationship.  In particular, if you find yourself in these types of relationships repeatedly, it is beneficial to take a look at some of these characteristics and see if you might benefit from a change.

Codependent No More

Melody Beattie, the author of the book Codependent No More*, began writing about codependency in 1986 when there were very few resources available to the public about codependency.  Her pioneering work in the study and treatment of codependence has paved the way for healing for many spouses and significant others of addicts.  This book and its corresponding workbook* have helped many men and women learn the skills they need to overcome codependency and learn the skills to take care of themselves. 

What I’ve Learned

You don’t need to define yourself as “codependent” or find yourself in an addictive relationship to benefit from the lessons of this book.  If you are in these types of relationships, however, or if you are a partner of a sex and love addict, then the following words will have particular resonance for you.

The only person you are in control of is yourself.

This is one of the hardest lessons to live by practically.  You know what’s best for others and you want to help them see what you see, but often that leads to controlling behaviors and obsessive thoughts.  Detach from the problems you aren’t in control over and allow yourself to focus only on those circumstances that are within your control.

When we attempt to control people and things that we have no business controlling, we are controlled.
— Melody Beattie

Understanding your own emotions is key.

Often in codependency, you can become reactive and not always know what’s triggering your anger.  Understanding the variety of emotional experiences you are having can help you learn more adaptive ways of coping.  Know that your emotions are not bad in themselves: how you react to them can have negative consequences, but welcome your emotions as indicators that something is not right. Explore how your ability to name and feeling emotions has been impacted by past trauma, either from your family-of-origin or from your relationship with an addict or other dysfunctional individual.

Moving from victim to victorious empowers you to make the best choices for yourself.

Viewing oneself as a victim of circumstance or of the addict is often justified in some way, but it keeps you feeling trapped and hopeless rather than empowered to change.  You might feel paralysis because you don’t think you have the power to make decisions to take care of yourself.  In her book Moving Beyond Betrayal*, Vicki Tidwell Palmer identifies the importance of both communicating needs and setting boundaries to get your needs met.

The surest way to make ourselves crazy is to get involved in other people’s business, and the quickest way to become sane and happy is to attend to our own affairs.
— Melody Beattie

Notice when you’re feeling like a victim and/or your needs aren’t being met and explore that further.  What might be leading you to feel that way?  What ways might you be acting in a way that reinforces the message that you are a victim (ie. through rescuing or enabling)?  What are your needs?  Can you meet them on your own or do you need help?

Break the value-based messages of shame, being “good enough,” or faulty Christian teaching.

Codependent thoughts and behaviors can be intensified by feelings of shame.  Perhaps you learned lessons as a child that you were only valuable or given attention when you served others. It could be that denying your own needs and caregiving was how you demonstrated that you were a true Christian.  The Biblical truth of serving others may have been twisted such that you think you ought to accept abuse and harm without complaint because that’s the “Christian” thing to do.

Identify what messages of shame are driving your tendency to care more for others than for yourself, whether coming from your faith background or from family relationships.  Understand how those are influencing your present day and seek to affirm the reality of your value outside of what you can give to others.

Self-care is more than just a trend.

Beattie defines self-care as an attitude or perspective toward yourself and your life that reminds you that you are responsible for yourself and your own well-being.  It is a reminder that you cannot depend on the object of your obsession to take care of you perfectly and without fault.  Self-care involves kindness and grace toward yourself with corresponding loving actions.

Practice self-acceptance and remind yourself that you are okay in this present moment.  Identify your needs and set goals for self-care to learn that you are capable of making decisions to care for yourself.  Include fun and play in your self-care as you get to know the inner child within you that may have been harmed by past caregivers.  Exercise and take care of your physical health for the added mental health benefits.

Acceptance doesn’t mean settling.

