What Is Relapse Preparedness When It Comes To Betrayal Trauma?

Anne: What is relapse preparedness, and what made you start thinking about this whole relapse preparedness thing?

Coach Gaelyn: My vision for relapse preparedness kind of evolved from three separate ideas or awarenesses—which all happened to collide in precisely the right right time and space!

First, within my capacity as a coach—as well as just being a woman among women recovering myself from sexual betrayal trauma—I hear on a daily basis the deep fear and anxiety women express that their guys might relapse: in other words, that their partners will step away from recovery and healing, returning instead to their previous patterns of compulsive and secretive sexual behavior. So, at a very basic level, I’ve always known that relapse is a topic of significant concern to us women who are surviving and healing from sexual betrayal trauma.

Secondly, because I work so closely with professionals who treat and support clients who are the sex addicts or porn addicts in the relationships, I’d begun to hear these professionals (people I really admire and respect) talking about relapse prevention strategies—ways that sex and porn addicts can structure their recovery plans to meaningfully minimize the likelihood of their return to compulsive sexual behavior.

And honestly, listening to these professionals address this legitimately loaded topic, so passionately and proactively, with their sex addict and porn addict clients, I felt kind of left out of the party! I mean, I recognized that as partners of sex addicts, my clients and I can’t do the footwork involved in preventing a relapse—but the idea got me thinking that, even if the job of preventing a relapse doesn’t fall within our reach and responsibility? That doesn’t mean we need to sit back passively and leave our emotional fate in the hands of the sex addicts or porn addicts with whom we share life. That planted the seed for me to begin asking myself and my colleagues, “So if we can’t actively prevent the pain and trauma of a possible relapse, what kind of productive and proactive actions can we take, on our own behalf, in the meantime?”

How Can We Heal From Betrayal Trauma While Also Preparing For The Worst Case Scenario?

So THAT brings me to a third awareness that brought this whole relapse preparedness idea to the forefront for me, and this one goes back to 2013, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. At that time I was working part-time as a freelance writer for various publications, and one of my clients hired me to write an article on Active Emergency Preparedness, basically encouraging families to (a) plan and prepare for the “worst-case scenario”—in this case, natural disasters—while (b) simultaneously hoping and praying those worst-case scenarios wound never become necessary.

My subtitle for that article was “Just in Case.” And so, fast forward a few years, when I began to brainstorm ways that partners of sex addicts can actually DO SOMETHING with their concerns about relapse, rather than just sitting and waiting for something that may or may not happen, I stumbled into this fantastic metaphor or point of comparison between those two otherwise unrelated “unwanted experiences.” And that’s how my passion for “Relapse Preparedness” was conceived, developed and eventually born!

Anne: So obviously, as you describe in the Covenant Eyes article, you’ve lived through the whole relapse experience, and it’s something you encounter with many of your coaching clients, too, right? I’ll bet a lot of our listeners know more about relapse than they’d like to. But for anyone listening who hasn’t been through that, can you describe some of the feelings women commonly express in the aftermath of a relapse?

Like I said earlier, relapse is something women tend to fear deeply—and with good reason: it’s something that does happen, and when it happens, it brings with it a whole deluge of painful emotions.

For women who choose to stay in their relationships after discovering their guys’ compulsive sexual behavior, there’s an incalculable amount of emotional risk involved. When that emotional risk is met with ongoing incidents of sexual acting out, the wounds from a woman’s initial discoveries often deepen, worsen and fundamentally destabilize her past, present and future efforts toward betrayal trauma recovery. I hear my clients describe this experience as:

  • ripping the scab off their wounds
  • pulling the rug out from under me
  • stabbing me in the back
  • taking me for granted
  • betraying me with a kiss
  • breaking my heart all over again
  • knocking me back to square one

Through these and other expressions, women reflect their discouragement, despair and disappointment with the process of recovery in which they’d placed some degree of tentative, fragile and courageous hope and faith.

How Did You Feel When You Found Out Your Husband Was Lying to You?

Beyond these expressions, which I’m guessing most of our listeners have heard or even felt before, there’s another very unique and singular aspect I observe in my clients’ emotional response to repeat sexual betrayal—and that aspect is internalized grief, self-doubt and self-indictment.

