As betrayed partners we often begin to question our sanity after days, months, and years of deception and sexual betrayal. It’s both unnerving and terrifying – like sitting on a powder keg of ‘not knowing.’ When our significant other continues to sexually act out and things don’t change we naturally begin to wonder if we’re doing something wrong. We feel incredibly helpless. Our energy fades. We collapse on the inside as our bodies get sick. We try to imagine better ways to respond. “Maybe if I said it this way” or “maybe if I offered him that.” Crazymaking. Most often, we’re just downright confused. We’re grasping at straws trying to figure out what we can do to feel safe. I had a woman ask me, “Dr. Sheri, how do I know if I’m giving grace, enabling or in denial?” Great question! The lines can easily get blurred when walking this difficult path. I decided to answer her via this month’s blog.
Let’s start with denial and enabling. We often lose our way when we’re caught up in patterns of denial and enabling. And other times we numb our fear by spiritualizing our pain and shooting up a desperate well-intentioned prayer. Please don’t hear me wrong. I’m not saying we shouldn’t pray. Yet when our prayers aren’t changing the active powder keg under our feet, the problem isn’t in the impotence of God. Or that God isn’t listening. When people have the right to make choices by hiding their sex acts from you, ‘waiting on God’ can become a collusion with hidden deceptions. One woman I knew was in a group of women who were ‘standing’ for her marriage. She began purchasing shirts, pants, and underwear after her husband left his clothes at the affair partners home. I know, it doesn’t make sense, yet it made sense to her. We get turned upside down and twisted backwards in the midst of this senseless storm. And still other times we attempt to bury our hurt by offering up grace too soon. I got an email today from a woman I’ll call “Mindy” who shared how she’s been stomaching the impact of betrayal trauma for almost two decades. As I read through her situation, I saw myself in her story. I can honestly say at one point of my own story, I was the Queen of Denial. I remembered how confusing denial, enabling, and extending grace was in my relationship with Conner. When I read Mindy’s story it reminded me that I’m not alone.
“Seventeen years ago, my husband Matt came home from his deep-sea fishing trip. We’d been married for four years and I was home with our six-month-old little girl. He and a group of his close guys friends loved to fish so they made it their annual tradition. Matt was sunburned, covered in fish scales and exhausted when he pulled into our garage; so much so that he dropped his gear on the cement floor before heading straight for the shower. Stacked in the corner of the garage were several poles, a tackle box, a tall army-green canvas bag, a well-worn sleeping bag, and clothes that could stand up on their own. Matt was quiet that night which was to be expected after several days of boating on the open sea. The next morning after breakfast I began to throw his clothes into the wash. I reached into his canvas bag and grabbed his shorts and t-shirts. That’s when I discovered a pair of jeans tightly wrapped around a thin black box. It was a video tape with the label scratched out. This is strange, I thought. I wondered if it was a movie or possibly a family video? It made me curious, so I popped it into our video player. My jaw dropped, and my knees buckled underneath me. I was in complete shock when I realized the video was filled with hours of hard-core porn. What? How could he be looking at this? And why? We have a baby girl! I was enraged. What’s going on? I was beyond disgusted. My thoughts consumed me. How could this video belong to him?”
After Matt got home from work and I put our daughter to bed, I showed Matt the video tape and asked him where he got it. Believe me, I was scared out of my mind, but I needed to ask him. My heart had been pounding all day. I opened the conversation by telling Matt that I found the video tape wrapped in his jeans.
“Where did you get this video?” I said.
“That’s not mine!” Matt defensively pushed back. “I don’t know where it came from! One of the guys must have hid it in my clothes.”
“Ohhh…,” I thought, (instant relief) I wanted to break down and cry.
Yet the more I thought about it, my mind couldn’t rest. “What’s wrong with me?” I thought. I felt scared. I wanted to trust my gut but I kept feeling like there was more. “Was he hiding something? How could I know Matt was telling me the truth?”
We had a big fight that night. I brought it up again, as it didn’t make sense to me. I really wanted to believe him. But I started to wonder which one of his friends would have put it in his bag. I’m close with all their wives – we’re friends. This is horrible! Who could it be? How can I not tell any of their wives, my girlfriends? I decided to believe Matt was telling me the truth. I kept reminding myself that I’d never seen anything else like this in our house before.
While veiled flashes of worry would surface from time to time…and I did my best to let it go, I prayed that God would protect me and make it go away. That seemed to help.
(Six years later)
Six years and three kids later I walked into our bedroom after putting the kids down for bed. Matt was sitting on our bed watching porn. I saw what he was doing out of the corner of my eye before he closed his computer.
I said, “What were you looking at Matt? It looked like porn.”
Matt said, “Seriously, Mindy, you’re crazy. Why would I be looking at it in our room?”
“I know what I saw Matt. You were looking at porn!”
Matt started yelling at me and told me I was imagining things. We started shouting at each other. I was terrified the kids would hear. I stopped fighting and walked away. He rolled his eyes and looked at me with disdain. I couldn’t sleep that night. I asked Matt to sleep on the couch.
