One of the reasons for this is because many of these men don’t display explosive episodes of rage.
In fact, they seem perfectly normal.
At least to the outside world.
At home, they’re different.
The difference isn’t significant enough to raise any red flags, but it’s enough to leave their wife feeling confused and emotionally battered.
A covert emotional and psychological abuser can be as dangerous as one with explosive rages.
Anne Blythe, founder of Betrayal Trauma Recovery, talks to Sarah, Shero, about her experience as a victim of emotional and psychological abuse.
Covert Emotional And Psychological Abusers Can Be Dangerous Because They Seem Normal
Really, they do. They seem completely normal.
On the outside.
Because that’s what they want the world to believe.
That’s what Sarah thought about her ex-husband.
In fact, when she met her ex, he was working full-time for a Christian organization.
They even took Bible classes together.
Sarah, having heard stories about marriages being torn about by pornography, asked him, straight-up, about his pornography use.
Abusive Men Often Lie About Their Past History Of Pornography Use
“Prior to our marriage, I asked him what his experience with pornography was. Of course, he lied to me and said he didn’t have a problem or any issues with it.”Sarah, Shero
Satisfied with his answer, Sarah felt safe enough to marry him.
It wasn’t long before he set the precedence for the rest of their marriage.
“On our honeymoon, my ex-husband actually decided to play volleyball in a two-on-two tournament for two days in a row with a totally hot woman in her bikini and flirt with her. I told him I felt hurt and said that I didn’t want him to do it, and the next day he did it again.”Sarah, Shero
This man that held so little regard for Sarah, and appeared to others to be the model husband, father and friend.
When Men Don’t Fit The Abusive Profile, Victims Feel Confused
He also very rarely yelled at her.
“My ex-husband wasn’t a screamer or a yeller. He did everything with a smile on his face. He was always cool, calm, collected, and smiling. All of the neglect, all the flirting with other women in front of me, and the sexually inappropriate stuff he’s done with our children, have all been done with a smile on his face. It was not this ogre-like persona.”Sarah, Shero
That made it difficult for Sarah to spot the abuse in the first place.
How could a man, who seemed normal and happy all the time, possibly be abusive?
Sarah has finally found the answer.
“I didn’t have a category or the right verbiage for it, but what I did know was that something was terribly wrong from the very beginning. Yet, he is a master manipulator.”Sarah, Shero
Abusers Will Subtly or Overtly Convince Victims That They Are The Problem
Like Sarah’s husband, many emotional and psychological abusers don’t yell and scream.
They are manipulative.
Really good liars.
Sarah wasn’t fighting a battle without any weapons, she was armed, but losing.
“We had Covenant Eyes and all of that. I’m a wide-awake woman, but he is a master manipulator.”Sarah, Shero
Because her ex seemed normal, Sarah assumed she was the one causing the problems in the marriage.
Covert Emotional And Psychological Abusers Can Become More Dangerous If The Abuse Goes Unidentified
Determined to “fix” herself and her marriage, Sarah sought help.
“From the very beginning, I was reaching out for marriage counseling, for pastoral counseling, to do marriage workshops. He worked for a well-known Christian organization and they had resources for us, so we were utilizing all of those resources. In all of that, he could answer and look like a shining, great guy, but no one was in our home to see the neglect.”Sarah, Shero
Sarah was told he was a sex addict, so they got help for his addiction.
Still, nothing changed.
Abusers Not “Just” Sex-Addicts: It Goes Deeper Than That
“We went the sex addiction route for years. I knew that he was going back to ‘addiction,’ even before he got caught again, but the truth was I didn’t want to be in a relationship with a manipulator, a liar, a cheater, a psychologically abusive person, so I filed for divorce.”Sarah, Shero
This type of treatment only resulted in her ex becoming better at his abusive behaviors.
It wasn’t until Sarah started listening to the Betrayal Trauma Recovery Podcast that she became aware of her ex’s abusiveness.
Education is Powerful for Victims of Abuse
Once she became more educated about abuse, she began to realize how abusive he’d really been and still is.
Throughout her marriage, Sarah had been sorely neglected by her ex.
“I left the house, seven months pregnant, in an unsafe area, and two and a half hours later, he calls me. It took two and a half hours for him to even notice that I had left our little 1200 square foot house, so the neglect was really extreme.”Sarah, Shero
He’d lied to and cheated on her, repeatedly.
“There was a lot I didn’t know. He had been having affairs. He’d been engaging with prostitutes, and even brought them into our home on several occasions.”Sarah, Shero
After finding a pamphlet on domestic violence at Children’s Services and reading some of the descriptions of abuse, Sarah, knew it was what she’d experienced.
“A lot of the behaviors described in this are exactly what I went through and what our children went through and still go through. Yet, he’s not a physically abusive person. He does it all with a smile.”Sarah, Shero
Abuse is Not A Marriage Problem: It’s His Problem That He Brought Into The Partnership
Sarah had done everything she could to fix things, but it never worked and ended up doing more damage.
