How To Hold A Parallel Parenting & No Contact Boundary

Welcome to Betrayal Trauma Recovery, this is Anne. We’re gonna talk about parallel parenting today. We’re going to also talk about no- contact, which is a boundary that some women would like to set with someone in separation, or sometime in divorce. This is a really safe boundary for someone who is dealing with a narcissist, or someone who is dealing with an abuser.

Related: Detecting & Confronting Gaslighting

I myself hold a no-contact boundary. I’ve had lots of women ask me questions about this. “How do you do it with kids?” “How do you do it in these situations?” We’re going to do a series about parallel parenting and no-contact. This is the first one in our series.

Why Are Boundaries So Important In Separation and Divorce From An Addict?

Related: Setting & Holding Healthy Boundaries

Anne: I want to welcome Coach Sarah.

Coach Sarah: Thank you, Anne, it’s great to be here.

Anne: We have a client, Kate. Welcome Kate.

Kate: Hi, Anne. Hi, Sarah.

Coach Sarah: Hi.

Anne: Kate is a little nervous.

Kate: Very nervous.

Anne: We’re huddled around the microphone in my basement, so it’s going to be very fun. I want to let Kate start here by talking about her current situation with her ex-husband. What’s going on, the triggers she has, and then we’ll have Sarah have some input. Sarah has a Boundaries group that runs—if you’re interested, you can go to our Services page and check that out. No-contact is a very protective boundary needed for situations like abuse, or narcissism, that I experience, and that Kate also has experienced. I’m just going to have her start, and we’ll go from there.

How Do I Determine What Type Of Boundary Is Best?

Kate: I recently divorced—was final this last October. I was married for 35 years, 3 children. I have a 17-year-old daughter living at home with me still, and 2 adult married children. I get triggered when I get an email, or a text from my ex-husband. It feels like any healing that has happened in my life unravels the minute I see a text or read an email.

I really feel strongly that I need to have a no-contact boundary. He has not respected the boundaries that I have requested and implemented in my life, but I still need to be safe, and continue the healing process from my marriage, and the betrayal, and the narcissism, and the porn addiction that I lived with every day of my life, for 35 years.

Anne: You told me a story about an email he recently sent to you about how he wanted to “co-parent”, can you talk about that for a minute?

Related: Covenant Eyes filtering software protects my family.

What Are Examples of Boundaries For Gaslighting?

Kate: One Sunday morning there was an email from him. It said something to the effect of, “Would you consider looking at this religious video, because I want to set a united front with our daughter, in her use of social media?” Well, there wasn’t any link that he provided, so I didn’t understand what he was talking about, but I knew exactly, the minute I read the email, what was going on.

This is what I call his “pretend parenting” that he’s done throughout our marriage. He comes up with a great idea we can implement in our family, and with our children to help them with whatever challenges we’re having as parents. I get on board and start to get excited about doing something as partners, together, to help our family.

When we start to present it to our children, he opts out. He goes quiet, he doesn’t talk. He starts doing something else, getting distracted, and our kids are looking at me and looking at him. Then he just starts to shrug his shoulders when they look at him like, “I don’t know what she’s talking about. She’s crazy,” and the new idea, whatever it is, is dead before it’s hit the ground running.

Can I Set Boundaries With A Narcissistic Ex?

Our children have always been conflicted when this happens, and so have I. I look like this person who’s on a quest all by herself to force our children to give up their phones before bedtime, or a new curfew. I knew this was another attempt at his pretend parenting. He does it to make himself feel good about being a parent. But then, he doesn’t want to do the hard work of implementing strategies that help our children grow and learn and have boundaries in their own life.

Even though I responded to it and said, “There’s no link,” that’s all I wrote, he never sent another email with a link, and it hasn’t been discussed ever since. As soon as I read the email and realized the dynamics that were going on, I could tell, “Okay, this is another trigger for me, because it sends me back to times when I would get excited about co-parenting with him, and then he would leave me hanging.”

Anne: I’m going to speak for Kate for a minute, if you don’t mind, since I know her quite well. Throughout my friendship with her, she’s told me several instances of emotional abuse, due to her ex.

Kate: Yes.

What is a No-Contact Boundary?

Anne: Setting a no-contact boundary seems like it would be a good plan at this point. I want to tell you one of—an example from my parenting situation. When my ex says “co-parenting” I believe what he means is during his parenting time, he would like to be able to drop the kids off at my house at will, or he would like to be able to tell me what to do. Rather than being able to have a meaningful conversation where we come to an agreement, it ends up always being a power struggle because he acts like a narcissist. There’s no way to get around that.

Kate’s dealing with that same thing. I want to introduce the concept of parallel parenting, which a lot of people haven’t heard of. When I first started going through my divorce, co-parenting was always coming up, and no one ever said anything about parallel parenting. Sarah, can you just briefly tell our listeners what parallel parenting is?

Is Parallel Parenting A Boundary?

Coach Sarah: I can. Parallel parenting is an arrangement in which, typically, divorced parents are able to parent by means of disengaging. That’s the important part there, the ability to disengage from each other in situations where they have demonstrated that they’re unable to communicate with each other in a respectful manner, with that controlling behavior that you’re talking about, with what I would call the “good guy gaslighting” that I heard Kate just talk about. It allows for, basically, an arrangement to be made where one parent might make and assume that some decision-making responsibility in different domains. That way there’s very little actual interaction between the parents.

Anne: If I could just summarize that in layman’s terms it would be you do what you want with the kids when they’re with you, and I’m going to do what I think is best for the kids when they’re with me. We don’t need to talk about this unless someone’s going to die. If there’s some kind of crazy emergency, then we can go through a third party, or we can go through a mediator, or some type of third-party so that we can agree.

Coach Sarah: Exactly.

Anne: Is that—

How Can A Parallel Parenting Boundary Work In A Situation With A Narcissist?

Coach Sarah: Yeah. Usually what that means is that major decisions—and even sometimes this can be separated out like one parent might make school decisions, another one might make medical, then the day-to-day kind of things, unless there’s some big thing going on, you just do you when you’ve got the kids, and I’ll do me when I’ve got the kids, if you have shared custody.

One of my former clients had to go to court to get her ex to sign off on allowing their kid to have play therapy. The judge actually ordered that they use this specific email system that monitors the emailing. There are a number of different programs, or organizations or businesses—I don’t know what the right word is—that you can go to that that’s their job, right, is to be that third party in situations like this.

When Does A Parallel Parenting Boundary Not Work?

Anne: Kate, what are your thoughts about it?

Kate: As I’ve read about parallel parenting, it makes a lot of sense, and it sounds great. Yet, when I read about it, I think, “Well, my situation is different because this,” or “My situation, that won’t work for me, because I don’t have a third-party.” Really, my ex-husband doesn’t parent my daughter. I have sole custody. She’s with him occasionally, but she gets to decide when she’s with him. It’s not a regular basis, so he really doesn’t have a lot of say in decisions about her. I don’t know, what we need to combine on.

It just seems like he interjects himself into my life randomly. Really, for no reason that I can see. Like for instance, I’ve asked him to send the child support alimony check in the mail. Just the other night, he texted me and said, “I’m dropping off the check, I’ll leave it under the doormat on your front porch.”

I’ve asked him not to do that before, because it’s not secure. It’s not a safe option, and, yet, he doesn’t respect that request. He just doesn’t want to buy a stamp, basically, and he wants to interject himself into my life any way he can.

Can Boundaries Help Me Heal From Narcissistic Abuse?

Coach Sarah: Mm-hmm. I love a number of things that have been said. How Kate was saying, “I think he just wants to interject himself into my life.” I agree. I hear someone who’s trying to hook you, trying to bait you. My ex is actually very much like this as well. I’m very familiar with dealing with these kinds of emails, and things like that. As far as the boundaries are concerned, I think part of what we have to do, first, is understand the gaslighting behavior that’s going on as well.

Yes, there’s boundaries, but, oftentimes, if we can’t see past the gaslighting, we’re just going to get confused about what’s actually going on, and why is this happening, then we get distracted. The thing that we need to understand about the gaslighting is, ultimately, the result is more important than how they gaslight us. What happens when we’re being gaslit? We get confused. We’re not sure like, “Do I need to respond to this email? Do I not need to respond to this email?” We just get in that powerless place again.

Kate: Those were the exact thoughts going through my mind. Like, “What do I do? Do I just ignore this?” Even though I didn’t see him come to my door to drop this check off, I felt myself triggered. I went down in my basement to just get away from possibly seeing him, or even hearing him at the door.

What About Boundaries When Dealing With Triggers?

Coach Sarah: There’s a number of things that can be done. I have a number of people—and this is something that I highly recommend to women that are in a situation where they have an abusive person in their life that they’re trying to minimize contact with or no-contact.

Do you have safe people who you can say, “You know what, I just got another email from my ex. Will you please read it, and let me know if there’s anything I actually have to respond to? Is there anything important? Is there any money, or talk about the health of the kids, or anything that I actually have to respond to? Because, otherwise, I don’t need that. I don’t need that triggery feeling. I don’t need the re-traumatization of it.” If you have safe people, I think that’s one of the most brilliant things that we can do. It doesn’t hit them the same as it does us. That’s a fantastic boundary to put up.

