MJ Denis, APSATS 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, APSATS 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 BTR podcast or read the full transcript below.
Betrayal Trauma Victims 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. Some 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, APSATS 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.
What is Safety?
In a relationship, safety means that a woman has separated herself from abusive behaviors. She is free to express her grief and pain over the betrayals and abusive behaviors without being dismissed or minimized. She is physically and emotionally thriving.
A woman must set and maintain effective boundaries to find safety.
What Are Boundaries?
Boundaries are not statements, requests, or ultimatums. Rather, boundaries are courageous actions that women take to separate themselves from abusive behaviors. As women do so, the “fog of abuse” lifts and they are able to make informed decisions about their safety and health.
Some boundaries around sexual intimacy may include:
- Choosing to only engage in sexual contact if and when you feel safe.
- Refusing to live with or be near someone who has coerced you into sex
- Giving yourself permission to say no or end the sexual experience whenever you want to
- Determining that you will listen to your body and heart before engaging sexual contact
- Giving yourself permission to avoid situations and people who trigger you
- Refusing to engage in sexual contact until your partner is safe
Safety, Self-Care, Support, and Education
First we achieve safety and stability.
MJ Denis, APSATS 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.
Betrayal Trauma Recovery Supports Betrayal Victims
At BTR, we understand the pain of betrayal and emotional abuse.
You need support if you have experienced betrayal. Finding a safe support network helps victims heal and ultimately thrive. You don’t have to do this alone. Your betrayal trauma doesn’t have to control you anymore.
The Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group is a daily support group for betrayed women. Find support, compassion, and validation when you join. BTRG meets multiple times a day in every single time zone. You can get help when you need it.
Remember, you are not alone.
Anne: I am so honored and excited to have MJ Denis with us today. She is a licensed professional counselor, a licensed marriage therapist associate, a certified sex therapist, and she is APSATS certified as a clinical partner trauma specialist in Austin, Texas.
She works in private practice at Crossroads Counseling Associates where she counsels individuals and couples who have experienced or been affected by sex addiction. Today we are going to talk about safe sex after sexual betrayal. We mean emotional, physical, and sexual safety when we say “safe sex”.
MJ, in thinking about this topic, where do we even start?
Sexual Safety After You’ve Found Out About Your Husband’s Lies, Affair, Cheating, Porn Use, & Abuse
MJ: We are very much in the “buddy system” when we choose our spouse. It’s really a matter of, “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.”
When we are 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–the part of our brain that helps us detect danger and threat–registers betrayal as danger. Our brain actually registers betrayal as a matter of life and death.
Anne: It sure feels like that.
Betrayal Trauma Affects Physical Health
MJ: Yes. In working with partners, I often hear stories about how they discovered their partner’s sex addiction or their betrayal behaviors. Ladies will tell me when they found out about the betrayal it took them to their knees. Some women throw up. Some can’t breathe.
Some can’t get off the floor because their person is their person for safety and when they are betrayed 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 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.
Betrayal Can Feel Like Life Or Death
Anne: 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 15 pounds in 3 weeks. I couldn’t eat or sleep; it was really bad, especially realizing that my person who I was relying on was never safe; I just didn’t know it until that moment.
Betrayal Registers As An Extreme Safety Risk
If our spouse betrays us and it registers as a safety risk, how can wives of addicts ever feel safe with an unfaithful spouse again?
MJ: 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’re with me…” we turn to our spouse as a source of safety. When there is betrayal, the person who was supposed to be safe is the source of pain.
“Come Here, Go Away” Syndrome
So many times in the aftermath of betrayal, ladies will tell me they will experience a “come here, go away syndrome.” “Come here, my husband, come here for safety…but wait, you’ve betrayed me and lied to me; you’ve cheated. Go away for safety….wait, where are you going? Come back for safety.”
This can happen emotionally–wanting to go to our husband for safety so he can understand us and hold us emotionally. We can also go towards our husband for sexual safety, for physical safety. We are so vulnerable when we are going to be sexual with someone.
Sexual Intimacy Is Vulnerability
When we take off our clothes and naked with someone, that leaves us tremendously vulnerable. For women especially, the sexual act is one of our most vulnerable times ever. We are allowing someone to be close to us; it doesn’t get more vulnerable than that. So women must feel safe with their sexual partner in order 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 are choosing to stay with the source of pain and the source of their safety risk.
