Victims of betrayal and abuse experience devastating feelings of grief, fear, and intense pain.
Sometimes these emotions become so painful that women attempt to “skip” over them by choosing to “forgive and forget.” This is called “spiritual bypass.” Unfortunately, this simply doesn’t work: the difficult emotions will resurface and healing is not possible until victims are able to experience and process them.
Tracy, a member of the Betrayal Trauma Recovery community joins Anne Blythe on the free BTR podcast to discuss spiritual bypass and how it harms victims. Read the full transcript below and listen to the BTR podcast for more.
What Is Spiritual Bypass?
When women discover that their partner has betrayed them through pornography use or other sexual acting-out behaviors, the depth of pain can be so deep that victims will seek any way out.
Some women will seek help from God to ‘lift’ the painful feelings, avoiding the necessary process that must occur for sustained healing.
Spiritual bypass, essentially, is using spirituality or spiritual things to avoid feeling hard feelings because we’re ashamed or afraid of those feelings. It’s a psychological defense mechanism.Tracy, member of the Betrayal Trauma Recovery community
When Spiritual Bypass Feels “Right”
Spiritual bypass is confusing because forgiving another person feels right. Not feeling pain and betrayal feels right. Turning the other cheek and offering compassion to one who has hurt us seems right.
Tracy shares her experience of seeking a spiritual bypass after discovering her partner’s pornography use:
It took me two or three days of being in this dark, dark pit before I realized that the only way out was God. I went to God in prayer and I surrendered. I said, ‘I cannot keep feeling this.’ I felt like it was going to kill me. I thought, ‘I can’t keep feeling this. I need to forgive my husband.’
I was able to begin to move forward in my relationship. I was not healed from trauma. Of course, I didn’t understand trauma or what it meant to really heal from trauma, but I was able to get past those hard, difficult, painful feelings so that I could just move on.Tracy, member of the Betrayal Trauma Recovery community
The Trouble With Spiritual Bypass
Tracy, like many other women who have chosen to immediately forgive their partner for abusing and betraying them, felt a degree of peace for a short time.
But the trouble with spiritual bypass is that it’s like a band-aid over a gunshot wound: it might help for a small amount of time, but there is simply too much trauma for women to brush it off and “move on”, even when it feels God-appointed, like choosing to forgive.
As Tracy explains:
While spiritual bypass worked for me at that time, ultimately, it kept me stuck. It kept me stuck in the relationship, in the trauma. It helped me to cope with the trauma, but it didn’t help me better understand it or to better understand my situation.Tracy, member of the Betrayal Trauma Recovery community
Healing From Trauma Is A Process
As victims receive support, empowerment, and practice self-care, they come to the understanding that healing is a process, not a quick fix.
Tracy explains that after several new disclosures over a period of more than fifteen years, she began to understand that spiritual bypass was harming her – and decided to embrace the process of healing.
My whole approach to healing was different than that first time. This was not going to be an event or an arrival, this was going to be a long process. I was going to let myself feel angry for as long as I needed to feel angry.-Tracy, Shero
Victims of Betrayal Can Choose “Healing” Instead of “Coping”
Coping is a short-term tactic to survive the pain of betrayal. Understandably, many women must find ways to “cope” in the aftermath of discovery.
However, as victims instead begin to seek healing, they are able to work through the trauma, rather than against it.
When we can understand this concept of spiritual bypass, it can allow us to go deeper into our traumatic wounds so that we can heal more thoroughly. I like to describe it as healing as opposed to coping.Tracy, member of the Betrayal Trauma Recovery community
Betrayal Trauma Recovery Helps Victims Begin The Journey To Healing
At BTR, we believe that every victim of betrayal and abuse deserves peace and safety. Healing is absolutely possible, with the right tools.
Self-care, empowerment through learning about abuse and trauma, strong support systems, and safety are the key pillars to a woman’s journey to healing after betrayal.
The Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group meets daily in every time zone and offers women a safe space to share their stories, process trauma, ask questions, and make connections with other victims who get it. Join today and find the strength to begin your journey to healing.
Welcome to Betrayal Trauma Recovery, this is Anne.
We have a member of our community coming on today’s podcast. Her name is Tracy. She is a passionate advocate for betrayed wives. Discovering her husband’s addiction set her on a course of education about betrayal trauma, abuse, spirituality, and healing.
