What Is Relapse Preparedness When It Comes To 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.

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?”

To see our individual sessions facing What If He Relapses? click here.

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

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 experiencing their husband’s abusive behaviors stop, there’s an incalculable amount of emotional risk involved. When that emotional risk is met with ongoing incidents of abuse, the wounds from a woman’s initial discoveries often deepen, worsen and fundamentally destabilize her past, present and future efforts toward betrayal trauma recovery. Women describe it 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

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

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?

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 abusive men, for example, a slip might involve a little lie, clicking on an inappropriate website, or indulging in erroneous thinking.

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

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.

Empowering trauma survivors to label the abuse equips and inspires 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 An Abuse Victim, Do I Have to Expect Relapse?

Absolutely NOT! Your priority should be safety. If / when an abuse episode happens, how can you protect yourself with boundaries until the abusive behavior stops. 

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

When we 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

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

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.

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).

Someone once said, “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.”

To see our individual sessions facing What If He Relapses? click here.

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