Many victims of betrayal and abuse seek resources to aid them on their journey to safety and healing.
Are 12-step programs advisable for partners of porn users?
Anne discusses the potential benefits of 12 step programs for women who are both aware of and safe from the abusive relationship. Lindsey, a member of the Betrayal Trauma Recovery group shares her experiences with 12 step. Read the full transcript below and listen to the BTR podcast for more.
Safety First, Then Self-Improvement (Like 12 Step)
At BTR, we highly recommend that women first establish emotional, physical, sexual, and spiritual safety in their lives before joining any kind of self-improvement organization, including 12-step.
Why? Because safety is the most basic need and right of every human being. If you are being gaslighted, lied to, manipulated, blamed, belittled, betrayed, and/or coerced, you are not safe. If you are being yelled at, ignored, harassed, raped, and/or physically hurt by your partner, you are not safe.
Boundaries Help Victims of Betrayal and Abuse Find Safety
Women can set and maintain effective boundaries to establish safety. Boundaries are not ultimatums, requests, or statements. They are courageous actions that women take to separate themselves from abuse.
When effective boundaries are set and maintained, women prioritize their health and safety, and their children’s health and safety, over destructive and harmful treatment from their partner.
Safety has to be the bedrock of every woman’s life before she begins any kind of self-improvement program.
12 Step Programs Can Offer “Healing Maintenance”
After victims of abuse and betrayal have established a basis of safety in their lives, have processed trauma, and have adequate support, 12-step programs can help them maintain their safety.
When I feel safe, I feel peace in my center. If there is something that isn’t safe or that feels off, it’s almost like a little flag goes off in my brain that says: “Wait, this is either totally unsafe or I just need to learn more. Ask some more questions and figure out what’s going on”.
Lindsey, member of the Betrayal Trauma Recovery community
Top Five Reasons 12-Step Can Be Helpful After Safety Has Been Established
- The belief in a higher power can be healing and helpful along the journey.
- Working on humility and empathy is a worthy goal.
- Trusting in the timing of life can be beautiful.
- The principles can be empowering to a victim
- It promotes self-awareness
Betrayal Trauma Recovery Supports Victims of Betrayal and Abuse
While 12-step can offer healthy support to some women, many find that the model it follows tends to be victim-blaming and can keep victims in an unsafe situation.
Betrayal Trauma Recovery is founded on the trauma model: recognizing one victim (you) and one perpetrator (your partner). Men are not shielded by excuses like addiction, family trauma, or personalities disorders here: we are focused on helping victims find and maintain safety.
Join the Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group today and find a community of women who will empower, support, and validate you as you begin your journey to healing.
Anne: Welcome to Betrayal Trauma Recovery, this is Anne.
I have my friend with me today, Lindsey (not her real name), and she’s actually here in my basement where I record, so I’m so happy to have her here.
After we did the 2 back-to-back episodes about 12-step where Kate and Michelle were talking about how they didn’t like it, Lindsey texted me and said: “I feel super uncomfortable.” She’s going to read the text that she sent to me.
Lindsey: “I listened to the latest 2 podcasts, part 1 and 2 with your discussion on 12-step, and it really rubbed me the wrong way. I strongly disagree with parts of it and especially felt that the end tone was very hopeless. I do agree with parts of the message that too many women are stuck in abuse and I’m surprised that I feel strongly enough about it to ignore my total dislike of conflict and tell you.” So, I asked if we could talk sometime.
Anne: I said: “Just come on the podcast and we’ll talk about it.” So, here she is to share her feelings about how she feels about 12-step and how it’s helped her. Full disclosure: I have attended 12-step meetings with her and also find 12-step to be very helpful despite the parts that I see as very problematic. So, let’s talk about the first step.
12-Step Programs Can Empower Survivors
So, I think that finally coming to grips with the fact that my life was completely unmanageable and there was nothing that I could do about it, really helped me to move forward and actually helped empower me because I realized what I had responsibility for and what I didn’t. That’s actually really when I came to a full understanding that I was a victim of abuse. So, for me, that was really helpful. In your life, how has that first step, admitting that my life was completely unmanageable, helped you?
Lindsey: When I started recovery, I’ll be completely honest I really didn’t understand it, because I didn’t really know what it looked like to let go of things. I didn’t realize that there was an option to say my life is out of control. So, my understanding obviously has deepened over the last 2 ½ years as I’ve been working recovery. One of the ideas that really helped me a lot in shaping my understanding of Step 1 was an idea shared in a class that I took by Adam Moore.
