Viewing Betrayal Through The Lens Of Domestic Abuse
Welcome to Betrayal Trauma Recovery, this is Anne. Staci Sprout is a Licensed Psychotherapist, author and publisher. With 20 years of experience as a therapist and social worker in a variety of settings from community mental health in hospitals to private clinical practice. Staci is also a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist, that is CSAT.
Since 2006, she has dedicated her practice to helping individuals, groups, and couples in recovery from sex and relationship addictions. She conducts trainings on sexual ethics for professionals and is an experienced retreat and conference speaker sharing the story of her recovery from childhood trauma and multiple addictions. She lives near Seattle, Washington with her husband, who is also in recovery.
Anne: Welcome, Staci.
Staci: Thank you, Anne, glad to be here.
How Domestic Violence Involves Various Types Of Abuse
Anne: Staci, you published a book in which you self-identify as a recovered female sex addict, among other addictions. Yet, in your memoir, you also share your experience of being betrayed by two different sex addicts you were in relationships with, one after another. Do you also identify as a betrayed partner?
Staci: Yes, I do. I am a survivor of betrayal, absolutely. Although, the focus of my book was on educating people about sex addiction and what that can look like, and how it can connect to childhood trauma.
There’s lots of overlap of other kinds of experiences, including as an older person meeting, and falling in love and being betrayed by two different men. There’s more in the book. But the emotional infidelity of one that I was engaged to, at the time, was terribly wounding for me. I didn’t understand what was wrong, really.
We went to two different couple’s therapists to try to get help for what I now call emotional domestic violence through his infidelity. It was unclear if it was a physical infidelity. It was absolutely clear it was, at least, an emotional infidelity, but, at the time, I was too dependent on him to leave. I just couldn’t imagine life without him.
How Does Domestic Abuse Relate To Trauma
Eventually, he broke up with me, which was a great gift he gave me at that time. Then, I wrote also that another man’s sexual infidelity, which was incredibly painful. Thankfully, by that time, I was in a different place. I was able to be more independent on my own. I was able to end the relationship.
Some couples choose to stay together, or they choose to reconcile, as long as both people can agree on the offense of the infidelity, the lies, and the other wounds caused by the betrayal. As long as the offender is willing to change the behavior and repair the damage they have caused. In my original relationship there was just no identification of the offense. I was just called too sensitive, or overreactive. Neither therapist could see it.
If people can recognize it and want to repair, it’s not easy. I’m happy to report that in my work, as a therapist, helping couples reconcile successfully is one of the most wonderful and rewarding parts of the work I get to do.
Anne: With your experience with those therapists who were not able to identify what was happening, did you feel betrayed by them, as well?
Staci: At the time, I felt angry. I felt enraged, but because they were in an expert position and I was in a struggling couple, I didn’t know for sure. There was some gaslighting in there. I guess I can look back and say that they tried the best they could, but I think that healing from betrayal needs to be looked at from a domestic violence lens. That is what enables therapists to treat it effectively.
Why Betrayal Is Domestic Abuse
Now, looking back, I think they lacked insight. They lacked training. They lacked perspective. I don’t, now, feel so betrayed, but it certainly was, at the time, an additional—one of my colleagues calls it therapy-induced trauma. It felt traumatic at the time and our relationship ended. At the very least, ineffective, in terms of helping us get to resolution. At the time, yeah, it did feel like a betrayal.
Anne: Many of our listeners have had that experience of going to a “specialist” and having it not be identified. Then, having the trauma of that experience just pile on with the trauma that they were already experiencing.
That is why I appreciate that we agree that this needs to be addressed from a focal point of domestic violence or abuse. Because within that context, is the only way to appropriately approach this type of situation without re-harming, or re-traumatizing the victim of the chronic manipulation.
Why Domestic Violence Can Involve Betrayal
Staci: Yeah, I see that in the people that come to me for therapy, as well. I started a group for betrayed partners. One day, we were sharing stories about the members of the group, and how many therapists they had been to that had blown them off. I think the most was six, before they got into my practice.
Yeah, there’s a lot of need for more training and education, and healing. There are a lot of therapists who have had wounds of this type in their own life, that they haven’t worked through one way or another, so they’re not able to help other people with it, until they can get that healing themselves.
Anne: Tell me more about your private practice, as it relates to betrayed partners.