“That whole mindset and me just trying to do whatever it takes to save my marriage, it hurt me in the long run, because literally at the end of the day, we were broken, he had destroyed everything, he had sexually abused our children.”Sarah, Shero
Spiritual Abuse Is Real
Sarah, being a Christian, had been given advice from the Bible.
“I was told, and I know I’m not alone in this, that if I would be kinder and more loving, and there is a passage in 1 Peter 3 that talks about submitting without a word, that he would be a more loving husband.”Sarah, Shero
Anne points out that God doesn’t want women to stay in abusive relationships.
“From a biblical perspective, God frequently tells people to protect themselves. He commands Lot and his wife to leave Sodom and Gomorrah. He commands the Israelites, even though they’re scared and terrified, to leave Egypt.”Anne Blythe, founder of Betrayal Trauma Recovery
Abusers May Not Look “The Part”
“The hard thing, though, is that Sodom and Gomorrah looked really evil and so did the Egyptians. But, in our case, he looked like, literally, the best guy ever.”Sarah, Shero
Learning to recognize the abuse and put a name to it, regardless of how her ex-partner presents himself to the outside world, has helped Sarah on her journey to healing.
“It’s been a complete paradigm shift for me. When it was sex addiction there was this idea that he’s a sick person and needs empathy, it’s just a sick person who has cancer, for example. That’s how we treated it, as a family. In the meantime, he’s still doing horrific things to the children.”Sarah, Shero
She’s taking action.
Abuse Means There is A Victim And a Perpetrator
“Instead of just treating it like addiction, and all the ways that I was taught, I am treating it like, ‘No, we are victims, he is an abuser, and we need to be safe.”Sarah, Shero
Finally being able to see the abuse for what it is, Sarah can recognize it when it’s happening now.
Victims Of Covert Emotional And Psychological Abusers Must Get To Safety
Sarah isn’t the only victim of her ex’s abuse.
“It doesn’t happen in a black hole by itself. It’s not an isolated event. It affects how he treats you and the children. It affects how he sees you and the children. It affects so many areas of your life, your time, your money. It’s not an isolated thing. It affects everyone.”Sarah, Shero
Sadly, when men abuse women, their victims often struggle to merely survive.
Your Silence Is His Aim
“It silenced me. I literally felt like I was dying inside, and he went off the rails.”Sarah, Shero
“The purpose of abuse is to get your victim to submit.”Anne Blythe, founder of Betrayal Trauma Recovery
The Fog Clears Are Victims Seek Safety
Sarah says that safety needs to be a top priority when abuse is involved.
“One of the reasons you need to get safe right now too, that I’ve learned, is that when you’re in an abusive relationship, there is so much that you don’t even realize is abuse, because it’s all foggy. You need separation so you can begin to see more clearly.”Sarah, Shero
“Unless you separate yourself from the abuse, you’re going to keep being harmed by the abuse because you can’t stop the abuse. You can’t stop him from abusing you, but you can put a barrier between yourself and the abuse.”Anne Blythe, founder of Betrayal Trauma Recovery
If An Abuser Truly Wants to Change, There Is Hope For Him
Betrayal Trauma Recovery believes all people can change, even abusers.
That’s why we partner with Center for Peace, an abuse cessation program.
But changing is still up to the abuser.
“You can teach an abusive man all the right principles, but if he doesn’t want to live it, there’s nothing anybody can do about that.”Anne Blythe, founder of Betrayal Trauma Recovery
No Matter What He Chooses, Survivors Must Find Safety
Regardless of his decisions, the victims need to find safety.
“Whether or not he can change, you’d still need to get to safety because he’s not safe. That’s what people don’t understand. They think if somebody can become safe, then we should just keep exposing ourselves to them in order to be patient or kind or loving.”Anne Blythe, founder of Betrayal Trauma Recovery
That philosophy of being patient, kind and loving, however, didn’t help Sarah.
It hurt her.
“I didn’t sign up for this. He lied to me, he manipulated me, and it affected our whole lives. Everything has changed in our lives and our children have been abused. Yet, he’s considered to be a sex addict, not an abuser.”Sarah, Shero
Women in Trauma Are Not Alone
Sarah realizes that she is part of a large community of supportive women.
“The truth is we share this thing in common, we’ve all been abused. It’s been really comforting for me to hear from all different types of women who have all different types of beliefs.”Sarah, Shero
For Spiritual Sheroes: God Wants You To Be Safe
Anne asks Sarah to share some wisdom with other women going through this type of abuse.
“Because my faith had a lot to do with many of the decisions I made, what I would tell her is that God does not value marriage over my relationship with God.”Sarah, Shero
Betrayal Trauma Recovery Teaches “Safety First”
Anne will continue to educate others and encourage them to get to safety.
“Every woman is different, and every situation is different, but what we do know is that patterns of abuse are all the same. They all include lying, manipulation, gaslighting, porn use. If those behaviors have not stopped, that man is abusive, and he still is abusive. He has not changed, and he is dangerous.”Anne Blythe, founder of Betrayal Trauma Recovery
After all, that’s the purpose of Betrayal Trauma Recovery.
