This episode is Part One of Anne’s interview with MJ.
Part One: How to Establish Sexual Safety After Intimate Betrayal (this episode)
Part Two: Is Healthy Sex Possible After Intimate Betrayal?
MJ Denis, Trauma Specialist
Many emotional abuse victims struggle with the concept of sexual intimacy. Sexual betrayal can ravage an intimate relationship. Additionally, porn users often coerce victims into sexual experiences. This is the opposite of what healthy sexuality entails.
At BTR, we believe that a woman’s safety should come first. MJ Denis, Trauma Specialist, discusses how pornography use and sexual betrayal can affect healthy sexuality. Learn how you can establish sexual safety for yourself in the wake of betrayal. Listen to the The BTR.ORG Podcast or read the full transcript below.
Betrayal Trauma Victims Often Feel Sexually Unsafe
Sexual betrayal wrecks havoc on women’s lives. Processing the trauma of betrayal can be exquisitely painful. Betrayed women experience many emotions. Some of those include:
- Physical pain
Bottom line: betrayal victims do not feel safe. This extends to every facet of the relationship, but especially in the bedroom. In these instances, temporary abstinence may be the best choice.
Abusers do not get to decide when a victim is “safe”. Any attempt to do so is abusive. Victims, solely, get to determine when they feel safety.
Sexual Contact Is Unrealistic and Unsafe For Traumatized Women
I often hear stories about how women they discovered the betrayal. Ladies will tell me when they found out about the betrayal, it took them to their knees. Some women throw up. Others can’t breathe.
Some can’t get off the floor because their person is their person for safety and when they are betrayed and their brain says, “I’m not safe; I’m not okay in the world,” ladies really loose their ability to function at times. Many partners report to me that they get sick, they lose weight, they can’t go to work. This discovery registers as a crisis, as a danger, as a matter of life and death.
MJ Denis, Trauma Specialist
For traumatized women, sexual contact should be avoided until safety is fully established.
Women may still feel traumatized by sex, even after safety has been established.
Safety, Self-Care, Support, and Education
First we achieve safety and stability.
MJ Denis, Trauma Specialist
Women can continue their healing journey by working toward greater self-care, finding a strong support system, and becoming educated about trauma and abuse.
When a victim is no longer being abused (whether or not she has decided to stay in the relationship), and is able to thrive in her journey to healing, she may be ready to consider sexual intimacy again.
Establishing sexual safety is a process. Victims do not need to feel shame or urgency on this journey.
Victims can choose to practice:
Toward themselves as they heal and find safety.
BTR.ORG Supports Victims of Intimate Betrayal
At BTR, we understand the pain of intimate betrayal.
Finding a safe support network helps victims heal and ultimately thrive. You don’t have to do this alone.
I am so honored and excited to have MJ Denis with us today. She is a licensed professional counselor, a licensed marriage and family therapist associate. Today we’re gonna talk about safe sex after sexual betrayal. When we say safe sex, we mean emotional safety, physical safety, sexual safety, all of the above. And MJ, in thinking about this topic, where do we even start?
You know, we’re very much on the buddy system. When we choose our spouse, it’s really a matter of, you know, Hey, I’ll get your back. You get mine, I’ll keep you safe, and you keep me safe and we’ll look out for each other. So when we’re in relationship with someone and our person has secretive behaviors, whether with another person or with pornography, this betrayal registers as a safety risk. Our amygdala, that part of our brain that helps us detect danger or threat. The amygdala registers betrayal as danger. Our brain actually registers betrayal as a matter of life and death.
It sure feels like that.
“It took them to their knees”
Yes. And working with partners, I often hear stories of how they discovered their spouse’s sex addiction or their betrayal behaviors. And ladies will tell me when they found out about the betrayal, it took them to their knees. Some girls throw up, some girls can’t breathe, some girls can’t get off the floor because their person is their person for safety. And when they are betrayed and their brain says, I’m not safe, I’m not okay. In the world, ladies really lose their ability to function. At times. Many partners report to me, they get sick, they lose weight, they can’t go to work. This discovery registers as a crisis, as danger as a matter of life and death.
“I lost probably about 15 pounds in three weeks”
I felt that right after my husband’s arrest, when I realized things were as bad as they were, because before I did not understand my true situation with his addiction and then related behaviors. I lost probably about 15 pounds in three weeks and couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep. It was really bad, especially realizing that my person who I was relying on, he was never safe. But I didn’t know that until that moment, if that makes any sense.