Staci: Right now, I would say partners healing from sexual or relationship betrayal makes up about one-quarter of my practice, maybe 30 percent on any given time, if I add in couples. Most of the betrayed partners that I’ve seen have been female. There have been three males that I have worked with over the years.
Domestic Abuse Can Be Isolating
As I mentioned, I have had a group that is very helpful for women to come together and talk about what it’s like to be betrayed and really do the work of unhooking the blame of self that either the individual can place on themselves, or the addict or the person doing the betraying can place on them, or the therapist who doesn’t understand, or the culture who is judgmental. Definitely, support groups are really powerful.
I see them in individuals and couples work and they teach me all the time about the devastation that they they’ve experience as they’re stepping into more and more empowerment. One of the things we do is called an impact letter, where they make a formal accounting of the harm they’ve suffered.
As part of that, and I know part of the conversation you and I have had before, one of the things that does come up for partners are sexual problems in their life, that are as a result of being partnered with someone who betrayed them, or in the cases of the people who I see who have sexual addictions and have been acting out that addiction and hurting their partners.
This issue of partner’s sexuality and the wounding in relationship really hit home for me when I was giving a presentation a few years back at a conference called, “Restoring Hearts,” for women impacted by sexual betrayal. That’s an annual conference, takes place this year in April, in Bellevue, Washington.
What Are Some Responses To Domestic Violence?
When I presented, I was going through the stages of grief and the complexities of grief partners can experience. One of the women in the audience, she said, “After I found out about my partner’s betrayal, I went out and, unbeknownst to him, had an affair. How do you grieve when you’ve done something like that?”
I was so honored by her bravery to be so vulnerable in a room of people. It helped me to have a broader lens when I’m getting to know partners and what they’re going through in their grief, that some of the problems around their sexuality are very complex. The ripple effects of the betrayal can be multi-layered and very devastating.
Anne: I talked with one very reputable therapist. I asked her, “What is the percentage of betrayed women that you work with, who also end up having an affair, for example, or going into alcohol addiction, or something like that?”
She thought it was about 50 percent, which I was like, “Whoa, we need to address this on my podcast, then, because that means that there is a percentage of listeners who, as a result of their betrayal, are reacting with other unhealthy behaviors.” In your experience treating betrayed women, what do you hear about the unhealthy sexual behavior that they have struggled with?
Sometimes Domestic Abuse Causes Unhealthy Responses
Staci: You mentioned alcohol, or other drugs. Certainly, I hear about use of that outside of what they would’ve used before or starting to use something that they didn’t use before, as a way of trying to numb the pain. In terms of sexual behavior, the most common examples that I have heard over the last 12 years or so have fallen into three themes.
One area of sexual problems are things a partner did while they were in the relationship with the person who acted out, their sexual addiction or their sickness, and encouraged that partner, or coerced them to do things that made her feel uncomfortable or regretful, or ashamed.
I hear things, not usually at first, because when partners struggle with sexual behavior, as a result of being betrayed or in relationships with someone betrayed, they often feel tremendous shame. They’re dealing with lots of other issues and chaos and safety up front. Sometimes these particular issues don’t come out until later, when they’re out of the biggest chaos and they’re feeling safer.
Domestic Violence Can Feel Shameful And Lonely
Over the last 12 years, or so, I hear partners talk about sexual struggles in three distinct areas. The first area is things that they did at the encouragement or coercion of their sexually addicted, or sexually sick partner, that made her feel uncomfortable, regretful, or ashamed.
Summary of things I’ve heard over the years, generally, would be a woman looking at pornography with their partners regularly, and they didn’t want to, but they did it to go along with or because he was so insistent, going out to clubs, aka sexual exploitation organization, or joining burlesque communities, which are communities based on erotic engagement as opposed to heartfelt connection, typically.
Women who are coerced, or talked into, or influenced into creating pornography with their partner, participating in other activities with their partner, that are outside their comfort zone, feels like a toxic stretch, or they’re coerced into trying new sexual positions or techniques that they don’t want to.
In fact, the driving factor behind these influences are what I call outside-in, or often pornography-driven, sexuality, or addictive sexuality. They don’t originate from the organic, creative, heart-centered connection of the couple, and their developing sexuality. The pornography, or other artificial sexual stimulation, or these outside communities become a very toxic third-presence in the sexual relationship and dominate the process, and it’s horrible. That is a wounding I hear about a lot.