Practicing acceptance is a helpful add-on to releasing control of others.  When you acknowledge that you are the only person you can control, it requires you to admit that you are powerless over others’ behaviors.  But acceptance doesn’t mean you have to be okay with the way things are.  Instead, use acceptance to acknowledge the truth of where you are right now and assess the reality of what it will take to change.  Practicing acceptance is for you, not the other person, because it allows you to experience peace.  It may require moving through stages of grief before you can adequately feel acceptance.  Meet with a trusted friend or counselor to help you move through this grief to a place of acceptance. 

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Do you find yourself trying to control the behaviors of your loved one who is struggling with addiction?  Are you feeling hopeless and trapped, without any sense of how you can change?  Do you have a hard time living your own life because it seems like your spouse’s or significant other’s sex and love addiction rules your life?  At Restored Hope, I offer specialized treatment for partners of sex and love addicts to help you heal from trauma and feel empowered to make choices that are the best for you.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me to learn more and schedule your first appointment.

*These are Amazon affiliate links.  Click here to read more about Restored Hope’s Amazon local associates policy.

Finding Your Power Center: How To Leave Victimhood Behind and Own Your Power

If you’ve been on the receiving end of a spouse’s betrayal through an affair or sex and love addiction, there are times when you feel completely powerless and out of control.  Your partner’s behaviors and decisions baffle you.  Oftentimes the behaviors affect you directly, and it can be maddening to feel out of control.

Moments like these lead you to feel like the victim of someone else’s chaos or poor decision-making.  You may feel trapped, angry, or afraid of confrontation or change.  You’re probably also exhausted from trying to manage the emotional upheaval from dealing with the fallout of someone else’s actions, questioning whether or not you can trust them, and doubting your own self-worth.

How do I know I’m not in my power center?

When someone else’s actions or the circumstances around you leave you feeling like a victim, here are some symptoms you might notice:

  • Reacting rather than responding

  • Feeling trapped and stuck: “I just have to sit down and take it.”

  • Intense and overwhelming emotions, such as fear, anxiety, or anger

  • A sense of hopelessness: “Things will never change.”

  • Powerlessness: “There’s nothing I can do about this.”

If you’re dealing with a partner’s sex and love addiction, here might be some other symptoms you notice:

  • Denying or ignoring your partner’s addiction

  • Avoiding signs that addiction is continuing

  • Obsessively checking on your partner’s whereabouts and actions

  • Enabling addictive behaviors by taking ownership/blaming yourself

  • Attempting to control the addict’s behaviors

  • Feeling like you’re the addict’s parent rather than partner

How do I reclaim my power center?

The biggest shift needed to reclaim your power is defining yourself as someone capable of creating change, rather than a victim.  This is difficult because it may be true that there are things outside your control.  The actions, thoughts, and decisions of others are not something you have the power to control.  However, you can choose how you think and act in response to these behaviors and meet your personal needs within difficult circumstances. 

Vicki Tidwell Palmer, in her book Moving Beyond Betrayal*, does a great job of outlining how to find your authentic personal power by moving from victim to victorious. She invites you to take a step back from chaotic situations to identify what you need and choose appropriate steps to get those needs met.  Be kind to yourself in this process, and don’t heap shame on yourself when you find yourself feeling like a victim again. Instead, feel empowered to make a different choice rather than feeling like your emotions are taking over.

At times, taking back power can be as simple as naming that you are powerless.  In the Twelve Steps, Step One involves admitting that you are powerless over the addictive behavior.  In truth, you are powerless over your partner’s behaviors, and admitting this truth frees you to make decisions that are best for your well-being.  This process can teach you to meet needs through supportive relationships and friendships, self-care, and spirituality.

In particular with addicts who are either in denial or in active addiction, it can be easy to get caught up in the cycle of feeling like a victim or enabling their behavior.  Instead, admit that you are powerless over the denial itself.  While you can communicate the effect your partner’s behaviors have on you, you will need to support yourself with appropriate boundaries.  Setting boundaries to protect yourself and meet needs in healthy ways will allow you to reclaim power over your own life.