“When you’re recovering from betrayal trauma you are recovering from abuse. The reason that you are recovering from abuse is that any betrayal in a relationship of this type is abuse.”Anne Blythe, founder of Betrayal Trauma Recovery
Support Is Available For You Today
Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group provides a safe place to share with other women facing similar circumstances. With UNLIMITED access to more than 15 live sessions a week, it’s easier than ever to find a BTR Group session that fits your schedule without having to leave your home. Each session is led by a Certified Betrayal Trauma Specialist.
Welcome to Betrayal Trauma Recovery, this is Anne.
We have a member of our community on today’s podcast talking about her experience, but before we get to that many of you are already members of Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group, which is our daily online group.
We have multiple sessions in every single time zone. When you join, you can usually get into a session within a few hours because we have so many. To check out the Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group schedule go to btr.org.
We have found that women really make a lot of progress when they’re able to tell their story to a live person and get feedback and coaching from a professional Betrayal Trauma Recovery coach, so check out that schedule at btr.org.
Now we’re going to get to my discussion with one of our community members.
Anne: We have a member of our community on today’s episode. We are calling her Sarah today, although that is not her real name. I will have her introduce herself because she’s going to be sharing her personal story and her perspective. Welcome, Sarah.
Sarah: Hi, Anne.
Anne: Before we started this episode, we were talking about how she came to find BTR and that she’s listened to every single podcast episode. Before we talk about how you found the podcast let’s just start with your background, so tell everyone your story.
Sarah: Well, let’s see. Something that’s kind of unique to me is that I’m Middle Eastern. My Dad is from the Middle East and I was raised Muslim but came to faith, as a Christian, when I was sixteen. I took that decision seriously and devoted my life to my faith. It was life-changing for me.
Ironically, when I met my ex-husband, he was on full-time staff with a Christian organization. He was basically a missionary.
I’ve heard stories in the past and mine is like theirs, in that I checked all the boxes and I was making a lot of good choices. We were actually taking Bible classes together.
Anne: That’s very typical of our community. We do have lots of women who listen who are not of any faith or are not Christian, so before we go any further, I just want to welcome you and thank you for your patience. I allow everyone on the podcast to share from their own personal faith paradigm.
That means I frequently share from my own faith, but this is not a podcast for only members of my church. This is a podcast for everyone, so I welcome everyone, and I want them to share from their own faith paradigm. Sarah will be sharing from hers today.
After you married, thinking this was an upstanding Christian man, did you recognize his behaviors as abusive, at first, or what did you think was happening in the beginning?
Sarah: Let me just back up really quick. I have to say, that’s something I really appreciate about your podcast because I know that you’re a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, so when I first started listening, I thought maybe it was just for people that belonged to that faith. As I listened to the podcast, it was really encouraging to me that this is for all women, who come from all different types of faith backgrounds.
The truth is we share this thing in common, we’ve all been abused. It’s been really comforting for me to hear from all different types of women who have all different types of beliefs.
Anne: That is what this podcast is for, so thank you for saying that. I have a few people who say on the ratings on the podcast, “This woman is Christian, but if you’re not Christian or you’re an Atheist just keep listening. You’ll recognize, that even though she shares from that perspective sometimes, that all faiths or no faith are welcome here.”
Okay, that being said, let’s talk about your husband’s abusive behaviors. Did you recognize them as that?
Sarah: No. What I will say is yes and no. No, I didn’t have a category or the right verbiage for it, but what I did know was that something was terribly wrong from the very beginning. Yet, he is a master manipulator, like a lot of men I’ve heard about on this podcast.
Sadly, I kept thinking, “Well, if I would change or maybe I’m being ridiculous.” I kept questioning myself. A lot of that comes from my own family of origin and not understanding what is abusive behavior and what is not. Innately, I knew something was terribly wrong.
On our honeymoon, my ex-husband actually decided to play volleyball in a two-on-two tournament for two days in a row with a totally hot woman in her bikini and flirt with her the whole time.
I asked him about it. I’m a person who is forthright in what I feel, and I told him I felt hurt and said that I didn’t want him to do it, and the next day he did it again. In the conversations with him I always came away feeling like I was being overly protective, overly jealous, I was insane.
Right from the get-go, there was a precedence set that he could do whatever he wanted and flip the switch and flip it all around and I would feel like, “What is wrong with me?” That continued, and in my gut, I always knew that there was something terribly wrong.
My ex-husband, like so many people I’ve heard about on this podcast—which really helped me not feel alone by the way—he’s very well-liked. He’s always been the pastor’s best friend, he’s a successful businessman, he was actually a star athlete.
He had this Opie Taylor image, that he was just this “awe, shucks” unassuming guy and everyone loved and trusted him. I always felt like, “What’s wrong with me?” And he would say that to me, like, “What’s wrong with you? Everybody else loves me.”
In our home, I was extremely neglected. There was an incident when I was seven months pregnant with our oldest child, and we lived in a house that had been built in 1948, so it was very small. There was an incident where he would disappear into the office for hours and he would work long hours outside of the home as well. In his free time, he was either in the office or he was watching TV.
