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Untangling Grief, Triggers, & Forgiveness

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?”

 

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.

 

 

Grief

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/

 

Triggers

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

Brave On!

Dr. Sheri

This Post Has 18 Comments
  1. I feel like I’m dying….and the friends who are betraying me also is excruciating. I have so much anger!! Wish the retreat in September was sooner!

    1. Hi Kathryn, I’m sorry about your pain and as an insult to injury when your friends don’t understand either. I’m indebted to partner trauma recovery groups as they provide that “get it” factor we so desperately need. I look forward to hearing your heart and having you at the weekend.

  2. Thank you again. No one tells you about triggers..the gift that you don’t want that keeps on giving. Even though, finally, my husband seems to be doing the “right” things, his three decades of acting out since we were together after high school have damaged me tremendously. I’ve been to Restore (it was WITB), many other things and I’m thankful for all the help as opposed to many years ago..I struggle at times. Men must be educated about themselves and women so that they can learn how to mature and be responsible. Sad there are just as many available acting out partners who are women!!! I know I’m done and he does too. My life means more to me than He does. After all that he’s done and all he’s cost me and the kids, It’s either get help for good or get gone.
    Thanks For Your Ministry

    1. I’m so glad you’ve taken steps to get support for your healing and thank you for taking the time to share some of your story. You’re not alone in this. Stay connected and committed to your healing.

  3. Discovered the affair in bits and pieces in April this year. Am devastated, angry and scared. He is penitent and humble but I am struggling to understand how for 4 years he would do all this and somehow I am supposed to have forgiven in two months. I actually think the triggers are triggers because I’ve chosen to stay and work with him on ‘us’ (therapy, prayer etc). I can’t help but wonder if the healing would be less complicated if we went our separate ways??? Anyway I guess it’s one day at a time. Thanks Dr Sheri!

    1. First off, I’m so very sorry about your discovery of your husband’s affair in April. I remember how I felt when I found out about Conner’s affair too. Devastated, angry, and scared is right were we are after discovery. He’s most likely penitent and humble because he feels bad after being caught. That’s not uncommon. But now is not the time to forgive, it’s the time to secure your safety and the truth. There’s no fast track here. Trust has been violated and it will take work to repair the relationship. I’m sorry to tell you that healing isn’t quick. Do you have a copy of my book Intimate Deception: Healing the Wounds of Sexual Betrayal? There are so many pieces to healing – and no one was there to help me know what I needed to do to sort it all out. It’s a road map of healing for you. I’ve written a couple of chapters for him. I hope you will get what you need and stay connect to me as you walk this out. Warmly, Dr. Sheri

  4. I feel alone in the fact that I was married 42 years..i finally left after another discovery of hook ups etc. with all my heart I was hoping he would get help..then 1 month after the divorce we find out he has stage 4 brain cancer..he passed 12/20/2018.. I was there ..i returned to help..hes gone..no chance of seeing him again..so many unanswered questions..i feel I could have tried harder
    but I was too physically sick to hang in there…ill always love him…..the grief is sometimes too much

    1. I’m so sorry about your grief upon grief. We really do our best when it comes to fighting for our families and those we love. It’s incredibly difficult when we’ve invested so much in the one we’ve loved, as we’ve hoped upon hope for help, and then don’t get to experience the restoration. It’s like fighting a battle without the win. Again, grief upon grief in your marriage as painful as his sexual acting out and the cancer won. I’m deeply sorry about that. There’s an APSATS Certified Partner Trauma Coach who I believe would be a tremendous help to you, as she’s been right where you’ve been. Having someone who understands can be a powerful way to continue processing your grief. Her name is Linda Johns (714) 785-6752. Let her know I sent you. Warmly, Dr. Sheri

  5. Thank you for the writing on ‘triggers’…very helpful and encouraging.. Your words touch encouragingly on an endless networking of body memory response/react learned habits of being. At 69, I will take any breath of Help God gives. There is too much to ever “go to counseling” for anymore so I Am Grateful for the Times In Him, in the past two years especially, that His Healing Presence has become more Known again.