Practical Next Steps

Practice grounding exercises when you’re experiencing intense emotional responses.

Grounding exercises are a way that you can reconnect with the present moment when your emotions threaten to take over.  Sit in a comfortable spot and pay attention to your breathing.  Place your feet flat on the ground and notice the sensation of the ground beneath your feet.  Hold an object that has a unique texture, such as a smooth rock or a soft toy and connect with your sense of touch.  Practice the 5-4-3-2-1 breathing exercise (outlined in this article) where you connect deep breathing with noticing sensory information around you.

Pay attention to your body to identify what you need.

Check in with yourself emotionally by noticing the physical sensations in your body.  Identify previous times you have felt those physical sensations.  Ask yourself about those memories: what did you need at that time?  Safety?  Comfort?  Time alone?  Love?

Journal and reflect on these needs and identify healthy ways you can meet each of them.  For example, you might give yourself safety by removing yourself from situations that feel unsafe.  You can find comfort by calling or visiting a friend and talking with them about your experience.  You can feel love by spending time with a beloved pet or practicing self-love through kindness toward yourself.

Set a boundary or Make a request to move closer to what you need.

Some needs aren’t as easy to meet on your own.  In that case, you can make a request of your partner or others in order to get that need met.  Keep in mind that this request needs to be made with acceptance of the other’s response.  They have the right to say yes or no, and you will need to prepare for how you will respond in either case.

Setting boundaries is a helpful way to practice self-care or self-protection.  Boundaries are not meant to be a weapon or a punishment.  Instead, they are a tool by which you increase feelings of safety and stability in your life and relationships.  For example, if your spouse tends to raise his or her voice while having an argument, you might set a boundary that when he or she raises their voice, you will walk away from the conversation.  Or if your spouse continues sexually acting out, you may set a boundary of sleeping in separate bedrooms to help you feel safe.

Make agreements with your partner about supporting one another’s boundaries and needs.

Work together with your spouse to find compromise about current needs you each have in the relationship, especially in light of any addictive issues at play.  Identify the needs you listed above and come up with several possible solutions of how to resolve them.  Have a discussion with your partner about those needs and come to a place of compromise where you can both be satisfied with your agreement.  This conversation is likely best done in the context of a couples therapy session, if your partner is willing.   

When you’ve gotten to a place of compromise, write down the actions to which you and your partner have committed and sign them as agreements, giving a sense of gravity to the document.  If these agreements are not being honored by one or both of you, you have this physical document to revisit and have additional conversations about what might have caused the agreement to be broken.

Have you felt out of control with your emotions after discovering your partner’s betrayal?  Do you struggle to set boundaries or know what you need?  Are you afraid of confronting your loved one’s addictive behavior for fear that you will lose the relationship?  At Restored Hope, I offer compassionate counseling and care as you walk through these difficult life circumstances and seek to regain a sense of power and control over your life.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to set up an appointment at my Ann Arbor counseling office.

*These are Amazon affiliate links.  Click here to read more about Restored Hope’s Amazon local associates policy.

How to Cope with Trauma-Related Anger

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The experience of sexual abuse or sexual assault as a child, teen, or young adult can have traumatic effects throughout your life. In a similar vein, betrayal by a spouse who is a sex addict can shatter your sense of normalcy and leave you reeling from the traumatic backlash.  It is normal to experience anger in response to traumatic events.

Yet we often fear or avoid anger because of its perceived destructive effects.  We throw around statements like, “hurt people hurt people,” as though it’s a given that anger stemming from hurt will harm those around us.  If you watched parents express anger with violence or abuse, you’re more likely to be primed to believe that anger is unacceptable.  However, anger is not inherently bad nor is it harmful.

Reactions to Anger

There are various different ways in which we naturally react to anger caused by trauma.