Her enthusiasm for these subjects has made her a Shero for other women affected by betrayal trauma, and she has given countless hours of her time to support and mentor women on the journey to healing. Tracy is a devoted mother to four children, a compassionate friend, an avid runner, and mountains and lakes are her happy place.
Mountains and lakes are also my happy place, so we have that in common.
What Is Spiritual Bypass?
Today we’re going to talk about spiritual bypass. A lot of women have never heard of this before, so let’s start with that. What is spiritual bypass? After you answer that question, can you go right into talking about how you became aware of this concept?
Tracy: Yes, so spiritual bypass, essentially, is using spirituality or spiritual things to avoid feeling hard feelings because we’re ashamed or afraid of those feelings. It’s a defense mechanism. It’s a psychological defense mechanism.
John Welwood, he termed spiritual bypass as using “spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep personal, emotional, ‘unfinished business,’ to shore up a shaky sense of self, or to belittle basic needs, feelings, and developmental tasks,” all in the name of enlightenment.
Ingrid Mathieu describes it as the shorthand for spiritual bypass is “when a person wears a mask or presents a false spiritual self” that represents aspects of that person’s true self. “Spiritual bypass involves bolstering our defenses rather than our humility. Bypass involves grasping rather than gratitude. Arriving rather than being. Avoiding rather than accepting.”
Did any of that make any sense?
Anne: Yeah. When you talk about that, can it also be used for building yourself up and utilizing spiritual concepts to put someone else down or to get someone else to avoid accountability and to get someone else to just leave you alone?
Tracy: Absolutely. Okay, wow, you’re jumping right into the meat of things. This is such a complex topic. It can definitely play out that way.
Anne: When you were talking about that, I’m really interested in learning how spiritual concepts can be used to abuse women. We’ll get to that in the end. But before we get to that, how can understanding the concept of spiritual bypass help those seeking to heal from trauma?
Tracy: Okay, I’m going to quote from Bethany Webster, she has an incredible article about this, to start this off. “Many people try to bypass the process of healing from trauma, especially those in spiritual circles. Going into one’s inner wasteland to heal from trauma is not as appealing as ‘Being In The Now’ or ‘Embracing What Is,’ phrases which are very seductive to the childlike parts of us that long for an escape from the unconscious, background anxiety that accompanies unresolved trauma.”
Then she also said, “It is common to see many facilitators, therapists, and spiritual teachers who avoid the responsibility of healing their own traumatic wounds.” Then, “Sadly, these folks end up unconsciously exploiting the people that trust them as a guide.”
She says, “While it is truly an injustice, the exploitation and subsequent disillusionment may ultimately lead people to seek their own answers and their own wisdom, which can only be found within themselves.”
Basically, when we can understand this concept of spiritual bypass, it can allow us to go deeper into our traumatic wounds so that we can heal more thoroughly. I like to describe it as healing as opposed to coping.
Using Spiritual Bypass To Avoid Trauma
I’ll just give an example from myself. My first D-day was a month after I was married. It was very traumatic. Very, very traumatic. I didn’t know that I was in trauma. I didn’t know anything about trauma. I didn’t know anything about addiction. I didn’t realize that my husband was actually addicted. There was so much I didn’t know.
I didn’t have any support system or any real education. Basically, all I knew was that I was in so much pain and in such a place of darkness that the only way out—and it took me two or three days of being in this dark, dark pit before I realized that the only way out was God. I went to God in prayer and I, basically, surrendered.
I said, “I cannot keep feeling this.” Like, I felt like it was going to kill me. I thought, “I can’t keep feeling this. I need to forgive my husband.” I said, “I don’t know how to forgive him.” I said, “I am incapable of forgiving him, but I want to forgive him, and I know you can help me.”
It was incredible. I mean, it worked. It worked. Immediately, the darkness just lifted, and I was filled with incredible comfort and warmth and peace and forgiveness. I was able to begin to move forward in my relationship.
Now, I was not healed from trauma. Of course, I didn’t understand trauma or what it meant to really heal from trauma, but I was able to get past those hard, difficult, painful feelings so that I could kind of just move on.
Anne: I’m going to cut in here, I don’t know your story, but my guess is this was just the first time that you experienced, sort of, the knowledge that you were in the abuse cycle, but you found out more later? Am I right?
