After betrayal, many women attend a 12-step program for betrayed spouses. These programs typically cover important life principles and offer connection to other women who are experiencing similar trauma. We examine the truth about 12 step programs: the good and the not so good.

As Anne, founder of Betrayal Trauma Recovery, states,

“I did attend 12 step meetings as a newly betrayed spouse. I did find much of it helpful, but I also fully disclose that I did change some of the narrative on my own. For me, I can see now how I needed the 12 step principles in my life and I didn’t know I needed them.  Principles like learning to reach out to others, accountability, and honesty are good to learn for life in general. I can appreciate that part of 12 step.”

12 Step Programs May Create More Harm

Kate, a former addict and also a betrayal trauma survivor, states her concerns with the 12 step program:

“12 step programs may help someone, but it may also make someone go backward. What makes 12 steps good, if it is good for someone, is the connection they experience to others who are going through the same situations. So much of the time, wives of addicts have not felt this type of connection in a very long time. So, it may help them, but it also may create more danger.”

Michelle, an instructor for 12 step, explains that it can be hard sometimes to see some of the issues with the program:

“Alot of 12 step work is about protecting the addict, not the spouse. This type of model only enables the addict, who already has themselves in the center of everything. The spouse’s well-being, feelings, and trauma are not really considered in the 12 step program.”

Another issue involves the narrative and expectation for a betrayed spouse to be a “safe person.” For a 12 step program facilitator or any therapist to say that a spouse needs to be safe enough to be able for the spouse to disclose to them, is problematic because the abusive behavior was already happening even before discovery. This is also a form of victim-blaming towards the betrayed partner who is experiencing trauma.

Codependency May Be A Part Of 12 Step Programs

Additionally, 12 step programs also seem to include codependency narratives woven within the repertoire. Some women gravitate towards codependency and 12 step programs sometimes because they feel that it is something they can do to help their situation; they feel productive.

As Kate describes the issues with codependency,

“Codependency was created soley with the belief that the wife is hurting the addict, and since she is exhibiting the same behaviors as the addict, she is just as diseased as the addict. Nowadays, codependency is so sugar-coated, but it still rooted in the same things.”

Michelle insightfully adds,

“Codependency and trauma are two very different things. One is external, one is internal. Trauma is external. It is a wound that has happened to you. Codependency is internal. It is saying that fundamentally you have a problem. Because we live in a patriarchal society, it is man’s society. For example, ecclesiastical leaders often protect men instead of protecting and helping women.”

12 Step Programs Can Teach Good Principles

Furthermore, the pressure that victims are under to forgive the perpetrator and to continue to tolerate the abuse is happening everywhere. But the first order of business in a trauma model is to ensure that the safety of the victim. Anne states,

“Codependency is misogynistic. It is essentially a way to get women to stay in their relationships. Codependency does not examine the possibility that the behaviors of the spouse are caused by the addict, whereas trauma does.”

Michelle offers a helpful tip to make sure that your therapist or facilitator is not just changing the label, from codependency to trauma, which she sates can be sneaky and only add to the abuse. If a therapist is saying any of these things, they may be treating with a codependency model rather than a trauma model:

3 Red Flags For 12 Step Programs

  1. Can you just forgive already?
  2. Can you work on starting to trust each other?
  3. Can you move forward together?

Anne summarizes her journey up to this point by saying,

“It took me a long time to figure it out, it took all of us a long time to figure out how to be safe and set boundaries. We can live peaceful lives. Learning new principles and new things is amazing.”

Michelle genuinely expresses her closing thoughts,

“I am thankful for my brokenness that has shown me my power. My life is about taking risks. I can become flexible and see that there is more learn and so I can be malleable. The trauma model allows us to do this.”

Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group is a wonderful service we offer with trained APSATS coaches and offers helpful advice, meaningful insight, and genuine connection. Check it out today! 

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Full Transcript:

Anne: Welcome to Betrayal Trauma Recovery, this is Anne.

If you’re new to the podcast and you’ve never listened to it before, please go to last weeks episode and listen to it first. Last week we ended with Kate stating her views that 12-step was beneficial, not necessarily because of the steps themselves, but because of the sisterhood that she felt there.

So, we’re going to start with her comment that you heard last week and go from there.

Kate: I feel like 12-steps might even make someone go backward. Take out all the connection that you found in 12-steps, all the wonderful friends that you were able to find, the feeling that you’re not alone. Take that away. Were the 12-steps as beneficial without any of that stuff? What makes it good, if it is good for someone, is mostly the connection.