Anne: Right. With that, I think even just seeing the email in the inbox is triggering. If we can block them on our email and block them in our phone and have them send the email to that safe person, and, say, just send it directly to that person, so that we don’t even have to see when it pops up in our email. I think that is the best-case scenario, because then that person’s not triggered by seeing an email.

How Do I Get Help To Set Boundaries With An Abusive Ex?

Because my dad wrote my ex and said, “I will not stand for this abuse anymore. I have instructed Anne to block you on her phone and on her email. From now on, you will only write to me.” I never even have to worry about seeing an email in my inbox. I know I’m never going to get a text, because I’ve blocked him.

I want to tell a funny story really fast. One day I received a text that said, “Watch out, I’m going to get you.” It was from an anonymous phone number. I immediately called the police, and they started tracking it, because I thought, “This is my ex, or something to do with my ex.” Well, the police called and said, “It’s coming from your neighborhood.” Like that “When a Stranger Calls”, like, “The call is coming from inside the house!”

It was like that, and I was like, “My neighborhood?” He’s like, “Yeah, it’s one of your neighbors.” I was like, “Oh, my word.” He’s like, “Do you think maybe he’s having an affair with one of your neighbors, or stuff like that?” I was like, “I don’t know.” I said, “Which neighbor?” The police officer wouldn’t tell me, so then he said, “Let me just go talk to your neighbor, and see what’s going on.”

What Can I Do To Protect Myself From My Abusive Husband?

He went and talked to my neighbor, and he called me and said, “You know, it’s [blank].” I won’t say her name. She’s one of my really good friends, and I had come around the corner in my car, and she had almost run into me with her car. She was totally just joking around, and I forgot to put her phone number in my phone. She just was like, “Watch out, I’m going to get you!” as a joke.

In that moment, I had to call the police, I had to do all these things. It was such a triggery time for me, so I don’t answer phone calls from anonymous numbers, because I don’t know if that anonymous number might be from him or not. I really try to put people that I trust, like my neighbor, who I love—she’s awesome—in my phone, so that I don’t have days like that where I’m like, “Oh my word, I have to call the police.”

Sending it somewhere else is really important, which might be one of these apps, for example, like Family Wizard, or something like that. Maybe you could set up the app, make him think you’re reading it, but then ask someone else to open that app up for you, and then block him on email on your phone.

How Does Gaslighting Harm Me?

Coach Sarah: We have to back up a sec, in my opinion, because I want to go back to the gaslighting. We go back to that example that you used about the email, where he wanted to co-parent, or he wanted you to look at this video, because “We want to make sure our kids are doing well with the screen time, and duh, duh, duh.”

When a person is psychologically abusive, which is what gaslighting is, it’s emotional and psychological abuse, one of the most damaging ways that they can gaslight us is when they use our values against us. Right, so it’s this trying to hook us by hitting on our value of being a good mom, or our faith, or different things that they know are values to us that can cause us to engage with them, with, likely, no intention of actually following through.

They just want to be in control. They manipulate the situation so that they can get us to engage with them again. What we have to do in that moment is, first of all, recognize that that’s what’s going on, that our values are being used against us, and remind ourselves of what the actual truth is.

How Do I Break Free From Gaslighting?

The actual truth is I’m a good parent, right. I don’t need to watch this video. Me and my 17-year-old daughter, we’re doing great. We ground ourselves by reminding ourselves back of whatever the truth is. Then, even going further to what you were talking about, about just blocking. Right, just straight blocking so that you don’t even have to deal with that.

This is multiple layers here, right, because not everybody can go to straight blocking. Some people can. Those like Kate, like myself, that have full custody, we can do that. We don’t have to interact as much, or we can go completely no-contact, but not everybody can. When we’re looking at things like completely blocking the email, sometimes what a hurdle is for us is that goes against our own nature, our own values. Like, “That seems so mean,” like, “That’s so harsh.”

Just to completely cut somebody out of my life, especially when they’ll probably send emails like, “Why are you being so mean,” and, “You’re being unfair, cutting me out of my kids’ lives.” I don’t know if you guys have heard any of the stuff like that, but my ex will say stuff like that. Saying the things that sound good but are really empty. When our values are challenged, there’s a conflict. The conflict is between our safety or a traditional definition of what co-parenting is.

How Can I Value My Own Healing From Betrayal Trauma?

We have to really decide what’s our biggest value here, and my biggest value is I need to not go into an emotional tailspin and be re-traumatized every time I see his name pop up in my email account, or as a text. Because that has become the priority of my biggest value, then that empower us to make those kind of super-protective boundaries that might seem a little dramatic. They’re not, they’re completely necessary. Does that make sense?

Kate: It does. It always feels like, when one of these things come up, I have to choose between my own safety and what’s best for my daughter. It feels like my ex-husband almost has me convinced that me interacting with him is what’s best for my daughter. I know, intellectually, it’s not, because of past experience.

It feels like I have to put my safety on the backseat, and let him do the driving, because we have to co-parent our daughter. Like today, I had to be at a grandson’s birthday party, and he was there. I don’t know how to get around that situation, because I don’t want to force my adult children to have to have separate parties, or—I lived through that as a young mom with my parents who were divorced. They expected me to have separate parties for each set of grandparents, and that just didn’t work. It just feels like I have to put my safety needs, and my emotional security second.

What Are Creative Ways to Manage Boundaries?

Coach Sarah: How creative can we get with your boundaries? Because, sometimes, especially when we’re in a place of trauma—I don’t know about you all, but my creativity goes kind of down the toilet. I am not creative. How creative can you get?

Kate: No ideas come up.

Coach Sarah: Can it be—and then what we do is we start brainstorming. How many different options? How many different doors can we look behind to see what are the options for boundaries, so that you don’t have to completely give away your safety? Maybe you can’t have it quite as safe, which means he wouldn’t be there, but what are your other options?

Anything ranging from, “You know what, today, I can’t make this party, but I’m going to take him out on this special Grandma Day, or we celebrate his birthday.” Or, it might be, “I’m going to go in with the mindset that I’m going to see my ex, and I’m going to have an ‘escape plan’.” That’s my boundary is that I’m going to have outs, where, if I need to leave the house, I’ll go run an errand like, “Oh, I see you need some candles. I’ll go to the store and get some candles.”

What Can I Do About A Toxic Situation?

Just make up creative things, for reasons to get out of the situation if it becomes toxic, or if it becomes traumatizing to you, that you have already prepared and exit plan. Because then, again, you feel at least a little bit more in control. When you’re there, and you don’t have an exit plan, you feel trapped, you feel powerless. Boundaries are meant to make us feel safe and empowered. That’s what we’re looking for in situations like that is how creative can I get around my safety, and around the boundaries that I can implement.

Anne: The reason I wanted to do this in a series, and I wanted to do it with Kate, is sort of a test case, because I assume that many of our listeners have this same issue where they would like as little contact as possible with their abuser, or with the person who’s betrayed them, because they’re still not safe. They don’t feel safe, and they don’t know how to do it.

Coach Sarah: If you’re not comfortable setting a protective boundary of absolutely zero email contact, or texting contact, or you don’t have the ability. Maybe you don’t have the safe people like Anne and I do, one of the thoughts, as well, is that you can just not respond. Just because he sends you an email or a text doesn’t mean you have to respond. I have found that to be a particularly potent response is a non-response, because part of what they’re trying to do is get us to engage. If we don’t engage, oftentimes, they can start backing up a little bit. If we don’t give them that reaction.

I Try To Co-Parent But My Ex Refuses

Kate: I have done that with texts that I know I don’t need to respond to. Like he would text me, “Have you seen my camera charger?” or, “Can you find this in our files?”

Coach Sarah: Do you even need to get those texts?

Kate: I don’t. I don’t, because it’s just another way for him to assume that I need to take care of things he’s lost or be his mommy. The problem with my ex is he’s a narcissist, but he’s a covert narcissist. He portrays himself as this really easy-going person, who’s really friendly and carefree. But his response, if I were to block him, or if I don’t answer a text or an email, is he portrays me to other people that he’s the victim, that I’m the abuser, and that I’m not co-parenting with him, and—

Anne: That’s exactly how my ex is too. Before I implemented the no-contact, I was getting crazy texts like, “Why don’t I have diapers?” I’m like, “You can go to the store and get diapers,” or “Why don’t I have this, or that?” Just anything he could do to hook me in, but he seems like this such nice guy on the outside.

How Can I Overcome The Opinions of Others?

Coach Sarah: Those that are in the arena are the ones whose opinions matter. Those who are getting dirty and bloody with you, fighting in the trenches. The spectators, those that he’s able to sway, those are the people that are the spectators, and their opinions, although they might not be fun, they’re not the ones that we have to let influence us.

We can choose to be like, “You know what, you’re just a spectator, you are not my people who are in the arena getting dirty and bloody with me. Those are the people whose words matter, and whose opinions matter. I know those people will allow me to speak my truth into this situation.”