Okay, so the other thing you didn’t know at the time was that you were in an abusive relationship, and so this, to you, felt like a miracle that you could move forward and forgive. But you didn’t realize that you not only hadn’t healed from trauma, but you also didn’t realize that you were not safe.
Tracy: Right, and here’s where spiritual bypass can get tricky because, while that worked for me at that time and helped me—as good things came of that—ultimately, it kept me stuck. It kept me stuck in the relationship, in the trauma.
It helped me to cope with the trauma, but it didn’t help me to better understand it or to come to a better understanding of my situation. Ultimately, it kept me stuck in a cycle.
Anne: For those seeking to heal from betrayal trauma, forgiveness might frequently be a form of spiritual bypass, number one, because they’re not actually getting to safety and, number two, because, even if you forgive, you still may not heal from the trauma.
Tracy: Right. Here’s another thing: The spiritual bypass, historically, has been understood by psychologists as just a purely negative thing. It’s a bad thing. It’s just a defense mechanism. It will keep us stuck. Actually, it can also be a good thing, if used in the right way, if we understand it. If we’re blind to it, that’s when it’s dangerous.
Forgiveness, for example, I don’t think forgiveness is ever a bad thing, right. But it’s understanding forgiveness. It’s not seeing forgiveness as an event or an arrival. Like, “Okay, I have forgiven him. Therefore, I’m healed. Therefore, our relationship is healed. Therefore, we can move on and never think about this again.” That’s not what forgiveness is about but using it in that way is definitely spiritual bypass.
Anne: Okay, that’s very interesting. I can think of a lot of examples of spiritual bypass. Something like, “I’m going to let Jesus solve this problem,” and Ta-da! it’s solved. Or other ways in which I’m going to turn to God and mistaking that moment of feeling peace—which is a really good thing, you needed to feel peace and He gave you that gift of peace in that moment—but mistaking a moment of peace for the solution.
Tracy: Absolutely. Yeah, and I want to compare now to my second D-day, which was 15 years into marriage. I had very little idea that anything was going on in between. I did have one small D-day a year after the first one, so about a year into marriage, but, again, I still didn’t realize what was going on.
About 15 years in, I found out that this had been going on my entire marriage on a very regular basis, and that, obviously, my husband had been lying to me constantly about it and hiding, and all those pieces start to fit together. “Oh, that explains so much of my experience in this marriage that I did not understand.”
The second one was incredibly traumatic. That happened on a Sunday night, I still remember it. Late at night, we were in bed talking. As he started to disclose, just the reality of my situation started to descend upon me. As I was coming to terms with that, I didn’t sleep that night. I think I fell asleep at 6:00 am and slept for one hour.
The next morning, I remember telling him—and this was not like an ultimatum or a threat, it was something that I knew deep within. It was a truth that I knew in that moment. I said, “I will not do this again.” I said, “If you ever, if you ever do this to me again, in terms of the long-term lying and hiding, I am done.”
I said, “I will not do it,” because I realized even though I’d really only been through, as far as I knew, one big cycle of this, I could see in that moment handling it the way I did the first time wasn’t going to cut it. All that was going to do was set me up for more D-days and more D-days and more D-days.
Anne: The other thing, at the time, I’m guessing that you did not take into account was that, those 15 years, you were being psychologically abused continually. You’re not just saying, “I’m not going to stand for one more D-day,” you’re also saying, “I’m also not going to be abused in this way anymore.”
Tracy: Right. Absolutely, and I had no idea what spiritual bypass was, at that point. I didn’t even stumble upon this concept until a year after that second D-day, but this is something that I just knew, inherently, in that moment of truth.
My whole approach to healing was different than that first time. Like, this was not going to be an event or an arrival, this was going to be a long process. I was going to let myself feel angry for as long as I needed to feel angry.
I started setting hard boundaries right away, without even knowing what a boundary was and never having been introduced to the concept. It was just something that I knew because I realized that, if I did things the same way that I had done them the first time, I wasn’t going to progress. Our relationship wasn’t going to progress or heal.
If we learn one lesson and say it’s a good lesson and then we try to apply that same lesson over and over again for the rest of our lives, we’re not actually progressing. There are always new lessons.
Anne: That, and, obviously, it didn’t solve the problem. You’re not learning a new lesson. You’re learning the lesson of that didn’t work.
