Post-traumatic growth may feel like a dream that’s out of reach if you’ve been a victim of betrayal trauma and emotional and psychological abuse. But Simona Nicolais’ research findings show us that post-traumatic growth is absolutely attainable for victims.
Read the full transcript below and listen to The BTR.ORG Podcast for more.
It’s Post-Traumatic Growth – Not Current-Traumatic Growth
Victims are often conditioned to believe that they should be changing and growing despite the onslaught of pain and trauma that comes from sexual coercion, gaslighting, emotional abuse, and financial control. Abusers expect victims to walk on eggshells, perform their “roles” perfectly, and thrive in every aspect of life.
Of course, at BTR.ORG, we know that when you’re facing active abuse, even surviving day-to-day life can feel unbearable.
Post-Traumatic Growth is possible when victims have courageously placed proximity between themselves and the harmful behavior.
3 Steps Toward Post-Traumatic Growth
If you’re wondering how to begin your journey toward Post-Traumatic Growth, you might consider taking these initial steps:
- Identify the source of the trauma – what forms of abuse are you experiencing?
- Seek support as you begin to process the reality of abuse and plan how you will establish proximity between yourself and the harmful behaviors that are causing trauma.
- Implement action steps to remove yourself from harmful situations, people, and behaviors.
BTR.ORG Is Here For You
At BTR.ORG, we know how difficult it is to accept that you’re experiencing abuse. We also know how hopeful it is to know that Post-Traumatic Growth is a real possibility after betrayal.
Consider attending a BTR.ORG Group Session today to begin processing your experiences.
Welcome to BTR.ORG. This is Anne.
I am so excited to introduce to you Simona Nicolais. I recently met her. She is incredible, and she is a doctoral student at Auburn University. She’s a licensed therapist and she is doing her doctoral studies on post-traumatic growth. I was lucky enough to be able to participate in her study as well as many women in our BTR community, so I wanted to have her on to talk about her study and talk about the things that she’s doing currently. She works in private practice in Birmingham, Alabama, and she specializes in working with partners of porn addicts and sex addicts. So welcome, Simona.
Well, thank you, Anne. I am so excited to be with you and thanks for having me on your podcast.
Studying Post-Traumatic Growth
Yes, so we were talking when I was participating in your study. It was really interesting, and then we had a conversation after that was really interesting. So let’s just talk about your study, first of all, and then some of the things that we discussed. Let’s start with your study,
By the way, I loved having you on my study as a participant. I realized that there’s a gap in literature surrounding post-traumatic growth, which is really the growth that people experience after a whole lot of suffering and a whole lot of trauma. And I just wanted to study post-traumatic growth in partners of porn and sex addicts, which is a population that I work with. I got interested in this subject because over the years I would start seeing partners and the beginning was really rough, and we all know that just the first six months, people come in and they are so disoriented and just not knowing if there’s anything good after this and if they will survive it, if they will ever make meaning of this, if they will find hope or life after, and if life exists after this much betrayal in this case with this population, then what would that even look like?
“Here’s research that says you are going to make it through”
And we just don’t have a whole lot of studies to offer that kind of hope to say to them, Hey, here’s research. If we cannot have a community, here’s research in the literature that says that you are going to make it through, that you’re going to grow, that you might not make sense of this much suffering because honestly, this kind of experience doesn’t really make sense the end of the day. But you are going to have hope and growth and there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. So that’s kind of why I started thinking about this.
Yeah. Does your study touch on what causes the trauma?
No. So I do not study PTSD or elements of PTSD, but there is a whole lot of research there that studies PTSD and partners of sex addicts and porn addicts and really good research like Barbara Steffens’, and a lot of other studies that offer that.
“Are they identifying the cause of the trauma as ongoing abuse?”
When I ask that, I’m wondering if when the participants are participating, are they identifying the cause of the trauma as ongoing abuse, or what are they identifying as the cause of the trauma?
I think the root of the trauma is this event in their life that was incredibly unexpected, or they might have known about their spouse’s pornography addiction, but they didn’t know the extent of it. So maybe it was a disclosure, maybe it was a discovery of some kind. That realization of, Wow, I am finding this out and my whole reality is completely changed.
So they don’t identify necessarily the emotional and psychological abuse that they’ve been experiencing?