He shared this idea, it says: “For the remainder of your natural life, life itself will persist at absolutely destroying your sense of capacity to manage things on your own. I think that that is actually the purpose of life. Life is supposed to be excruciating. It is supposed to shred your soul. But in the midst of pain, you can find joy. I am under no illusion that my life is always going to be fun and happy. Around the corner is some deeply painful thing that I’m not ready for and it is going to remind me that I am in desperate need of help from other people and from God. The more I can accept that reality, the less suffering I experience. The most intense pain you can inflict upon yourself happens by saying “It is not supposed to be like this. It is supposed to be happy and I have been robbed!” You will make yourself miserable thinking that. If you let it, life helps you turn to others and to God.”
Anne: So basically, it’s saying have very very low expectations.
Lindsey: Yes, and in some ways, that’s exactly what Step 1 is. It’s saying my life is unmanageable and it’s going to be unmanageable.
Are 12-Step Programs Healthy?
Anne: Life is going to be terrible and horrible and thank goodness you will die.
Lindsey: Well and thank goodness we have a higher power. Thank goodness we have people around us who experience, although not the same thing, have similar experiences and we can connect with people and we can connect with God.
Anne: That’s really interesting because I was talking to a woman at a conference, she was awesome and I invited her to be on the podcast and hopefully she’ll come on soon, and she said: “I wasn’t meant to live life one day at a time” and I thought that’s so true because I want to be able to plan. I want to be able to have peace. I feel like life was meant to be joyful, but it’s also is meant to be difficult. You’ve got those 2 things going on at the same time and I think that’s what is really difficult about this type of situation. It’s that Number 1: You should not have to go through this because it’s the result of someone else’s choices. It’s completely unfair and sad. Number 2: That is what life is made of.
Anne: So, it’s both that you should not expect this because it’s not fair
Lindsey: Right, it’s not fair.
Anne: And then secondly that’s what life is at the same time.
Lindsey: Right, because whether it’s betrayal trauma or whether it’s a child dying, whatever your trial is, it’s way too hard. It’s not fair.
Anne: Yeah. So, what about the women talking about how 12-step hurts victims? What about it left you feeling hopeless?
Lindsey: Specifically, the discussion around saying: “Okay, you have therapists out there and resources out there that claim we help with betrayal trauma and yet they don’t.”
Anne: Which is true.
Do The 12-Steps Work For Recovery?
Lindsey: It is true, but it leaves me feeling like: Okay, so then what can I trust? What can I do? And honestly, it connected me back to my personal introduction to recovery. When I started working recovery it was about 9 months after I had attended the Utah Coalition Against Pornography Conference. I went there and I discovered that there is this thing called Betrayal Trauma and on top of that not just Betrayal Trauma but also there is secondary trauma and it’s real. You can have secondary trauma from ecclesiastical leaders, from therapists. I left it feeling like: “Okay, so now I have these awful, awful things that I actually have words for now, not that they weren’t there before but now I have a way to describe my experience and it’s real, and yet I have nowhere to turn because I don’t know who is safe.” I don’t know how to look for safe resources.
Anne: Okay, so that’s where it left you feeling a little bit hopeless.
Lindsey: Right, I mean the part that I do disagree with is I do feel like there can be help found in 12-step.
Anne: Yes, I do too. I hope I made that clear. I want to say all the caveats though. There is help and these are the 27 caveats. Be careful of this, be careful of that, it might not be helpful but for me it really literally changed my life, so I love it. I never thought that that could leave people feeling helpless so I’m so glad you brought this to my attention because it was: “Beware, but then they’re like where do I turn?” What I needed to do was say: “This is what would make these people safe.”
Anne: And give options. So, will you be irrevocably harmed by one bad therapy appointment? The answer is no, but if you know before you go to the therapy appointment what you’re looking for and what is safe and what isn’t safe, then you can say: “Hmm, this therapist isn’t going to work for me” and you can walk out. Or you can say: “Oh, this therapist is safe” and just go with it until it turns out to be not safe or maybe it’s safe the whole time.
How Can I Find Safety In 12-Step Programs?
I think that we won’t know until we kind of put our foot into the water. That’s why I developed the BTR checklist because that Step 1 is to find a safe person. I listed all the things I could think of. I’m sure there is way more. If they imply it or any little thing where they say you have some sort of responsibility or you have work to do or anything like that. When I say you have work to do, what I mean is, if this relationship is going to work then you need to be nice or you need to be supportive or you need to do this or that.
Any perceived infraction on that, because the addict can’t see clearly, so he could perceive any one of those things and you give them a centimeter and they take 17 miles.
Anne: So, that’s what makes me worried about that. So, since then, have you developed a system where you can feel like: “This is how I would know if someone is safe or not?”
Lindsey: Mainly trusting my gut. I mean learning to trust myself and to trust God. Honestly, my relationship with God and my higher power of my understanding has shifted because of what I have learned in 12-Step.