There Can Be A Sexual Component to Domestic Abuse
We talk a lot about what does the sexually sick person, or the sex addict do, and all of that can also evoke great shame for partners, “I can’t believe he did that. I can’t believe he did that to me.” That’s a whole additional category of shame that partners often take on.
I think what you and I are trying to have the courage and strength to talk about is that this is a category of things that partners are coerced into doing. They get caught up in the outside-in drive for many reasons. The underlying feature is it’s not their genuine, authentic sexuality. They would not have come up with the idea, and they go along with it.
Then, later, what I hear about as they’re working through their grief processes, they have to grieve those experiences as part of the cost of partnering with someone sexually sick. It’s really tough for them.
My message to them, because they feel so much guilt and shame, is that you cannot evaluate your behavior outside the context of your love or connection with someone who is seriously sexually sick. It is contextual behavior.
Why Women Have A Hard Time Leaving Domestic Violence
The pressure that sex addicts, or people who are sexually broken can put on partners can be relentless and incredibly confusing. They can be threatened, or blackmailed, or chronically manipulated and it can be overwhelming.
Some partners suffer from Stockholm syndrome, which is a psychologically term for someone dependent on an offender, who then goes along with, or even becomes complicit in behaviors in order to survive.
Ultimately, the healing work focuses on defining and claiming one’s own authentic sexuality, “This is what I want. This is not okay with me.” The areas they’re not sure about, then they get to explore that.
I think that’s one thing that is missed in the conversation of so-called porn being an okay way to explore sexuality and there’s no harm caused by it. It’s missed this dynamic of the force of it on people who get addicted to it and then the force that they bring to their relationships. We’re seeing that with women of all ages.
A key piece of work that people do, when they have succumbed to that, and they realize, “This is not what I want, and I never wanted it, but, because of the relationship, was engaging in it.” They have to express their grief at the partner’s abusive influence on them and forgive themselves for their actions in the context of their own betrayal. They can, and they do, so that is a beautiful thing.
How To Honor Your Self After Domestic Abuse
Another area that I hear partners struggle with, in terms of their own sexuality in relationships with betrayal in them, is changing their own appearance after finding out about an affair with another woman or discovering their husband or partner’s porn habit. I do see that sometimes partners react in changing who they are.
They may not even be aware of what they’re doing. They just suddenly want to do something different with their appearance. I see sometimes they dye their hair, or they get Botox or a facelift, or they get a breast augmentation surgery. Sometimes, their partner who is sexually sick encourages this as part of controlling the partner’s appearance, which is harmful. Mostly, I’ve seen these changes right after discovery of the lies, affair, porn addiction.
While I totally support a woman’s right to choose how she expresses her beauty, there are times when the shock of betrayal creates a reactive urge to compete with the other woman, or the women in porn and becomes another outside-in or porn-driven expression. It’s more about becoming like someone else than expressing her true self.
If a recently betrayed partner wants to make a significant or permanent change in her appearance, I just try to explore her motivation and gently. I don’t want to judge any woman for wanting to look how they want to look, but I do want to prevent regret if it’s just a reaction to the betrayal and the discovery and the shock.
Why Is Sexual Betrayal Considered Abuse?
This is one of the ways I feel like the sexual betrayal is so clearly abuses the partner’s sexuality, because it devastates, often, her sexual self-esteem. These reactions can be an attempt to reclaim it, which reclaiming that sexual self-esteem is awesome. Again, I emphasize they’re not at fault for their partner’s betrayal, nor should they have to compete with anybody else to get their attention.
Anne: I’m glad you’re bringing this up. I’ve had several friends who have had breast augmentation surgery after the discovery. Not that they would have them removed, per se, but it is a source of regret. I really appreciate the gentle way in which you’re addressing this.
Staci: One thing I want to add is, as part of my training as a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist, I learned about some specialized assessments and screening tools that help partners identify how their partners sexually problematic behaviors have impacted their life.
There are three tools that I think listeners might be interested to hear about. One of them is free, called the Betrayal Bond Index and one of them is $6.50, and that’s called the Partner’s Sexuality Survey, or PSS.