So if our spouse betrays us, and if that registers as a safety risk, how can wives of addicts ever feel safe with an unfaithful spouse?
“We turn to our spouse as a source of safety”
People really experience dissonance when their spouse betrays them. Going back to us being in a relationship that registers to us as safety, I’m your person, I’ve got your back. I’m with you. You are with me. You’ve got my back. We turn to our spouse as a source of safety. But when there’s betrayal, now that person who’s supposed to be safe for us now, they are actually the source of pain. So many times in the aftermath of betrayal, ladies will tell me they experience what I call a come here, go away syndrome. Come here. My husband, come here for safety. Oh wait, you just betrayed me. You’ve lied, you’ve cheated. Go away for safety. Wait, wait, wait. Where are you going? Come back for safety. No, no. Go away for safety. And they do Come here, go away. This can happen emotionally. We can want to go to our husband for safety so he can understand us and hold us emotionally.
“Women must feel safe with their sexual partner to be sexual”
We also can go toward our husband for sexual safety, for physical safety. We are so vulnerable when we are going to be sexual with someone, when we take off our clothes, when we are naked with someone that leaves us tremendously vulnerable. And that for women, especially the sexual act is one of our most vulnerable times ever. We’re allowing someone to be that close to us. It doesn’t get more vulnerable than that. So women often must feel safe with their sexual partner to be sexual. After the ravages of betrayal trauma and from being in a relationship with a sex addict, someone with chronic betrayal behaviors, partners often need to feel safe in order to show up sexually. For partners who choose to stay with their sexually addicted spouse, this means they’re choosing to stay with the source of pain and the source of their safety risk. These ladies then try to navigate not only how to function daily with someone they don’t trust, but they also do this tough job of trying to figure out how to maneuver physical and sexual intimacy.
Safety & Stabilization
It’s interesting that you were talking about when they stay with their spouse. On the other hand, when you’ve been betrayed, for example, in my case, once I realized my husband was not safe, I set a no contact boundary with him until I could see that he was safe enough to be able to communicate with. And then all that I observed was him taking money away. Him not seeing the kids, him accusing me of things. Yeah. And he would tell people, well, I can’t do anything ’cause she won’t talk to me. She won’t even have sex with me. I can’t even interact with her. So how do I do that? He was not in any way trying to reestablish that safety. The trauma comes in both cases. It comes when you decide to stay. It also comes when you decide that you need to do maybe some really intense boundaries, and then you’re watching the person start attacking you even more. In both of these cases, determining how safe the person is is the first step, which is why I love that the first phase is that safety and stabilization phase so that you can make sure that you’re determining your level of safety before moving forward. Even just in having a conversation with someone, let alone maybe having sex with them down the line. Am I making sense?
Are you emotionally safe enough to even have a conversation?
Yes. Yes. I agree with you. Establishing safety and what we call stabilization has to be the first step. We cannot allow ourselves to be that vulnerable with somebody unless we know we are safe with them. So it makes sense to me that you needed to establish a no contact rule so that you could reestablish safety.
Many women, they’re thinking about sex and really they maybe need to take a step back and even determine if they’re emotionally safe to even have a conversation. For example, you know, they’re, they’re not being emotionally abused.
In my experience in working with partners and after initially learning that their spouse is cheating on them, betrayed spouses frequently will become really fearful that more betrayal will happen again. And sometimes partners will choose to be sexual with someone with a sex addiction, with their partner with a sex addiction to try to keep him from cheating on her again. And women will often compare themselves to their husband’s affair partner, be it a pornographic image or a prostitute. Betrayed spouses will compare themselves to that affair partner and what’s wrong with them and why they don’t measure up to the affair partner. And sometimes partners will choose to be sexual in ways they wouldn’t otherwise, to try to measure up to what they imagine that an affair partner was like or to measure up to the person in the pornography.
“If you try to compete with pornography, you will always lose”
Which is so sad because we cannot compete with pornography. And if you try to compete with pornography, you will always, always lose,
Always. Comparison is dangerous for us no matter what, because we’re at risk either way. If we compare ourselves and we are better than we risk arrogance. If we compare ourselves and we are less than, we risk shame and self-condemnation, and either way we go with comparison, we really can come out on the losing end. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, sometimes partners who make the decision to be sexual with their spouse who has betrayed them, are really at risk of compromising their own values. When girls get scared and they become sexual after there’s been betrayal, and they might feel like, I, I need to do this so that he won’t cheat on me again or he won’t leave me. Sometimes they can compromise their own values and find themselves doing something they don’t even want to do that they might never have done out of fear and desperation. And I think that’s really heartbreaking. I know it happens and sometimes girls really experience distress from having that experience.