Kate: I just finished a Rising Strong class with my therapist, who’s a Brene Brown trainer, and I was so disappointed, because I wasn’t—

How Can Disengaging With My Narcissistic Ex Help Me?

Coach Sarah: Mm-hmm.

Kate: — at the end of the class, I didn’t feel like I had risen, strong enough.

Coach Sarah: Know, it is a process.

Anne: Absolutely, it’s a long process.

Coach Sarah: I know that we’re going to do this as a series. What Anne and I were hoping that we could have you do is have a goal of something that you would like to try with this parallel parenting idea of disengaging. Right, how can you disengage maybe just a little bit more than you have been.

It might be a little bit of a stretch, might be a little bit out of your comfort zone, initially, right, because potential pushback, but in the long run will increase your safety, will decrease your triggers, and help you build some of that resiliency. Talk about rising strong, how are you going to be able to build that resiliency, and rise fast, if you’re constantly being dinged and, basically, harassed.

How Can I Extend My Boundaries To Keep Myself Safe?

How can you implement something that’s going to, maybe, extend your boundaries just a little bit more? Push out the safety just a little bit more than you have, than right now. See how that goes, we can check in with you the next podcast and see how that went, what the successes were, how it might’ve helped you, any potential pushback, or fallout from that boundary, and then we can, hopefully, learn a little bit from your experience and some other ladies might get some insight. Does that sound good to you?

Kate: Great, I would definitely like to take the step of blocking his phone number and his email and maybe using this app to have some kind of third-party situation. I don’t have a trusted person that would be willing to do what Anne’s dad does.

Anne: At least right now you don’t.

Kate: At least right now.

My Ex Is Abusive To Me

Anne: I want women to know that it is possible. I think the number one thing that stops women from doing this, and getting to safety, is they don’t think it’s possible. Like what you said before, they don’t get creative about how to do it, because they just think, “It’s not possible, so I’m not going to try. If women think it is possible—this is possible, and with faith, I can accomplish this. Now, how do I do it is the key.

Coach Sarah: It feels counterintuitive. It goes against most of our natures where we’re loving and we’re caring and we’re nurturing, and that feels really cold to just say, “I’m going to cut you out of my life, because you are dangerous. You are harmful.” We feel like we need to have somebody give us permission to do that. It’s not just that we feel like it’s not possible, we don’t feel like we have permission.

I think it’s important that we give ourselves permission to go ahead and do that, because it’s necessary. It’s not us being mean. It’s not us being cold. Those are the old lies of the gaslighting, those are not the truth. The truth is that you deserve to be safe, so you can give yourself permission to take this protective step. I think that’s really important.

How To Focus On My Own Healing From Betrayal Trauma?

Kate: That’s a good point. I think women, in general, but especially in my religious culture are trained, and expected, to be nice and to get along and do anything, even at all costs, for the family and for children especially. That’s really going against that expectation, that cultural training, that religious training, for me to cut someone out of my life, especially someone connected to my children and grandchildren.

I would like us all to get along and work cooperatively, but this is a person that cannot work as a team in any situation. It’s just not safe. I would really to not have those texts and emails coming to me by next time. I just think the idea of an app, or a third-party is a great idea. Some buffer zone between me and my ex, to keep those triggers from happening, and then blocking him on my phone.

Coach Sarah: Yes.

Kate: It would be hard, but it would be good, especially because we have some financial issues that we still need to work out from the divorce decree, so that’s going to be extra challenging.

How To Build Resiliency With An Abusive Ex?

Anne: I’m not sure, but as you research that app, Family Wizard, or any other apps, I think some of them have the financial stuff too, that you can go through. If you’re listening, and you have the answers to this, will you please comment below, because this is new territory for so many people. If you’ve been using an app, like Family Wizard, or a third-party app, and you’re an expert at third-party technology to keep us safe, please comment on our site, and let other women learn from your experience.

Coach Sarah: A really good start on some action steps to help make these goals become a reality for you, and create a little bit more safety for you, a little less trauma, and hopefully building some resiliency for you. I’m excited to see how these things go for you.

Kate: Thanks, Coach Sarah. I appreciate your help.

Small Goals Can Help Bring Peace and Healing

Anne: We will check back in with Kate and Coach Sarah in a little while and see how Kate did with her goals. Again, I want to restate her goals to block her ex on her phone and block her ex on her email and research an appropriate app to have contact with him about her financial things and about her daughter that still lives at home.

Those are the three goals that she has made for herself today, and I am really excited to see what happens. No judgement here, if nothing happens, because we’re all just progressing any way that we can, and, no matter what happens, we love you Kate.

We’re doing our groups a little bit differently now at BTR. Our main goal at BTR is to meet women’s needs where they are. We have several different groups available on the Services page. You can sign up at any time for any of these groups and as soon as they fill, they will run. After you see what groups we have available, and you register for the groups that apply to you, go ahead and post the link for the group description page in your secret Facebook groups, or our secret Facebook group.

Are There Others Who Have Gone Through Betrayal Trauma?

Let members of those secret Facebook groups know, “Hey, I joined this group from Betrayal Trauma Recovery. Join too and as soon as it fills, it will run.” Sarah runs four groups. She facilitates Setting and Holding Healthy Boundaries, Detecting & Confronting Gaslighting, Healing My Self-worth & Self-image, and Therapeutic Disclosures & Therapeutic Polygraphs. Sarah, will you take a minute to describe your Detecting & Confronting Gaslighting group, and your Setting and Holding Healthy Boundaries group?

Coach Sarah: It’s so important, because gaslighting damages our intuition, our voice, our connection to reality, which, without that, how do we keep boundaries, if we’re disconnected from our reality? How do we know what our values are? How do we make decisions clearly about whether or not we can stay in a relationship? All of these things really have a huge connection back to gaslighting, so it’s one of my favorite groups to facilitate. Click here to register for the Detecting & Confronting Gaslighting group.

Why Are Boundaries So Important With Abuse?

My group Setting & Holding Healthy Boundaries helps so many women. We use the Vicki Tidwell Palmer book: Moving Beyond Betrayal.  that we use in that group, she talks about healthy boundaries being one of the best forms of self-care that we can do, and I agree. Again, because so many times we’re convinced that, “If I give myself permission to have the boundaries that I need to have in order to feel safe,” then we feel mean, or we feel like we’re being vindictive.

What the truth is all we’re doing is keeping ourselves safe, and this is a great group that helps us understand “What is the actual process of forming good boundaries,” and making that request to our spouse in a way that is both healthy, but solid. There’s not any kind of wishy-washiness to it. There’s a firmness that allows us to feel strong, and to have our voice heard, and to feel really clear as we’re delivering our boundaries. It’s a great course.

Anne: To check out the groups we offer, click here. Again, if this podcast was interesting to you, we’d love to hear your comments. Also, please rate it on iTunes. Every single time you comment, every single time you rate us on iTunes, it increases our search engine rankings, and it helps women find us.

How Can I Find Help?

When women are searching out there for, “Why is my marriage going bad?” or “What can I do?” I don’t want them to find, “The 10 Ways You Can be More Sexy,” or “How to Improve Communication.” I want them to find the truth, because those types of articles just keep them in that abuse cycle, and that porn user will just continue to abuse them and blame them, and the hurt will continue.

Our job here, at BTR, is to stop that hurt by educating women about what the truth is about their situation, that they are worthy of love, that they are beautiful, and that they deserve to be treated well. Until next week, stay safe out there.

Can Couple Therapy Harm Marriages? When Counseling Harms You . . .

Dr. Jill Manning is here today. I am so excited to have her. She is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and Certified Clinical Partner Specialist, who specializes in working with individuals impacted by sexual addiction, pornography, or betrayal trauma in their primary relationship. 

In addition to her clinical work, Dr. Manning is a researcher, author, consultant, and activist. She has been featured in numerous television and radio programs and, in 2005, was invited to testify before a U.S. Senate subcommittee about the harms of pornography on the family. 

She currently serves on the board of directors for the Association of Partners of Sex Addicts Trauma Specialists. You know that as APSATS. Our audience knows APSATS well, as well as the board of directors for Enough Is Enough. Dr. Manning is a native of Calgary, Alberta, and currently lives in Colorado with her family. 

Anne: Welcome, Jill. 

Jill: Thank you. I’m excited to be here. 

Will Couple Therapy Save My Marriage?

Anne: I am so excited to have you because so many women are wondering about couple’s therapy. I have women in my group who are asking, “Hey, I need a good couple’s therapist, where should I go?” That’s what we’re going to talk about today. I’ve seen two different situations with couple’s therapy that I’m just going to introduce this topic with, and then we’ll talk about it from there. 

Number one, many men are going to therapy, and the women aren’t seeing a big difference. They think, “Well, if we get a couple therapist, and I’m involved, then maybe I’ll see the improvements that I’m looking for.” There’s that element of it. 

Another element is that they’re seeing their marriage issues as marriage issues, or communication issues, rather than as an abuse issue, or as a addiction issue. Lundy Bancroft does not advise couple therapy in any way, shape or form, unless the abuser has taken full accountability for his abuse, and there have been no abuse episodes in the last two years. 

How Do I Know If Couple Counseling Will Help Us?