There Are Tools To Help With Domestic Abuse And Betrayal
The Partner Sexuality Survey looks at 11 dimensions of a partner’s sexuality. The Betrayal Bond is a 30-question test. It gives you a preliminary response, when you take it, what your results are.
There’s another tool that you can take, if you see a CSAT, it’s called the Inventory for Partner’s Attachment, Stress and Trauma, or IPAST. That’s a much more comprehensive overview of how the experience of sexual betrayal has affected partners and looks at previous relationships and how to cope. I find it really helpful.
There’s so few resources, in general, for partners, and to have an entire assessment tool to look at, “What are some of the common areas that betrayal affects people?” I very much appreciate having it. I think it could be interesting for anyone to take the Survey, or the Betrayal Bond Index, and see how they come out, and talk it over with someone they trust.
Anne: A link to all of these assessments, so just go to btr.org, and search Staci Sprout, and there you will find the article that has the links to these assessments. It’s awesome. I really appreciate it. We want to help the women who are dealing with this, especially with those own behaviors that they’re having a really difficult time with, that they need help with, so that they can feel more peace in their lives.
What Are Some Impacts Of Domestic Abuse?
Anne: For the women who have actually acted out themselves, women who have had an affair, women who have been seeking anonymous sex with other men, can you talk about that?
Staci: Yes. This is another facet of what can happen that may not come out in the very beginning of treatment. It may be a while before a partner will say, “Hey, there’s this other thing I need to talk about it, and I don’t want to talk about it, or it’s hard to talk about.”
Sometimes, we’ll talk about it right away, but, usually, because of shame, they stay silent until they feel really, really safe. Like the woman at the conference who confessed to an affair post-betrayal, is an extremely vulnerable and volatile time for partners, as you know. If they want to stay in the relationship, many that I get to talk to say they think about do they want to cheat. They were cheated on, maybe they want to cheat. Retaliatory affairs do happen.
According to some research I’ve read, they are more common with betrayed male partners, but it can happen with both genders. It’s a very high-risk time, because, after you find out about the betrayal, you’re feeling traumatized, disconnected, you want to fight, or run, or freeze. The relationship is so horrible, typically, that the partner’s in shock or anger, or they’re confused and hurt. Their emotional needs are very high.
How Safety Can Bring Healing From Domestic Violence
We would hope that a betrayed partner, who would open up to someone else outside the relationship, like a friend or acquaintance, or coworker, might be met with understanding and support. Sometimes, that person actually moves into emotional enmeshment, or initiates a sexual intrigue on either side, which can progress into a physical affair. Participation in this may be a passive aggressive expression of rage.
In some cases, the partner is vulnerable and opens up to someone new, and then they’re groomed during that time, by a predatory person, which adds another injury to the betrayal they’ve already suffered. What I say, when partners tell me about these kinds of experiences—well, it kicks me into an assessment mode, because my response is different depending on what’s going on.
The first thing I would ask, if someone was participating in an emotional or physical affair outside their partnership, is to find out if they feel like it’s a problem or not. I’ve not actually had a partner say, “No, it’s fine. It’s no big deal,” but I would just make sure.
Because if someone didn’t feel like it was a problem then they may be using that as an attempt to exit the relationship. If that’s really clear, I would, “Then let’s support you to do this directly, rather than to risk discovery, a blow-up, and resulting devastation of a really dramatic exit.”
Mostly, partners are ambivalent. They want to stay if there’s healing, if they’re respected, if there’s sobriety, if there’s fidelity, if there’s truth. Sometimes, keeping another relationship on the side, even in an emotional way that’s not acted out physically, is an expression of their ambivalence about the relationship. I try to help them sort out what their values are about the relationship and are they willing to be all in versus the pain of holding a secret.
Why Shame Can Be An Effect of Domestic Abuse
Other times, the affair partner is what I call an effort at forced empathy. What I mean by that is where they do what’s been done to them in an attempt to force their partner to understand their own pain. Which is a little different than just retaliation, right, where you’re trying to express an action that will retaliate or hurt someone.
Maybe it can be mixed up in there together, but, basically, in these cases, if their behavior is trying to get the empathy they so much need, then I would offer perspective that it’s not very effective.