We’ve all heard that saying, “Fool me once? Shame on you. Fool me twice. Shame on me.” That concept is deeply and organically present for women who decide to try and salvage their traumatized relationships. I often hear my clients say they feel stupid for believing that their guys might successfully change. They often say they feel “pitiful and pathetic” (the two P words) for choosing to stay and for hoping to experience healing rather than a recurrence of harm.

In the aftermath of a relapse, a client may feel like she somehow asked for or allowed this to happen, expressing fear that she did something to trigger to the relapse, or she’ll express regret over something she didn’t do to support his recovery. Without a doubt, across the board, clients express an increase in their emotional distress and a decrease in their  hope and faith in recovery—which makes sense, especially when their early attempts at healing within the relationship are seemingly invalidated by this sexual relapse and the betrayal trauma that accompanies it.

What is a “relapse,” anyway. Is it different than a “slip?” Does it matter what we call it? And what if my husband and I disagree about this?

So, I’m one of these people for whom words really matter; when I can define and articulate something, it’s easier for me to process, understand and make peace with that subject, whatever it is. So I’m going to give you the standard, traditional, recovery-world distinction between a slip and a relapse—then I’m going to give you permission to  scrap those distinctions and redefine relapse in whatever words serve to help you “come to terms” with relapse preparedness:

When addiction specialists use the term “slip,” they’re often describing a one-time or short-term lapse back toward compulsive sexual behavior—a lapse that ends with some kind of swift and serious self-intervention. When an addict “slips,” he generally gets his butt “back on the wagon” relatively quickly, and while that slip is considered a setback, it doesn’t necessarily undo all of the positive recovery work that he’s been doing to that point.

For sex addicts, for example, a slip might involve clicking on an inappropriate website, viewing something sexually explicit, then stopping himself before allowing that behavior to draw him back into the vortex of chronic and compulsive sexual acting out.

Relapse In Pornography Addiction Includes Going Back to Emotionally Abusive Behaviors As Well As Sexual Acting Out

By contrast, when addiction specialists use the term “relapse,” they’re often referring to an extended period of sexual acting out—one wherein the addict does NOT stop himself, engage his recovery tools, or reach out for help to avoid getting sucked back into his pattern of compulsive sexual behavior. Relapse is often characterized by an addicts’ resistance to getting back on track, and it often involves an extended period of secrecy, some serious loss of sexual sobriety, an interruption in his detox from the neurochemical effects of sexual acting out. Relative to the work we do here at Betrayal Trauma Recovery, a relapse deeply damages an addict’s efforts toward relational healing, holistic recovery and restitution for the harms he’s inflicted upon his family.

Now, all of that said, when I coach women through relapse preparedness–or through any aspect of sexual betrayal trauma, really—I remind my clients that labels are personal, purposeful and powerful. I also remind them that part of trauma resolution involves reclaiming our own independent sense of self-autonomy—which includes stating OUR OWN TRUTHS, even when those truths are different from how others perceive it.

So what does that have to do with the difference between a slip and a relapse? In my work with clients, that means empowering trauma survivors to label their guys’ addiction- and recovery-related behaviors using whichever definitions equip and inspire them to take meaningful, effective and positive action on their own behalf. I’ve watched so many women struggle under this conversation, wherein a guy says, “ABC doesn’t mean that I’ve relapsed,” but she says, “It certainly feels like a relapse to me!”

How To Opt Out Of A Conversation With Your Emotionally Abusive Husband

My best advice to a woman who feels trapped in that merry-go-round conversation is to simply “opt out” of the argument, step off the merry-go-round, and create for yourself your own working definitions for whichever behaviors impact you in relevant ways. You may need to get creative about how you communicate and converse with your guy when discussing these topics—but don’t let that stop you from seeking and securing your own sense of clarity about it. You don’t need his permission to define a relapse that violates your own boundaries—and you don’t need to apologize for it, either.

As The Wife Of A Porn Addict, Do I Have to Expect Relapse?