Then, on the other hand, that I just talked about, some therapists want the wife going in to make sure the husband is telling the truth, because the addicts often lie, or minimize, even to their therapists. This is a very complex issue, and so that is why I’ve asked Jill to help us unpack all of that, and make sense of it so that we can know what we need to do in our specific situations. 

Jill: Let’s jump in, because there is a lot to unpack, and this is probably a layered podcast need. I want our listeners to be realistic that I’m hoping we can cover some good ground today. It is complex, and any time we’re dealing with human beings, and especially human beings in relationships, there’s so many moving parts. Situations are unique, and I’m sure there’ll be listeners that may find exceptions to every guideline and rule I’m going to outline today. 

As a marriage and family therapist, who’s been working 17 years in this field, and specializing in partners for the bulk of that, this is an area I feel really passionate about because I see a lot of harm being done to individuals, and also to marriages themselves, when couple therapy is not timed well. The timing is really key, and we’re going to get into that today. 

What Happens In Couple Therapy?

The Rule Of Five. I want to introduce this idea of what I’m calling the Rule of Five- “rule” meaning guidelines. I want us to start right from the beginning, and let’s think of traditional couple therapy. 

Let’s start that as a reference point for this conversation. Because when we’re dealing with betrayal trauma and sexual addiction, I believe, as a clinician, that it departs quite significantly from traditional couple therapy. We need to have a good understanding of those differences. In traditional, your typical, run-of-the-mill couple therapy situation, there are five—again, this is the Rule of Five—five key goals for traditional couple therapy. 
supporting a couple in identifying sources of conflict.

Related: Covenant Eyes filtering software protects my family.

Helping each person in the relationship identify their own participation in conflict, and issues that may be coming up. 
would be helping a couple realize healthy expectations for the relationship and one another. 
defining how the relationship’s going to work: the boundaries, the roles, the division of labor, all of that. 
improving the skill set of a couple, whether that be communication, intimacy, conflict resolution. 

When Couple Therapy Makes Things Worse

I’m calling those traditional Rule of Five main goals in traditional couple therapy. There’s what we call indications and contraindications to traditional therapy. Again, I want to use the Rule of Five. There’s five main contraindications and five indications. 
Contraindication is a fancy word for saying things that we see where we would not recommend couple therapy, and then indications meaning things that would mean that that would be a good thing. 

Why Couple Therapy Won’t Help Your Husband’s Pornography Addiction Or Anger Issues

Here’s the thing—and many of my colleagues (that I do co-therapy with, and consult with) will readily acknowledge this—this is counter-intuitive, what I’m about to say. When sexual addiction comes to light, and there is a betrayal that surfaces, people like myself ask couples to do something very counter-intuitive: that is to not engage in couple therapy initially and, sometimes delay for a long while. 

That’s counter-intuitive because, when something like this comes up, the relationship is seriously, seriously compromised. It’s a major threat to the marital bond. Even if two people aren’t married, just the relationship itself takes a major hit. 

It’s counter-intuitive for us to say, “Hey, all this stuff’s come up that’s really harming your relationship, and we’re going to ask you to hold off on couple therapy, perhaps for a long while.” That’s counter-intuitive. 

The Only Way To Save A Marriage From Abuse & Infidelity Is To Hold The Perpetrator Accountable

I understand, and really empathize and sympathize and support people that have this issue come up. They think, “We need to get to a couple therapist ASAP, because we are in big trouble.” That makes logical sense, but here’s why—again, going back to the Rule of Five—five contraindications to traditional couple therapy. 

When Is The Right Time For Couple Therapy? The Rule of Five

Then I want to get into when is it indicated and a good thing, because timing is key. We know from research, Anne, that when couple therapy is not well-timed, it actually can put a couple-ship at greater risk for divorce and dissolution. 
I take this really seriously. I want listeners to know that my personal stance, as a clinician, is that I do my very best to do all that we can to keep relationships intact, especially families intact, when that is healthy and desirable to do so. 
It’s not always safe to do that, and it’s not always what’s wanted. All things considered, if that is wanted, and it’s healthy and safe to do so, I do my very best to make sure that that can happen. 

When Couple Therapy Goes Bad

Let’s get into contraindications for even traditional couple therapy. Listeners will start realizing, “Oh, okay, this fits with betrayal trauma and sex addiction pretty well.” 

  1. Physical violence, or any type of abuse, emotional, sexual, physical, financial. Any type of abuse that’s going on, that is not a situation where we would want couple therapy. 
  2. Mental illness or addiction problems, especially if they are active, and untreated, or in the early stages of being untreated. 
  3. If one person continues to engage in a relationship outside of the marriage. Now, having done work with pornography for years, I’m of the opinion and belief, and I believe there’s research to back this up, that pornography is a very insidious type of relationship outside of the marriage. 
  4. Is when one or both parties have decided to begin divorce proceedings. 
  5. If there’s a lack of empathy. If one or both parties is either not wanting to, or incapable of being empathetic to the other’s reality, that’s not a situation we want them to be in couple therapy. Do those five make sense?

My Husband & I Went To Couple Therapy And He Became More Abusive

Anne: Absolutely. When things got really bad for me, we had never tried couple therapy before, and I was like, “Okay, we have to do this, because we have to do something.” Things got a lot worse, and then he got arrested. 

For me, he became more abusive because it was like, “Oh, now’s the time I can unleash all my resentments toward her, and all my feelings, based on all my erroneous thought processes” that he had. He just became more and more abusive through that process. 

Jill: When we start couple therapy—I’m saying this, Anne, honestly and truthfully, as someone who has both been in couple therapy in my own relationship and also as a couple therapist. I’ve been on both sides of this situation. 

Truth & Safety Are Essential In Couple Therapy

When we enter that arena, called couple therapy, there’s two assumptions that are really important for us to be aware of. There’s an assumption of safety, and there’s an assumption of equality. 

In a situation with sexual betrayal and sexual addiction, there is not equality, especially if there is secrets, and dangerous secrets at that, and there is a lack of safety. 

If you have a traditional couple therapist in the room, that is not well-versed in the dynamics of sexual addiction, gaslighting, and the emotional abuse, and also the physical risks that this issue can bring up, it’s not a good situation to be in. 

The risk of gaslighting and the emotional abuse in really subtle, and sometimes blatant, ways can enter into that space. It pollutes the ability for that space to hold both people in an appropriate way, and for there to be healing to occur, because everyone’s protecting themselves in that. 

Will Couple Therapy Work For Our Situation?

Let’s talk about when it is indicated, when it is a good thing to do, because I think it sheds light on what I’ve just shared with the contraindications. In my practice, and when I look at the research and, also, when I just look at results, I see what’s working with couples around the country. 

Again, Rule of Five: there’s five things that I believe help make couple therapy indicated.

  1. Sobriety.
  2. There has been a disclosure. There’s different ways to get the truth out. I don’t want anybody to think that there’s a cookie cutter, only one right way to do that. The truth can come out in a number of ways. It’s common for that to be in a therapeutic disclosure, but it doesn’t have to be. I want a couple, before they’re going into couple therapy, that the truth is on the table. Both people, the secrets, everything’s out in the open.
  3. Trauma and mental illness have been appropriately treated and addressed, if those are issues in the mix. We know, in most cases, they are, right. Two-thirds of pornography addicts, we know, have a mental illness of some sort; 44% have a personality disorder, or traits, so chances are good that we do have mental illness in the mix. With partners, we know that, roughly, 70% experience PTSD symptoms, and experience trauma. Again, number three’s a big one that trauma and mental illness be appropriately diagnosed and assessed and treated. That’s big in and of itself.
  4. That there be empathy: the ability for both to empathize, which we all know with sex addiction, empathy in and of itself is a big roadblock for a lot of sex addicts in their healing. That can be a real process in helping them get back online with having healthy human empathy. 
  5. The desire to reconcile. 

Again, in overview, sobriety, disclosure, truth’s on the table, trauma and mental illness are assessed and being treated, there’s empathy, and we have a desire to reconcile. 

When those five things are in the mix that can be—and I don’t want to say for everybody, but, generally speaking, that is a good basis for the timing of couple therapy. 

Finding The Right Therapist To Treat Sex Addiction & Betrayal Trauma

Then, it’s also what type of therapy, and with whom. I really advise working with a couple therapist that’s very well-versed in addiction. If you can find someone that’s well-versed in sexual addiction, that can be enormously helpful, that’s going to understand the subtleties, you know what I mean. When I say small things, not that they’re less important, but just more subtle, they may be harder to detect, smaller in the way of being obvious in the room.

Is He Faking Empathy Through Empathy Training?

Anne: Two things concern me, when we’re talking about this. The first is that if empathy is not present, I have heard people talk about empathy training, and helping the addict learn how to mimic empathy, when they’re not actually feeling it, so that they can learn the mechanics of empathy, but end up faking empathy. 

They end up learning scripts for empathy, rather than actually becoming empathetic, which can cause a wife to be more confused, because she might be more abused by the empathy, being jerked around by this, “Oh, he’s acting empathetic now,” but he’s really still acting out, and she doesn’t know. Let’s talk about that first, and I’ll, hopefully, remember my second thing. 