I was so lonely, I’d just moved across the country from where I was from, I felt very alone, I was seven months pregnant, I was still a newlywed, and I thought, “I’m going to leave and see if he even notices.” I left the house, seven months pregnant, in an unsafe area, by the way.
Two and a half hours later, he calls me and says, “What are you doing? Where are you at?” It took two and a half hours for him to even notice that I had left our little 1200 square foot house, so the neglect was really extreme.
Anne: Before you understood it as abuse, but when you knew something wasn’t right, what types of things did you try, besides leaving—you’ve just given us one example, you left, to see if he would notice—but did you try anything else to fix the problem or establish peace in your home?
Sarah: Yeah, I tried a lot of things. I’m a proactive person, especially in relationships. From the very beginning, I was reaching out for marriage counseling, for pastoral counseling, to do marriage workshops. He worked for a well-known Christian organization and they had resources for us, so we were utilizing all of those resources. In all of that, he could answer and look like a shining, great guy, but no one was in our home to see the neglect.
For other listeners out there, who can relate to this, I wanted to share this. My ex-husband wasn’t a screamer or a yeller. He did push me once or twice, which is abuse. That was in a really extreme moment and it was not the norm. He did everything with a smile on his face.
He was always cool, calm, collected, and always smiling. Everything he did was done with a smile. All of the neglect, all of the flirting with other women in front of me, and the sexually inappropriate stuff he’s done with our children, have all been done with a smile on his face. It was not this ogre-like persona.
Anne: As you tried to go to marriage counseling or get pastoral counseling, did anyone identify the abuse or identify him as an abuser?
Sarah: Never. Not one time. Even when he went to treatment, which he did go to treatment for sex addiction, which I think was a huge waste of $50,000. Because it really just upped his pathology and made him more dangerous.
Anne: Yeah, we see that a lot with the sex addiction route, when people, instead of addressing the abuse, they try to get help for the sex addiction, some of the time or I would say much of the time things tend to get worse. Because they just learn how to say the right things to make you think that they’re not using porn, without actually stopping.
Sarah: It was very traumatizing because here I had all this help for help and it ended up being more dangerous for our family in the long run. I believe that the people that were at treatment had good intentions and I think it may work for someone. I don’t know but, in our case, it really upped his pathology and he’s that much more dangerous.
Anne: Yes. I know what you’re saying, and I want to warn everyone about that method. I also think that going the abuse route, at first, is the best way to go, even if you are going to go the sex addiction route after, or simultaneously.
If you just do sex addiction without abuse, I think you’re always going to miss the boat. That’s my personal opinion about it. Other people defer, but that’s why I podcast about this, because that’s what I think.
When did you start to realize that common marriage advice, like loving and serving and forgiving and “looking at the positive” or “making I statements” or “better communication,” and that sort of stuff was not working?
Sarah: Yeah, so really pretty early on. Our oldest child was born almost two years into our marriage and one week prior to his birth, I had gone downstairs earlier than normal and caught my ex-husband looking at pornography. In 2001, prior to our marriage, I had actually asked him, which was very abnormal at the time, about pornography because I had heard of a story—similar to mine actually, at the time—where pornography had really invaded a marriage.
I asked him what his experience with pornography was. Of course, he lied to me and said he didn’t have a problem or any issues with it. When I caught him, one week prior to the birth of our first child, at that point, I knew, “Okay, there’s something much deeper going on here that’s not about me.”
It took me a minute. At first, I went through all the normal feelings of “What’s wrong with me? Why am I not enough? Does he love me?” all those questions that are normal. But then I realized, “Okay, this is not about me loving him more or being more submissive or more marriage workshops, or whatever the case. He’s lying to me. He’s flat out lying to me.”
Anne: Was that the time that you recognized it was abuse or…
Anne: Okay, so you know he’s lying but when do you start to recognize that it’s abuse?
Sarah: Well, I’ll be honest, Anne. It’s been listening to your podcast.
Anne: How did you find the podcast?
Sarah: My therapist recommended it to me. To give you a little history, my ex-husband, you know that was in 2003 that I caught him. Then I caught him again and he seemed to be doing well for years. Then the last time I caught him it had escalated for years.
There was a lot I didn’t know. He had been having affairs. He’d been engaging with prostitutes. He had brought prostitutes into our home, on several occasions. He had done all these horrific things to our family. At that point even, I was told that it was sex addiction.
Then we went the sex addiction route for years. I knew that he was going back to “addiction,” even before he got caught again, but the truth was I didn’t want to be in a relationship with a manipulator, a liar, a cheater, a psychologically abusive person, so I filed for divorce.
Anne: Was it after you filed that you started recognizing wait a minute this was an abusive relationship the whole time? After you started listening to my podcast?
Sarah: I’ve only been listening to your podcast for six months, so it’s only been in the last six months, and it’s been a complete paradigm shift for me. It’s totally changed my life, and this is why: when it was sex addiction there was this idea that he’s a sick person and he needs empathy, it’s just a sick person who has cancer, for example. That’s how we treated it, as a family.