If someone wants to reconcile, I really encourage them to stick with that process, because, oftentimes, if their partner is not showing empathy, it’s actually a capacity issue, a psychological capacity issue. A partner, because of their wounding, has not developed the complexity in their brain to be able to hold their heart empathy. That is a treatment issue where they need to get support and treatment, so they can have the capacity to do that.
The reconciliation process, which I support people to do formally with therapists who are experienced in it, it requires fidelity on both sides in order for people participating to feel safe enough to do it. I would encourage them to hold onto their decision to make a best effort at reconciling.
How Abuse In A Relationship Thrives In Silence
They don’t have to commit to permanent reconciliation until they do get that empathy, but I encourage them to let go of any outside detractions or distractions or infidelities if they want to try to achieve that. That empathy does come, eventually, in most all the people who stick with the work that I see, those couples, but it can be painstakingly slow.
Getting support while one is going through that, while you have a partner who doesn’t have empathy yet, is so essential, because, otherwise, how could anyone do it, really.
I ask partners, also, when they’re thinking about their values, what is their overall vision and purpose of their life. That, typically, clarifies whether or not infidelity fits in. It’s messy and complicated but healing happens. It’s just life. I’m trying to take it, as they say in recovery, one day at a time.
Anne: It is a very difficult, complicated, painstaking process. I agree with you. It does happen, it can happen, and that is the best-case scenario for most couples—I would say all couples to have a beautiful, happy, empathetic relationship. That’s what everybody wants, even if they don’t know how to get it.
I love this forced empathy concept. I had never heard of it before you brought it up. I’ve been thinking about it a lot since we originally talked about doing the podcast. I’ve been thinking about how I try to force empathy with my children, and how they probably are not capable of that empathy yet. I think just knowing that that concept exists and having that in my mind will probably help me a better parent. I’m grateful for you for bringing that up.
Why Self-Awareness Is Important In Healing From Abuse
I want to end with the very difficult and, perhaps triggering, question for our audience is that, if you have participated in these behaviors, are you a sex addict? If, within the context of your relationship with a sex addict, you too have participated in sexually unhealthy behaviors, does that make you a sex addict? How would you address that question?
Staci: That is a great question, because I think a lot of partners fear that. Two things to keep in mind, if you’re trying to sort that out. Number one, have your behaviors come in reaction to being betrayed or are they independent of betrayals?
That would be one thing to be curious about. In other words, someone who’s influenced by a sex addict in the context of relationship, or they’re betrayed and then, in reaction to that devastation, start looking at porn, maybe their checking up on their partner and then they start looking at it more, or have a retaliatory affair, or trying to get the person to understand by having an affair, forced empathy. Those are context-specific behaviors.
With sex addiction, typically, we see that they occur related to other triggers. The pattern is much longer, over a period of time, can come and go, like binge-purge, binge-purge, but it’s not contextual to the betrayal. I think there’s a difference between a woman self-identifying as a sex addict and acting out that behavioral pattern in relationships, because sex is often relational.
Although, for women sex addicts, there is a distinction between women who engage more in relation-based sexual acting out and women who engage in more objectification, that kind of non-relational sexual acting out.
How Does Addiction Relates To Domestic Abuse
When you hear someone say, “Oh, I’m more a sex addict,” and someone else might say, “I’m more a love addict or relationship addict,” they self-identify as sex addicts and they act out in relationships. Maybe they have serial relationships, a whole bunch at a time, maybe their deceptive, maybe they mix in more objectifying behaviors like pornography.
Staci: I run a group for female sex and love addicts. There is definitely overlap in terms of women in the group who have been betrayed. But, what makes them feel more like they are sex and love addicts is, even though they had one betrayal that was profound and damaging, they also had a repeat pattern with various relationships where they were not betrayed.
In fact, they were often in the role of betrayer. We’re looking at pattern over time. We’re looking at who instigates the betrayal. Those are things that, I think, women tend to then identify more as sex and love addicts.
Why Sexual Addiction Is Domestice Abuse
Anne: Sex addiction and betrayal trauma are very complicated. That’s why we have a podcast. That’s why we’ll never run out of things to say on the podcast because, from our perspective coming from the abuse angle, that the lying and the porn use and the infidelity are the abuse in and of themselves. In conclusion, Staci, would you like to share anything else with our audience?
Staci: For me, personally, I identified as a sex addict because it made the most sense to me on some level that was just about me and my own self-identification and didn’t mean I wasn’t also a betrayed partner of a sex addict. I was both.