    When I attended Leslie Vernick’s conference in Lincoln, Nebraska recently, God’s Holy Spirit of Healing just Flowed for me when I Listened to you speak. Healing Tears Flowed the whole time…literally.. Your words were Words Used for my spirit In His, for unspecified and overall hurts and overlapping layers of unspoken and buried and carried burdens of deeply felt grief.

    If my life had a cover picture, it would be one of a mine field of bombs that ranged in type from the World War I & II eras, to the current type of chemical bombs…but the only places to step on, without being blown to bits, would be in narrow camouflaged places that skirted the obviously threatening edges of countless bottomless Pits,,, of seemingly unavoidable Pains of life…. that express unexpectedly in geyser-like mixed emotions and feelings of force in overwhelming bursts of powerful tears of release.

    I am looking to attend the gathering I Hope God has Led you to initiate. If it is Him in me, then He Keeps the Alive Memory of His Healing Presence before me and I Am Trusting He Will Meet me (and all the others who are Drawn) In Healing Holy Spirit Counseling Time again, as i Listen to your words. Praying His Spirit brings your words In Life In Him.

    Please pray for details to be worked out quickly concerning the Bravery After/During ( 🙂 ) Betrayal. <3

    Jean

    1. Thank you for sharing your story and experience Jean. I look forward to personally meeting you at the Bravery After Betrayal: It Takes Fierce Strength retreat.

  6. Hi Dr. Sheri,
    Thank you so much for your ministry! It was a pleasure meeting you at the Conquer conference in October. Your book has been a blessing to me.

    To answer your question, yes, I think porn is an affair. Every time our husbands look at it, they are emotionally fantasizing about being with another woman and it changes their perception of reality.

    My husband was addicted to porn for years, although he vehemently denied it. My suspicions were confirmed when my 12-year-old daughter (at the time) found it on his computer. Even then he wouldn’t admit to it, swearing it only happened that once.

    His actions proved otherwise. He constantly threatened that I was going to “cause” him to have an affair and became sexually forceful and violent towards me. When I would tell him he was hurting me, he’d say it felt good to him and repeatedly caused me to bleed. His violence increased to physically grabbing and raping me. I dreaded being with him! Eventually he did have an affair – twice.

    I believe porn ignited the fire of lust in his heart that led to his sexual addiction, violence, and affairs. Looking at porn is a decision to be unfaithful to your spouse; a conscious choice to have an affair. “But I say, anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” ‭‭Matthew‬ ‭5:28‬ ‭NLT‬‬

    1. I agree with you Lois and am heartbroken over the clear sexual violence and abuse you’ve shared. Sadly, you’re not alone in your experience. Almost one out of every 4 women in my research said this..“I’ve been pressured to perform sexually in ways that were uncomfortable for me,” i.e. forced painful sex, being watched while having sex with others, anal sex, sexual domination, being filmed.” (22%).

      What happened to you is wrong. Much of today’s porn is violent in order for the porn industry to keep raising the bar to keep people coming to the sites. It’s never okay to be sexually violated like this under any circumstance. Your vulnerability strikes at the heart of other women’s experiences, one that is clearly not to be tolerated.

  7. My husband of 20yrs and I have been separated for 3and a half years now due to his infidelity and my harsh treatment of him in our marriage. I pray for clarity on what I should do about our “relationship” but I’m not sure I’m hearing from God at times. The pain isnt as hard as it was like earlier this year but it still bothers me.

    1. Patrice it’s so hard to know exactly where you’re at and what you’ve done to this point. If you’re you’re struggling to hear from God, than please invest in yourself and see a counselor until you get the help you need to sort this out. You sound alone and unsure. Been there. It’s such a tough place to be. We can feel helpless and stuck in those places. You’re worth the time, effort, and attention needed to get the direction you’re looking for.

  8. I truly thank you for your article about triggers. My story is not any different from the rest of the hurting people in your group. My husband and I have worked through a very difficult time In our lives and it was Our Lord and Savior who’s amazing mercy and grace has moved us to a different level of marriage.
    I found your book and studied it and it helped me/us to heal.
    That was 9 months ago, we did reunite and made a new commitment.
    Triggers!! When it first happened I was so taken back by it’s emotional response it took on me. I’m a pretty strong individual coming through this but it made me feel like it was day two of the betrayal time.
    At first my husband was very reassuring and kind but just yesterday, unexpectedly a trigger hit and I shared it with him and to my surprise he wasn’t at all as responsive as he was before. I will review the chapters in the book you suggested and heal from there.
    You are such an inspiration to me that my marriage didn’t have to be over because of the betrayal. Thank you for all you do to help and encourage us. It helps to know we are not alone.

