MJ Denis,Trauma Specialist
When women experience betrayal and the emotional abuse that accompanies it, they may wonder if they will ever be able to enjoy sexual contact again.
MJ Denis, Trauma Specialist, explains that safety is the most important foundation for every victim’s journey to healing, including sexual healing. Read the full transcript below or listen to The BTR.ORG Podcast to hear the entire interview.
Emotional Abuse and Betrayal Damage Women’s Confidence in Their Own Sexuality
Every woman that I have counseled who has experienced betrayal has woundedness around her self esteem, her self concept, her looks, her character, who she is as a sexual being…The betrayal really causes her to wonder if she is less than, not good enough, broken.
MJ Denis, Trauma Specialist
The effects of betrayal can be far reaching. One devastating effect is a woman’s inability to connect with her sexuality.
Healthy Sex is Only Possible When a Woman is Safe
At BTR, safety comes first for every woman. Safety means that a woman is not being abused and betrayed by her partner. This may mean that she has ended the relationship permanently, decided on separation, or is staying in the relationship with protective boundaries to separate herself from abuse.
What Is Healthy Sex For Trauma Survivors?
Healthy sex is only possible when a woman feels completely safe: this includes physical, emotional, spiritual, financial, and sexual safety. The five components for healthy sex are: safety, communication, respect, playfulness and joy.
MJ Denis, Trauma Specialist
When a woman has established a baseline of true safety in every facet of her life, and is ready to begin a sexual relationship with a safe person (this means someone who is not betraying or abusing her, and has proven trustworthiness over a steady period of time), she can use the five components of healthy sex as a guide post in her journey.
The Five Components of Healthy Sex For Victims of Emotional Abuse
The key for achieving these five components in a sexual relationship is that both members of the partnership are safe people. This means that there is a strong foundation of trust without betrayal and abuse.
We had MJ Dennis here with us last week. She’s back again. MJ is a licensed professional counselor. She’s a licensed marriage and family therapist associate. So today we’re gonna talk about healthy sexuality after sexual betrayal. Last week we talked about more or less that you have the right to say no, that you can say no. That saying no may be in your best interest. It may help you establish safety. Today we’re gonna talk about the other side of that. So how do couples get from D-Day to healthy sexuality with someone who has betrayed them? Especially if the betrayal involved chronic compulsive behaviors –
Safety & Stability
MJ Denis (00:37):
The first step is to create safety and stability. In order to get from discovery to healthy sexuality, the couple must have safety and stability in their relationship. Sometimes we start by making sure the betrayed spouse has food, clothing, shelter, that she has her basic safety needs met. The next step is to make sure that there is no more cheating, no more betrayal, no more active acting out is happening. Also, in creating that safety and stability, I believe a disclosure is necessary so that the betrayed spouse knows what has happened and can make some decisions to stay safe. And some decisions about whether or not she wants to continue with the repair process. I think it’s very important in this first stage of moving from D-Day to healthy sexuality, that a safety plan is in place.
“This is going to be a process and it’s going to take a while”
As we talked about last week, part of that establishing safety process is making sure that the emotional abuse has stopped as well. Although that is a long process. I think the D-Day to the healthy sexuality is, it’s like fasten your seat belts people, right? This is going to be a process and it’s going to take a while. This is not something that’s gonna happen in three weeks. Someone in my group, <laugh>, sorry, I’m laughing about it on Tuesday, she said, I’ve determined and I’ve made a goal that I am going to be emotionally healthy by October <laugh>.
MJ Denis (02:27):
That’s a great goal. <laugh>.