I always tell people who are trying to heal, just work on the thing that’s killing you the quickest. Only worry about the labels as much as they help you find help. I now call myself a recovered sex addict, because I no longer struggle with preoccupations or obsessive thoughts or ritualized behaviors or sexual acting out. I don’t struggle with that.
I also respect that there are people who still struggle with those things and maybe it originated in the betrayal partnership, but it’s taken on a life of its own, or maybe there’s a long pattern of it that goes back to childhood, or maybe it started with porn use and it hasn’t gone away. The sexual harm that’s out there is vast, but so are the resources for healing that sexuality, the sexual betrayal, the sexual patterns.
Connection Is Key In Domestic Abuse Situations
I wanted to segue into something that I’m really passionate about right now, which is I’m starting a newscast. It’s on Facebook Live Friday’s at 5 Pacific Time. It’s called sex addiction in the news. I would encourage anybody who’s interested in this topic to check it out. It’ll be once a week and just a half hour or so, or even send me stories, if you find news links related to healing from sexual addiction and partners who are healing from betrayal trauma.
I think part of the problem is we don’t talk about it. When we don’t talk about it, we can’t self-define. I’ve had a lot of women write to me after they read my book, “Naked in Public: A Memoir of Recovery from Sex Addiction and Other Temporary Insanities,” and tell me they identified with parts of the book but not with others.
It’s just about trying to get stories out there where people are feeling safe and get into the conversation, so people can define what fits and what doesn’t so that they can know where to get help and where to get relief.
Anne: Absolutely. If you struggle with sexually compulsive behaviors, if you’re struggling with other addictions, either as a result of or in the context of a betrayal or if this is a pattern that you’ve had throughout your life, I recommend Staci’s site to you. It’s stacisprout.com.
Begin considering your own compulsive behaviors, whether within the context of the betrayal or outside the context of the betrayal, but simply so that you can get the help that you need to find the peace and the happiness that you deserve.
Domestic Violence Can Feel Hopeless And Confusing
I need to thank everyone profusely for your patience. I’ve been creating automated emails for all the services and things have been crazy. If you’ve gotten random emails from me. Some of you got emails from services that you purchased in October. It’s just been insane. The website is coming along. It’s very exciting.
We have changed the topics so that you can take any topic either individually with a coach or, if lots of women sign up at the same time, you can take it in a group setting. That way, we were able to meet all the needs of any woman at any time. That took us a long time to figure out. Thank you for being patient with us as we evolve. I really appreciate that.
A lot of women are getting a lot of good feedback on that checklist, so please print it out, slip it under the door of your clergy, take it to your therapist, talk to people about it. It’s a really good resource and I want every woman to know about it.
Recently, the LDS Church came out with a new policy that women can take someone else with them in an appointment where they’re going to talk to their clergy about their husband’s abuse. I want to encourage all of you who are LDS to always take a trusted friend, a safe woman, or a safe person with you, who understands the abusive nature of pornography addiction, when you go in to talk to your church leader about your husband’s behaviors.
Also encouraging you, when you go in there, to tell your church leader, “These are the things I am going to do to establish safety. These are called boundaries, and I need you to support me in these boundaries. This will make a huge difference in the ability of women to get healing.
To Address Abuse, We Must Know What Abuse Is
I’m very, very grateful for that policy and I really, truly believe that God directed that. I’m grateful that He answered our prayers.
I have some crazy news. Are you ready for this? I don't know if you’re ready for this, but I received a restitution letter in the mail yesterday. I’m going to talk about it and how I feel about it and where I’m at with it.
Stay tuned for next week’s podcast, because it will be an update on my recovery, what’s going on with me. I think that you’ll find it very, very interesting. In fact, I want to tell you all about it right now, but you’ll have to wait until next week.
If this podcast was helpful to you, please rate it on iTunes. Every single one of your ratings helps increase our search engine rankings and helps women who are isolated find us. We’d also appreciate it if you would go to our website and comment on any of our posts or pages. The more engagement we get, the better our site ranks on search engines.
Our goal is to find every woman who needs us, so every woman can have access to the checklist, every woman can save years and years of pain and confusion if they understand what’s going on, and if they know what to look for.
Until next week, stay safe out there.