In the meantime, he’s still doing horrific things to the children. With that said, it was listening to every single one of these podcasts that really made my whole paradigm shift and go, “You know what, it’s not sex addiction. He’s just an extremely abusive, I believe, sociopath.” That’s what I believe he is.
In his particular case, he lacks empathy, which allows him to do horrific things to his family and to his children, like introduce his children to prostitutes with a smile on his face.
Anne: Did he sexually abuse your children?
Sarah: In my opinion, yes. He would, regularly, become aroused around the children when playing with them, and not when they were physically touching each other’s genitals. Not necessarily body-on-body. He would just become aroused and that was something I had addressed before he ever got caught in full-blown sex addiction with prostitutes.
I had been talking to our pastor, to our counselors, and everyone was like, “That’s really weird,” but they would just tell him to get away from the children. But that had been going on for years since our two oldest children were two and four years old. He would be aroused playing with the children.
Anne: To your knowledge, did he use, and the answer to this is probably yes—we can assume the answer is yes that he used child pornography—but did you ever catch him? Do you know for sure?
Sarah: No, I never caught child pornography, but I’d only caught him using porn twice, and they were like four years apart. Then I didn’t catch him until I caught that he had lived a whole double life. We had Covenant Eyes and all of that. I’m a wide-awake woman, but he is a master manipulator.
I will tell you, everyone who found out our story in our friend group, was like, “He’s the last person I ever expected.” Not only that, nobody knew except the women. Not a friend, not a buddy. He was always the pastor’s best friend.
Anne: Yeah, well that’s why they’re so dangerous. This is such a dangerous situation. When I talk to people about how pornography use is abusive, and they want to be like, “No, that’s taking it too seriously.”
I want to be like, “You don’t know how many women go down the sex addiction route for years and years while they are continually abused.” You just need to start your boundaries at a 5-alarm fire, this is an emergency situation. Then you can always walk your boundaries back down from that.
When someone says they’re using porn, you don’t know what else is going on. A lot of times, they’re not even going to tell you. If you catch them, you don’t know what else is going on.
Sarah: They only admit to what they get caught with. The thing is, even if “it is just porn” unless you’ve agreed upon that in your relationship, that is abuse. That’s lying, that’s coercion, that’s manipulating. I want to read you this really quick, I have this domestic violence victim’s handbook. I picked it up at Children’s Services and it describes abuse.
Under the different headings, there’s coercion: “Making the victim feel guilty. Pushing the victim into decisions. Sulking. Manipulating children and other family members. Always insisting on being right. Making impossible rules and punishing the victim for breaking them.”
It talks about emotional withdrawing, economic control. A lot of these behaviors described in this are exactly what I went through and what our children went through and still go through. Yet, he’s not a physically abusive person. He does it all with a smile.
Anne: No one ever identified it for you as abuse, when it clearly was.
Sarah: No one ever did. In fact, I was told, and I know I’m not alone in this, that if I would be kinder and more loving, and there is a passage in 1 Peter 3 that talks about submitting without a word, that he would be a more loving husband.
Anne: That never works with abuse, because the purpose of abuse is to get your victim to submit.
Sarah: The purpose of abuse is to silence your victim. It silenced me. I literally felt like I was dying inside, and he went off the rails. When he got caught, like really caught in 2013, we were broke, because he had spent all of our money on women.
That whole mindset and me just trying to do whatever it takes to save my marriage, it hurt me in the long run, because literally at the end of the day, we were broke, he had destroyed everything, he had sexually abused our children.
Anne: You filed for divorce before you identified this as abuse. How has identifying it as abuse, with the help of the Betrayal Trauma Recovery podcast, helped you heal?
Sarah: That’s a great question and my therapist asked me that. This is the best way I can answer it. If we’re friends and you come to me and say, “I’m being abused,” I want to help you get help and get you to a safe place.
But if you come to me and say, “My husband is a sex addict,” there is a whole different approach. Your safety is not the main concern, which is crazy to me. What’s the main concern is helping him get help, which is just enabling him to, like in our case, up his pathology and become more dangerous.
Anne: Has that helped you heal at all?
Sarah: It really has. It’s made a huge difference to me. It’s really just changed everything because instead of just treating it like addiction, and all the ways that I was taught, because I went to AL-ANON for years, and stuff like that, I am treating it like, “No, we are victims, he is an abuser, and we need to be safe.”
We are currently in court over custody issues. He’s lost complete custody of our oldest. We’re trying to free the younger children from the abuse.
With that said, it’s a totally different perspective because I don’t treat it like it’s an addiction and, “Oh, he just needs to get help.” I actually don’t believe there’s help for him. I believe he’s a sociopath and that we just need to get to a safe place.
Anne: Even if there was help for him, the point is still the same, you still just need to get safe. If the person isn’t safe, it doesn’t matter if they can become safe or not, they are currently not safe, period.