Jill: One of the most important things that I want for partners to gain in their own recovery process is coming home again to their gut, reconnecting to their gut. Empathy really is hard for a human being to fake, because if someone’s really connected, and they have a good working gut, you’ll know. There’s something missing in that. 

For a strong therapist, that really understands how critical empathy is, both the reception of empathy and the giving of empathy, that she, in her gut reads accurately, whether that’s the real deal, or not, and whether he’s able to have the skills—and I know I’m speaking in a gender-segregated way here for ease of conversation—that’s really, really important. 

Does It Help When A Couple Meets With A Therapist, But Not For Couple Therapy?

I want to introduce a couple of ideas here that sometimes aren’t included in this conversation of couple therapy, Anne. I do see a place for couples meeting with a therapist, but it’s not in a true couple therapy situation. It may be treatment planning, it may be psycho-education, it may be preparation for a disclosure. 

I’ve met with many couples where they’re not ready for couple therapy, but, if the partner is okay and feels safe with him coming in to a session, he’ll be brought in to observe an individual therapy session with a specific goal in mind. 

She can also do the same. I have two women that I’m working with right now who are not involved in couple therapy, but they attend individual sessions with their husband. They are more of a witness and an observer of that process, which has been enormously helpful for them. 

A Skilled Therapist Can Help Couples Address Abuse & Porn Addiction Safely

Again, you need a skilled therapist that can set that up well, but that’s an option that can be a good in-between. Let’s say a husband who’s sexually addicted is struggling with empathy. There’s two scenarios that I could see working really well in the early stages of empathy training. 
One, two therapists and the wife and husband meet together in a joint session, and have a very specific set of interventions set up, where she’s able to be fully supported, and that process is observed on her behalf, and likewise for him. 

It’s Not Couple Therapy; It’s A Joint Meeting

It’s not couple therapy; it’s a joint meeting, and there’s specific work that’s being done around empathy. Also, for him to be brought in, let’s say, to an individual session of hers, or vice versa. Again, not couple therapy, it’s individual work, but there’s a power in being able to witness, and be able to call on the other partner to maybe answer a question, or to respond. 

Anne: Would that be the situation where if he is minimizing or lying to his therapist that the wife could weigh in and say, “No, no, no. These things he’s telling you are not true,” that type of a situation, so that the wife can know that what is happening in his therapy is leading to her safety, rather than he’s just spiraling in his own lies, in his therapy sessions? Do you know what I’m saying?

Jill: Yeah, again, there’d have to be a lot of safety built into that, right, because I would never want a woman to be speaking up and out about something, and then putting herself at risk after a session ends. We never want that. But, yeah, in answer to your question, there are ways we can set that up where she can be a reality check, and an important reference point for his therapist to get a read of what’s going on. 

When There’s Sobriety & Good Recovery Work On Both Sides, Couple Therapy May Be Okay

With all of this said, I want listeners to understand that, when a couple is choosing reconciliation, and there is sobriety and good recovery work occurring for both parties, that I am passionate about people getting to couple therapy as soon as we’re able to have them ready for that. 
I’ve had a couple of people recently suggest that I’m against couple therapy. It couldn’t be further from the truth. I am very much for it. 
I think it’s actually essential that the couple relationship itself be exposed to good quality treatment and healing. That’s absolutely necessary. 

Relationship Healing: The Weakest Aspect Of Recovery

In truth, Anne, I think it’s a part of the recovery process that we, as an entire community, are weaker in right now. I think, across the country, we’re doing a decent job of helping bring people into sobriety and helping to deal with trauma. I think the couple piece is the weakest aspect of recovery, right now, at least. 

I hope that will change in the upcoming years, but I want people to move into that work as soon as they are able. I think where I see a lot of harm done is when couple therapy is not timed well. Again, going back to the Rule of Five for contraindications and indications, if people use that as a guide, it really can help reduce the risk of timing that poorly. 

When Attachment Therapy Leads To More Abuse

Anne: Right. Let’s talk about attachment therapy for just a minute. Now, I did attachment therapy with my husband when those contraindications were present. The therapist that we did attachment therapy did not say, “Oh, wait a minute, you have these things present, and so we should not do attachment therapy.” The assumption in those sessions was, if addiction is an attachment disorder then the solution is attachment therapy. 

Jill: Right.

Anne: Can you talk about that for a minute? 

Jill: Really, really good question. Again, it’s counter-intuitive, because that really is the logic that’s being used by many, many people seeking therapy and many people providing therapy. If this is rooted in attachment wounds that have not been healed, or trauma that’s unresolved then, therefore, the solution would be attachment work. 

I get it, and we have to be really careful, because healthy attachment work must be founded on safety. Nobody attaches without lack of safety, unless it’s a really anxious, unhealthy, dysfunctional attachment, a trauma bond, let’s say. 

Can Couple Therapy Promote Healthy Attachment?

In terms of healthy attachment, safety must be there and we must have trust and respect, equality, consent. All of the elements of healthy intimacy also apply to healthy attachment. Again, the timing, I think, is critical with anyone that’s dealing with attachment wounds both in their histories, but also with one another. 

I recently spoke with an international trainer of Emotionally-Focused Therapy, which is one of the most common attachment-focused therapies right now, and it’s very well-supported in the research. 

It’s actually one of the top types of therapy I recommend couples seek out. I expressed concerns around some of the harm that I’m seeing done with attachment-focused therapy in sexual addiction recovery. Namely that people are engaging in that before safety’s established, and honesty’s established, or even sobriety. 

Anne: Or lack of abuse, right?

Jill: Right. They 100% agreed with what I’m saying today, that there must be sobriety, there must be honesty on the table, and some key things managed first, trauma, mental illness, addiction care, really put in place before we can help couples get to what they call softer emotions, and really looking at patterns. 

Here’s one thing, Anne, that I want to really, really stress, is that when couples go in for couple therapy, again, there’s this assumption of equality, and we look at patterns, okay. 

He does something and it invites her into a certain stance or behavior and then that reinforces the pattern and behavior for him. There’s this infinity pattern, if you could draw that out—you know, that figure eight—and they go back and forth in a dance, a relational dance.

Should You Go To Couple Therapy When Abuse Is Present In The Relationship?

Well, that works for a lot of common marital issues. That’s not a helpful perspective, though, if there’s such a weird power imbalance in terms of secrets and addiction—

Anne: And abuse. I think we should always include abuse here, right, too?

Jill: Abuse, yeah. Abuse is not in every single situation, but in many it is, you’re right. What I see happening is that if someone’s in attachment-focused care, and it’s poorly timed, or the therapist doesn’t understand the intricacies of sex addiction work, there’s this really harmful dance that can happen in which—and I’m going to completely paraphrase and overgeneralize with this. 

There’s a suggestion that, “Well, she may be withdrawing or being too critical, and then that invites him into looking at porn and acting out with prostitutes. The more he does that, that invites her into being more critical.” It’s ludicrous. It’s ludicrous to suggest that she, in any way, is to blame, or is participating in him acting out. It does so much harm in having women feel blamed for those behaviors. 

Anne: Absolutely, yeah. That’s what I worry about with couple therapy, is that very situation. Same thing with the abuse, right. It’s the dance of she asks him to cut the tomatoes and he feels shame, and so he yells at her and screams in her face. 

When Therapists Use False Equivalency Couple Therapy Fails

Jill: There’s something that we call false equivalency. We’re making a false equivalent of two behaviors, she’s critical and he’s acting out with prostitutes. Okay, yeah. 

Anne: Right, or she’s critical and he’s punching walls.

Jill: Right, those types of false-equivalencies I see as highly dangerous and harmful for both parties, as well as the relationship itself. We look at genuine patterns of withdraw-withdraw, pursue-pursue, withdraw-pursue, there’s all sorts of combinations couples can get into. We have to have that couple be at a place, again, where there’s sobriety, disclosure, trauma and mental illness have been addressed, there’s empathy being built, or there, and there’s a desire to reconcile. 

Looking At Patterns To Determine Direction in Couple Therapy

Then we can look at certain patterns, and we’ve got a level playing field. We have equality in the room, we have safety in the room. We can identify patterns where there is equivalency. With sex addiction there is not equivalency. 

She cannot cause or cure any of his acting out behaviors. When a man, for instance—I had someone recently suggest, “Well, I feel so much guilt and shame when she does this, therefore, that’s what causes me to act out with pornography.” 

You need someone that can completely kibosh that. That is immature nonsense. “No, you acted out with pornography because you do not have good skills yourself for dealing with loneliness, anger, stress, and your emotions. That is an individual issue.” 

Anne, actually, the irony is that as a licensed marriage and family therapist, I’m becoming more and more convinced that individual therapy (that may include some joint meetings), going back to psycho-education work and some treatment planning work can be effective. 

How Timing of Couple Therapy Affects Everything

The true couple therapy, I believe, needs to be postponed until we have that Rule of Five in place. At that point, I see incredible results. When couple therapy’s well-timed and we have that Rule of Five in place, I see people being able to really focus on attachment and really heal. 
Let me give a positive and negative example. I’m working with someone right now who has been in couple therapy for two and a half years. The focus has been attachment work and working on trust and intimacy and communication. 

