I received another email from a betrayed partner this week (let’s call her Jenny) who was deeply hurt by a well-intentioned pastor who said, “Jenny, I don’t think you’ve completely forgiven Tom. As long as you’re getting triggered, you’re still holding onto resentment and unforgiveness. Would you like to pray right now, and let it go?” It’s been 4 years since D-Day, when Tom’s infidelity surfaced. Jenny hadn’t been aware that during their 16 marriage, Tom had been looking at pornography and frequenting strip clubs. Things were under wraps until she saw a text from an old girlfriend of his. A girl he dated in High School. Jenny was absolutely devastated. After four years and many hours of therapy, recovery groups, conferences, etc., the couple had moved into honesty and Tom had maintained his sobriety.
Jenny said, “It feels like we’re at a new place, except that I get triggered from time to time. I hate when it happens. I can go from buying vegetables in the grocery store, to feelings of panic and crying in the front seat of my car. What’s worse, it happens when I least expect it.”
One day, Jenny mentioned it to someone in her small group. This friend suggested she talk with their pastor about it. It made sense to both of them, so they called and set up an appointment. The pastor knew their family well. He was in their lives during the weeks, months and years following the betrayal. As the pastor spoke to Jenny about what he believed was bitterness, all eyes focused on her. Jenny flushed, her heart dropped as she felt a strange sensation in her gut. Jenny nodded her head as she listened to the pastor. She sat frozen. She knew she wasn’t okay but didn’t know what to do.
Jenny expressed in her email, “I was confused, I didn’t know what to say. I felt lost. Horribly ashamed. What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I just get over this?”
Jenny wasn’t dealing with bitterness. She was dealing with triggers, a real consequence caused by posttraumatic stress.
Harps and Ukuleles
We are intricately made and multi-faceted beyond comprehension. In fact, science has yet to completely understand how our brains or eyeballs really work. We are designed more like harps. Concert harps have been prized for centuries, have up to 47 strings, and are often featured within orchestras. Harps even go way back to early references around 3000 BC, where they were painted into history through Egyptian art and historically documented in the book of Psalms.
By comparison, most Ukulele’s have four strings. As history has it, the strings themselves were originally made of catgut. Sometimes people give us quick and simple answers, like plucking a Ukulele, because it’s what they know. But really there’s so much more. Let’s take a look at grief, triggers, and what they have to do with forgiveness.
When we’re impacted by sexual betrayal our bodies react in layers, more like a 47-string harp. Most of us are in shock and we feel unraveled by our hurt and pain. Our lives are not what we thought they were. And, as much as we’d like to go back to a place before we discovered the betrayals, we can’t. It’s impossible. It can’t happen no matter how much we try to believe we can go back there. What was, will never be again. That’s tremendous grief. I have yet to meet a human being who likes grief. It’s heart-breaking and gut-wrenching. We feel out of control. We weep. Get angry. Pretend. Cry more. Some of us find that our tears show up in the shower, where our kids can’t hear us as we’re doubled over in pain. Some of us get stuck in grief because we’ve had a hard time letting ourselves feel angry. Others get stuck in grief because it feels too vulnerable, weak, or scary to cry. We’re in survival mode, right? Some of us have defensive hope, a form of denial, which keeps us from letting go of what was. It’s so hard to look back at our lives and realize that what we were living – wasn’t reality. Our world as we knew it came crashing down around us. Then sometimes, intrusive memories break through when we least expect them.
Jenny said, “I thought I was past all this. If I could just stop these memories from popping up, I think I’d be okay. I pray about it. Breathe deeply. Go on a run. Try self-talk. I remind myself that these feelings and thoughts are not relevant to me NOW. While these memories are in the past they still sneak in, usually when I’m tired or by myself in the car. They come without invitation. Even though they’re becoming less frequent, I can’t seem to stop thoughts about Tom’s affair from popping up in my mind.”
I’m deeply sorry for the grief and trauma work that’s needed to dig out. Unfortunately, no one else can do it for us. It takes tremendous courage to let ourselves feel our deep losses and face the memories that haunt us. Memory pop-ups and triggers are our brains way of telling us that we have more work to do. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) https://www.emdria.org/ focuses on helping our brains get unstuck from the negative shame beliefs and emotions that get stored in our mind from traumatic events. It can help us grieve. It does this by supporting the brain as it safely resolves distressing memories by replacing them with a more honoring, truthful, conclusion about yourself. To learn more, check out my blog article “Digging Out.” https://www.braveone.com/digging-out/
We don’t find triggers, triggers find us. It’s the sensations and feelings we have in our body that overwhelm and grip us, bringing painful events from our past into the present. It can feel like they’re happening—right now. These memories have been packaged away and automatically stored with fragmented pieces of our story, along with shame beliefs (about ourselves), body sensations, thoughts, and feelings. Triggers are our body’s way of telling us there’s more: more to tend to and more to heal.
Triggers are a result of trauma, not a product of unforgiveness. They’re a biological expression of a person, place, or event that reminds of a time we’ve been hurt. Triggers can be treated. We need to be patient with ourselves and help our bodies feel safe by getting grounded. It could mean getting securely settled into the chair we’re sitting in, the ground we’re standing on, or the space that’s around us in order to get our brain out of fight/flight and back online. Chapter 12 in my book is titled, “Quick on the Trigger,” and in there I talk about how to build a Portable Medical Toolbox, which offers some practical help and exercises that can restore your body to rest. It’s how we take care of ourselves. (pg 188-190)
So, let me be clear by circling back to Jenny’s dilemma and the pastor’s opinion. No, triggers are not about unforgiveness. They’re really more about pain and memories. Is there something we can do about them? Yes. Check out two chapters in my book, “Quick on the Trigger” and “Your Body Guard,” they’ll help you make sense about what you’re feeling in your body and why. You matter. The more we know about ourselves, science, and how our bodies and minds repair the better we heal. Then we can take care of ourselves well without added guilt and shame. Be kind to yourself and remember, you’re a Harp not a Ukulele. It takes time to heal all those loose strings.
“Sexual infidelity runs deep. We’re trying to catch our breath, grieve, and work through our triggers. We take steps backward when we discover ongoing lies or that our husbands made choices that compromised their sobriety. On any given day or time, we might be fighting for our marriage or battling through feelings of anxiety, anger, grief, disillusionment, or despair. It’s not a race. It’s more like climbing Mount Everest. It’s important that the one who has betrayed us works at staying humble and patient while we heal. We have our own process of healing to go through and that process takes time.” Pg 137 of Intimate Deception: Healing the Wounds of Sexual Betrayal