Whether or not he can change and, in your case, let’s say he can’t change, but if he could it wouldn’t matter, because you’d still need to get to safety because he’s not safe. That’s what people don’t understand. They think if somebody can become safe, then we should just keep exposing ourselves to them in order to be patient or kind or loving.
I’m like, “No, no, no. Whether or not they can change or not isn’t the issue. The issue is are they currently safe?” Period. The answer is no, so that means that you have to set a boundary. What is that boundary going to be? In your case, you filed for divorce and my guess is you’re limiting contact with him as much as possible. Is that true?
Sarah: Yes, we’re divorced, but he continues to abuse the children.
Anne: Yeah, and you’re taking steps to help your kids set boundaries, or have the law set boundaries so that they can be protected from that further harm.
If you could go back and talk to your younger self, what would you tell her?
Sarah: I would tell her that, from a faith perspective, this is what I would say, because my faith had a lot to do with a lot of the decisions I made, what I would tell her is that God does not value marriage over my relationship with God.
That seems like a very obvious point, but what I kept feeling like the counsel I was getting from pastors and laypeople was that I needed to do whatever it takes, including enduring extreme abuse, to stay married and keep a family together. Yet, my children endured more abuse because I was trying to please God in that way.
I actually think marriage, in a lot of ways in some churches or communities of faith, is held above a woman and children’s safety and emotional and mental wellbeing, because that kind of abuse, over a long term—I got to really desperate places. I got to places, where I didn’t want to live anymore. It took me to those places.
I believe everything happens for a reason, but I can’t imagine what my life would have been like if I would’ve gotten out of that abuse a long time ago.
Anne: From a biblical perspective, God frequently tells people to protect themselves. He commands Lot and his wife to leave Sodom and Gomorrah. He commands the Israelites, even though they’re scared and terrified, to leave Egypt. They’ve got to get themselves out of there. He does not say to the Israelites, “Just submit more to the Egyptians, then they’ll be nice to you.” He does not say to Lot, “Just submit more to the evil of Sodom and Gomorrah and then they’ll be good.”
Sarah: The hard thing though is that Sodom and Gomorrah looked really evil and so did the Egyptians. But, in our case, he looked like, literally, the best guy ever.
Anne: Yeah, that’s what is so scary about it. Learning how to identify this type of abuse is really important. I think, for those of us who are religious, that’s what God is asking us to do right now. He is asking us to identify this in a way that has never been done before.
For those of you who are not religious, you can say, “You know what, the level of emotional health, our education, our knowledge of emotional health has increased and now it’s up to me to help spread the word about what really is emotionally healthy.”
Sarah: The thing that’s discounted or not talked about a ton, and you do a good job of talking about it here, is, yeah okay let’s say he is just looking at pornography behind your back and lying to you and coercing and manipulating you. Well, what are the other effects of that on the family?
It doesn’t happen in a black hole by itself. It’s not an isolated event. It affects how he treats you and the children. It affects how he sees you and the children. It affects so many areas of your life, your time, your money. It’s not an isolated thing. It affects everyone.
My ex-husband getting aroused around our children on a regular basis, and he would grab our boy’s testicles, that’s totally inappropriate behavior.
Anne: Not just inappropriate, that’s sexual abuse.
Sarah: It’s sexual abuse.
Anne: It’s not just inappropriate behavior.
Sarah: We told counselors and, guess what, there’s not been one report about it. No one has done anything about it. He’s told them because when he “was in recovery” all of that was out in the open.
Anne: Huh, but they never reported it as sexual abuse of children? That’s crazy. Again, it’s all to protect the perpetrator.
Sarah: I mean, we probably told 10 therapists. I don’t know if you’ve heard the Milton Magnus model, we did that too.
Anne: We’ve heard horror stories from just about every sex addiction model situation. You know what, you could get a horror story from the abuse model, as well. We recommend Center for Peace, which is a way to address these issues from the abuse model for the abusive man. You can teach an abusive man all of the right principles, but if he doesn’t want to live it there is nothing anybody can do about that.
One of the things that Center for Peace really tries to do is help the victim identify, “This isn’t going to work. He’s not going to change.” I don’t think other sex addiction places ever do that. I think at sex addiction places they just keep saying, “Well, just keep coming. He just needs to do more.”
There has to be a point at which the victim gives up and says, “Well, he’s not willing, done.” Whatever reason maybe he can’t, maybe he won’t. We don’t really care why, but at this point, no.
The other thing at Center for Peace is we are like, “Get to safety now. You need to be safe now, and we’ll see if he can change his behaviors. We don’t know, we’ll see if he can, but you need to be safe now.” We’re not going to be like, “Oh, let’s wait a year and see how he does or let’s be patient.” That’s just crazy.
Sarah: One of the reasons you need to get safe right now too, that I’ve learned, is that when you’re in an abusive relationship, there is so much that you don’t even realize is abuse because it’s all foggy.
In my opinion, you need separation so you can begin to see more clearly. What happens with children who have been abused—I don’t know if you know this, but let’s say it’s a father or an uncle or grandfather that maybe the family wants them to see again, eventually, they’ll advise the parents that that child needs to not be in a relationship for at least a year. They need to get physically away from the abuser, so they can get clear on what happened.