Uncontrollable outbursts of anger

Anger may feel like it is constantly simmering under the surface, waiting to burst out at the slightest provocation.  You could be more irritable and likely to lash out at others around you.  You may feel out of control of the intensity of your anger response.  You might also experience shame, especially if your anger is directed toward your loved ones, or it is similar to unhealthy expressions of anger you experienced as a child.

This type of reaction to anger can involve violence, either with physical action or with words.  If you are becoming violent with those around you, please seek help.

Suppressing your anger.

If anger isn’t acceptable to you, you may take your anger and turn it inward as self-contempt or self-loathing.  This is a common response for women.  At its most extreme, this suppression of anger can turn into self-harm behaviors, drug and alcohol abuse, overeating, or suicidal thinking as ways to express the anger that has no other outlet.  Sometimes suppressing anger can be encouraged by religious backgrounds that place an overemphasis on forgiveness and equate anger with sin.   

If you are actively having suicidal thoughts and considering taking your own life, please care for yourself by calling the Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK.

Numbing out.

A third way might be ignoring anger through distraction or numbing, until you are no longer able to access the anger itself.  You may know it’s there or see it come out from time to time, but you just can’t get and stay angry.  This can come after prolonged suppression of anger when the body adapts to the response of the mind.  It can also be a way of dissociation or detaching from reality when the trauma has significantly affected your sense of self.

Healthy Response to Anger

Anger is a natural response to perceived injustice or wrong being committed against you.  In many cases of trauma, the anger is justified by the wrongful actions of an abuser or betrayer.  You can recognize the emotion of anger as acceptable because feelings alone do not harm anyone.  In fact, anger can, at times, indicate love or care for other people, like your children or fellow survivors of abuse.  You can learn to use your anger to serve you and help you move forward, rather than destroy your life.  The more aware you become of your experience of anger, the more able you are to manage it effectively.

How to Deal with Anger

Get into therapy.

First and foremost: if you are a survivor of trauma, whether it is from your childhood or from more recent experiences, the most effective way you can work through it is through therapyEMDR-Certified therapists and trauma-informed therapists do specialized work in treating trauma.  Find a therapist who you click with and trust them to be your support as you walk through the anger and other corresponding emotions that arise from your trauma.

Identify your go-to response to anger.

From the list above, identify yourself: are you someone who stuffs their anger down, only to turn it inward on yourself?  Do you find yourself lashing out at others and feeling angry all the time?  Or do you numb out and find it difficult to experience or express anger at all?  Examine the origin of this automatic response: did your family or parents handle anger in this way?  In the opposite way?  Where did you learn to express your anger in this way?  Acknowledging that anger is learned helps you to feel empowered to learn new ways to deal with anger.

Identify other emotions that are intensifying the anger or getting in the way.

Your anger may be directed at your abuser in the case of sexual abuse, or your spouse in the case of spousal betrayal and addiction.  However, you might find outbursts of anger in the present moment have nothing to do with the individual who wronged you: instead, they may be directed at individuals you interact with in everyday life.  It may be connected to stress, feelings of overwhelm, hurt, disappointment, or sadness.  Explore how any of the emotions behind the anger might be difficult for you based on past experiences.

Conversely, if you struggle to access your anger, examine what might be getting in the way.  Perhaps fear of how you will react or how others will perceive you prevents you from feeling comfortable experiencing your anger.  Follow the narrative through with these questions: if I really allowed myself to get angry, what do I believe would happen?  How true do I believe this is?

Slow down and notice your body.

When you feel anger coming up, hit the pause button.  Slow yourself down for long enough to check in with your thoughts and experience.  Notice your body’s physical response to the anger.  Describe or draw the anger: what color is it?  What shape, size, and texture?  Is it moving or standing still?  Where is it located in your body?

Write a letter to your abuser or betrayer.