(Ten years later)
Three weeks ago, Matt came home from a business trip. He seemed distant and irritated with the kids. I decided to look at his phone later that night and noticed Matt had set up a privacy setting. I waited until the following day to talk with him about it.
“What are you talking about Mindy? You need to get over this. What’s wrong with you? Don’t you have enough to do with three kids to keep you busy?”
We got into a big fight again. I walked away again. Our kids are pre-teens now. I just couldn’t risk them knowing.
Last night I found out from one of my friends’ husbands that Matt’s been having an affair for four years. It was a teacher at our kids’ school. I had absolutely no idea. My mind flashed back to the first time I found him with a porn video. I’m completely devastated. We have three kids and I don’t know what to do.”
As you read through this story what do you see? Are there parts of Mindy’s experience that are similar to yours? It’s easy to see the lying, blame and gaslighting. If you want to learn more about that type of deception take a look at Chapter 16 of my book, Intimate Deception: Healing the Wounds of Sexual Betrayal. But for the point of this blog let’s take a look at the difference between denial, enabling, and offering grace. See if any of the patterns of denial, enabling, or offering grace too soon may be getting in the way of your relationship.
Denial happens when we try not to deal with the actual problem in order to avoid looking at reality, the consequences, or deal with the pain. Common responses include “It’s not that bad.”, “Yeah, but…”, “I can’t go there.” or “I don’t want to deal with that.”, all in an attempt to deflect the truth of what’s going on. Sometimes we might spiritualize the situation in order to put it out of our mind or on the shelf. When we’re in denial we minimize what happened, avoid looking at it head on, don’t ask further questions, and sometimes we might just pretend. In her book The Emotionally Destructive Marriage, Leslie Vernick advocates against enabling harmful acts. She addresses this spiritual confusion head on by saying, “Maybe you think that God is more interested in preserving your marriage than the well-being of you and your children, but that’s not true. God values marriage, but he’s also concerned for your safety and sanity in the midst of a destructive and/or dangerous marriage.”1
Another type of denial is known as betrayal blindness. In my relationship with Conner, I didn’t want to have to face the pain of his betrayal. To cope with my fear and pain I began keeping secrets from myself. I didn’t want to look too close and see what was really going on. I had a case of what Drs. Freyd and Birrell call betrayal blindness. In their book Blind to Betrayal: Why We Fool Ourselves We Aren’t Being Fooled, they state, “The best way to keep a secret is not to know it in the first place; unawareness is a powerful survival technique when information is too dangerous to know. We remain blind to betrayal in order to protect ourselves. We fear risking the status quo, and thus our security, by actually knowing too much.”2
Enabling happens when we fail to ask questions or establish boundaries by tolerating compulsive sex acts, deception, and abuse. These behaviors hurt us and they hurt our families. Bestselling authors Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend define boundaries as “personal property lines that promote love by protecting individuals.”3
- Boundaries define who we are and what we’re responsible for.
- Boundaries are the lines of protection that keep us safe. There must be limitations and lines drawn between an unfaithful husband and a betrayed spouse. It’s what we ask them for to protect the fidelity of our relationship.
- Boundaries help us define what I can’t control and what choices I need to make.
When sexual deception comes into our relationship and homes, setting boundaries invites our spouse to look at what’s threatening the relationship and compromising our safety.
First let me start by saying what grace is not. Grace is not forgetting or ignoring. Grace isn’t appropriate when someone continues to deceptively and compulsively sexually act out against you. Grace is not appropriate when someone is dishonoring or abusing you. If these things are happening it’s not the time to extend grace, it’s time to focus on getting safe.
Extending grace to someone means that you begin to process the pain of betrayal in a new light. Grace is not a one and done experience, nor is there a fast track for this process. When we enter into extending grace to the one who betrayed us, we begin by relinquishing what we feel we’re owed. It means we forfeit the upper hand, give up resentment, and surrender wanting to take revenge against someone that deeply hurt you. Grace involves the act of extending mercy to someone who caused us harm through an act of letting go.
“When I discovered grace for Conner, something inside me shifted. It’s as if I found space in my chest to breathe. Up until that time my justifiable resentments had me in a vise grip. This was my first step toward letting go and unburdening myself from the vitriolic acid that was eating me alive from the inside out.” (Intimate Deception: Healing the Wounds of Sexual Betrayal, page 286).
As you read through this blog or take a look at the situation you’re currently in. Be kind to yourself – yet be fearlessly honest too. Some of the greatest damage is done when we’re in denial or tolerating harmful behaviors. You are worthy of protection. And in this case, you’re the one that has to muster up the courage to protect yourself. You don’t have to do it alone. Find a counselor or betrayal trauma support group that can affirm where you’re at. Some of my dearest friends were the ones that loved me well. They were the ones that said, “Sheri, how long are you going to tolerate this?” It hurt at first. Yet as I woke up, it saved my life.
- Leslie Vernick, The Emotionally Destructive Marriage: How to Find Your Voice and Reclaim Your Hope (Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook Press, 2013), 62.
- Freyd and Birrell, Blind to Betrayal: Why We Fool Ourselves We Aren’t Being Fooled, 119.
- Henry Cloud and John Townsend, Boundaries in Marriage (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 10.