Understanding Betrayal Trauma
Living In The Gap: Between Yesterday and Tomorrow
Whenever I'm asked to describe what trauma, especially betrayal trauma, is like, I say: Imagine going to bed one night, safe and secure in your own bedroom, in your favorite pajamas, snuggled under a warm blanket, inside the home you've known and loved for years. But when you wake up, still dressed in your pajamas, you find yourself curled up on hard, cold concrete behind a dumpster in the back alley of a place you've never before seen. It's still night and dark. You can hear voices, people talking. But when you listen closely, you realize they are speaking a language you can't understand. You check to see if this is a dream, or a nightmare. But no, it is reality. Somehow you went to bed in your own home, and you woke up here. Three questions immediately spring to mind: 1) Where am I? 2) How did I get here? And, most importantly, 3) how do I get home?
The answer to that third question is likely the most painful, and yet simplest: you can't get back home. No amount of wishing, praying, trying, or clicking your heels together and repeating "there's no place like home" will work — you can never return to the place you were, hours before, when you went to bed.
If you have experienced betrayal trauma, you likely know what happens next. Once the sun comes up, some good-hearted, well-meaning people will see you there behind the dumpster looking frightened and confused, and they will offer advice: You should go home. You must try to work things out. Or, forget going home, you need to go someplace else and find yourself a new life. Or, you've got to bloom where you're planted — meaning, of course, stay here in this strange land — but get yourself out from behind that dumpster, get out of those pajamas, find an apartment, and get a job. Or, let go of the past and just move on.
So what should you do? Stay? Leave? Try a trial separation? Give things a few weeks, months, or years before making a decision? Or should you let go and move on? What does it mean to live in "the gap": in that time between disclosure day (D-day) and the day when you can confidently make a decision about your future?
The Importance of "Gaps"
As a certified Spiritual Director, and having taught religion classes that focused on personal transformation at a private university for the past eleven years, I know the importance of "gaps." Gaps are those unique times of transition which occur when what you had expected to happen doesn't happen. Instead of what you had expected, something completely unpredictable and altogether unexpected happens. This opens up a gap.
For example, you're on your way home from work and you stop by a convenience store to pick up milk. While waiting to pay, two masked, gunmen burst through the door, and one grabs you and puts a gun to your head. You couldn't have expected this, and so it opens a gap. Or when you think you have a simple infection and go to the emergency room expecting the usual round of antibiotics but instead discover you have stage 4 cancer—a gap opens. Or while taking a walk with your husband, the man you have loved and admired for years, on a warm, sunny summer afternoon, you discover he has been, for your entire marriage, hiding something from you, and you had no clue—this opens a gap, and a new journey begins.
Gaps reveal who you truly are. They will expose every part of you, parts healthy and unhealthy, your beliefs or lack of beliefs, your ingrained habits, and your strengths and weaknesses. How you respond to gaps will determine your future. "Gap Times" as I call them, those distinct times of transition, are some of the most significant and influential times in our lives because there is an unbelievable amount of insight and wisdom to be gained for those who will embrace the deep, rich experiences that gaps uniquely offer. Gaps are where deep healing and true transformation can begin.
Living In and Embracing The Gap
In my own life, I have been living in the gap for several years now, and I have learned:
1) Discernment takes time.
When your life has been turned upside down, and you are struggling to get your footing, it is okay to make temporary-only decisions. In fact, it is perfectly normal to decide one thing one day, then later change your mind, then change your mind again. And please don't let anyone push you to make a decision that you aren't ready to make or to do anything with which you aren't completely comfortable. Discernment is a process that takes time and support. Being overwhelmed by trauma certainly slows the discernment process. So it's okay not to know what you want to do long term. In fact, it is very important to take time to carefully weigh all of your options and figure out where you are truly being called. Time itself is a gift because it offers you the opportunity to heal your wounds, to build your support network, to prepare for the future, and to assess your partner's investment (or lack of investment) in recovery as well as the overall health of your relationship. And should you decide you want to try to save your marriage, you'll need time to find the right resources to help you repair and rebuild the relationship.
2) Taking an inventory of losses and blessings is a necessary part of the healing process.