12 Step Programs May Offer Connection

Michelle: I don’t know if you know, but I teach 12-step. I teach it for addiction here in my area. So, we do a combined, we do the spouse and addict together. As if there are so many times why I have to say: I know this is what this says, but in real life if you want a happy marriage, if you want to stay with your wife, if you want to help her heal, you’re not going to follow what that says because a lot of 12-step is about protecting the addict. It’s not about the spouse. It’s about keeping that addict safe. We’re not accountable to our wife. Not only does it keep the spouse stuck, it keeps the addict stuck too and it enables his abusive behavior.

Anne:  Absolutely and there is another element to it. They’re already narcissistic. So, then the 12-step tells them to focus even more on themselves. They need to think less of themselves. They need to be like: I have abusive thought patterns and what I need to do now is focus on how my wife feels and how my children feel. That is what I need to focus on.

Kate: And the social impact of my choices rather than all about me and me and me and just making myself happy.

Safety Does Not Often Come First In 12 Step Programs

Anne:  To go back to your question Kate where you said: Without the support would I still like 12-step and I think for me the answer is: I really needed those principles in my life and I didn’t know that I needed them. I used the opportunity of that happening to learn those principles. It’s very good to learn the principle of say, reaching out to someone. It’s very good to learn the principle of taking accountability. It’s really good to learn the principle of honesty. So, the principles that I learned in 12-step someone could also learn not in 12-step.

Michelle: Yeah, and that’s why it’s a danger. That’s why I don’t recommend it to people because even if it does help someone I keep thinking: No, there is a better way. There has to be a better way then sending someone to something that yeah, it might help them, but it also might create more danger.

Anne:  So, Kate, I see tons of therapists doing this and it really ticks me off. They say: I help women with betrayal trauma. But what they really mean is codependency because they don’t even know what betrayal trauma means. Tell me about your experience with that.

12 Step And Codependency Go Hand In Hand

Kate: Okay, first off, codependency: It was created solely with the belief that the wife is hurting the addict and she’s exhibiting a lot of the same behaviors as the addict, which means she must be an addict too. Which means she must also be diseased like the addict. Which is why they created the 12-steps because they’re like: Hey, these wives man. These family members are just as bad as the addict. They need to go to 12-steps just like the addict. We need to go and send them to the same treatment as the addict.

Michelle: Then now you have it nowadays where it’s all sugar-coated. I read an article by Vicki Palmer and she talks about how codependency doesn’t mean the same thing that it used to mean. You know, it’s not as harsh. It’s more just a way to help yourself and help heal all your flaws. No. It’s not though because it’s still rooted in the same thing.

Stephanie Carnes, she used to be all about codependency and then she came out and said: Oh, I don’t like codependency. I never felt good with it, it’s all trauma now, but they haven’t changed anything. Like, nothing. Like, Robert Weiss, he even is like: Oh, I don’t like codependency either but then he calls it some other name and it’s the exact same treatment as codependency, but he just calls it a different name.

12 Step Programs Do Not Consider Trauma

No, codependency and trauma are completely 2 different things. They are caused by 2 different things. One is external, and one is internal. Trauma is an injury. Something happened to you. Somebody did something to you. Whereas codependency, something is wrong with you. You have a disorder. You have a problem.

Here’s the problem too. A lot of people think: Oh, but they have a lot of the same behaviors and so they read this list of all these codependency things and they’re like: Yeah, that fits, that fits. I’m like that. Yeah, I’m like that, but then when you really look at it it’s like so what if some of the behaviors are similar. It doesn’t mean that it’s the same thing. Like, I have similar behaviors as someone who is schizophrenic or bipolar but guess what I’m not I have ADHD. Just because 2 symptoms are similar does not mean that they are the same thing or that they are caused by the same thing. They are completely different.

Anne:  My Opinion is that it’s extremely misogynistic. It’s a way of pathologizing and blaming women and trying to silence them and get them to stay in their lane, rather than hold the perpetrator accountable really.

12 Step Programs Can Blame The Victim

Michelle: Like, back in the day, therapists were even taught that if a child came to them and said they were abused that the child was making it up for attention. This was the belief that if a woman was raped she must have done something to cause it. That it was her fault or that she’s making it up. That’s what they would believe is: Oh, she’s just as crazy, there is something wrong with her instead of looking at the fact that he’s the one making her crazy. Like, he’s the one causing all of the symptoms. He’s the one gaslighting her. So, if she’s feeling crazy or she’s angry that doesn’t mean there is something wrong with her. It means that he’s the one doing it.

Anne:  Totally. Well, and in the worst-case scenario he comes out looking like nothing is wrong with him. Like, rather than saying she’s just as crazy as him, it’s: Man, he is such a good guy. Like, he is strong at church and he’s obedient. She just went off the deep end.