“The process is not linear”
And I just, I laughed ’cause I thought, wow, you know, like we’re all working toward emotional health. I think that’s how addicts think about it. Oh, I’m gonna go into this recovery process. I’m gonna check off those 12 steps. I’m going to be sober for six weeks, and then we can have sex again. Right? I mean, then it’s, then we’ll be on our way. We’ll be done. And we’ve checked everything off the list. But the process is not linear, nor is it something that you can check off a list. Learning to determine our safety is part of our process. Like at the beginning of it, at least with me, I didn’t even really know what that even meant. So part of my process was determining how I felt, being honest with myself, and then determining really what I needed to feel safe. Mj, what gets in the way of healthy sexuality after betrayal? In terms of the betrayed spouse? Like what gets in her way?
Triggers After Betrayal
MJ Denis (03:23):
There’s a list of things that get in the way of healthy sexuality. One thing that comes to mind is triggers after betrayal. So many ladies become triggered or overwhelmed or are reminded of their spouse’s betrayal. And when they get hit with these reminders or they experience fear that more betrayal will happen. It can take them back down to their knees. It can cause them to experience what I refer to as ground zero. That certainly will get in the way of healthy sexuality. Ruminating thoughts will impact healthy sexuality in the aftermath of betrayal triggers and ruminating thoughts are expected. That’s a normal response to betrayal. So I don’t want to pathologize or judge somebody for having triggers or ruminating thoughts that makes sense and that’s expected. I just want to name that, that’s going to impact their ability to have healthy sexuality in that place.
Shame & Insecurities
Something else that gets in the way of healthy sexuality is shame and insecurities from the betrayal. Every woman that I have counseled who has experienced betrayal, has woundedness around her self-esteem. Her self-concept, her looks, her character, who she is as a sexual being, the betrayal really causes her to wonder if she’s less than not good enough broken. That certainly will get in the way of showing up in healthy sexuality. Well, and so many times, partners will do everything in their power to try to have a healthy relationship. Right? She’ll do as many actions or behaviors to try to have a healthy relationship. She’ll read books, listen to podcasts, try to learn how to have healthy communication. Like she’ll do many things to try to have a happy, healthy relationship, sexual and non-sexual. And she’s only going to be able to get so far mm-hmm. <affirmative> because somebody with an intimacy disorder is in this relationship and has to learn how to be intimate.
“Someone who is emotionally and sexually unhealthy gets in the way”
Yep. And there’s nothing she can do about that. Right. I’m just thinking, the question that I asked, what gets in the way of healthy sexuality after betrayal, and the answer is, someone who is emotionally and sexually unhealthy really gets in the way, right? <laugh>?
MJ Denis (06:36):
So one of the major things here is the health of your partner that may get in the way. Yes. Yeah. And there’s nothing you can do about that. I think there’s so many times that women get shamed around this. Like, well, you know, you found your D-Day was three years ago. What is the problem now? And it’s like, well, because he’s still exhibiting these behaviors. Barb Steffens, I had her on the podcast a few weeks ago, and she, she talked about how she gave a speech regarding when spouses and partners are not getting better. Usually the reason is there’s still the gaslighting, there’s still the emotional abuse happening. Their addicted spouse is still not fully in recovery. They’re not exhibiting healthy behaviors yet. In that way, it’s almost like the trauma is a gift to us. Sometimes we blame our trauma and think, oh, we’re just being crazy. But in some ways I think it’s a gift to us that helps us know if we’re safe or not. Because sometimes that trauma is there for a reason.
MJ Denis (07:38):
Trust. Your. Gut. Always.
<affirmative>, sometimes those triggers are triggers because we’re actually not safe. Or sometimes the shame or the insecurities are happening because we’re still having gaslighting happening. What gets in the way of healthy sexuality after betrayal? A whole lot of things abuse. Sexual addiction.
MJ Denis (07:58):
Yes, I agree.
So we know what gets in the way. What does healthy sexuality look like for partners after they’ve experienced sexual betrayal?