For those who are pointing the finger of self-blame at themselves, it can be helpful to write out a list of the reality of how the other person harmed you. This can assist you in feeling justified anger at the abuser for their actions, rather than directing that anger at yourself.  I’d recommend you write this letter as a personal exercise rather than a letter to give to the abuser or betrayer: this will help you feel more freedom to express the full weight of your anger and be as honest as you’d like.  If you find yourself wanting to share that letter, talk with your therapist and support individuals before making that decision.

Reframe your anger as a “dashboard light” telling you there’s something wrong.

Use your anger as a tool to indicate something’s off.  It could be that you need to step up your self-care through contacting a supportive friend, attending an extra therapy session, or practicing a breathing exercise.  If you learn to accept the anger as it arises and examine what your anger is telling you, it will help the angry feelings to dissipate.  This increased awareness of the messages of anger can help you channel that anger into assertiveness and setting boundaries in relationships that trigger your anger.

Speak out on behalf of others currently experiencing trauma.

Channel your anger and frustration over past trauma into service for those who are experiencing similar situations.  Write letters to government officials about fighting back against human trafficking or legislation related to sexual abuse.  Attend events or rallies to support causes that empower women.  Volunteer at a domestic violence shelter.  Get involved in survivor’s groups where you can find others who have been through similar experiences.

Release anger through physical activity.

Often anger can feel like restlessness or pent up energy.  When anger threatens to overwhelm, channel that energy into physical activity that will increase your endorphins and help you release your anger.  Take a kickboxing or self-defense class to help you to feel empowered and able to defend yourself.  Go for a long run and imagine the anger releasing into the ground with each footfall.

Write a statement affirming how you will deal with anger.

Negative beliefs about yourself or the world around you can perpetuate feelings of anger.  Once you’ve identified the sources of your anger and your influences on how you experience or express anger, identify faulty thinking patternsthat make it difficult for you to feel in control or safe.  Write a statement reminding yourself of what is true about your anger that gives you support and grounding during intense experiences of anger.

Do you struggle with outbursts of anger that seem to come out of nowhere?  Or do you have difficulty even accessing anger?  Are you afraid of what will happen when you feel anger?  Do you have a history of trauma?  At Restored Hope, I offer personalized, trauma-informed counseling to help you understand the effects of trauma on your daily life, as well as release the triggers and anger that continue to arise.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment.

How Do We Come Back From This? Rebuilding Trust in a Broken Relationship

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If you’ve faced betrayal in your marriage or long-term relationship, you know the devastation that broken trust creates.  Trust can be broken through affairs or infidelity, either sexual or emotional.  Sex and love addiction is a major factor that comes up in destroying trust in relationships.  Other addictions, secrecy around financial decisions, or secrecy around work can create similar experiences of broken trust.  But a common factor in all these cases is deception.   

Trust requires safety, and if your perception of reality is influenced by the lies or insincerity of another person, it becomes unsafe.  You might ask yourself questions like, “How will I ever know if my spouse is telling the truth?” or “How could I have fallen for their lies?” 

Shame also comes up for the betrayed partner.  You might be wondering if it’s your fault, blaming yourself for not being able to see the warning signs of the deception.  You might feel embarrassed and like a fool.  You might also be struggling with loneliness, as issues such as sex and love addiction can be difficult to share about with friends, or you can be protecting your spouse’s privacy.  Regardless, this shame is based on a distorted view of reality put forward by the partner who deceived. 

What should I expect in rebuilding trust?

Rebuilding trust is an incredibly slow process, and it requires patience and time to heal.  Usually I notice impatience in couples who come into my office feeling stuck.  The partner who committed the betrayal is recovering more quickly than the betrayed partner.  They might be feeling relief due to the fact that they are no longer carrying the burden of the secret addiction, and they can finally get the help they need.

Meanwhile, the betrayed spouse is wrestling with the new information he or she has received.  They are trying to integrate this new truth into the months or years of deception that have taken place, rewriting the narrative of their lives.  They are trying to re-evaluate and re-integrate their whole world with this information.  At the same time, they are faced with making decisions about the future of the relationship.