“A whole lot of partners do not even recognize [the abuse]”
Some people don’t because they can’t define that they don’t know that that’s abuse. A whole lot of my partners need that support. They need a person in their life or a therapist that can say to them, “No, listen, this is actually abuse. This is domestic violence. This is your chronic stress. This is verbal abuse or manipulation or psychological abuse.”
So I think a whole lot of partners do not even recognize that or they can’t define it, and sometimes they are not supported by their communities to identify that. And even as, Hey, this is a threat to my identity, to my physical integrity, to my emotional wellbeing, to my children’s wellbeing, that’s been my experience. We are not trained a lot of us, we do not grow in families that train us to recognize in our bodies, Hey, this is an actual threat.
Why do you think in general, the therapeutic community does not recognize that the trauma that women are experiencing from their partners is from abuse? Why do you think they just kind of focus on maybe the disclosure or discovering it, which is part of the abuse, right? It’s part of the psychological abuse of the deception and manipulation, because had they not been psychologically abused, they would’ve known that their husband was having an affair or viewing pornography. Why do you think they don’t clearly identify it as a result of emotional and psychological abuse and sexual coercion?
“We do not ask the right questions to assess correctly”
I speak for myself. I think a whole lot of the time I don’t have the whole story. So I think it takes a whole lot of time for a person that has lived in that kind of manipulation and control to get out of that chaos and haze and fog that’s there and say, Hey, this is my reality and I want to face that reality. So I would say for me, that’s sometimes I’m missing pieces. At times, we do not ask the right questions to assess correctly what’s really going on.
For example, if they came in and said, Hey, I’m being psychologically and emotionally abused, then the therapist would be like, okay, now I know I can help you. But you’re saying just in general, they’re not, and again, I know you don’t speak for all therapists, but perhaps if a person isn’t able to identify they’re being abused, then it’s also going to be difficult for their therapist to help them identify that; their therapist isn’t going to educate them and help them identify it necessarily, they’re just going to sort of meet them where they are. Am I making sense?
This is why BTR is comfortable calling out abuse
You are making sense. And sometimes that’s why for me, and sometimes I want to see text messages, I say, “Is it okay if I just look at your text messages? Is it okay if we listen to your voicemails that your husband left you or your boyfriend or partner? Is it okay if you dare to record a conversation or a fight that you guys have?” because that helps me define and make some conclusion, get some idea about the reality that she lives in. Because when you live in that kind of reality and you live in crazy making and gaslighting at times, (not all the times, but a whole lot of the times with this addiction), it’s very hard for a partner to say, “This is what I call this”, or to normalize it and say, I mean, this is normal. This is what every marriage looks like, what every relationship looks like.
Yeah. I think that’s why at BTR I feel very comfortable just doing a broad stance that it’s abuse. So anyone who comes and says, my husband’s using porn, I’ll be like, “Oh, you’re dealing with an abuse issue then.” I mean, right out of the gate. I think that for at least for BTR and the women that come here, that works because they can always walk it back. If you say, okay, we’re dealing with an abuse issue. Let’s determine where he is on this spectrum of abuse. Is he lying to you? Has he been gaslighting you? Is he continuing to do that? That kind of a thing. That way, the main thing on their radar is emotional and psychological abuse and sexual coercion rather than Is he in recovery?, for example.
Which I appreciate that. I think I’ve learned over the years that like you, I think it’s better to ask the right questions and at the beginning to go ahead and imagine the worst case scenario and then see what’s really going on there. And how much recovery is that spouse doing and how much he’s not doing? And also the relationship for me, I think that the teamwork matters. The relationship between therapists, your husband’s therapist has to have a relationship with your therapist and the marriage therapist and work as a team to consult each other almost every three or four weeks and say, “Hey, where are we here? Is this person, is he not in recovery?”
What is post-traumatic growth?
If porn is part of the equation, then it’s an abuse issue, and so there’s no reason to have a couple therapists or a therapist who’s seeing both people because this is an abuse issue, and it’s counter-indicated. The porn, in and of itself, is the indicator that you’re working with an abuser.
So let’s talk about your study. You wanted to study post-traumatic growth. Let’s talk about post-traumatic growth. What is post-traumatic growth?