Four Components of Healthy Sexuality
MJ Denis (08:07):
There’s four components of healthy sexuality while in relationship with somebody with a sex addiction. I’d like to name the four and then go back and talk a little bit about each one. So the four components of healthy sexuality, while in relationship with somebody with a sex addiction are safety, communication, respect, playfulness, and joy. So in thinking about safety, for women who’ve experienced chronic betrayal, healthy is often synonymous with safe. And safe comes in the form of empathy and honesty. And those two components must be present for couples to be both friends and lovers. The second one is communication.
Safe communication. That’s also the underpinning of that communication. Yeah.
MJ Denis (09:14):
Yes. With respect. That’s the third component of healthy sexuality. That would be valuing each other, speaking kindly to and about each other. A big component of respect has to do with boundaries. The idea of letting our yes mean yes and our no mean no.
“Sex without emotional connection only highlights the disconnection”
MJ Denis (09:45):
Right. If they have an an intimacy disorder, they may be really disconnected from their emotions. And so the only way that they really know how to connect on some level is through physical touch. Well, for a partner who’s been betrayed, having sex without an emotional connection only highlights the disconnection.
MJ Denis (10:11):
If she’s reeling from feeling alone or mistreated or not loved well, and then the addict asks to have sex, this could really send the partner into a tailspin and that won’t work out. Well.
A lot of times when we talk about healthy sexuality, I assume that everybody assumes <laugh>. That <laugh>, they’re talking about actually engaging in sex when you talk about healthy sexuality. Whereas I’d like to point out that in this case, and in many cases, healthy sexuality could mean abstinence. That could be how you exhibit your healthy sexuality.
MJ Denis (10:51):
“Healthy sexuality in [abuse scenarios] is abstinence”
Because you don’t have safety or your communication is poor, or there’s still gaslighting and lying and abuse happening, or the respect isn’t there. Healthy sexuality in that scenario is abstinence.
MJ Denis (11:06):
And I would even want to add to that, healthy sexuality doesn’t mean intercourse.
MJ Denis (11:16):
Some people equate sex equals intercourse. Healthy sexuality involves sexual play, it involves dialoguing, it involves connection. I’m hearing you say, let’s open up the definition of what healthy sexuality really is. So it doesn’t just mean intercourse.
Right. Exactly. For example, I am very healthy. Well, I don’t know how healthy I am, but let’s just pretend for a minute that I’m extremely healthy sexually. I, I am not married and I choose to stay abstinent when I’m not married. But that doesn’t mean I’m sexually unhealthy. Right. Just because I’m abstinent right now. Correct. I can still be in a very healthy sexual place living in abstinence as a single person. Yes. You can have those healthy boundaries while you’re single as part of your healthy sexuality or as you’re married. Will you talk to us more about healthy sexuality in terms of boundaries?
MJ Denis (12:21):
Let’s go back to that boundaries concept of let your Yes mean Yes. And your no mean no. And something I see as a couple’s therapist is when one partner says yes to being sexual, when they really mean no. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, that’s a place where resentment can build. And resentment is a relationship killer. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> saying yes, when we really mean no also creates trust issues.
MJ Denis (13:00):
And this can be really hard for a partner to grapple with in the aftermath of betrayal where she’s been lied to or deceived or gaslit for her to recognize. If I say yes, and I really mean no. And I might have a list of reasons why I, I’m saying yes. Right. Fears. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> like we talked about last time, if I say yes, when I really mean no, I’m lying, I’m not telling the truth. And that’s so hard for partners to grapple with and to understand when they’re believing. Well, he was the liar. He’s been dishonest. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, what do you mean? I am being dishonest? A heartbreaking reality for some partners is that sometimes they can’t discern whether having sex keeps ’em safe or whether saying no keeps them safe.
“Regain our voice, center ourselves, and be honest with ourselves”
And learning that and really digging deep inside ourselves can only happen when we are in recovery ourselves, rather than focusing on our addict spouse. Yes. So we can get back in touch with who we are, regain our voice, center ourselves and be honest with ourselves. ’cause if we’re not honest with ourselves, we can’t be honest with anybody else.