Anne: So, over the weekend you went to a SA Lifeline Retreat for example.
Anne: You called me while you were there, and we talked.
12-Step Programs Are Accessible From Anywhere
Anne: You sounded very safe and you sounded very happy. So, that being said, while you were there what indicated to you that it was safe? How did you know that it was safe for yourself?
Lindsey: I’m probably not totally clear on this answer but for me when I feel safe, I feel peace in my center. If there is something that isn’t safe or that feels off, it’s almost like a little flag goes off in my brain that says: “Wait, this is either totally unsafe or I just need to learn more. Ask some more questions and figure out what’s going on” because sometimes people say things in a way that is unsafe, but they didn’t intend to say it that way.
Anne: Like me. I do it all the time. In fact, right when Lindsey got here, she was like: “Look at this new pamphlet that I see” and I was like: “Ahhhhh, they took the word abuse off” and I went on a 3-minute rampage/rant about how mad I was that they removed the word abuse.
Anne: Then I was like: “I’ve got to calm down and I said a prayer and I’m feeling fine now. Do you feel safe now?
Anne: But I bet that while I was on the rant you were like: “Oh, this can’t be good, right? She’s psycho” and I was recognizing it. It’s funny I got triggered. It’s funny when I get triggered. I don’t know if you think it’s funny when you get triggered, but when I get triggered I think it’s funny because I can see it and I’m like: “I know I’m doing this” and I have to make that mental shift to say: “What would be the most helpful thing to do right now to get myself out of that thing?” So, I apologize that I was unsafe for 3 minutes as I went on my rant.
Why have you found 12-step to be so helpful?
Lindsey: One of the reasons why it’s been helpful for me is recognizing that I can reevaluate my perspective on life. It’s really a hard process to do. To say I am questioning everything about me, everything about what I understand about my world, about my higher power, about my relationships with my family and with my friends, and yet that process of questioning has been in a lot of ways very healing for me and I can feel the growth that I’ve had over the last 2 years.
Anne: Yeah, that’s what I experienced too, and I loved that. Looking back, I didn’t like it so much when I was going through it.
Lindsey: Absolutely not. It’s so hard.
Anne: It was miserable.
Lindsey: It is.
Anne: But looking back I’m like wow, I have changed, and I have grown so much. I’m still growing.
What Are The Reasons To Do 12-Step?
Anne: I think the principles in 12-step have given me a pattern in which to remove the character defects that I have. So, for example, one specific character defect I went to Coach Peggy about. I see Coach Peggy individually for meditation sessions and I said there’s this character defect and it just keeps popping up and it’s driving me crazy. We did a meditation session about it and I’m feeling so much better, but if I didn’t have the framework to know how to talk about it or to even know how to confront it or to know how to change it because this is something that has been with me for a long time and it is kind of unmanageable. I’d say it is unmanageable and I’d like it removed.
So, just having the framework to be able to solve problems in a different type of way. In a spiritual way and have it actually work, but strangely not the way that other things work. Other things like you plant corn, you water it, and the corn grows. That’s not how 12-step works. You do all the things you’re supposed to do, and you surrender and do your Step 4 and Step 5. It doesn’t seem like a direct result of it, it’s almost the growth happens in this other place and then you look back and you’re like: “Whoa I changed. How did that happen?”
Lindsey: To me that’s how I know that it’s my higher power having a hand in my life. It happens in a way that I don’t expect. I don’t see it coming and then it happens and it’s this beautiful, amazing thing.
Anne: Yeah, it’s pretty cool. Can you tell us about maybe one of them?
Lindsey: Yeah, absolutely. One thing that I have struggled with over the years is in my relationship with my youngest sister, I have not been sensitive to her needs as a humane being and really recognizing that she’s somebody. She has worth and she’s of value and I can respect her as a person. I didn’t realize it. I had no idea. I just thought: “Oh, she can help babysit for me. She can do all these things to help me out because I need it. It wasn’t until I was reading the book Boundaries and I got to some section that talked about taking advantage of people and I’m like: “Shoot, that’s me in this relationship. That’s me.” I didn’t have an answer and I didn’t have any idea how I was going to fix that problem because I don’t know how to do things any different. It’s my experience and it’s all I know.
So, it was this process of becoming humble and saying: “Ok, well I recognize there is a problem and I need to take it to her. So, I did, and I said: “Hey, I have done this for years and I don’t have an answer. It’s obviously not going to fix itself overnight. I don’t have answers right now but I’m truly sorry for the pain this has caused you.” Over the last year as I’ve come from that framework, it has done amazing things in our relationship. Building trust and having her become closer to me in ways that just weren’t there before.