Post-traumatic growth is the growth that happens after a traumatic event. Obviously, it’s the result of an evolution. It just doesn’t happen right away. Even to diagnose PTSD, which you have to have a diagnosis of PTSD, post-traumatic growth comes after post-traumatic stress disorder or post-traumatic stress reaction. But the post-traumatic growth or the growth that happens out of that suffering is the result of an evolution. And it’s really our attempt as human beings to reveal and integrate our interpretation of that trauma in hopes to find a sense of purpose and coherence for our lives. That’s how I would define post-traumatic growth.
“They grow in some direction”
So in talking with women who are experiencing the emotional and psychological abuse associated with someone who is a pornography addict: if they’re continuing to be emotionally and psychologically unsafe, how do we deal with post-traumatic growth in that way, in that the trauma is not “post-“, it’s ongoing? What are your thoughts about that?
That’s a good question. I haven’t found a whole lot of research on that. I think from anecdotal research, which is just me watching clients, yes, I think there are a whole lot of partners that still live in that traumatic stress as in the threat is not over. And at that point, what I find is that yes, maybe the partners grow and make sense of some part of their trauma. They grow in some direction…
Would we call this rather than post-traumatic? Would we call it maybe during-traumatic growth or something? What’s a word? We should invent it right now. Current-traumatic growth.
How can we begin to heal and grow?
I think they do grow in identity as in they’re forced. They’re really forced to change careers or to go back to school or to figure things out that they never had to figure out before. And so I think they grow in those areas. But yeah, I would say that they’re still in chronic stress. They’re still in a situation where their ability to cope and adapt to life is very hard because of these circumstances they’re in that they have no control over. So they’re in constant threat, and that is it’s your body is in a reaction that’s there all the time.
The trauma that they’re experiencing because it’s due to the emotional and psychological abuse is not going to stop until they’re separated or far enough away from that harm, right? Because they can’t necessarily stop him from doing it, but they can figure out a way to separate themselves and get enough space between them and the harm.
Were all of them divorced?
“Time is a variable in our growth, in making sense of this trauma”
They’re all divorced, yes. And most of them are about two years away.
You mean they’ve been divorced for at least two years?
Divorced for at least two years, and even separated for longer than that- three or four years, because that time between the traumatic event and the process of divorce does make a difference, it’s a variable. Time is a variable in our growth in making sense of this trauma.
So when you say “…the time between the traumatic event and the divorce…”, so you’re not counting all of the traumatic events, like all the lies and emotional and psychological abuse in your study?
No, I am not studying that.
So the only thing you’re studying is the time after they discovered their husband was using porn?
Experiencing emotional and psychological abuse post-separation
Right. I think that would be an incredible variable to study. I just have not done that, and I haven’t even configured a question to consider that variable in it. And I think that would be an amazing study to see even how they grow through this constant stress, constant chronic lying and chronic back and forth, especially if you have children and you’re in the middle of custody or a divorce, how did they go through that? How do they grow through it? And what are some of the variables there, like what kind of support do they need in order to make sense of it and grow out of that?
As you were interviewing your participants, how many of them (just in general, I know that we’re not getting into specifics right now about your study), continued to experience emotional and psychological abuse after their divorce?
I would say that about half of them, and mostly because they do have young children and they do have to share the children with their spouses.
So were some of the participants, did they not share children?
Some of the participants did not have any [kids], or they had full custody.
Okay. So the ones with full custody, did you find that they had less abuse incidents?
Yes. Because a lot of them in my study were able to figure out how to separate from that person and in a sense just keep them out of their lives as much as possible.
Insights gained from Simona’s study
So in that sense, it really was post-traumatic stress in that the trauma had stopped.
So what are some of the things that surprised you about what women learned and what they gained through their (and when I say gained, I mean obviously nobody wants to be chronically abused or have these experiences), but what surprised you just in general about what women gained through their experiences?
There were about 10 themes, I would say, that came up on a consistent basis with every one of my participants. What surprised me was honestly, and the first thing that I realized as people are talking, they have to tell their stories, they have to go back and forth between telling me the story of their abuse and their marriage, their abuse in the marriage, and their growth and how they’ve come to this place in their life that they’re at. But every one of my participants talked extensively about how they had a gut feeling even before they married, and they kind of knew that this person was not a healthy person, not healthy enough to be a husband, to be a father, to be a partner, and they didn’t listen to that gut feeling. So somatically, they were not really connected to their bodies, or they were not taught how to say, “Hey, I feel this way. I don’t know why I feel this, why I have this icky feeling, but I’m going to listen to that.”