Kate: Yep. The funny thing is, cause even in my addiction, I knew exactly how to make someone fly off the handle and I could stay calm and I could look like I was the calm one the whole time. I would be like: Why are you getting all upset. It’s really actually sad because here you’ve got wives that are getting angry and of course they’re angry. They’re supposed to be angry. I feel like it’s kind of, even though I don’t like to use this analogy because I’m not saying that women are dogs, but let’s say you abuse like an animal and starved it and then you backed it into a corner and then that animal bit you. Is that the animal’s fault? No, it’s the fact that you starved it and beat it.

Trauma Model Is Safer Than 12 Step Programs

I feel like that’s what happens. So, if a wife all of a sudden reacts and gets angry it’s like: Oh, what? What’s wrong with her? Something must be really wrong with her. Then they look at the abuser and their like: Oh, but he’s the calm one. So, he’s the one that has his stuff together and I’m just like, I can see the opposite now and I’m like: What did he do?

Anne:  That’s how I am too. I just talked to some clergy and I said one sign is if the wife seems really raunchy, right. If she’s walking around church giving everybody the stink eye and nobody likes her, and she seems super grumpy and her husband seems like so nice and outgoing and he’s making friends with everybody, just consider for a minute that he’s abusive, you know. And that would never cross anybody’s mind. Women don’t become crazy pants for nothing.

Michelle: Exactly, and I want to add something to this because I think it’s really important. So, this idea of: I’m just going to change the label. I’m going to say that it’s trauma and not codependency, it does become really sneaky and it becomes really hard to see, which adds to the abusiveness I think. Because then it’s just so subtle and it moves in and some of the things are: So, can we just forgive him? Can we just work on that already? Oh, you just found out a few weeks ago but you know you’re supposed to forgive. Can we work on starting to trust each other now?

12 Step Programs May Create More Danger

Dealing with trauma is so much more complicated than dealing with codependency. If we actually have to start healing a serious injury and a wound it’s going to be different for everybody. It requires more knowledge and understanding instead of looking at as: Okay, we’re going to treat this sick patient because they have deep-rooted problems. We’re going to treat somebody who has been a victim and not known it for such a long time. That is harder to deal with and it’s these little things that people in a nice way are trying to help but really, it’s not helpful. It is shirking responsibility from the one that it belongs to and putting it on the person that has nothing to do with it at all.

Anne:  I see that all the time. The pressure the victims are under to forgive the perpetrator and continue to tolerate the abuse is happening everywhere. Rather than saying: Okay, you are an abuse victim. Our first order of business is to ensure that that abuse is stopped in whatever way possible, right. He either has to leave the home, he cannot talk to you anymore, he miraculously stops abusing you out of thin air, which never happens but let’s say that’s one of them. These are the options. Guess what is not an option? Saying you need to forgive him, or this is what you need to do in order for him to stop abusing you or this is how we need to help him with this.

None of those things should even be on the table.

12 Step Programs Can Perpetuate Codependency

Michelle: And I think that again stands back to something that you pointed out that’s really important. It’s because we live in a patriarch society. Where Kate said it used to be we would focus on the rape victim. We still do that today. It’s because this is a man’s society and if we’re talking about like church, right. Ecclesiastical leaders, the thing that should be done first: Protect the abuse victim is the last thing that’s done because she’s a woman and it’s just a crazy woman and we need to protect the men. We’re going to shirk off as much responsibility from him onto her because it’s a good ‘ole boys club and it’s even bigger than that. It’s just this idea of abuse and the way that we treat women and view women is on such a lower plane than the men and that’s the root of this I think.

Kate: A lot of times women are like: Yeah, but my behaviors seem to be very unhealthy. They’re not helping me. There has to be something wrong with me so what is wrong with me? I’m not codependent but what is wrong with me? I kind of have to remind them, I’m like: Think about it this way. All your qualities, what people say are enabling. Now imagine if your husband was wonderful. If he was honest, if he wasn’t an addict. Just imagine if he was a very healthy person. Would any of your behaviors be bad? Would you’re caring too much about what he’s thinking?

12 Step Programs Must Be Molded To Help The Victim First

No, you would actually be in a very healthy marriage so just because your husband is an addict does not mean all of a sudden that you’re loving or too loving behaviors, it doesn’t mean they’re bad. They’re actually healthy. It’s actually one of the reasons probably why the addict wanted to marry you is because you are a good person. Just because he’s an addict doesn’t mean that those behaviors are suddenly bad.

Anne:  And for 12-step or a therapist or anyone to say that you need to be safe enough so that he can tell the truth or that you need to stop your controlling and manipulative behaviors because if you stopped he wouldn’t do this. That’s NOT true. He was doing it before. So, no, right. I mean, we could go through every single one of those things and say no, no, no, no, no.