Anne: Ironically, she helps you more now.
Lindsey: Absolutely. It’s so true!
Anne: But it’s mutually beneficial. You didn’t know it, but you were manipulating her.
Lindsey: Right. Absolutely I was.
Anne: Yeah, and you didn’t know it. I love that part about 12-step too. The scary part of an abuse situation is that then your abuser can use it against you.
How Do I Make Sure 12-Step Is Healthy For Me?
Anne: So, I have actually not been able to do Step 9 with my Ex because I know he’d take that and use it. It’s just not the right time. So trusting God to know when a time like that would be right because there are lots of things. I was married to him for 8 years, we were together for 7, that I did that were not good. That I would love to make amends and apologize for. I just am not able to right now.
The other thing I think is interesting is as we are the victims of someone else’s severe bad choices, then it’s like we can’t let the little things slide with us anymore.
Anne: For example, we are like: Okay, I expect him to be 100% honest. So, then that means
Lindsey: I need to be honest
Anne: Yes, I need to be honest 100%. We recognize places where we weren’t 100% honest in sharing our feelings. So, you were super honest with the text that you sent.
Anne: And I appreciated it. It was like: “Thank you for your honesty. I would love to hear what you think.” Before you might have thought: “Well, I love Anne and she’s been a good friend to me, so I just won’t tell her that this is bothering me.”
Lindsey: and I probably won’t listen as often.
Anne: Yeah, which is fine too. You don’t have to listen, guys, if you don’t like it. But you might have pulled back and I wouldn’t have known why. I think that that helps us think: “Ok, I am trying to get to safety from this severe situation that is really harming me and also how can I be a better person through this experience?”
Lindsey: One thing that I love about this process is that you talked about sweeping my side of the street, I agree, it’s totally not about that because that can be a really dangerous metaphor to use. If you take that out and you just say: “This isn’t about my side of the street. This isn’t about my relationship with my husband. This is about me and God.”
Lindsey: It’s taking this situation that is awful and terrible and ugly and hard and hateful.
Anne: And unmanageable.
Reasons 12-Steps Can Help With Healing
Lindsey: And unmanageable and it’s saying: “I can either sit here and live in the unmanageable, and that’s okay to do, or I can take it and give it purpose. I can take my suffering and give it something meaningful.” That process makes the pain more livable in a way. Not that it’s more livable, it’s still there and it’s still awful and it’s still hard, but pain with a purpose.
Anne: It gives it purpose.
Lindsey: Pain with purpose is so much more tolerable then pain that’s totally meaningless. Victor Frankl’s book Men’s Search For Meaning is this idea that if I don’t have any reason, this pain is just happening and it’s just going to keep happening and there’s no reason for it and I can’t do anything about it. I mean I’ll go crazy.
Lindsey: And I may still go crazy.
Anne: You’re not crazy yet.
Lindsey: But to have a purpose to it and for me to say: “No, this is not my fault. It’s not fair and I can’t control it, but with God, I can make something beautiful out of it. For me, that process of making something beautiful out of it has been working the 12-steps.
Anne: For me, it was definitely the 12-steps and it’s also been BTR.
Anne: Because everything that I have now: my children, my house, BTR (the non-profit that I founded) is because of what I went through. I would not have anything that I love and care about and hold dear to my heart now without that. I am super grateful that I went through it because there’s no way I could do what I do without it, and people who try they stink at it really badly. I think people who haven’t been through it have a hard time wrapping their head around the realities of what happens.
I also think it’s super cool for all of us who have been through this, we can understand each other and empathize with each other, but also disagree.
Anne: We have different experiences and that certain things are helpful for some people that aren’t helpful for others, and leave a space open for that, knowing that emotional health looks pretty much the same. Honesty, accountability, kindness all looks the same, but we can get to it from many different ways.
Is 12-Step Ok After Betrayal Trauma?
Lindsey: Well, and part of that is Step 1. It’s saying your journey is totally not up to me, it’s out of my control, it’s unmanageable, and it’s going to look different for you then it is for me. Saying that: “Ok, maybe I do know somebody who’s right in the midst of things and I think that their journey should look this way because I know it helps me,” but that’s not up to me. It’s up to them. It’s up to their higher power of their understanding. It’s not mine.
Anne: Yeah. I think there’s somewhere in the Blue Book that says “Trusting that where they are is where they’re supposed to be and they’ll get to where they need to go at their own time.
Anne: We’re going to pause the conversation right here for this week and Lindsey and I will continue it next week. We’ll talk about how to find the right resource for you. So, addressing Lindsey’s concern that it’s sort of hopeless when you start out and that you’re worried about secondary trauma. So, stay tuned for our conversation next week.
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Until next week, stay safe out there.