Anne: I’ve heard some porn addicts and recovery specialists say that “relapse is part of recovery.” Does that mean that relapse is unavoidable?

I’m gonna be straightforward and honest with you about this: I am not an expert in addiction recovery for porn addicts and sex addicts; my expertise lies in the field of recovery for women traumatized by the behaviors of porn and sex addicts. I desperately want to believe that relapse isn’t “unavoidable”—that women needn’t buy into the suggestion that relapse is going to happen, despite their addicts’ most dedicated recovery work.

There’s a small but loud voice that runs deep inside of me, one that screams, “Absolutely NOT! Relapse isn’t a ‘necessary’ part of addiction recovery!” And at the same time, I recognize the limitations of my training—and stand here with enough humility to say, You know what? I’m NOT the most qualified to answer that question—so instead of pretending that I am, I’m going to throw myself into something I DO know that I can do—and that is helping women prepare for the “possibility” of relapse if or when that day ultimately comes.

By Preparing For A Relapse, Am I Asking For One?

Anne: What would you say to women who worry that “preparing” for a relapse is giving him “permission” to do it?

For me, this one goes back to the concept of acceptance versus approval. In my work with women, I am very, very, very honest—that’s because I believe that most women have been lied to more than enough for one lifetime, and I refuse to participate in perpetrating even one more iota of deception-induced trauma in the women I’m privileged to know and coach. As I reflect my clients’ truth back to them in our coaching sessions, I encourage them to be equally, gut-level honest with themselves and with their loved ones. This often translates into accepting (or even embracing) a potential reality that makes our skin crawl, rather than denying (and therefore, resisting) a reality we wish wasn’t true.

When my clients and I talk about “preparing for relapse,” we are discussing an uneasy-yet-realistic threat to their hard-fought safety and stability; in doing that, I assure women that exploring this reality cannot and will not magically “invite it” to happen. On, the contrary, by preparing her to respond to a day she hopes will never arrive, she can actually stand even more firmly and confidently within her self-protective relational boundaries—in ways that fully honor and emphasize her right to respond in healthy ways to unhealthy behavior.

Common Mistakes When Anticipating A Relapse

Anne: Are there mistakes women sometimes make when approaching the idea of relapse preparedness?

Coach Gaelyn: I would say yes and no. I tend to think that any woman who even entertains the idea of relapse preparedness is ahead of the game—she’s less likely to be caught off guard if or when that threat to her safety comes knocking at her door. That said, the women I know who do relapse preparedness most successfully avoid making some natural and understandable assumptions.

For example, relapse preparedness doesn’t work if you expect the process to be one-size fits all—in other words, Jane Doe’s relapse preparedness plan won’t adequately protect and serve Jenny Doe. Another example, relapse preparedness doesn’t work if it only happens in your head—in order to effectively implement the plans you create for yourself, those plans need to exist somewhere you can tangibly reach them in the midst of a potential trauma response. Relapse preparedness doesn’t work if it becomes a point of obsession and emotional overwhelm.

In other words, relapse preparedness SHOULD empower you to make your plan and tuck it away for the future; it shouldn’t heighten your anxiety into a constant, long-lasting and ever-present posture of imminent anticipation. Lastly, relapse preparedness won’t protect and serve you from chronic, frequent or ongoing sexual betrayal. This is easily the “mistake” I fear the most on behalf of my clients. When I encounter women who are experiencing their guys’ relapse on a daily, weekly or monthly basis, I encourage them to pursue a different form of betrayal trauma recovery care and coaching, one that focuses primarily on self-protective emotional, physical, sexual and relational boundaries.

How To Avoid Triggers When Preparing For A Relapse & A Return of Narcissistic Behaviors

Anne: What if even thinking about a relapse triggers my anxiety and trauma?

My response to this one might surprise you. But honesty, if thinking about a relapse does NOT trigger your anxiety and trauma? (a) You’d definitely be in the minority, AND (b) I’d be concerned about your vulnerability to denial, disassociation and/or disconnection from the impact of sexual betrayal trauma.