“They’re attempting to establish safety, but it’s not going to get them what they want”
It’s sad too, because the only thing they’re trying to do is establish safety for themselves. They’re attempting to establish safety, but it’s not going to get them what they want.
Yes. Thank you for bringing it back to why would we have sex with someone who has betrayed us? Why would we do that? It goes back to safety. If that’s my person and I go to them for safety, I might be sexual with them in the aftermath of betrayal because they’re the person I go to for safety. I’m trying to maintain that. When I’m working with partners, they often ask me with despair, why do I still want to be with him? Why after he’s hurt me so much, do I want to stay? And in that place, it’s important that we realize she’s not staying because there’s something wrong with her or she’s broken or she’s doing something that’s not appropriate. She’s staying because that’s her person and she’s attached to him. Often I hear ladies saying, it’s my fault he betrayed me. It must be if I had been thinner, sexier something, or if I had been more than –
“There’s nothing you or another betrayed partner could have done to keep the betrayal from happening”
Or less. I feel like less. Had I asked less questions if I wouldn’t have told my opinion as much, if I wouldn’t have stuck up for myself and told him what I thought. And you know, those types of things in my world, it’s if I would’ve been smaller.
And really there’s nothing you or another betrayed partner could have been done, acted like to keep the betrayal from happening. Someone with a sex addiction who’s in their active addiction, who’s not in active recovery, will make choices to betray. And that is their choice. It’s not because you or the betrayed spouse did or said something wrong or weren’t enough or were too much, it’s because that person chose to betray. That’s on him.
Get Support & Reach Out
And so in that case, the only thing that we can do is get support and reach out.
Absolutely. I’m a big proponent of a care team. I believe that recovering from sex addiction, from the impact of sex addiction really takes a team. We need a safe support system. Many times, a therapist, a coach, a support group, can all be instrumental in helping partners heal after they’ve been impacted by their spouse’s sex addiction
Especially, at least for me, when I get in a group and I hear all of the women talking about similar behaviors in their spouses, and then I look at us and we’re all so different. For me it was that I asked too many questions and that I shared my opinion too much and I was quote unquote too controlling or whatever. And for other people, it’s that they didn’t say enough. All of a sudden I start saying, wait a minute, it doesn’t matter what we are. Like the behaviors of sexual addicts are very similar and they use the same tactics regardless of what their spouse is doing.
“That was not her fault”
Yes. I recently had a client who joined a support group and she said there were women of all different shapes, sizes, ethnicities, ages, educational backgrounds, socioeconomic backgrounds. didn’t matter the differences. What she recognized is they were all betrayed by someone who had a sex addiction. And it proved to her, it didn’t matter how she showed up in the world, if she was in relationship with someone with a sex addiction who was active in his addiction, she was going to experience betrayal and that was not her fault.
Absolutely. Yes. So MJ, what typically keeps partners from saying no to their sexually addicted spouse when he is not in recovery?
Partners get really scared here and often wonder, is it okay to say no? And I think what gets in the way of saying no is a list of fears. Sometimes girls feel a fear of further betrayal and that keeps them from saying no, or it causes them to hesitate to say no to being sexual ladies, fear, being criticized for saying no, or being condemned by their spouse. Ladies feel a fear of being a bad wife or a fear of being alone. I think there’s a huge list of fears that get in the way.
So-called “sexless” marriages
One of those fears being that her ex or her husband would say, well, she’s not giving me sex, because in society that’s like terrible in society. If a husband says, well, it’s a sexless marriage, she refuses to have sex with me, then all of a sudden all the problems are our fault. Like my fault, because I’m saying no when they don’t understand all the reasons why I might be saying no. And so just the fact that they could use that very serious weapon of, well, she refuses to have sex with me. You know, what kind of a relationship is that, that is so terrifying to women.
Yes. And addicts tend to use that as justification. Yes. For their betrayal. Which is not fair or accurate. Right. He will choose to betray not because she is or isn’t sexual with him.
Yes, exactly. It doesn’t matter. Yeah. So talk about values, conflicts in this situation.
