The legacy of any trauma is a sense of victimhood. Whether from a car wreck, or a physical assault, or an unfaithful spouse or other betrayal that wasn’t discovered until long after the time of occurrence, in the moment of impact or moment of discovery, we are victims of trauma. Even memories of those events will elicit a painful resurgence of feelings. The memory, or trauma trigger, hijacks us from present awareness such that we feel re-victimized in that moment. We time travel and the past is experienced as the now.
I call ‘victimhood’ the legacy of trauma because the nature of unresolved trauma is that we can get trapped in the victim stance. Sometimes we get stuck in a one-down position and feel helpless, hopeless, or despairing. We may be frozen; we are either unable to comprehend what to do or have an understanding of the steps but are too paralyzed to carry them out.
Other times we get stuck in the one-up position. In relational or betrayal trauma, the one-up position can have different flavors, from an attitude of cool reserve toward the betrayer, to icy distance, to red-hot indignation. Regardless of the flavor, the underlying operating principle that drives the one-up stance is, “I can’t let myself get hurt like that again. ….I will never be vulnerable with you again!” The one-upper’s life mission becomes staying one-up at all costs because coming down off the perch to even ground opens the floodgates of fear.
Both the one-up and one-down positions are results of trauma. However, choosing to live at either location has serious repercussions that actually prevent the survivor from healing and transitioning from trauma survivor to thriver. This principle is often evident in infidelity survivors and partners of pornography and sex addicts.
Although some partners of sex addicts live in one of those extremes, most do some version of fluctuating, transitioning sometimes rapidly, from one-down to one-up with dizzying speed. Recovering couples often appear to be wrestling to see who can obtain and hold onto whichever location is most coveted at that moment. I see this relational dance so often I’ve labeled it as part of the relational trauma dance. Whether it’s the top dog or under dog position, couples waste an astonishing amount of recovery energy jockeying for position.
However, healing for each person as well as the relationship will involve restoring the capacity to intentionally move onto equal relational footing with their spouse. This requires tolerating a sense of vulnerability, which is a much more difficult task than one might think. Partners of sex addicts often feel as if they are living in a helpless position because, after discovering the magnitude of their spouse’s deception, they no longer know what to trust as real. Sometimes they will be deflated by this and spiral into a sense of helplessness, while at other times they firmly plant themselves in the one-up position by protecting themselves with a wall of righteous anger. They feel unsafe in moving from either the one-down or one-up position and have no trust in the sex addict’s words or behavior.
Since sex addiction is at core an intimacy disorder, the recovering sex addict often lacks the skills and/or willingness to move into emotional vulnerability – the very place he spent his addiction avoiding. The early phases of recovery are often characterized by episodes of avoiding, withholding, faking, or sabotaging vulnerable connection with the partner. In fact, it usually takes significant time in recovery for the addict to recognize that experiencing deep emotional fear because his back is against the wall is not the same thing as willingly sharing his vulnerabilities with his spouse. “I feel vulnerable because you discovered my betrayal” or, ‘I’m playing the compassion card to manipulate you into not leaving me” is not the same as, “I’m taking the risk to reveal my inner securities because I want you to know the real me.”
Partners will have difficulty assuming the vulnerable even-ground position because quite often that is where she thought she was when she was blindsided by betrayal – or perhaps more accurately, that is where she thought her spouse was when he blindsided her. Now, even-ground doesn’t seem emotionally safe, and may even be a trigger. How ironic that her healing requires restoring the capacity to assume a position that may feel the least safe. Lack of trust in her ability to accurately detect the danger in her own relationship complicates true willingness to move to even-ground. Yet this is exactly what healing will require of her.
To come down off the high ground or to climb up from the low ground and face the fear of meeting her recovering spouse on even footing will take not only courage, but the willingness to honestly evaluate the negative consequences of remaining in the one up or one down stance. It will take the awareness that in moving to the even-ground position she will not be trapped there regardless of her spouse’s actions, that she can easily return to a safer position at any time.
In learning to discern the difference between the voice of empty fears and her wise intuition, partners empower themselves. Fear tries to convince her that meeting her recovering addict on equal footing will inevitably lead to further victimization, while her wise intuition reminds her that she can’t truly assess the sincerity of his recovery until she knows how he responds when they are both on equal footing – that if she is unwilling to ever test a return to equal ground, she is allowing fear to dictate the quality of the rest of her life. That is not healing; that is a lifestyle of victimhood.
Ask yourself the following questions to determine your response to betrayal trauma:
• What are the ways you have felt one down in your relationship? Are there times you have used the one down attitude to avoid dealing with difficult realities, punish your spouse, or to not take responsibility for your own healing? What are the ways you have remained one down by declining opportunities to take healthy risks?
• What are the ways you have taken a one up position in your relationship? What is the resulting impact of your spouse of being in the one-down position? Does your spouse feel less than, devalued, controlled, or emotionally abused? How does staying one-up prevent the vulnerability required for true intimacy?
Dr Janice Caudill is the founder and Clinical Director of McKinney Counseling & Recovery. MCR offers individual, couples, group therapy and 3-day intensives for partners of sex addicts and wounded hearts struggling with sex addiction, infidelity, love addiction or love avoidance, intimacy anorexia, or relational trauma in the McKinney, Plano, Allen, Richardson, Frisco, Prosper, Carrollton, Lewisville, Dallas and surrounding areas.
All content provided on this blog is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition, does not create a client-therapist relationship, and is not a substitute for care by a trained professional. The owner of this blog makes no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of any information on this site or found by following any link on this site. The owner will not be liable for any errors, omissions, losses, injuries, or damages from the display or use of this information.