When suffering from trauma, it is normal to focus on your losses, especially when the losses are overwhelming. One of my first clients, while I was still in supervision and training for Spiritual Direction, was a woman in her forties who had just been diagnosed with late stage ovarian cancer. Six months prior to this, her husband had abandoned her. And needing a job, she had to move over three hours away from where she had been living. She had already lost her home and community. And now with the cancer diagnosis, she feared losing her future as well. Gap Time is a time of recognizing and grieving losses. The grieving is necessary for healing. But if we focus only on the losses, we risk overlooking the blessings. So along with her list of losses, I asked my client to make a list of all of the things the cancer could not take away: a list of what she had left, what gifts and blessings she possessed that could help her live a meaningful life today and embrace whatever the future would hold.
One of her joys was Bible studies. She loved participating in Bible studies. She was also a great cook. And even though she had no children of her own, she had always wanted to be a elementary school teacher because she enjoyed children and had been told she was good with them. So with her "blessings list" in hand, she found a Bible study at a nearby church for women with cancer. She signed up as a volunteer cook for that church's soup kitchen, then through the soup kitchen ministry, she discovered a local women's shelter that needed someone a couple days a week to play with and read to the children while their mothers attended job training workshops. By focusing on and embracing her gifts and blessings — what she had not lost — during her Gap Time, my client found meaning and purpose, a new community, and a network of supportive friends. And as she continued to focus on her gifts and blessings, she discovered some gifts and strengths she never knew she had!
3) Gap Time is a good time to get educated so you can make informed decisions about your future.
When you wake up to discover you're behind a dumpster in a strange land, the saying that "knowledge is power" is true. Wherever your life's journey has taken you, learning as much as you can about where you are now, and how to navigate your new environment, can keep you safe, help you make informed decisions about the future, and help prepare you to get to where you eventually need and want to be. This is especially true when it comes to your partner's porn and sex addiction and your betrayal trauma. The more you know about both, the safer you can be and the better you can take care of yourself. With a good understanding of your situation, you can make informed decisions about what specific kind of treatment, help, and resources are the best fit for you.
Remember, when you've been in a relationship with a sex addict, you've been living with a very unhealthy person, and so much more needs to be addressed than just the addict's compulsive sexually acting out. Sex addicts have many unhealthy habits, attitudes, and behaviors that affect their partner's self-esteem, overall self-evaluation, health, and well-being. When you have been in a unhealthy relationship with an unhealthy person, it can negatively affect every part of you: the way you see and understand yourself, others, the world around you, and even your relationship with God. So taking the time to learn all the ways in which you, your life, and your family have been harmed by your partner's addiction is essential to being able to embrace the future as a healed, healthy, and whole person. Partners who come to understand all the ways the addiction and the trauma have affected them, can make healthier decisions about their present relationships, any new relationships, and their overall future.
Gap Time is Different for Everyone
Some women chose to stay with their husbands because they are able to renegotiate the rules and boundaries of our relationship, especially if their partner is committed to recovery and is in a treatment program, regularly attends meetings and meets with a sponsor, and is actively trying to understand his issues and heal them. But a woman I met years ago, at one of my weekend retreats, made a different choice. (I will call her "Jane.") After having just discovered that her husband had been having a 10 year long affair, and that he had had a child with this other woman, Jane came to the retreat in order to decide what to do. Jane was an artist who had, just prior to D-day, received a commission to create some statues for a community garden. During the weekend retreat, and through a process of prayer and discernment in community with the other women on the retreat, Jane felt led to ask her husband to move out. She decided to have no contact with him, but to put off making any further decisions at that time, choosing instead to spend the first three months of her "Gap Time" focusing on and completing her art project.
Each person's "Gap Time" will look different, but one rule applies to everyone: it is important not to ignore the gap, or try to push it or wish it away, or to try to rush it (no matter how painful it is or how much you would like for it to be over). It is okay, and actually a good thing, to be patient, kind, and compassionate with yourself as you live minute by minute, and take things step by step, when living in a gap. And even though it's true that you can't go back home and to the life you once knew before D-day — Gap Time, spent well, will make it is possible for you to get to some place better, some place more safe and more wonderful than you could ever have before imagined.
Upcoming Living in The Gap Interactive, Online, Facilitated & Guided Retreat
I offer a unique online retreat for women who are living in the gap, and who are in the process of deciding whether it is best to stay with or leave their addict partner. We will also be taking a closer look at healthy vs. unhealthy relationships. For more information please visit my upcoming workshops and retreats page: http://healingtraumatogether.com/workshops-retreats.html
Grace & Peace to you on your healing journey,