Maneuvering Physical & Sexual Intimacy
These ladies then try to navigate 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.
Anne: It’s interesting that you talk about when they stay with the spouse. On the other hand, when a person has been betrayed similarly to my experience, once I realized my husband was not safe, I set a no-contact boundary with him until I could see he was safe enough to be able to communicate with.
The Betrayer Is Responsible For Creating Safety
All I then observed was him taking money away, not seeing the kids, accusing me of things…he would tell people he couldn’t do anything because I wouldn’t talk to him, I wouldn’t have sex with him . . . and he would say that because I wouldn’t interact with him, he could not do anything. He was not trying to establish safety.
The trauma comes in both cases – when a person decides to stay and when a person decides to impose intense boundaries which often leads to the other person attacking. In both of these cases, determining safety is the first step.
Emotional Safety Is Necessary For Healthy Sex
MJ: Yes, I agree with you. Establishing safety and stabilization has to be the first step. We cannot allow ourselves to be that vulnerable with someone unless we know we are safe with them. It makes sense to me that you needed to establish a no-contact rule so that you could re-establish safety.
Anne: Many women may be thinking about sex when perhaps they should take a step back and determine if they are emotionally safe enough to have a conversation.
Victims Can’t Cause, Cure, or Control The Abuse
MJ: In my experience in working with partners who initially have learned their spouse is cheating on them, betrayed spouses will frequently become really fearful that more betrayal will happen again. Sometimes partners will choose to be more sexual to try to keep him from cheating again.
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 wonder what is wrong with them and why they don’t measure up to the affair partner.
Sometimes partners will choose to be sexual in ways they wouldn’t otherwise to try to measure up to what they imagine that affair partner was like, or to measure up to the person in the pornography.
To Have Healthy Sex, Your Partner Cannot Use Porn
Anne: Which is so sad because we cannot compete with pornography. If a person tries to compete with it, they will always, always lose.
MJ: Always. Comparison is dangerous for us, no matter what, because we are 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.
Either way, we go with comparison we really come out on the losing end. 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.
You Shouldn’t Have To Compromise Your Values To Feel Safe
When women become scared and become sexual after betrayal, maybe feeling like they need to do this so 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 but are now doing out of fear and desperation.
I think this is really heartbreaking. I know it happens and sometimes women really experience distress from this.
Anne: It’s sad too because the only thing they are trying to do is establish safety for themselves. This attempt at safety will not get them what they want.
Find Safety Within Yourself
MJ: Yes, thank you for bringing it back to: why would we have sex with someone who has betrayed us? It goes back to safety. If this is my person and I go back to them for safety, I might be sexual with them in the aftermath of betrayal because they are the person I go to for safety and I’m trying to maintain it.
When I am working with partners, they often ask me, with despair, why they want to stay with him after he has hurt them so much. In this place it is important to realize she isn’t staying because there is something wrong with her or she is broken. She is staying because this is her person and she is attached to him.
Often I hear ladies saying it’s their fault that they have been betrayed: it must be–If I had been thinner, sexier . . . If I had been more or less – asked fewer questions, not shared my opinion as much, not stuck up for myself as much, etc.
Anne: In my world it was “if I had been smaller…”
Healthy Sex Requires Emotional Intimacy
MJ: Really, there is nothing you are another betrayed partner could have been or done or acted like to keep the betrayal from happening.
Someone with a sex addiction who is in their active addiction and not in active recovery will make choices to betray and that is their choice; it’s not because you as 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.
Anne: In this case, the only thing we can do is get support and reach out.
For Victims, Support Is Essential
MJ: Absolutely. I’m a big proponent of a care team. I believe that recovering from the impact of sex addiction really takes a team. We need a safe support system–a therapist, a coach, a support group–each can be instrumental in helping partners to heal after they have been impacted by their partner’s sex addiction.
Anne: When I get into a group I hear women speaking about similar behaviors in their spouses and then I look at how each woman is so different. For me, it was that I asked too many questions, shared my opinion too much, and I was “too controlling.”