She came to me two years into that two and a half years of couple therapy. She had some of the worst trauma I’d seen. She would be shaking in the room, uncontrollable shaking, that would seem to come out of nowhere. Extremely traumatized. Part of the focus of couple therapy was forgiveness, and I asked, “Do you have a safety plan? In your gut, do you feel that you have the truth?” The answer was no. 

What Happens When Couple Counseling Does Not Help Us Move Forward?

None of that had been in place. It made sense to me, “Hey, as a couple, they’re not moving forward, because she’s still on the seventh floor of a burning building.” We have to get her out of that situation before they can really work on the couple-ship. 
Lo and behold, they continue the couple work, and I’m now advocating for a second disclosure. He had done a disclosure, but in her gut she didn’t feel that it was complete and it had never been polygraphed. 

Now, I don’t want to suggest every disclosure needs to be polygraphed to be full and complete. It doesn’t, but, in a growing number of situations, we’re seeing polygraph have good results. In this case, she chose polygraph. Lo and behold, it comes out in a second disclosure, there was a whole category of acting out she knew nothing about. 

A Foundation of Trust is Essential in Couple Therapy

It was impossible for that couple to heal. He was in the couple therapy holding secrets that were quite dangerous, and she was in the session not feeling safe at a very deep level, a cellular level and was not safe with him. 

It’s not until we were able to put a stop to the couple there—well, actually, what happened was they stopped it. They spun out of it, because they decided together, as a couple, “This isn’t working.” 

Well, it wasn’t working because they didn’t have the foundation necessary to have it work. In the individual work, we’re finally getting some traction, and, guess what, they’re burnt out of couple therapy. 

I’m having a hard time getting them convinced that this could be a good thing, because they’ve spent two and a half years spinning their wheels and, in fact, doing more harm to the relationship and attachment. 

Focus on The Positive While Working Through the Negative In Couple Counseling

On the flipside, let’s talk about the positive. I’ve worked with a couple—she came to me, initially, I was able to collaborate effectively with his individual therapist. We were able to really do solid individual work, get trauma under control. We were able to get addiction under control. 

We had a polygraph disclosure, it took him three tries on the polygraph test to get the whole truth out. Each time he would fail, there’d be another category of behavior disclosed the next time. We finally got the whole truth out. 

After that point, we had 90 days sobriety established. We had a disclosure, trauma, and mental illness—depression for him, trauma for her—were being managed. We chose a therapist that understood addiction, but focused exclusively on couples. We launched them into couple therapy, and, guess what, they’re doing beautifully well. They’re really moving forward. 

Finding The Right Therapist is Vital in Couple Counseling

To me, it contrasts the power of timing that effectively. That’s when I see marriages really thriving and healing, and becoming stronger than they ever were. Timing is key, as well as finding a therapist that understands this issue. 

You may have to shop around a bit to be a good consumer of mental health services, just like we are with dentists, doctors, lawyers, any professional service. Be a wise consumer. 

How To Find The Right Counselor For Couple Therapy

Ask them what their approach is, share your concerns. Ask them, when you’re shopping for a therapist, ask them if there are any contraindications to couple therapy, in their view, and what the indications would be. I think that speaks volumes about someone’s theoretical background and approach to couple therapy. 

Anne: I think, also, someone who has a way of assessing a woman’s safety. That’s why I think APSATS is so important. The multi-dimensional partner trauma model with safety and stabilization as the first phase, to make sure that those things are addressed properly, both in terms of abuse and in terms of the truth, and all of the things that you need, right, to be able to have safety. 

The therapist that I did couples work with there was absolutely no talk of are you safe, what does it mean to be safe, how do we establish safety. There was nothing like that. It was “attachment will solve all these problems.” 

The Three-Phase Model In Betrayal Trauma Is Important When Working In Couple Counseling

Having those three phases of the model, the safety and stabilization phase first, as the number one thing, and then working into the other phases later. The second one, which is processing and grieving, and the third, which is reconnecting. 
It is so essential for women to make sure that they’re safe, and to make sure that their husband is actually in recovery, not just faking it, or not just going with the flow, so that the relationship doesn’t fall apart.

Jill: Exactly. I’m so grateful that you brought up the three-phase model. Typically, it’s in the middle to the later second phase of that that couple therapy, from my perspective, works well, or even the third, in some cases, if trauma’s been really elevated and severe. 

Certainly not in that first building safety and stabilization. In defense of colleagues that do couple therapy from the beginning, I’ve had them say, “Well, Jill, these couples are living together. Often, they have families together. We can’t deny the reality of their day-to-day world. They’re living as couples day-to-day, so we can’t just ignore that for months while they’re in individual therapy.” 

I understand that. I think there’s ways, if you have good individual therapists that have releases and can collaborate and coordinate important details, or to have occasional joint meetings, but it’s not couple therapy, and those boundaries are clear. I’ve seen that work extremely well. 

Safety Is Key For Strong Results From Couple Therapy

Where you’re being vulnerable with one another, sharing deep and vulnerable feelings, working on attachment, I just have never seen strong results, or good outcomes unless there is safety, and—well, that Rule of Five, going back to that. 

Anne: Yeah, I’m so grateful for that. Jill, you are on the APSATS board, and all of the coaches here, at Betrayal Trauma Recovery, are APSATS-trained. There are women who are a little jittery about seeing a coach in conjunction with a therapist, so, while I have you here, can you tell our audience why you think our APSATS coaches are so amazing?

Jill: Great question. I’m always happy to voice my support for what you’re doing, Anne, and APSAT coaches, because in my own practice, and I am a therapist, I see great benefit in coaches being included in a treatment plan. Of course, APSATS training, I believe, is so effective in helping people have the background and mindset along the lines of what we’ve talked about today, and really understanding safety, and the nuances of this. 

Therapists and APSATS Coaches: Both Have A Role To Play When Helping Women Heal From Betrayal Trauma

Ethically, I feel a need to distinguish—there is a difference between therapists and coaches, they’re not the same. That takes nothing away from either/or; they serve different roles. Speaking as a therapist, how I recommend and use coaches in my work with partners is coaches do not have the same limitations that I do legally and ethically, with cross state lines and work. 

I can have a specialist out in California that’s an APSATS coach be part of a treatment plan, and she’s able to speak more personally about her own story, is able to do really good goal-work and effective support in ways that, as a therapist, I may be more limited. 
Also, everyone has a different skill set. I think it’s a team approach. I tend to be very collaborative in my work, so I like having as many supports as possible, realistically, and within budget of course, that we can. 

In my experience, the APSATS coaches, and those associated with Betrayal Trauma Recovery have just really been able to meet needs that I, as a therapist, either am not specialized in, or don’t have the same experience with. It’s been a wonderful resource for my partners. I would encourage anyone that has concerns to, perhaps, work with both. 
Find a clinician you really like, because clinicians are going to have training in diagnosing things and working clinically with someone, therapeutically. I don’t see them as mutually exclusive, Anne. I would encourage people that, as you said, may feel jittery, or anxious about that, to contact both, and to explore how maybe both could be used in different roles in their treatment plan. 

Finding The Right Therapist Or Counselor After An Affair

Anne: We’ve had people contact us, for example, who have legal questions. We get random emails all the time, from women all over the world, and we’re not attorneys. None of our APSATS coaches have legal training. 

What the coaches are really good at is helping women know, “Okay, these are the questions you may want to ask an attorney,” or if you’re looking for a therapist, coach them through picking the right therapist. 

How do they know which therapist is the right therapist? How do they know that the treatment that they’re seeking is working for them? Coaching them through the process of maybe legal issues, or therapeutic issues, is what our coaches are really good at. Because a lot of women, when they first find out, or when they’ve been searching for a long time, they don’t know exactly where to go, or they don’t know what questions to ask, they’re not sure how to go about the process. 

Our coaches are really good at helping them navigate this whole world of sex addiction and abuse, and all of these things that are very complex, in a way that works for them. Just having someone to walk you through the process is, I think, really important. I wish I would’ve had that in my journey. 

Jill: Absolutely, I support everything you just said. My experience, I can’t speak for every coach that’s been trained with APSATS, but all the ones that I’m aware of have had therapy themselves around this issue. I think they’re really well-positioned to help partners explore looking for a good therapist and how coaching can fill a different, but important, role as well. 

Anne: I really appreciate you coming on today. We have a lot more to talk about. I hope it’s an ongoing conversation. It is so complex that I’m very grateful to have talked about the Rule of Five today, which can help women really understand when to time couple therapy. You’re awesome, Jill, thank you. That was amazing. 

If you’re interested in scheduling a one-on-one support call with any of our coaches to assess whether or not it’s the right time for couple therapy, click here. You can schedule with any one of our APSATS-trained coaches. 
We also have many support groups available. Please check out the group Detecting & Confronting Gaslighting. That will be starting very soon. As always, we’d love to hear your comments. If you have feedback, or questions, please comment below. Let us know what you think, let us know your experience. Until next week, stay safe out there.

