Combat veterans aren’t the only people to suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. Research by Dr. Barbara Steffens, of West Chester Ohio, shows a high instance of PTSD in the partners of sex addicts.
PTSD begins with a traumatizing event, often exacerbated by additional trauma. The condition is complicated by the re-experiencing of the trauma when triggered by stimuli associated with the trauma.
The initial trauma for partners of sex addicts is often the day they discover they are living with a stranger, a stranger who has affairs, or illicit sex, or is pornography obsessed, who has a secret life outside their relationship. The trauma is repeated as they learn the ways their partner has and will lie and cheat to continue the addiction. Even if the relationship ends or the addict gets into recovery, the resulting partner’s PTSD is challenging to heal.
Partners of sex addicts – most often women – no longer know what is real or what to trust, their whole existence is threatened. It becomes difficult to be fully functional.
Dr. Barb Steffens is the author of Your Sexually Addicted Spouse: How Partners Can Cope and Heal.
Dr. Steffans explains, “Once disclosure happens, and her world is shattered, she is still expected to be wife, mother, she’s working, a professional person, on the job. You don’t get time off for this. We are lucky in our society to get three days off if we’re grieving the loss of a loved one. We get no time off when our lives have been shattered due to sex addiction and this kind of betrayal.”
As they struggle with the loss of the primary relationship in their life, other costs accumulate.
“They experience all sorts of other pressures and losses,” Steffens says, “Because they have been so traumatized they have had a difficult time functioning at work, and losing their jobs, losing occupations. Having to walk away from things that they love to do because they didn’t have the energy, the ability to focus on that.”
Just finding time and space to care for themselves when they have to care for everyone else is really hard for a lot of partners, female partners.
As she interviewed partners of sex addicts about trauma, one symptom kept popping up, an inability to read.
“It’s almost like they have attention deficit disorder,” Steffens says, “They can’t focus in, they get lost a lot and even for some can lose the capacity to focus enough to be able to read to make sense of words on a page and to have those make sense in their brain.”
But that’s just a small piece of the PTSD experience. What follows are quotes from Dr. Steffens’ research and her responses about them.
“I loved my husband and I wanted his comfort yet he was the source of my searing pain.”
“It left me feeling shell-shocked.”
“Those are words we often hear from combat veterans who have PTSD,” Dr. Steffens explains, “I hear that in most of the partners I talk to. We have this expectation that when we are in a committed relationship that that’s our safe place, The place we go when we are beat up out in the world, and the person we would normally go to is the one who has just hurt us more than anyone else ever had. So their safe place disappeared.”
“I felt terror, anger, and rage, and fury at God.”
Steffens says, “It can set up a spiritual crisis as well, of feeling unsafe even in that safe place in their life.
Another woman said I had fear for my health and for our children. When a woman finds out about sex addiction and hidden sexual behaviors and betrayal she automatically goes to am I safe? Do I have a disease? Have I been exposed to something? And then she goes to her children. Did something happen with my kids? Have they seen something, heard something, witnessed something? Has something happened to them? So it raises fears not only for her own safety but for the whole family.”
“I had disturbing dreams.”
“This is the kind of traumatic event that invades every area of our life, even our sleep, so they have nightmares,” Dr Steffens continues, “For some women avoiding sexual contact at all costs is paramount for them because it is so triggering and so fear provoking.”
“How could I be in bed and be intimate with someone when there are so many other women in the room.”
In addition to emotional and occupational struggles, the prolonged stress of PTSD often results in physical illnesses.
“I cannot tell you how many partners I work with who as part of the stress they have been under have developed a form of cancer,” Steffens says, “Normally breast cancer is what I hear the most but cancer or chronic fatigue or other kinds of chronic conditions that they have to deal with.”
So what do you do? Will divorce or ending the relationship fix the PTSD?
“Don’t think that divorcing is just going to take a big eraser to the trauma you’ve just endured. Divorcing isn’t a solution in terms of dealing with the PTSD. It may reduce future trauma, absolutely it could do that
If you’ve already developed post traumatic stress symptoms in response to sex addiction getting a divorce is not going to undo it,” says Dr. Steffens.
“In the relationship or out of the relationship you still have to deal with the wounding,” she says, “Get assistance, get support, get help and do whatever it takes to take good care of yourself so you survive and thrive.”
PTSD can last a lifetime. But there is hope. If the person finds safety and support post trauma, the symptoms can be managed and life fully lived.
“Safety and support is essential. If a partner is able to get those things and have that for a prolonged period of time there is every reason in the world to believe she is going to have a good outcome. There may be some residual symptoms that hang on but the severity of the symptoms should get better.”