Triggers. People who have experienced trauma of some sort will often talk about feeling triggered. This is a common experience for the partner of a sex addict, who after having learned her relationship is not what she thought it was, will report that an image, comment, television ad, or location will “trigger” her. What does she really mean? When someone has been betrayed by her spouse or partner she experiences trauma. It is a painful, agonizing time for the partner as she suffers shock, disbelief, hurt, and anxiety.
Her world has turned upside down. She often thinks, “If only I were sexier, more beautiful, more alluring, more fun…then he wouldn’t need to seek out these other people or places for sexual pleasure.” One of the trauma responses is to have a sudden emotional reaction to a sensory stimulus or trigger– an image, ad, voice, comment, location, etc. She may suddenly have a burst of anger, a feeling of fear, or have images of her partner acting out with the other woman. Her may heart race, her breathing may get shallow, or she may feel queasy. Sometimes it brings a panic and an urge to scream and run out of the room. This trigger as she calls it, is the stimulus that sparked the brain’s alarm system – fight, flight, or freeze.
A common scenario I have observed is when the partner describes she is “getting triggered,” the person with the addiction turns his head away, looks down, gets irritated or even angry. It feels uncomfortable to him to see his partner’s distress. It can be confusing, surprising, or frustrating for the addict to take in the reality of her discomfort and pain. The partner may get hurt or angry as it appears to her that he doesn’t care or is impatient with her. The addicted individual feels he doesn’t know what to do.
Part of the problem is that when the partner is experiencing these uncomfortable feelings, the addicted individual can only process it through his distorted filter. All he can hear is, “You are bad, bad, bad! You have done a terrible thing, you have failed!” He experiences toxic shame – shame that sends him to self-condemnation, feeling that he is worthless, a worm, not deserving of any good thing. But what the addicted person doesn’t realize is this shame takes him away from the very thing his partner wants. She wants reassurance that her spouse truly wants her; she wants to know that she is valued and loved. She needs to hear him own the harm that has taken place and to know he regrets and feels sorrow about his actions. She needs this because she wants to know he is working to win her back because he desires her, he wants her, and will do whatever it takes to heal and repair the relationship.
If you are flummoxed when you hear the betrayed partner talk about being triggered – here are a few tips:
What she needs:
- Space to process her feelings
- Your willingness to respond and interact with her when she is ready
What she does not need:
- Sulking and depression (to show her you know you are the bad one)
- Comments that indicate she should be over this by now
- Anger that she never gives you a break
- Telling her – you are “not that guy anymore”
It’s important to realize that shame derails the antidote needed to calm the triggers and distress and repair the damage. Triggers highlight that the hurt and harm is real. Acknowledgment, validation, and reassurance will work miracles to heal broken trust.
Written by Cheryl Schenck LPC, CSAT