Knowing What To Do And Why



Most women think, “What do I do?” when they discover porn on their husband’s phone or their husband rages at them. This checklist is a proven path to an emotionally safe relationship. My goal is that every woman has access to this check list when they:

  • discover porn on their husband’s phone.
  • experience a strange conversation with their husband where things just don’t make sense.
  • have a feeling in their gut that something isn’t right.

For those of us who wasted years stuck in the cycles of our husband’s abuse / addiction, this checklist would have given us back years of our lives. It’s the only way to a peaceful and safe home.

My hope is that every woman will have access to this checklist and learn about the concepts taught here.

The Betrayal Trauma Recovery Checklist

 Because lies, manipulation, gaslighting, emotional abuse, and narcissistic traits are common for users of pornography, begin to think about what it means to be emotionally safe. Get educated by listening to the Betrayal Trauma Recovery (BTR) Podcast. Consider sharing your situation with safe people. Someone who tells you outright or implies that there is something (anything) you can do to change your husband or “help” him is not safe. “What did you do to set him off?” is a typical statement from an unsafe person.

⃞ Make a daily self-care plan. Start small! Step outside and take a breath of fresh air. Get the nutrition and sleep you need. Focus on meeting your own emotional, physical, mental and spiritual needs — and allow yourself to receive love, validation, and answers from safe and supportive people.

⃞ Schedule an appointment with your gynecologist, OB or midwife to be tested for all STD’s, even if your husband tells you he’s only used pornography. Request a full-panel STD workup every year with your annual physical. We understand that this step can be emotionally overwhelming or horrifying. However, it will provide you with objective, direct, and potentially life-saving information.

⃞ Read / listen to the following books & podcasts:

 Determine your level of emotional safety. Establish a support network by identifying the safe people upon whom you can rely. Schedule a support call with an APSATS-trained Betrayal Trauma Recovery Coach who can help you to determine your next steps, based on your individual situation. If possible, join Betrayal Trauma Recovery Club and/or a BTR Support Group for consistent support.

 Avoid attempting to identify the cause of your husband’s problematic behaviors. As you lean into your recovery from betrayal trauma, you’ll likely find that understanding the source of his behaviors (shame, trauma, personality disorders, addiction, etc) don’t make a significant difference in how those behaviors affect you — nor will it empower you to change, undo or minimize its traumatic impact. For too many women, seeking to “help” your husband figure out the source of his behaviors while those behaviors are still present only keeps you in harm’s way.

⃞ Move toward establishing an “emotionally safe home zone” as soon as possible. Unlike seeking to understand the source of your husband’s behaviors, this priority goal actually WILL make a big difference! In most cases, this means needing your husband to become 100% honest with you and everyone else within his community of support. He needs to be accountable, stop his problematic behaviors completely, and make restitution to those he has harmed — beginning with you and your children. If/when your husband can make and maintain those changes without resentment toward you, that’s a sign that he is capable of sharing your “emotionally safe home zone.”

 Recognize that couples therapy is rarely the right place to start. Here at BTR, we recognize that, in cases involving porn use and abuse, there are NOT “two sides of the story” — there is only truth. We know that pornography use is NOT a “couples issue”. Emotional abuse is NOT a “communication breakdown”. Too many professionals prematurely attempt to provide couple therapy without first holding your husband accountable for his porn use and abuse, thereby minimizing the seriousness of his behavior. In the interim, consider communicating with your husband’s therapist or coach only to report specific violations of problematic behaviors and recovery commitments. 

⃞ Begin to think about boundaries that support your need for emotionally safe space, even temporarily. Though your situation is unique to you, many betrayal trauma survivors need boundaries such as:
Abstain from sex
Detach from abusive and manipulative conversations
Sleep / live in separate parts of the house
Explore a temporary or indefinite separation
• Choose to limit or eliminate all contact for a period of time
• Allocate time, energy and money toward your own healing, not just toward his recovery
Request a therapeutic polygraph, ideally in conjunction with a complete therapeutic disclosure
*BTR does not advocate for divorce. BTR’s aim is to help clients establish emotional safety for yourselves and your children, in whatever form that takes.

 Set appropriate boundaries while waiting for your husband to show these signs of recovery:

  • Honesty and humility
  • A willingness to meet your needs without anger, resentment, or retaliation
  • Accountability for his secret infidelity (lies, porn use, and masturbation) and emotional abuse (deception, manipulation, gaslighting)
  • Clear restitution for his lies, infidelity, and abuse

  Be gentle with yourself. As a betrayal trauma survivor, recognize that even your “baby steps” count! When the pain is intense and survival feels overwhelming, remember that an entire army of other women have survived this experience—and YOU WILL TOO. We know, because we’ve been there, and we believe in you!

For support implementing this checklist, join a support group or schedule a support call today.


Here are downloadable PDF’s for you to print. Because many women experiencing betrayal trauma struggle with finances, we have found these PDF’s help when approaching church leaders or businesses to ask for donations to BTR on your behalf, so you can receive these proven services. BTR is a nonprofit 510(c)(3) and donations are tax deductible.

How To Heal – Stages Of Betrayal Trauma Healing

2.5 Hour Class
Led By Coach Cat
Saturday 1PM Eastern (USA)
Limited to 12 participants (minimum 6)

Discovering and recovering from the reality that your husband or partner is a secret porn or sex addict opens up a whole range of unwanted and disturbing emotions many of which seem overwhelming and confusing. In the midst of these emotions we often wonder “what the heck is WRONG with me?”, even when we’ve been healing for a while!

We can feel seriously crazy and may even be told that we are! In fact, what we’re experiencing is, most often, entirely NORMAL.

Viktor Frankl, who survived the Nazi concentration camps was quoted as saying that “an abnormal response to an abnormal situation is normal behaviour”.

For many women, understanding their responses as trauma and becoming educated on the topic, is the first and most important step they take on their healing journey.

This group will:

  • Give you an important sense of validation and understanding, whatever your stage of healing.
  • Explain the basics and beyond of betrayal trauma.
  • Help you begin to develop language for the experience you are having.
  • explain what you can expect in each of the different stages of healing.
  • Provide a framework of healing that creates some safety through structure.

Questions? Email Coach Cat at

So many women, they find out about their husband’s porn addiction, or they suspect they’re being abused, and they start to wonder how to heal, what do I do, where do I go from here.

Coach Cat is going to cover what betrayal trauma is, what the symptoms are, the complications and factors that affect the severity of your betrayal trauma, you know, looking at the PTSD and CPSD aspects of it, and a deeper look at the healing stages, and what you might need in each of those stages, also the help that’s available. It’s a really good one-session group that will help you to know where to go from here.

The value is that it’s all in one place, and it will offer you an opportunity to make the concepts of betrayal trauma real for you, rather than just being these ideas. It’s very interactive, so you’ll be able to ask your questions. To find out the details about the support group, “So I have Betrayal Trauma, What Now?” go to, click on the Services page. That will take you to the details of this group, or you can click on Schedule and Join to just go ahead and join.

Anne: Now, we welcome Coach Cat.

Coach Cat: Happy New Year, everybody.

Anne: Coach Cat and I have been talking about my recovery process, and how there were so many times along the journey, and still now, since I’m still in recovery, I’m still finding out things, and you’re hearing about my recovery in real-time, that I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

What Does It Mean To “Be In Recovery”?

There was a long period of time where I thought I was in recovery, and I actually wasn’t. I didn’t’ know what boundaries were. I didn’t know the healing stages. There are so many things that I didn’t understand. Coach Cat, why is it important for women to know where they are in the healing process?

Coach Cat: It’s really important that women have a sense of where they are on this journey. I think, a lot of women really recognize they’re recovering from betrayal trauma is not an event, it’s not something that just happens on one day, or in one week. Actually, to have a sense of whereabouts on that journey they are, can really help them to understand what still needs to be done, what stuff they can relax and feel confident about.

Women find it really empowering, once they understand what is still to come, to then decide how they want to approach that ongoing, and continuing healing. Understanding your stage of the journey, what’s still to come, and what’s gone—although, it’s not quite as linear as that might sound, is really empowering for women to take those next steps.

Anne: The really important thing is to know what the stages are, and how you fit into those stages. Like you said, it’s not linear. In order to have a very effective recovery, I think it’s important to have a structure, which is what APSATS provides us with. Can you talk about the Multi-Dimensional Trauma Model that APSATS developed?

Giving Your Recovery Structure

Coach Cat: You’ve hit on, really, the keyword to summarize what it is that the Trauma Model, according to APSATS, offers. It’s a structured approach to healing. We know that, when we’re in a state of trauma, actually, anything that provides a bit of structure, and safety, starts to put us on that road to healing straight away.

The three-stage approach to healing, which I’ll unpack in detail in the group, is actually a really helpful way for women to feel like they can identify the steps that they need to take, and to feel like they have some safety within that structure. It’s a really important approach, inasmuch as it’s a well-worn, well-trodden, well-practiced path to healing.

You’re not trying to walk through an uncharted territory for the first time, by yourself. There are some really well-defined steps, and processes to follow, that have been proven to be successful. That’s why I love the APSATS model, because there’s nothing hit-or-miss about it, nothing’s left to chance.