Tracy: The lesson that I learned, that was good and true, from the first experience was that God is real. It actually did not, for me, in the context of my relationship, help me, but it did help me personally in strengthening my relationship with God. There was good and truth that came out of that first experience for me, personally.
Anne: Let’s talk about that for a minute. You did not feel betrayed by God then? You didn’t look back and say, “Oh, He gave me the sense of peace, He gave me the ability to forgive, and that did me wrong.”
Using Spiritual Bypass To Heal From Trauma
Tracy: You know, it’s interesting because I felt more betrayed by God after the first D-day than the second one. I don’t know what it was, but something after that second D-day, I just instinctively knew some truths right away and one of them was that this wasn’t God. God did not betray me here. My husband did.
I realized that a lot of things started fitting into place very quickly. One of those was God was there for me all along. He was warning me. After that first D-day, I would pray for discernment. I would pray to know if my husband was being honest with me or if he was lying to me.
I always thought that, since I could never find evidence or that my husband would never admit anything to me, I guess that meant he was telling me the truth because God wasn’t putting something in my lap. Like throwing the evidence out in front of me but, in reality, I felt that uneasiness. I knew in my gut that something was wrong for years, and I knew after that second D-day, God was talking to me all along.
It’s not God’s fault. It’s my husband’s fault. It was like realizing what gaslighting was, and, again. that was before I understood what gaslighting was. My husband was interfering with my relationship with God.
Anne: That’s super cool because that’s exactly what happens. It’s an abusive situation where, over and over again, someone is purposefully manipulating your reality to inhibit your relationship with God on purpose.
Tracy: Absolutely. Yeah, and that’s what it did. I was a very spiritual person before I got married. I came to my spirituality as a kid and strengthened it as a youth, and that was always a strong point for me. It was very strange for me that after I got married, my spirituality started to decline and I started to feel more distant from God, and it was really weird to me because I couldn’t figure out why because I was doing all of the same things that I’d always done.
My heart was turned towards God. I was wanting that relationship, but I couldn’t figure out why I was feeling so distant. I would come up with reasons like, “Well, maybe it’s because I’ve had kids now and that makes it difficult to do everything the exact right way. I don’t have the time to pray the same way that I used to. I don’t have the time to spend as much time in the scriptures as I used to, so I guess I’m not prioritizing right because motherhood is difficult.” But that wasn’t the reason.
Anne: That’s fascinating. I had that same thing happen. I was super spiritual—well, I considered myself spiritual—before I got married, and then after I got married it was so difficult to feel that and I never thought about it in this context before. Is that one of the reasons you felt really betrayed the first time was because you had maybe prayed about, “Should I marry him?” and you got an answer, “Yes.” Then you thought, “What? Why would you tell me to marry this guy?” Talk about why you felt really betrayed by God the first time.
Tracy: Yes and no. I didn’t actually get the answer “yes.” What happened was, I was careful and cautious about getting married. I didn’t want to just make a rash decision. I was very prayerful about it. I studied the subject and, ultimately, I decided, “Okay, I love this guy and I’ve got to take a leap of faith and step into the darkness,” so I said yes.
Well, I started to feel uneasy during our engagement, like something was off. It’s really interesting because there were a variety of different things that happened in a relatively short period of time, during our engagement, that really moved me to confront my husband and ask if he had ever had any issues with pornography.
He looked me in the eye, and he said, “No, never.” I may have asked one follow-up question. He maintained, “No, never.” That was back in 2001, so this wasn’t the huge hot topic that it is now, so I didn’t push it. I just accepted his answer, but I still had these feelings of just uneasiness.
My best friend, at the time, was also engaged, she also was feeling kind of uneasy, we were like, “Is this normal? Is this just engagement jitters?” But we didn’t want to be like that crazy girl who gives back the ring and changes her mind and goes back and forth, and so we made a pact with each other that if we started to feel that uneasiness that we wouldn’t act on it unless it stayed with us for more than 24 hours because, you know, it might just come and go or whatever. Just the butterflies.
I, actually, also prayed about that, and I said to God, “I understand that this might be normal feelings of anxiety or whatever and so I’m not going to take them seriously unless they stay with me for more than 24 hours and then I hope that means that this is serious.”
At one point, they did stay with me for more than that length of time, but still, I didn’t really have any reason of why something should be off. I didn’t have anything to point to, so I went to my dad, who I love and is a wonderful man full of lots of goodness and wisdom, but he, basically, just talked me out of my feelings.