In thinking about why partners feel scared to say no, sometimes they experience values conflicts, some examples of that. On one hand, she might value being a good and loving wife, and she might herself that being that kind of wife means she’s sexual or she shows up sexually. A conflicting value that might happen at the very same time is she might value safety and wanting to pull away from him to be safe. So on one hand she could value, oh, I think I should show up sexually. At the same moment she’s valuing, oh, I think I shouldn’t show up sexually again. Do I go toward him or do I pull away from him? Ladies often tell me they value keeping an intact family unit. They have a high value on a cohesive family. They might also value separating.
“Now what do I do?”
So the kids aren’t exposed to sex addiction or they have a limited exposure to sex addiction or emotional abuse or gaslighting or other safety issues in the home. And she might feel like she has to have sex to maintain an intact family. At the same time she values safety and feels like pulling back from being sexual with him. Another value that came to mind as we’re talking about these values, conflicts, many girls talk with me about they value honoring God. For some girls, they think of honoring God means honoring or submitting sexually to their husband. Another conflicting value that often happens at, simultaneously they may feel I’m honoring God by being authentic by protecting this body that God gave me by protecting my heart that God gave me. So now what do I do? Am I honoring God by being sexual when I don’t want to? Or am I honoring God by not being sexual and protecting myself?
“I didn’t even recognize that I felt unsafe”
And really being honest. I think it comes down to being, to honesty, honoring God by being honest with myself about how I really feel.
Yes. That one gets really confusing.
Yeah, it does. And it’s hard, especially when so many of us are distanced from our emotions because we’ve been so concerned about our addict husband. How does he feel? How is he doing? What can I do to help him? What can I do to make sure our family’s intact? That sometimes we’re distant from even knowing that we feel unsafe? So many women have said to me, you know, I didn’t even recognize that I felt unsafe, and I don’t even know what that even means. Yes, yes. And I’m not even sure what it means to be emotionally safe. I don’t even know if I’ve ever felt that before. With all that being said, why do you think it’s okay for betrayed spouses to say no to sex after betrayal, or even before betrayal? Actually, <laugh> <laugh>, I mean, we’ve got that, but if, if they feel unsafe, do you think it’s okay to say no?
Say NO! It’s OKAY to say NO!
I do think it’s okay to say no. I’d like to talk about saying no. After discovering sex addiction is impacting the relationship. Let’s start there. We can view sex addiction as an intimacy disorder. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, right? Intimacy disorder. Intimacy, intimacy disorder, not ordered or working. People who experience an intimacy disorder tend to not know how to be close and connected well mm-hmm. <Affirmative> authentically. And so there’s real value in taking sex off the table during sex addiction recovery for a purposeful period of abstinence. And the purpose of this period of abstinence, one of the purposes is so the couple can work on establishing emotional intimacy. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, as safety’s building and communication is improving, the couple can start taking steps toward reestablishing or establishing for the first time safe non-sexual touch, then establishing safe sexual touch. So I think there’s a, an order to sex addiction recovery for the addict. The order involves creating emotional intimacy, being close and connected emotionally. Then learning how to have non-sexual safe intimacy. Then learning how to have sexual intimacy.
Feel empowered to say no!
This is very interesting to me because about six months before my husband’s arrest, I decided that I needed emotional intimacy and that I was going to stop initiating sex. I told him, I don’t feel emotionally safe. I’m going to stop initiating sex. You’re, I told him, you’re, you’re welcome to initiate it if you’d like to, but I’m not going to initiate it anymore. I need to see more from you in terms of being emotionally connected. And then nothing happened. Literally nothing happened. Yeah. He didn’t attempt in any way, shape, or form to reestablish emotional intimacy. In fact, I had purchased a workbook and we did it one night and he said, oh, I’m so excited about this. This is so awesome. And I said, okay, well, you are gonna have to be the one that pulls this out and sits us down to do this. I need this to feel emotionally safe. Like you have to be the one that that instigates this. He never pulled it out, not once. And so I think this type of boundary is also very helpful in seeing where they really are to see, yeah, okay, I’m establishing this abstinence to determine are they really wor going to work toward emotional intimacy? Or are they just gonna be like, okay, well she won’t have sex with me, so what can I do? You know, like well, right. This stinks, you know, and they don’t try and actually connect with you.
Excess vs. Deprivation
I’m glad you’re bringing up that kind of dynamic. There’s something called excess versus deprivation. Let’s apply this dynamic of excess versus deprivation to sex addiction. So, so let’s imagine in a relationship the husband has the sex addiction, and within his marriage deprivation is happening. Let’s imagine he is not reaching for his wife. She is not having emotional intimacy or physical intimacy, or not to the degree that she would hope for. Instead, he is acting out sexually, having excess sexual experiences outside of the relationship. During attempts to change that maybe as you’re describing before recognizing the sex addiction he might make attempts to, okay, I’m gonna stop being sexual outside of the relationship. I’m gonna do a workbook. I’m gonna try to not have excess outside of the marriage. Very often what happens is he might shut that down, but it doesn’t teeter-totter. It doesn’t make the intimacy within the marriage get better.