In fact, they were developed and adapted from the original trauma healing model of Judith Herman, which was used in a much more broad way, to address all sorts of other traumas too. This isn’t just proven to work with betrayal trauma, but actually, a similar approach is taken with other trauma survivors as well. That’s what I love about the APSATS Multi-Dimensional Partner Trauma Model.

Recovering From An Abusive Relationship Isn’t Linear – But There Is A Proven Structure

Anne: Yeah, and that’s really important. It not being linear, you could be in Stage 1 for a while, then move to Stage 2, then feel like you’re in Stage 3, and then be like, “Wait a minute, I’m not at Stage 3. I thought I was, but, really, I need to go back to Stage 1. I need to establish safety, for example.” That’s what we’re talking about, when we say it’s not linear. You can move back and forth between those stages.

Coach Cat: Right. I tend to think about it, you know, like when you see a watercolor painting, and, sometimes, the edges are blurred. They’re not like a straight edge, or a very well-defined edge. I like to think about the kind of edges between each stage as being a bit like that of a watercolor painting, because there are bits in Stage 1 that cross over into Stage 2.

You might spend a little bit of time on that threshold, where you still have some Stage 1 stuff to work on, but you’re moving into Stage 2. Likewise, between Stages 2 and 3, there’ll be this blurred edge, whereby you’ll be doing a little bit of each thing. Actually, you can be on the precipice of Stage 3 and still have some safety and stabilization stuff to do from the first stage, because things happen that are outside of our control, and triggers will occur.

Gaining Momentum In Recovery

There’s definitely blurred edges between the stages. There’s, also, the sense of building momentum as you go through. You will definitely do, for example, something like trigger management, and understanding difficult emotions in Stage 1 that will be a really important foundational piece to your recovery, and to your healing. That doesn’t mean that, when you get to Stage 2, you don’t have to do that anymore. It just means that you build on top of that, right.

You’ll still do the same stuff in Stage 2 that you did in Stage 1, and you’ll only be able to do the Stage 2 stuff because you did that stuff in Stage 1. That’s the beauty of it, really, is that it’s not about trying to get to the endgame. We recognize that, for many of us, this is actually about integrating this experience, and building that into who we are, and who we want to be for the rest of our life.

Anne: I don’t want that to scare women, because I remember when I started recovery, I thought, “Okay, when I’m done.” I was driving to a support group, and I thought, “Well, once my crisis is over, I’ll stop,” but, hey, I’m two and a half years out. I still love my support group. Now, I plan on going the rest of my life.

I think, at the beginning of recovery, the idea that this is going to be a lifelong process is really scary. What would you say to women who are at that beginning stage where they think, “Wait a minute, I didn’t sign up for this. I don’t want to find out where I am in my healing process, because I don’t want a healing process in the first place. I don’t want a healing journey, I want to be healed.” What would you say to them?

Recovery Is An Exciting Journey Of Growth

Coach Cat: I would say that I totally get it. That’s the first thing that I would say. I would say that I’ve been there, and I know what that feels like, and, “Why do I have to go on a lifelong journey, because he did what he did?” I totally get that. Actually, Anne, one of the things that has always stayed with me, from my own recovery—so, for those of you who don’t know, I have my own recovery from substance addiction, and I’ve been sober for ten years.

I can always remember saying to somebody that I started out running away from a life I didn’t want. I started out running away from the place that I had come from, whatever I needed to do to not go back there, was my motivation. Then, at some point, during the first couple of years of my own recovery journey, I realized that I’d stopped running away. I wasn’t running away from that place I didn’t want to be anymore. I started running to something better.

I’d achieved, somehow, a shift in my perspective that had me no longer running from what was painful, but actually running towards what I could see was better, running towards growth, running towards healing, running towards this better life that I was starting to build for myself. When I think about recovery from anything, whether it’s from trauma, whether it’s from addiction, whether it’s from grief, I tend to think about it in those terms.

Whilst it may seem unfair that we’re on this lifelong journey, that isn’t a lifelong journey of just avoiding pain. At some point, we will make a shift, and realize that, actually, we’re no longer running away from where we came from, but we’re running to this better life that we are now starting to build for ourselves.

The clients that I’ve worked with, who have progressed through that healing journey, will testify to that, and they will say that they now know things about themselves that they didn’t know before. They are now better parents than they were before. They’re better able to have conversations with their children about emotional stability, and expression, and things that they weren’t able to do before, because they didn’t know what they didn’t know, which is what you said earlier on.

I get that it’s not fair that I have to go on a lifelong journey. I know that feeling of, “Why do I have to do that?” Yet, I would say to not think about it in terms of, “I have to go on a journey just to not hurt.” Actually, there is a whole world of discovery for women who are healing from betrayal trauma. At some point, it stops being a chore, and starts becoming more about a way of life, and moving towards something better.

Shifting From Running From Pain To Growing Toward The Life We Want

Anne: I felt that shift with my recovery. I felt a shift from trying to manage the sadness, and manage the grief, and manage the triggers, to now, where I’m working with a coach to build the life I want, right. For me, it took about two years slogging through the grief and the pain. Now I feel like I’m on the other side of that, but I still have so much work to do. I can see my goals, and I am now, excitedly, working toward them. That’s why we wanted to do this group at the beginning of the year.

Coach Cat: This group will offer, at the start of the year, as both—it offers an opportunity to assess where you’re at, and that’s great for everybody. Wherever you are, however long you’ve been doing this recovery thing, getting a benchmark as to where you might be in that process, can be a really helpful thing, to help you to think about, as we’ve already said, what might need to come next.

This is also a really great opportunity for women who are new on this journey, and who are in that stage where they just feel like everything is crazy, they don’t understand why they’re feeling the way that they’re feeling. This can really help them to get that sense of empowerment, and of validation that only comes from being around people who get what you’re going through.

Support Groups For Women Recovering From Trauma & Abuse

This group is great for everybody. This will help women to really capitalize on the progress they’ve already made, and to bolster where they’re at, or to use this as a bit of a launchpad to work out what is the next step that they need to take. The other thing that is really important to me about women understanding what betrayal trauma looks like for them, is that it gives them the opportunity to learn how to advocate for themselves.

One of the most upsetting things, that I hear over and over again, is the women who’ve been damaged and hurt when they’ve reached out for help. I really feel like it’s important that women understand exactly what it is that they’re healing from, so that, when they go to seek help with that healing from a professional, from a therapist, from a church or religious leader, from whoever it is that they go and seek that support from, they can go in form.

When somebody gives them that rubbish piece of advice, when somebody tells them to do that thing that they think is going to help, that really isn’t, they’re going in with enough education to be able advocate for themselves, and to really understand what it is that they need to support their own healing.

Anne: Cat, thanks for being here today. For all of you who want to register for Cat’s group, go to, click on Schedule and Join, and you’ll be able to see the exact details of that group. Thanks so much for being here, Cat.

Coach Cat: Thanks for having me, Anne, it’s always great to talk to you. I’ll look forward to seeing all of you listeners in the group.

Anne: I have amazing news. On December 31st, we had 19,000 RSS subscribers, and that’s because of you. Our community is amazing, and so many women are finding us, and listening to this podcast, and getting the help they need. We so appreciate you helping get the word out by commenting on our website, giving ratings on iTunes, any way that you can help us get the word out about BTR is so helpful.

We have so many women who say, “Wow, if I would’ve found this ten years ago, I would be in so much better shape.” We want every woman who needs to find it now to be able to find it. If you go to our website, and go to the Services page, you’ll see the new lineup of support groups. We have 17 different amazing groups from gaslighting to therapeutic separation, to a divorce group. Whatever group you need at this stage, that you’re in now, you can go ahead and register for it. When it fills, that group will start.

Register, then tell your friends, post it in the BTR secret Facebook group, or any other secret Facebook group you’re a part of, “Hey, I just registered for Understanding Triggers,” or, “I just registered for Sara’s Boundaries group.” Post the link in there, so other women can find it.

Whatever you feel like you need right now, you can post it inside of the Facebook groups that you’re in, and see if other women want to join. That way, you can get the support that you need, based on the specific group that you need, when you need it, and when other women need it too. Because, chances are, if you really need a support group right now about boundaries, than other women do too.

Because we cap our groups at six, and then we cap our one-session groups, and our workbook study groups at 12, it won’t take that many women to start your group. Check that out, find the group you need, register, tell your friends, post about it in your groups, and we’ll get it started right away. Also, the first participants who register for the group, get to choose the day and time that it runs. That’s another advantage of registering, and then letting your friends know.

I am so grateful to be on this recovery journey with you. I’m honored. The women that I meet every day amaze me. I met an amazing woman last night, who told me her story, and didn’t recognize that she had been abused for 12 years, and also did not recognize that the behaviors that she was seeing were consistent with pornography use.

Seeing her face, when she realized, “Wait a minute, whoa. You mean I’m not crazy? You mean I’m not a terrible person,” because the porn user/abuser, that’s what he told her for 12 years. I want you to know that you are amazing, that you can have a peaceful and calm life. It takes a while, I’m still trying to establish mine, but we can do it together. Until next week, stay safe out there.