    1. Hey Stephanie, I’m really excited to know that your marriage is healing. I know many couples like you that are moving through the pain. Check out the new book, Help Her Heal: An Empathy Workbook for Sex Addicts to Help their Partners Heal by Carol Sheets and Allan Katz. Offer it to him to read. There are some great tips in there. Also, read my blog on EMDR (Eye movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) called “Digging Out” https://drsherikeffer.com/digging-out/, as I often use EMDR to help betrayed partners lesson their triggers. Hope this helps.

  9. Hi Doctor, I found you on my iPhone bible app this morning. I was searching for help because I have been having bad dreams of my husband betraying me again. We have been in recovery for 6 years now. We both went thru sex addiction counseling. Me, I found a Christian counselor who I went to for about a year who helped me tremendously, but unfortunately the cost kept me from continuing our sessions. My husband went through a sex addiction 12 step therapy program which he finished in one year and he also went through a lie detector test too. I needed that for my own piece of mind and sanity. The first year of recovery was hell on earth and there were many times I prayed to God to just take me because the pain of 30 years of porn and multiple affairs were unbearable! My husband has been truly humble and repentant, but sometimes his little acts of selfishness can and do trigger me. When I don’t say anything about it to him many times they end up in my dreams and trigger me. I remember before recovering, I had dreams of his betrayal often and would share them with him and he would flat out deny them which turned out to complete lies. It was as if my woman’s intuition and God we’re trying to tell me that something was terribly wrong with our marriage of 33 years. Doctor my bad dreams are back and they are triggering me again and I’m scared and alone and need help! Please help me. Thank you Gina

    1. Hi Gina,

      There is nothing like TRUTH to help minimize triggers when they confront us. Sometimes selfish attitudes, watching our husbands hide what they are looking at on their phones, or continuous rubber-necking at other women cause us to wonder if they are still sober or not. Our body remembers how it felt in our past. In my book Intimate Deception: Healing the Wounds of Sexual Betrayal I wrote a chapter called Quick on the Trigger. It describes what happens when traumatic moments get frozen.

      I love to fish. During one trip to Alaska we hired Captain Jerry to take three of us out fishing for several hours. Much to our surprise, we caught our limit—eighteen beautiful wild Alaskan salmon. We decided to have a fish cannery professionally fillet, flash-freeze, and FedEx the salmon to our front door. It was well worth the expense. Each time I open a package, the salmon tastes as fresh as the day we caught it.

      Our traumatic events can be flash frozen and pop up on our front door too. When we’re triggered, the sensations and feelings from our past can feel like they’re happening—right now. These memories have been preserved and automatically stored with fragmented snapshots of our story, trauma-induced shame beliefs, body sensations, thoughts, and emotions. Triggers are our body’s way of telling us there’s more: more to tend to and more to heal. We’ve got bigger fish to fry, so our triggers lead us into the pockets of pain that need our attention.

      Gina, in light of this I have 6 thoughts:

      1) Dreams can be something trying to get your attention today – Dreams can be something from the past trying to get your attention today.
      2) Trust your gut. Listen to yourself. Might there be something you are picking up on that clued you into sexual betrayals several years ago?
      3) Are you willing to ask your husband this question, “When is the last time you looked at pornography or were involved in any inappropriate sexualized behavior?”
      4) If he was in a 12 step process – a sobriety plan is very important. You mentioned he went through a 12 step recovery group in one year. 12 step recovery is not meant to be a race – it’s meant to provide accountability and support sobriety over a lifetime. After 30 years of sexually acting out is he still attending his recovery group? Has he relapsed?
      5) Would you be willing to pursue therapy again (APSATS.org or IITAP.com) to address your concerns?
      6) If you are willing to participate in these first 4 steps and are assured that your husband is sexually sober, would you be willing to consider Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) to address how you might be getting triggered (EMDRIA.org)?

      I hope this helps.

      Warmly,
      Dr. Sheri

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