He convinced me that I was just being silly and too emotional. He said, “Your fiancé is a great guy. He’s got great career ambitions. He’s going to be able to take good care of you. He loves you, there’s no reason not to marry him.”
After I found out, a month into marriage, which the way I found out is because my husband lost his job because he was caught using at work—it was pretty awful—but I did, briefly, just very briefly, feel betrayed by God. I was like, “I prayed about this, I asked about this,” but again, through bypass, I kind of just let go of all of those feelings.
Well, after my second D-day, 15 years in, when I was trying to put all the pieces back together and make sense of it, I realized God was answering my prayer. I knew in my gut that something was off. No, He didn’t tell me exactly what, but I knew that something was off. I can trust my gut. I can trust God.
I realized my husband is the one who lied to me. My dad is the one who talked me out of my feelings when I went to him saying, “I feel like something is off, I’m nervous.” I’ve never had to work through a really intense or long-lasting feeling of betrayal by God. I’ve been able to realize that, “No, He’s been with me. It’s people getting in the way.”
Anne: I think that’s a really good way to look at it. I hope that women can get to that point and realize that, but it’s very difficult, especially if they haven’t had some of those experiences where they do feel like a prayer was answered and maybe they ignored it or whatever, but I think that’s good to bring up. Thank you for sharing that part.
Tracy: I want to add one quick thing that I would encourage women to consider. Sometimes we may get an answer. This was not my experience, I did not get a definitive, “Yes, marry this guy.” That was not my experience, but some women I have talked to say they have had that experience, so they feel very betrayed when they find out and that’s totally understandable.
What I would encourage them to think about is what did that “yes” actually mean? Sometimes, we can get an answer to something, but that doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily the answer for the rest of our lives, right? Things can change. People can still make choices that change circumstances.
I like to think about life as not something that’s totally planned out where God is pulling these puppet strings, but rather there are those books that I had as a kid—I forget what they’re called—the choose-your-own-adventure books, but you would start to read the story and then there was a choice that you would have to make and, depending on that choice, you would skip ahead to a certain point in the book and then you’d come to another choice. Depending on the choices that were being made, the ending of the story would change.
I think it’s helpful to think of life more that way. Based on the circumstances of something right now, I can pray about something and get an answer that is good for me right now. Tomorrow, my husband can make a choice that changes circumstances, and my answer, then, may change if I pray again. Does that make sense?
Anne: It does. I think that also helps women to know that, because a lot of women are like, “Well, I need to set a boundary. My boundary really does need to be separation right now because he’s so emotionally abusive that I cannot even be around him,” let’s pretend, but then they’ll think back to that answer and be like, “But I’m supposed to be with him.”
God never wants you to be abused. Ever, so if you’re trying to sort that out, I’m telling you here, hopefully, this is inspiration for you, that God does not want you to be abused, regardless of what answers you’ve had from prayers in the past.
Tracy: I completely agree.
Anne: For me, I never did get an answer about whether or not I should marry my ex-husband, but I definitely felt like it was the logical, right decision. I’m very, very logical, so it seemed like the logical and right decision, which I made happily. Now, looking back, I don’t know if I would have got an answer or not, but I can see that my life and my life’s work would not be possible without him.
He introduced me to everything I needed to know to run BTR and to continue to run BTR. I’m actually super grateful for the experiences that I’ve had because I would never be able to do what I do now without the experiences that he gave me, which were all horrific. But, also, now I have a Ph.D. in evil, which is fun, I guess.
I think that’s really important to talk about for women struggling with their relationship with God through this. Many women do, and for good reason. It’s a really, really difficult time.
I’m going to end the conversation here today with Tracy, but we will pick it back up again next week. Stay tuned for the second part of my conversation with Tracy about spiritual bypass.
If you are currently experiencing confusion and pain and you don’t know where to turn, perhaps you’ve tried a therapist, perhaps you’ve tried going to clergy or maybe even family and friends, and nobody seems to understand your situation. Please join us in Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group. Go to btr.org, go to Daily Group Sessions, and you can see our daily group session schedule. We would love to see you in a group session today.
Our professional Betrayal Trauma Coaches will be able to help you immediately. They understand this type of abuse, they understand what is going on, and instead of you trying to explain to them what’s happening, they will understand and be able to help you. Again, go to btr.org to learn more.
Until next week, stay safe out there.