Anne: Yeah, I agree with that. Some women can’t bring themselves to separate for whatever reason, but I agree. I think that porn use should be, number one, you need to set some type of physical barrier between you and your abuser.
For some women, if they can’t separate because of economic things or something, do the best you can. Start mentally separating yourself, maybe separate your bedroom. You can always pick up and move out of your house. Some women can’t, but that needs to be a priority.
Unless you separate yourself from the abuse, you’re going to keep being harmed by the abuse because you can’t stop the abuse. You can’t stop him from abusing you, but you can put a barrier between yourself and the abuse.
Sarah: You also can’t see clearly what’s going on. You know, I was like that a little bit. Believe it or not, with the horrors of our story I still wanted the marriage and a family because there are pieces that I love, after all I married him, right.
Anne: Yeah, me too. No woman wants to get divorced.
Sarah: But then treatment made all these promises and hopes and my ex-husband was a star treatment performer and so I had all of this hope too. You know what did the shift for me?
It was really amazing, I went to this counselor and she did a type of therapy, I don’t know the name of it but I’m sure you know it. It’s basically where they take your experiences, you share them, you write them down, you read them out loud, he or she responds to what that feels like to them. Then you say what your feelings are before and after you read about the incident.
You do this with every trauma incident in your life. Through that process, and I don’t know if that made sense, I began to realize, “Oh, my gosh, I don’t want to be married to someone who’s done these horrific things.”
Anne: Well, not only done them but hasn’t stopped doing them, won’t take accountability for it, and every time you bring it up, he puts a smile on his face and is like, “Yeah, whatever, it’s fine.”
Sarah: Well, he did stop doing it for a while and did all the “right” things, supposedly, but not really, and then he went back to “addiction.” The truth is treatment had upped his pathology to fool everyone. At the end of the day, I realized I didn’t want to be in a relationship who was what he is.
Anne: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. That being said, BTR is not pro-divorce, but we are pro-safety. Safety, safety, safety. As you start setting boundaries and start separating yourself from the abuse, the abuse might escalate, the abuse might decrease.
We don’t know what’s going to happen, but you can start making decisions based on safety. If that’s always your top priority, you can start looking at patterns, you can start making the best decisions for yourself.
Every woman is different, and every situation is different, but what we do know is that patterns of abuse are all the same. They all include lying, manipulation, gaslighting, porn use. We could go on and on about all the things that they do have in common, and if those behaviors have not stopped, that man is abusive, and he still is abusive. He has not changed, and he is dangerous.
I’m so grateful that you came on to share today. For women who are having a really hard time with this labeling of sex addiction as abuse, what would you say to them?
Sarah: I’m very well versed in sex addiction because we had so many experts and did so many different models and we’ve used polygraph and we went to a really reputable treatment center etc. You know the sex addiction whole thing is he’s the victim himself of his compulsive behavior and that he can’t stop.
We don’t ever put that same label on a domestic violence person. In other words, we don’t say to someone who physically abuses their family members, “Oh, well, you can’t stop” and “It’s compulsive” or “You don’t have the power to stop that.” We expect them to stop that behavior or they’re going to be put in jail.
With sex addiction, we don’t expect them to, necessarily, stop. There’s a lot of empathy and a lot of just like, “Well, do your best and keep coming back.” But we don’t put that same kind of pressure on sex addiction. We treat it as an addiction, that it’s a problem that they’re powerless over.
However, if it’s domestic abuse it’s treated completely different. I think there is a disconnect there, personally. I think there is a huge disconnect.
Anne: I think one of the reasons is because abusers are manipulative, and they want to have a “reason for why they did something” when they get caught. When you catch them, they say, “Oh, it’s because I’m so broken,” or, “I was abused as a kid,” and the sex addiction industry has decided to take that at face value.
They have decided to take all the lies that abusive men would like to tell to excuse their behavior or to give as reasons for their behavior and make an entire industry around it.
“I felt shame, I felt so much shame.” “Don’t shame me,” or whatever. Instead of just saying, “This is wrong. If you do it, you do not deserve to have a family because you are too unsafe for your wife and kids. THE END.”
I don’t know why it’s gotten so complicated. It doesn’t have to be so complicated.
Sarah: It doesn’t have to be so complicated. I don’t know, I’m still trying to figure it out in my head. It was dangerous for us. It didn’t just require a standard of living. No. Again, if I had agreed that this is something that we want to do in our marriage and I choose to degrade women in that way, well, that’s a different thing that I signed up for, but I didn’t sign up for this.
He lied to me, he manipulated me, and it affected our whole lives. It totally has affected our socioeconomic status. Everything has changed in our lives and our children have been abused, and yet he’s considered to be a sex addict, not an abuser.
Anne: Right, and that’s wrong. That’s why I started podcasting and that’s why I am on this mission to change it to be, “If you’re in a relationship with a porn user, with an active porn user, you are in an abusive relationship.”