How do we rebuild trust?

Have you ever built a sand castle?  Some professional sand castles can be beautiful, with turrets and sculpted carvings.

Think of your marriage like a sand castle.  When the betrayal was discovered, it’s as if a giant tidal wave came and destroyed it.  Rebuilding trust involves moving sand back to rebuild that castle.  Some days it involves moving just one grain at a time, and other days you’ll move shovelfuls.  Sometimes, if the foundation is shaky or the wind from outside blows in a certain way, parts of the castle may crumble or topple and need to be built up again.

You likely won’t be building the same exact castle over again.  You’ll change parts of it to make it new and better.  Having learned from your previous experience, you’ll likely make a stronger foundation and more beautiful or intricate carvings.  You’ll consider how you will approach the marriage after the betrayal, which involves moving into a new phase that will be decidedly different from the pain that now colors the first part of your marriage.  

Rebuilding trust requires that both spouses have an active role in this process.  It is impossible for just one of you to be doing all the work.

The Deceiver’s Role

For the individual who has betrayed their spouse, the simplest way to rebuild trust is to continually match your words up with your actions.  The first step involves honesty.  You will need to be more truthful about your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors than you ever have before.  Allow your spouse access to private accounts and information.  Some spouses need this level of transparency and others don’t, but your willingness to offer it regardless of whether it’s needed or not rebuilds trust. 

Particularly in the case of sex and love addiction, formal disclosure of acting out behaviors is a major step in rebuilding trust.  In order to establish a foundation of trust before you move forward in the relationship, you will need to have a formal disclosure of all your behaviors with your spouse.  This is a major step of honesty that will lay the foundation for the other rebuilding actions to stick.

Each time you are honest about your behaviors in the future, you will move some sand back into that sand castle.  Every time you carry out an action you said you would, you build more trust.  When you are honest about difficult, negative emotions and responses, that builds trust even stronger, as it allows your spouse to see you take ownership of your feelings and actions. 

The Betrayed Partner’s Role

While it may seem that the action of change rests in the hands of the deceiver, the betrayed partner actually has a significant role in the trust-rebuilding process.  In order for trust to be built, the partner be willing to take the risk to trust.  You will (understandably) be self-protective and you won’t be ready to fully trust for quite some time.  In fact, if you were ready to trust immediately after discovering the betrayal, I would caution you against it!  But the long-term goal is to help you find ways of offering trust as the two of you heal.

When you first find out about the deception and broken trust, you ought to spend some time building up your network of support individuals and self-care so you can practice self-care and be kind to yourself as you heal.  Establish safety for yourself that isn’t dependent on your spouse’s behaviors, as they will certainly not be able to meet all your expectations at first.  Create boundaries as a way of seeing if your spouse is willing to change and adapt.

Once you’ve decided to move forward, take small risks to trust.  Acknowledge or praise your spouse when you see their actions and words lining up.  Choose to focus on the progress more frequently than the past betrayal, as it can be easy to lose sight of positive changes.  However, if the deception is still going on or if you haven’t seen actions on the spouse’s part to substantiate their commitment to rebuild trust, tread cautiously.

As mentioned earlier, rebuilding trust requires that both spouses take an active role.  But even if you do, you might feel like you keep hitting roadblocks that set you back.  When you are stuck and need a way to move forward, seek out couples counseling.  In counseling, you’re able to further discuss those areas of conflict in a way that creates change.  You’ll set goals together and consider how you’ll approach this new season of your marriage. 

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Are you still hurting from the betrayal you experienced due to your partner’s actions?  Are you in recovery for sex and love addiction and wondering how your spouse will ever trust you again?  Do you keep running into roadblocks to rebuilding trust that leave you hopeless for change?  At Restored Hope, I help individuals and couples to walk through rebuilding trust after it’s been broken.  Give me a call today at 734.656.8191 or email me to hear more about how I can help.