Non-Sexual Touch Intimacy
And I see with the couples I’m working with, when in that first stage of create safety and stability and being sure that recovery period, there is not sexual betrayal happening outside of the marriage. Again, the hope for the couple is if we shut down the excess outside of the marriage, will it teeter-totter? And we’ll now have intimacy inside the marriage? Except that’s not what typically happens. Instead, the typical experience is now we have deprivation across the board. Now the sexual behaviors are not happening outside the marriage, nor are they happening inside of the marriage because he still has an intimacy disorder. He still doesn’t know how to be intimate. So the couple has to go through the process that I’ll describe later on of how to move through the emotional intimacy, the non-sexual touch intimacy, then onto the physical intimacy. And sometimes sex addicts have to really, they’re learning this for the first time.
Yeah. That being said, MJ, I can imagine some couples worry how and when they’ll start having sex again once it’s off the table. Can you talk about this? What is the process for this?
“We could live without having sex”
One of the common beliefs of someone with a sex addiction is, sex is my most important need. And there has to be a retraining of the brain to help somebody with a sex addiction wrestle with this to help them understand that sex is not their most important need. ’cause Quite frankly, we could live without having sex. Right? Mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, someone is not sexual. They’re not going to die or spontaneously combust. While we want couples to able to be both friends and lovers, we want to help the couple initially create safety in their relationship. And that’s the part where we stop the acting out behaviors. Stop the betrayals.
Yeah. And also stop the emotional abuse and the gaslighting and the related behaviors that go along with it. Right.
“There can be real trauma in getting little bits of information of betrayal at a time”
Absolutely. Although, and I, I see that sometimes that’s harder to change. For some addicts, they, they can stop the betrayal behaviors. They can stop the sexual acting out, but changing their emotionally abusive behaviors, how they show up in conflict, and how they use humor, that takes more time. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, that’s a relearning of how to communicate and how to respond to their person. So that actually takes a lot of work. And that’s part of the recovery after sex addiction. Right. First, we achieve safety and stability. Next, I believe the next step is disclosure and transparency. And I think that’s so important because I, well, a couple reasons. Disclosures that are eked out over time, a little bit here, a little bit there, that every time a betrayed spouse hears of another betrayal, it just takes her back to ground zero, takes her to her knees. There can be real trauma in getting little bits of information of betrayal at a time. Ladies need to know what they’re dealing with so they can make choices about whether or not they want to stay and work on the marriage. A therapeutic disclosure where the couple is being kept really safe mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, and they’re being walked through how to disclose all the information that’s necessary. They have to have transparency to then be able to move on to working on communication, sharing thoughts and feelings.
Gaslighting, Manipulation, Bullying, Criticism, Contemptgaslightin
So then when we get to that communication phase, one of the things I’ve been learning about the abuse is that abuse is really a perception issue. And the reason why it happens is because the abuser perceives his victim in a certain way, which continually causes the emotional abuse. Changing those mental processes is going to take a really long time. And if those abusive behaviors are happening, couples therapy is counter-indicated until about two years after the last abuse episode from a sex therapist point of view. Can you talk about that a little bit? Like the process of someone deciding that they’re going to not be emotionally abusive anymore in the context of sex addiction?
“Profound Gaslighting Behaviors”
When it comes to sex addiction, I find that many addicts exhibit profound gaslighting behaviors because they’re trying not to get caught. They’re trying to get their spouse to back up, to not find out about their secret. They will be manipulative, bullying, mean, and say critical and contemptuous things to get the wife to back up. So in recovery from sex addiction, there’s this period of teaching how to recognize how they respond to being questioned, to having conflict. They have to learn how their brain wants them to gaslight, and they have to challenge that and then learn how to respond differently. So that really is a process and validates again, why in some ways they might have more immediate success in stopping the betrayal behaviors, the sexual acting out, and then it could take a long time to learn how to respond kindly, not defensively. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, being able to accept influence, that goes a long way toward helping the couple start moving toward reestablishing a sexual relationship. Right. The safety has to come first.
Mj, thank you so much for your thoughtful responses. I appreciate the time that you’ve taken to talk with us today.