You Are Enough
For others, it is that they didn’t say enough. Then I realize that it doesn’t matter what we are like, the behavior of sexual addicts are very similar and they use the same tactics regardless of what their spouse is doing.
MJ: Yes. I recently had a client who joined a support group and she said there were women of all shapes, sizes, ethnicity, ages, educational and socioeconomic backgrounds; it didn’t matter the differences. What she recognized is that they were all betrayed by someone who had a sex addiction.
It proved to her that it didn’t matter how she showed up in the world. She was in a 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.
Healthy Sex Is Emotionally Safe
Anne: What typically keeps partners from saying no to their sexually addicted spouse when he is not in recovery?
MJ: Partners get really scared here and often wonder if it is ok to say no. I think what gets in the way of saying no is a list of fears. Sometimes women have a fear of further betrayal and it keeps them from saying no or causes them to hesitate saying no to being sexual.
Ladies fear being criticized for saying no or being condemned by their spouse. Ladies have a fear of being a bad wife or a fear of being alone. There is a huge list of fears that get in the way.
Don’t Be Afraid Of Setting Boundaries Against Unsafe Sex
Anne: One of those fears could be that her partner would say she isn’t giving him sex….in society this isn’t acceptable. Society says a sexless marriage means it’s the woman’s fault…they don’t understand all of the reasons why I might be saying no. Just the fact that a partner can use the weapon of, “She refuses to have sex with me” is terrifying to women.
MJ: Yes. And addicts tend to use this as justification for their betrayal. It isn’t fair or accurate. He will choose to betray not because she is or is not sexual with him.
Anne: Yes. It doesn’t matter. Let’s talk about values conflicts in this situation.
Values Conflicts Regarding Sexual Intimacy
MJ: In thinking about why partners feel scared to say no, sometimes they experience values conflicts. Some examples: on one hand, she might value being a good and loving wife and she might tell herself that being this kind of wife means she is sexual or she shows up sexually.
A conflicting value that might happen at the same time is that she values safety and wanting to pull away from him in order to be safe. On one hand she values that she thinks she should show up sexually and in the same moment she values that she thinks she should not show up sexually. Do I go toward him or do I pull away from him?
Another example: 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 so the kids are not exposed to sex addiction or abuse or gaslighting or other safety issues in the home.
Faith Communities Can Distort Healthy Sexuality
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 in this discussion is described when women talk about honoring God. For some women, they think that honoring God is submitting sexually to their husband. A conflicting value that often happens simultaneously is they may feel they are honoring God by being authentic and protecting this body 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? Am I honoring God by not being sexual and protecting myself?
Anne: I think it comes down to being honest; honoring God by being honest with myself about how I really feel.
Setting Boundaries Helps Establish Sexual Safety
MJ: It gets really confusing.
Anne: It does, especially when so many are distanced from their emotions because they have been so concerned about our addict husband–how does he feel, what can I do to help him, what can I do to help our family stay intact?
Sometimes we are distant from feeling unsafe. So many women have told me they didn’t even recognize that they felt unsafe; and that they don’t even know what that means. I don’t even know if I’ve felt emotionally safe.
With all of this being said, why do you think it’s okay for betrayed spouses to say no to sex after betrayal–or even before? If they feel unsafe, do you think it’s okay to say no?
Saying No Is Your Right
MJ: I do think it is okay to say no. I would 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. Intimacy disorder means not working. People who experience an intimacy disorder tend to not know how to be close and connected well, authentically. There is real value in taking sex off the table during sex addiction recovery, for a purposeful period of abstinence. The purpose of this period of abstinence is so the couple can work on establishing emotional intimacy.
As safety is building, the couple can begin to take steps to reestablish safe, non-sexual touch, then establishing safe sexual touch. I think there is 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.
Setting Boundaries Around Sex Is A Relationship Barometer
Anne: This is very interesting to me because about six months before my husband’s arrest, I decided I needed emotional intimacy and that I was going to stop initiation sex. I told him that I didn’t feel emotionally safe and that I was not going to initiate sex.
I told him that he was welcome to initiate if he wanted to but that I would not be initiating. I told him I needed to see more from him in terms of being emotionally connected. Nothing happened.