The good news is, betrayal trauma recovery coaching is all about tools: It’s about empowering women to rally their resources to meet triggers, anxiety and trauma with skill, with self-awareness and with meaningful steps toward our recovery endgame: post-traumatic growth! As I coach my clients through relapse preparedness, I offer them an entire spectrum of support resources to increase their tolerance for our discussion.

For example, in my Relapse Preparedness individual sessions participants leave with at least 8 ways to soothe their triggers about sexual relapse—or about any other betrayal trauma topic, for that matter.

Anne: Tell me more about the Relapse Preparedness individual sessions.

Coach Gaelyn: As I said, we’ll open each session with a healing meditation or emotional grounding technique, then segue into a short participant checkin, just to get us all present and engaged.

During this section, I share my personal experience with this topic, as well as some “highlights” (insight, inspiration, encouragement, etc) and “lowlights” (pitfalls, stumbling blocks or common challenges) I’ve learned when coaching clients through their experiences of relapse preparedness (or sometimes unpreparedness!). At some point during each session, I pause and give participants 5-10 minutes of private work time—basically, inviting you to reflect and record your insights, questions and challenges in the moment—because in my experience, that is far more effective than asking/expecting you to do it AFTER our session ends and you go back to life in all of it’s distraction and busyness.

Before and between each week’s live session, I provide clients with a collateral series of worksheets and journaling questions, designed to help you structure and strategize your individual relapse preparedness plan.

The live coaching sessions are designed to provide context, comprehension and community support as you complete your plan, with the help of those worksheets. I recommend participants set aside 1 (minimum) to 3 (maximum) hours per week between sessions, in order to get the most out of the sessions.

In addition to the worksheets and live coaching sessions, I’ll assign each participant a relapse preparedness partner. This allows you and your partner to process together (safely, and in a more private one-on-one relationship) anything that comes up for you between the sessions themselves. Some participants engage their partners quite actively, while others do not. That’s ultimately up to you and the partner I assign to you—and I do my best to pair women with similar needs, priorities, available time/schedules, etc.

Bottom line, leave with (a) a comprehensive understanding of relapse preparedness in general, (b) tools to manage the fears, anxiety and expectations that accompany this unique internal and external work, (c) your very own detailed and individual relapse preparedness plan, something you can file away (digitally), print and secure in your own private space (hard copy) and/or share with others who comprise your personal support system (which may include close friends, therapists, coaches, counsellors, etc).

Anne: So, what if I love this whole relapse preparedness concept, but can’t afford the sessions?

Coach Gaelyn: First of all, by all means read my article on Covenant Eyes, titled How Can I Prepare for My Husband’s Next Porn Relapse? Next raise the topic with your betrayal trauma survivor friends, and with your coach or therapist. In other words, begin a dialogue! You’ll provably find that as you begin initiating the conversation, others will respond accordingly.

We have a wide and wonderful variety of listeners here at BTR, including women in different kinds of relationships, and in various stages of their recovery from betrayal trauma. Who do you think would benefit—or benefit most—from Relapse Preparedness Planning?

I honestly recommend these sessions for anyone who’s choosing, even one day at a time, to stay in a relationship wounded by sexual betrayal trauma. Going back to that analogy of Hurricane Sandy and emergency preparedness? I encourage women to explore what strategies could and would equip them in the event of a relapse—and once that’s done, you’ll likely find that your fear of a relapse subsides significantly—which frees you up to enjoy the beauty and benefits of your hard-fought recovery!

Anne: Coach Gaelyn, I know you’re a big fan of quotes—so are there any quick and easy little tidbits you can leave for our listeners on this topic of relapse preparedness?

One quote that I’ve always loved is this one: “A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.” I like to relate that to engaging in this process of relapse preparedness in the context of recovery: as long as we remain in the relative safety of that “take no risks” approach, we’ll also remain in the relative isolation of missing our greater purpose and potential.

Another quote I like says this: “A bird sitting upon a tree is never afraid of the branch breaking, because her trust is not on the branch—her trust is in her own wings.”

Finally, very recently I was reminded of an AMAZING quote by the Baal Shem Tov (Jewish author, teacher and philosopher): “Let me fall if I must; The one I will become will catch me.”

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