MJ Denis (14:24):
Recovering after sex addiction is so hard. He has to learn how to manage his sobriety, how to be emotionally connected, how to do intimacy, how to respond and communicate and connect. She’s been in relationship with someone who betrayed her and that has ravaged sense of safety in the world. Sometimes it really impacts her ability to trust herself. So it’s really a long, bumpy road toward recovery. I have to say though, I wouldn’t be in this field and doing this work if it was impossible.
MJ Denis (15:14):
I do this work because I’ve seen healing happen. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, I know it is possible. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So we keep fighting this fight because it’s worth it for good health. It’s worth it. So these girls can move on and have healthy relationships and have a good life.
“He can, but he’s not choosing to”
I think that’s what makes me the most sad about my situation, is that I truly, truly deep down believe that I believe that anyone can change and that miracles just take time and work and that recovery is possible. And so when I see that my ex has not chosen that and is choosing his addiction and his anger and his abusiveness over his wife and children, that is so sad to me. I think that’s kind of why people think that it’s easier to think, well, they can’t change, so I just have to move on. That’s a little bit easier to wrap your head around than he can, but he’s not choosing to. ’cause that is just so sad.
MJ Denis (16:14):
Yes. And sometimes partners will really wrestle with, you know, okay, MJ, is he incapable? Right. Is it a matter of he can’t or is it a matter of he won’t? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, which is what I think you’re saying.
Exactly what I’m saying. Yeah.
“We just need to work on our own recovery to move forward”
MJ Denis (16:31):
And isn’t there heartbreak in either, if there really is some factor that’s impeding his capability to heal mm-hmm. <affirmative>, that’s heartbreaking and heartbreaking. If he just chooses not to heal, not to manage his addiction. Very painful.
It iss super painful and it’s hard to sit in that space of really not understanding. And I don’t know if we can ever truly understand when things go south, like why or how or whatever. We just need to work on our own recovery to move forward.
MJ Denis (17:07):
I wanna talk about ambivalence as that’s something that partners really wrestle with. Ambivalence is expected and natural. After betrayal, I use a whiteboard in my practice and I’ll draw on the whiteboard a pair of feet and help the couple understand that an expected response for the betrayed spouse is to have one foot in the relationship and one foot out of the relationship. She’s often trying to determine if she’s safe. And so on any given day, especially in the months following discovery mm-hmm. <affirmative> D-day, a partner can experience a fluctuation in what percentage of her is in and what percentages out several times a day. Every day she might be 80% in and 20% out at 9:00 AM and by 10:00 AM she’s 5% in and 95% out. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. But at noon she’s 95% in and 5% out. So that’s expected. It’s really important for the addict to be able to learn how to be with her. As she’s experiencing ambivalence. He also will experience ambivalence. Right. Because this repair process is brutal. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, it’s so hard. So he’ll sometimes say, this is too hard, I don’t wanna do it. I am 80% out and 20% in mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And then the next moment, I love my wife, I want to make this work. I’m 80% in and I’m only 20% out.
It seems to me that me that the addict has to be in, in order to make it work,
“There has to be a commitment to going through the process”
MJ Denis (19:05):
There has to be a commitment to going through the process. Also normal, natural that both parties will experience ambivalence. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> and it’ll fluctuate. And so I really try to normalize that for them. I encourage the addict to not speak about his ambivalence with his wife. His job is to have a support group, a sponsor, a therapist he can go to, to get support and learn how to tolerate the discomfort of being with his wife as she is traumatized and trying to determine if she’s going to stay. His job is not to say, wow, this is really hard wife and part of me doesn’t wanna be here anymore. No, he’s not. To say that to her. He needs to work that out with his, his support team.
Yeah. Because there’s also that issue, especially with the abusers, when the abuse is happening, when you say, well, I feel unsafe. And their response is generally speaking, well I feel unsafe too. Not trying to say, well wife, if you ask me too many questions, then I’m not gonna talk to you anymore. Which might be a type of boundary that an addict who’s not in recovery might set.