We Encourage Victims To Be Cautious With 12 Step

Kate: Yeah, yeah and another thing is people tend to think: Well, then these behaviors can’t be healthy and I’m just like: I don’t know if I would call it unhealthy. So, at what point would you consider unhealthy or not normal and I was like: Well, think about it this way. If someone was drowning and they started freaking out and thrashing around would you ever think at some point that their behavior was unhealthy or not normal? No! They’re drowning.

Now imagine if they got pushed in by the person they loved the most and then actually held under the water sometimes. Would you think: Wow, why are they thrashing around? Why are they acting like that? No. Their life is in danger. So, I think we need to stop looking at these behaviors as unhealthy and like more just as this is what happens when your life is threatened, and they’re not bad.

Michelle: Yeah, those are protective behaviors where there’s no one else that’s going to be around to protect you. You have to protect yourself.

Anne:  It took me a long time to figure it out. It took all of us a long time to figure out how to set appropriate boundaries and how to keep ourselves safe. Even though we have learned what we know now, and we have employed what we know now, I could still be abused and there is literally nothing that could stop me from being abused.

Michelle: Nothing and the odds are against all women because you could become the most healthy person in the world and guess what, what 80% of men still look at porn. So, the odds are against all women so just because somebody marries a porn addict, they’re a liar, and they abuse you, doesn’t mean you had something to do with it.

12 Step Programs Can Protect The Abuser First

Kate: You didn’t attract it.

Michelle: No. It wasn’t because you were abused when you were younger because hey, 1 in 3 women were sexually abused. It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. That somehow you attracted this man. It’s like: No, the odds are against you and these men seek women out, not that women attract them.

Anne:  It is sad, and it’s hard. I think that when we say that, and all of that is true, the air kind of leaves the room because women are like: So, what can I do? That’s why women gravitate toward codependency at times because it does leave some semblance of: I can enjoy the fruits of my own labor and in this case, you could work and work and work and someone can come into your vineyard and just destroy it in a single moment. That is super scary but that also is what life is all about and I do think that we can live peaceful lives, but we always are going to have things come into our lives that are difficult, that we cannot control.

Then I always tell people the good news is we will die eventually. Hell is now. It will never get any worse than this so just enjoy the journey, right, until you can die. That’s so sad! That being said, I am so much more peaceful and happy now in my life than I ever have been before. I’ve learned new principles, I’ve learned new things, and I’m grateful for what I’ve learned in the process of life.

The Betrayed Spouse Can Be Traumatized In 12 Step Programs

Michelle: So, in this 12-step group that I’m a part of that’s for husbands and wives, there is a guy that will say: I’m so thankful for my addiction. And I’m like: I will never ever say that I am thankful for this addiction or that I’m thankful my husband lied and cheated on me for such a long time. I’m not thankful for that, but the growth that has come from it I am thankful for that. I am thankful for the brokenness. It has shown me my power and how amazing each of these women I come in contact with is.  

I think if there was something that I would say that has been like the biggest magical token is that my life is ambiguous. I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow and I can’t do a single thing to control what happens tomorrow. Not a thing. My life is about taking risks. Everything I do is about taking a risk and I can choose to put myself in a box and take whatever limited risks are there or I can choose to become flexible and see that I don’t know everything and there’s more to learn. As I learn more I’m going to change and I’m going to be valuable and I’m going to then see: Oh, this is the better way and I’m going to do that.

That’s what the trauma model does. It allows you to start trusting yourself and reconnecting with yourself so that you can see that maybe that journey isn’t a journey you need to be on. That you can move into the next journey and move to the next journey. But when we’re so black and white and ridged like codependency teaches, you are going to break over and over and over again. But if you can work through the process of healing and focusing on being that victim and then becoming a thriver and a survivor, you won’t break like that again.

Anne:  I love what Kate and Michelle have to say and I hope to have them back on soon. Thank you so much for being with us today Michelle and Kate.

12 Step Programs Can Be Helpful But Not Always

Michelle: Thank you, Anne.

Anne:  Michelle and Kate are members of the BTR secret Facebook group which is a forum for wives, ex-wives, and girlfriends of pornography users. It is free and it’s a peer-to-peer group, so it’s moderated by professionals to make sure that everybody is adhering to the guidelines, but you don’t necessarily get professional feedback there. If you want to join go to our website, scroll down to the bottom, and put your email in the join our community box. You’ll get a downloadable version of our safety checklist, you’ll get access to the free Facebook group and you’ll get weekly emails.

If you want to join our professional services go to BTR.org, at the top navigation there is a button that says services and you can go there and see the Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group, which is our daily support group sessions and our individual sessions.

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