He didn’t attempt in any way to reestablish emotional intimacy. In fact, I had purchased a workbook and we started it one night. He said he was so excited. I told him that he would need to be the one to pull it out and get us to work on it; I needed this to feel emotionally safe. He never pulled out the notebook; not once.
Abstinence Can Help Victims See Reality
I think this type of boundary is also helpful in seeing where they really are…I am establishing abstinence to determine if they are really going to work towards emotional intimacy…or are they going to say, “Oh well. She won’t have sex with me so what can I do?”
MJ: I’m glad you’re bringing up this kind of dynamic. There is something called excess versus deprivation. Let’s apply this dynamic of excess versus deprivation to sex addiction. 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 or physical intimacy–not to the degree she would hope for. Instead, he is acting out sexually, having excess sexual experiences outside of the relationship.
A Sexless Marriage Is A Result Of Pornography Use
During attempts to change this, maybe before recognizing the sex addiction, he might make attempts to not be sexual outside the relationship–“I’ll do a workbook; I’m going to try to not have excess outside of the marriage”–and very often what happens is he might shut that down but it doesn’t teeter totter and make the intimacy within the marriage get better.
I see with couples I work with when they are in the first stage of creating safety and stability and making sure that sexual betrayal is not happening outside of the marriage, the hope for the marriage is if excess is shut down, will the marriage teeter totter and will there be intimacy inside the marriage? This isn’t typically what happens.
Deprivation Versus Excess
Usually there is now deprivation across the board and sexual behavior is not happening inside or outside of the marriage–because he still has an intimacy disorder; he still does not know how to be intimate. The couple has to go through the process I will describe later on of moving through emotional intimacy with non-sexual touch and then on to physical intimacy. Sometimes sex addicts are learning this for the first time.
Anne: That being said, MJ, I imagine some couples worry about when they will start having sex again. What is the process for this?
Steps To Having A Sexual Relationship Again
MJ: One of the common beliefs of someone with a sex addiction is that sex is their most important need. There has to be a retraining of the brain to help someone with a sex addiction wrestle with this, to help them learn that sex is not their most important need. Quite frankly, we could live without sex; someone who is not sexual is not going to die or spontaneously combust!
While we want couples to be both friends and lovers, we want to help the couple to initially create safety in their relationship–this is the part where we stop the acting out behaviors and betrayals.
Anne: And stopping gaslighting and related behaviors.
Abuse Must Stop For Healthy Marriage
MJ: Absolutely. I see that sometimes this is harder to change for some addicts who can stop the betrayal behaviors and sexual acting out but changing their emotionally abusive behaviors such as how they show up in conflict and how they use humor–this takes more time.
It’s a relearning of how to communicate and how to respond to their person. This actually takes a lot of work. This is part of the recovery after sex addiction.
First we achieve safety and stability. Next is transparency. The abuser must be rigorously honest.
Communication Is Necessary
Anne: So when we get to the communication phase, one of the things I have been learning about abuse is that it is really a perception issue. The reason why it happens is because the abuser perceives his victim in a certain way which continually causes the emotional abuse. Changing these mental processes is going to take a really long time.
If these abusive behaviors are happening, couples therapy is contraindicated until two years after the last abuse episode. From a sex therapist point of view, can you talk about this? What is the process of someone deciding they are not going to be emotionally abusive anymore, in the context of sex addiction?
Couples Therapy Does Not Help
MJ: When it comes to sex addiction, I find that many addicts exhibit profound gaslighting behaviors because they are trying not to get caught, they are trying to get their spouse to back up and 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.
In recovery from sex addiction, there is this period of teaching them 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 this and learn how to respond differently.
This 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, being able to accept influence.
This goes a long way to helping the couple start moving toward reestablishing a sexual relationship. The safety has to come first.
Feeling Isolated When Your Sex Life Is Unhealthy
Anne: Please join the Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group. We are here for you. The BTRG is a great place to process trauma. You can work through these very difficult experiences and emotions with other women who get it.
MJ, thank you so much for your thoughtful responses. I appreciate the time you have taken to talk with us today. We are going to have MJ on next week to discuss healthy sexuality after betrayal!
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Until next week, stay safe out there.