“The betrayed spouse must be tended to and cared for”
MJ Denis (20:45):
I can’t even tell you how many times that we’ve talked in couples work about the cadence to the recovery that the wife’s needs. The betrayed spouse must be tended to and cared for. She must have a big degree of safety in the relationship. The repair process must happen so she can feel safe. And then his needs can also get tended to, it’s really important that, you know, both people matter in the relationship. Right. And both people need to be heard and understood and cared for. But if she says, husband, I am hurt and scared, and he says, well, what about me?
MJ Denis (21:35):
<affirmative>, that’s gonna blow up. Right. Right. Has to be tended to first with the assurance that at some point he will also be cared for, intended to, but it can’t happen right then.
Right. The abuse book that I was telling you about, Why Does He Do That? He says, the person who has exhibited those emotionally abusive behaviors needs to be able to put their needs on the back burner for a while until the victim feels safe. And that’s exactly what you’re saying.
“His role is to help her heal and to be there for her”
MJ Denis (22:10):
Yes. And absolutely speaks to why does the addict have to have a care team? Because he’s got to be supported and cared for and tended to and held so he can tolerate this process, but not by his betrayed wife. Right. He has to go to his therapist and support group and sponsor so that he can work out those feelings of, but what about me? And I’m hurt too, or I’m scared too. And he does that with his support team. His role is to help her heal. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> and to be there for her.
So in regard to healthy sexuality, we’re looking for safety, which we’ve talked about a lot. Communication, respect and boundaries. You know, boundaries for the betrayed spouse and bottom lines for the addict. There’s also this element through healing of playfulness and joy, which hopefully we’ll get to eventually through the recovery process. Can you talk a little bit about that?
“I’ve got your back and you’ve got mine so much so that we can be playful with each other”
MJ Denis (23:11):
I wanna go back to naming that when we choose our person, our spouse, our partner, our mate, we believe, you know, I’ve got your back. You’ve got mine. I’m with you. You’re with me. And healthy sexuality from this perspective might be defined as, I’ve got your back and you’ve got mine so much that we can be playful with each other. One of our most vulnerable experiences as a human is to feel joy. If we are trauma survivors and partners of sex addicts are trauma survivors, then feeling joy is risky. We tend to be in a defensive posture. If we are experiencing pleasure or happiness or joy, we’re wide open. We’re not in a defensive posture. We really are vulnerable when we are experiencing joy. I hear so many couples as they are recovering, and addicts will say, she’s just angry all the time. She’s still so mad and we don’t play anymore. We don’t have laughter. And I say, of course not. It’s too vulnerable right now for her to play with you, she has to feel safe and secure with you to see that you are showing up over the course of time as solid and consistent and attuned. And until that happens, it is going to be very hard for her to experience joy.
“I just want a boring life where nothing scary or sad can happen”
Before I got married, I was really active. I rock climbed and I rode and I ran and I cycled and I did all kinds of fun sporting things. And pretty much immediately after marriage with the behaviors that were happening, I just shut down everything that was fun. And all we did. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> was work, work, work, work, work, work on the house, work on the this. And even now, I’m still like not afraid of fun, but people will say, are you gonna do anything fun this weekend? And I say, oh, I hope not. <laugh> ’cause Right. Because fun it risky is also risky. Right. And I just want a very boring life where nothing scary or sad or whatever can happen.
MJ Denis (25:43):
You know, Anne, that goes right back to healthy sexuality. For girls who have been in relationship with someone who has a sex addiction, healthy equals safe. Right. So being in a relationship, we’re friends and we’re lovers after sex addiction, we have to develop the friendship. As we become more confident and attuned and attached as friends, then we can start working on the lovers part. We, being sexual with an addict in recovery is so risky. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, a partner might get hurt again. She’s going to grapple with, come here, go away. And it’s really, I wanna call this dynamic, come here, go away. Where the heck are you
<laugh>? That’s really good. Yeah.
