Trauma is one of the direct results of living in this world of brokenness. God is our great Healer. It is His will and desire to heal this brokenness in each of us. Healing often requires working through the compound pain and trauma that can result from both childhood and marriage.
In my own childhood, I was punished for feeling sad, angry or fearful. I learned to be ashamed of these feelings and hide them. I smiled when I wanted to cry because it was not safe to show these emotions or express these types of needs. I tried very hard to protect myself from the pain of criticism and disapproval by performing well in school and taking care of my siblings. I was the oldest of four. By the time I was an older teen, I had given up on my hope for approval and was sure that I was unlovable as I was. Experiencing my husband’s betrayal in his sex addiction felt like more rejection because I believed I could never measure up to women on porn sites. The depth of the trauma was so overwhelming that I learned to stuff my feelings and needs in shame.
Rewiring the brain's learned response to trauma through personal counseling
Patrick Carnes, an expert regarding sex addiction, defines the power of betrayal this way: Betrayal is a breach of trust; what you thought was true is deceit and exploitation because you were used. Betrayal is a form of abandonment. Abandonment causes deep shame and the belief that something must be wrong with me. No one would love me as I am. Betrayal is purposed and self-serving; if severe enough, it is traumatic and accumulates on top of earlier traumatic experiences. Carnes points out, “Little acts of degradation, manipulation, secrecy and shame on a daily basis accumulates as more trauma.” When this trauma began in my childhood and continued in my marriage, I began to believe that something was seriously wrong with me.
An early step in my own recovery was having individual counseling for my personal healing. My counselor had me work through my past devaluing experiences from childhood through the present. Traumatic experiences accumulate and impact the neurochemistry of the brain. I wanted to run away (flight) or confront (fight). This survival reaction occurs in the limbic system of our brain. This process of determining safety based on past experiences is quicker than the process of reasoning. If there has been a lot of trauma from the past, our limbic system overrides our ability to process and reason in our prefrontal cortex.
The limbic system is like a built-in warning system that responds immediately. This is often referred to as a triggering moment. My husband would try to control my sadness or anger toward his actions of betrayal. I felt overwhelmed at having my feelings shut down repeatedly and that would trigger me into irrational anger. I did not understand the intensity behind my own reactions, and I felt overwhelmed and scared. This is what brought me into counseling for myself.
Healing came as I began to process the fear and events of my past. As I worked to express my true emotions of past and present, I experienced healing because I was regaining my voice and using it to respond to past triggers. My survival brain from childhood remembered the trauma. My brain needed to replace these painful memories with new, healthy experiences for healing to occur.
Rediscovering the joy of God's work in my life
My counselor took me through this experiential process of healing using Ephesians 2 as a basis for God’s truth and the value He places on me. My brain was being rewired, as God’s Word and new experiences replaced past memories and beliefs. This is a slow heart-based process that requires the hard work of grieving past losses. I wondered if I would ever get through the tears and pain.
As I pushed through the undercurrent of trauma, my pain was replaced with the joy of God’s work in my life. My heart felt God’s love with new depth and convictions. Remembering that I belong to God and not myself or others was very freeing. Intellectually, I had known that for years, but now I was learning to really trust it with my heart. I learned to trust others to the degree that their heart was focused on God, which was made apparent by their choices and actions.
Going to the Partners in Process support group was very healing because I was able to share with others in safety, releasing my pain, fears and struggles. These ladies were on the same path as me, as tender warriors. Betrayal brings a tendency to isolate. Isolation drives the trauma deeper. Sharing heart-to-heart with safe women I trusted released some of the pain, anger and injustice. God is faithful to meet us where we are and bring us out of our pain with more than we had before, especially spiritually! Joseph’s life is an encouraging example because he experienced betrayal and injustice. He went from slavery to being second in command over Egypt, and a blessing to others. “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive” (Genesis 50:20). God will use hardships to prepare us for His blessings if we let Him. He will also use us to strengthen others on the same spiritual journey.
Focusing on my own relationship with God
My husband had his own traumatic story. Research shows that 96 percent of addicts have been abused in one or more of these ways: physically, emotionally and sexually. The strongholds that come with abuse and trauma can block a relationship with God. God created us to have a relationship with Him. When we are not in relationship with Him, this need is often filled with idols in our lives. My husband told me he loved God, and yet he was subject to idols of sex every day. He had to work through his own trauma from childhood to the present, too. As a woman married to a sex addict, I had to acknowledge my own idols that stood in the way of a deeper relationship with and trust in God, such as people-pleasing and control. Controlling was how I tried to protect myself from further trauma and pain.
Learning to separate my own responsibility for spiritual growth from my husband’s changed how I responded to him because I focused on God and pleasing Him. I ask God to guide and empower me to treat my husband according to His will and not my own will. This keeps me focused spiritually. I need humility in my walk toward healing. Being submissive to authority has been something I resisted since childhood. This resistance was based on fear of authority hurting me in my life. God is gentle, kind and full of tender mercies. I have found that pressure and pain are never wasted in God’s hands. Victory happens when we focus on God and not the situation.
The story of Peter walking on water is a great encouragement: “Immediately Jesus made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, while He sent the multitudes away. And when He had sent the multitudes away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray. Now when evening came, He was alone there. But the boat was now in the middle of the sea, tossed by the waves, for the wind was contrary. Now in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went to them, walking on the sea. And when the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out for fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘Be of good cheer it is I; do not be afraid.’ And Peter answered Him and said, ‘Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.’ So, He said, ‘Come.’ And when Peter had come down out of the boat, he walked on the water to go to Jesus. But when he saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink he cried out, saying, ‘Lord, save me!’ And immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and caught him, and said to him, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’ And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased” (Matthew 14:22-32.) Trust in God must replace focusing on the situation.
We have victory in our walk with God, apart from what our spouse chooses to do. We find when we work through our pain and fears, they no longer control us. I remember listening to Christian songs and singing praises to God in the midst of my tears and pain. This helped me remember who God is and His promises in the midst of my pain.
It is important to grieve and process the wounds of betrayal and loss. We can grieve and let go of the past when we know God has allowed this in His plan for our overall growth. Joseph had to come to this place and chose to move forward in faith. We have the ability to empathize and help others in a hard journey. God’s grace and mercy transforms us from being wounded into being a healed warrior. God brings us to a place of focusing on Him, so we truly grow according to His will.