Can you define somatic for our listeners who might not be aware of what that means?
Tune in to your sacred internal warning system
Yeah. Somatic means really being in your senses. Being in your body with your senses, being connected to yourself, to be in tune with your sense of safety, your sense of value, your sense of integrity in your body. Sensing like, Hey, I am online. I am here. I am in my present tense in this place at this moment with this person, and this feels healthy, peaceful, or, This feels chaotic, or it just feels something, but I can define what it is. It just doesn’t feel quite right.
In addition to women maybe not being trained or not being given permission, I also think that there’s so many societal or institutional or religious or whatever things where people say to women, “No, no, no, it’s not that. He’s a great guy. He’s doing well.” They’ll go for help to anyone (it could be family or friends or clergy. It could be anybody), and they say, “Hey, these weird things are happening”, and the person they go to for help is like, “Oh, that happened to me once and I was just forgiving, and it all worked out”, instead of digging in and helping women trust their gut. It’s amazing how many times women go for help and then they’re sort of talked out of it.
I would agree with you. Yes.
A “spiritual awakening”
So that was one of the main themes was women having these somatic experiences where they’re having a gut feeling where something isn’t right, but for whatever reason they’re not able to identify it or they’re talked out of it and they don’t follow it. Can you talk about the other main themes you found?
Yeah. Another one that surprised me and was beautiful to watch was this blend of, a. They started being awakened to spiritual bypassing that was going on in their families, in their communities, which is this idea of we use religion and performance and rules to bypass how we feel to bypass healthy boundaries, to bypass, talking about what is toxic and what is not toxic, and they are awakened to this spiritual bypassing in their communities while they are realizing that their higher power, a whole lot of my participants, it’s God, their higher power is really a person, and they want to go deeper into this authentic relationship with a person and that relationship with their higher power changes while getting out of the spiritual bypassing of their communities.
That’s really interesting. Can you define spiritual bypass for our listeners?
Spiritual Bypass, Defined
Spiritual bypassing is using our religiosity and our religious beliefs and religious rules and a whole lot of legalism, I would call it legalism, to bypass how we feel to bypass the toxicity of a relationship, to kind of rationalize it and minimize it. So some signs of emotional bypassing would be in some communities, that’s a sign of spiritual bypassing, being overly detached and super spiritual, but really not looking at the reality of somebody’s emotional brokenness, lack of boundaries, abuse, etc. And just this cognitive dissonance between, Hey, this is what I see and this is what I want to see because of my religious beliefs.
Or there’s some, I’m going to use the word magical, but that’s not what I really want to say. A magical way to not necessarily have to process the trauma and process the injuries that you have incurred from the abuse and also some kind of magical way that this abusive person can literally change their character from the inside out in a sort of sudden way. And I’m religious, and I don’t want to say that that’s impossible because I believe with God, all things are possible, but I also believe that as we work, we can be blessed. God has provided us a way to change in the work, not without it. He can change us as we work, but not necessarily just randomly.
Spiritual bypass is a direct result of spiritual abuse
Yes, let’s say we’re taking the Bible. There’s nothing in there where somebody’s using their spirituality, their relationship to God to avoid facing unresolved issues. I mean, Jesus did not preach that. He was very good in boundaries. He allowed Judas to hang himself because of his own dysfunction. For some reason, we have just learned somehow that this coping mechanism, is such a great coping mechanism for just avoiding unresolved stuff.
It is, and I also think it’s a direct result of spiritual abuse of the abuser using these spiritual principles in order to blame the victim and not take accountability for their actions. And so because they’re weaponizing them, it gets very confusing about what is true and what I believe Jesus actually intended, which over and over again, he says, ‘Separate from wickedness, give yourself some space’, and what the abuser would like you to do, which is, ‘Stay very close so that I can continue to exploit you.’
And don’t express your anger.
Well, because then they can continue to exploit them, right? They continue to benefit from that close relationship without having to be healthy. Thank you so much for spending the time to talk to us today.
Thank you so much.