MJ Denis (26:37):
And it’s back and forth. And that’s so confusing to couples, except that’s expected. That makes sense
For the addict to know that this is normal. And that part of her trusting me will be that I am there for her during this process.
MJ Denis (26:55):
“I’m going to consistently be there for her”
I’m going to consistently be there for her emotionally, physically, financially during this period of her going through all this. Trauma will go a long way toward her feeling trust again for him.
MJ Denis (27:12):
But if in the process of that he takes money away, like, what happened with me? Or he shuts down bank accounts, or he doesn’t see the kids, or you know, whatever, then it’s like the trust is just even more shattered.
MJ Denis (27:27):
Yes. And how would you be sexual in that place where dings to safety are happening? Right. Taking away financial security. How will a girl who doesn’t feel secure show up and have healthy sexuality? Right.
Healthy Sexuality for Divorced & Single Women
Or even a healthy conversation, you know, because she still feels so traumatized and unsafe. Right. Would just be super scary. Yeah. So what are some of the challenges for former partners of sex addicts after their relationships with a sex addict has ended? For women like me who are divorced,
MJ Denis (28:04):
We need to talk about gaslighting here and the consequences of gaslighting. Because the consequences of gaslighting impact partners for a long time. When somebody is in relationship with a person with chronic betrayal behaviors, the person with those betrayal behaviors is going to tend to gaslight do and say things to get his wife off of his back so he’s not discovered. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So he might do and say things that distort her reality. And as he is distorting her reality, she will doubt herself, her intuition, what’s real. If he’s rewriting history, she’s going to wonder what’s true. And so girls who’ve been gaslit will have over the course of time a decline in their ability to trust themselves. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> to trust their gut instinct. That is an expected consequence of chronic betrayal. When I’m working with former partners of sex addicts, one thing that we often talk about is how their intuition has been damaged. Their ability to trust their gut instinct has been damaged. And they doubt. And if they doubt themselves, they doubt their ability to stay safe in the world. They doubt their ability to pick a safe partner. I often hear former partners say, how will I not get back into the same kind of relationship with the next guy? What’s gonna keep me from picking another sex addict? The gaslighting erodes their intuition and it confuses boundaries and it confuses what feels safe to them.
Find YOUR VOICE
Would you say finding their voice again and being in touch with their own intuition would be the first line of defense before even attempting to date again?
MJ Denis (30:25):
Absolutely. <laugh>. Yes. I hope for all former partners of sex addicts that they take the time to heal before getting into another relationship. We want to help them first have a relationship with themselves again. Yeah. Get to know themselves before they can show up and, and be a healthy partner for anyone else. They do need to reconnect with their intuition, and in some ways redefine who they are. Trauma has happened and they’ve lost a sense of themselves. So who are they? Hopefully as these resilient women with boundaries and a voice that that must happen before they start dating.
“I’m able to speak. I’m able to say no.”
Right. And for a single woman, I think that’s what healthy sexuality looks like. Yes. I mean, for someone who has either never been married or divorced, healthy sexuality looks like I have a voice, I’m able to speak it. I’m able to have boundaries. I’m able to say no
MJ Denis (31:35):
As a sex therapist. A series of conversations I often have with my clients is around how did you learn how to be a sexual being? How did you learn? Where did you learn? What did you learn about your body parts? What did you learn about how to be in relationship? What did you learn about sex or being sexual? It’s important during this period when former partners are recovering that they take the time to explore their relationship with their sexuality. What did they believe about their body? And challenge some of the beliefs that they may have learned because that’s what someone told them to believe. And really come to terms with what do they authentically believe to help them define their value system so that when they do approach a romantic relationship with another partner, they can have their behavior line up with their values. That’s healthy sexuality.
I like that definition of healthy sexuality.