When I say that, people maybe because they don’t understand abuse because they don’t know what the power and control wheel is, or they don’t understand the abuse cycle, they think we are going too far, but we know that the sex addiction model is not keeping victims of abuse safe. It is not.
Sarah: Well, and that’s why that book by Lundy Bancroft, which thank you- I read it,
Anne: Why Does De Do That? is the title and you can find that on our books page, btr.org/books.
Sarah: Well, if I would have read that 10 years ago, I mean I would have had tools to say no. This is not about he-said/she-said or how do we love each other better or The Five Love Languages or any of that. I’m married to an abuser.
Anne: A man who exhibits abusive behaviors. If he stopped exhibiting these abusive behaviors, he would no longer be abusive, but he’s never, ever done that. Even the periods of time where he looked “good to you,” those were just continued grooming.
Sarah: I completely agree. One of the parts of the book that’s really helpful is where Lundy Bancroft outlines the types of abusive men. I don’t know about you, but I grew up thinking, “Oh, well, if you’re married to an abusive man, he hits you and yells at you.”
I know that’s part of your story, Anne, but that’s not part of mine. Yet, the effects on our children and your family have been grotesque. It’s really bad, right. Mine is the most subversive type.
That book is really helpful because if you’re a listener and you can relate to me in that he didn’t really smack me around. I have no bruises or broken fingers. He didn’t yell at me. He was very aggressive and argumentative. He lied to me, manipulated, and coerced me.
He told me, at one point, true story, that he was always four steps ahead of me. FOUR. Think about that. Think about being four steps ahead of someone. They do this, I do this. They do this, I do this. They do this, I do this. They do this, I do this. That’s insane.
That book, if I would have had that I would have been able to identify—because, again, I was married to Mr. Nice Guy. Mr. I-have-a-smile-on-my-face while I’m getting aroused with the children.
Anne: Yeah. The two books I recommend are Why Does He Do That, by Lundy Bancroft, and The Verbally Abusive Relationship, by Patricia Evans. They are both on our books page at btr.org/books. My book will be coming out, hopefully, within the year about why porn use in and of itself is abusive and is a form of sexual coercion, and how lying about your porn use is a form of sexual coercion.
Sarah: This has been really monumental for me because we spent thousands of dollars, tons of time, and every resource trying to help my ex-husband recover from sex addiction. It was the wrong path, honestly, but your podcast and listening to the guests on your podcast has really helped me to wake up to this is just an abusive person and to treat the whole thing from a different perspective.
One of the things about your podcast is, you know it’s called Betrayal Trauma Recovery, I recommended it to several friends who have been abused but everyone thinks it’s just about betrayal. I tell everyone it’s not, but that’s the thing. I think about it a lot by the way, pornography: is it freedom of choice or is it just abuse?
Because that’s a big thing. People say pornography is a First Amendment thing, right? It’s freedom of speech but, if everybody came together like you, and you know the guy from Your Brain on Porn, Gary Wilson, and talked about, in our culture, we are allowing this abusive, destructive—it’s a national health crisis. We literally have a national health crisis on our hands, and I don’t feel like the masses of people are being educated.
Anne: Yeah. I agree. Everywhere I go I say pornography is an abuse issue. It’s not a First Amendment rights issue. It’s not an addiction issue. It’s not a sex issue. Pornography is an abuse issue. It always needs to be addressed from an abuse perspective.
When I started Betrayal Trauma Recovery in my area, all of the women who were dealing with their husband’s porn use were labeled as having betrayal trauma. Part of what I wanted to do, in labeling this podcast and the organization Betrayal Trauma Recovery, was take that term and turn it into what it really is. We are healing from abuse.
I’m trying to make the term mean what it should mean, which is, when you’re recovering from betrayal trauma you are recovering from abuse. The reason that you are recovering from abuse is that any betrayal in a relationship of this type is abuse.
It could be called Abuse Recovery, but so many people right now don’t see porn as abuse and so instead they say, “Oh, she’s suffering from betrayal trauma,” and then they go down the sex addiction route.
I wanted to be like anyone who is looking for stuff on betrayal trauma, or going down the sex addiction route, I wanted them to find this podcast so that they could get the truth, instead of spending years and hundreds of thousands of dollars going down the wrong path.
Maybe I named it the wrong thing, but I wanted to make Betrayal Trauma Recovery the place where any woman, who had been emotionally or psychologically abused or been a victim of sexual coercion, would be able to come and get the help that she needed.
Thank you, Sarah, for sharing your story today.
We appreciate your insights. If you would like to share your story on the podcast, please contact my assistant, Kari, at email@example.com. She will set up an interview and I would love to meet you and talk with you.
Thank you to everyone who supports this podcast. Go to btr.org, scroll down to the bottom, and click on the button that says Support the Podcast. Your support means the world to us.
Similarly, if you have purchased my book Trauma Mama Husband Drama, which is a picture book for adults that you can find at btr.org/books. Click on that and it will send you to Amazon.
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Until next week, stay safe out there.