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The exploitative harm done to one person by another in a marital/primary relationship through any form of abuse, betrayal, addiction or compulsion, is known as Interpersonal Relational Trauma. A form of PTSD, it's important to know how it affects you. Trauma recovery requires re-establishing your safety. You need firm boundaries with clear and certain consequences for further infractions or violations.

There are many kinds of trauma a person can experience. This article is about marriages or primary adult/adult relationships. Addiction/compulsivity is a relational betrayal because the addict/compulsive's primary loyalty has devolved from a loving relationship with you into a compulsion to obtain his addictive substance/process. Their primary relationship is now with the addiction/compulsion, and not with you. At best, you—his partner—are a distant second place, the addiction is solidly first, although this may not be evident to the addict. Much of their energy and attention is frequently devoted to the addiction so you may feel that you and your needs of the relationship are not at all important to him.

IRT is excruciatingly painful to the person receiving the mistreatment. It is abusive even if that is not the conscious intention of the perpetrator. We begin to doubt ourselves and try even harder to make the relationship work, twisting ourselves into even more intricate pretzels to conform to their increasingly impossible demands to sustain the relationship. We become exhausted, discouraged, angry, lonely, resigned and despairing. Some victims are driven to the brink of suicide. IRT can be fatal, make no mistake about that.

He says he loves you, but he continues doing such hurtful things. You tell him how desperately this hurts you and he turns on you like a rabid animal. How could this be? Something is terribly wrong, he blames you, you feel even worse and it escalates into ever-increasing fights. This is traumatic. It violates trust and the relational bonds that you believed in and cherished. This scenario repeated over a period of time becomes increasingly difficult to repair before the next IRT event occurs when active addiction/compulsivity is present. Even after the active trauma ceases, the trauma wounds linger as they do in all forms of PTSD.

Because trauma is a complicated topic, we are offering a bulleted outline and refer curious Partners of Sex Addicts (PoSAs) to books that are especially helpful for more in-depth explanations of trauma models. We have an especially deep appreciation for Marsha Means and Barbara Steffens, authors of Your Sexually Addicted Spouse for their bringing the trauma model to the area of sex addiction/compulsivity. Prior to their work, we were summarily labeled co-addicts or co-dependents and the Interpersonal Relational Traumas were ignored. The re-traumatizations we received every day from living with a sex addict/compulsive (SAC) were somehow dismissed also. Our identities are shaken to our very cores by the repeated sexual betrayals and deceptions of having a sex addict/compulsive partner. This is not a minor issue. We feel disregarded as desirable women, compared to persons doing things that we cannot and would not compete with.

What factors affect the severity of IRT?

The following factors affect the depth and breadth of the traumatic betrayal(s). A greater quantity of any one of these will proportionately increase the trauma; combinations of the factors listed below will exponentially increase trauma. It is important to think of traumatic factors as items that multiply exponentially—not merely add up—when more than one is present.

  • Frequency/severity of the violations
  • Frequency/severity of deceptions about the violations
  • Power inequality between the perpetrator and victim
  • Proximity/intimacy of the perpetrator
  • Disenfranchisement/derision/contempt/dismissal of the victim on any level
  • Length of time the violations occurred
  • Inability of the victim to affect changes in her circumstances
  • Lack of community/familial support for the victim
  • Scapegoating/blaming the victim by either the perpetrator or others
  • Self-blame by the victim
  • Addiction/Compulsivity/Narcissistic Personality Disorder NPD on the part of the perpetrator

Some IRT scenarios/conditions:

  • A spouse with a secret life of pornography and/or cybersex
  • A partner/spouse using massage parlors/prostitutes or visiting strip clubs
  • Affair(s)
  • Deception of any sort
  • Betrayal of any sort
  • Emotional withdrawal
  • Violence of any sort (verbal, emotional, physical, sexual)

How does IRT affect the victim?

The victim actually experiences a real nightmare although it may not seem that way upon the first reading. However, the victims' ability to trust in and enjoy human relationships is devastated with IRT; that person's ability to receive the healing effects of relationships is equally damaged. Briefly, IRT/trauma reactions are:

  • Flashbacks/re-experiencing the event(s)
  • Avoidance/numbing
  • Sleep disturbances/nightmares
  • Isolating from trusted persons
  • Obsessive thoughts/ruminating thoughts of the offenses/betrayals
  • Hyper-arousal/hyper-vigilance
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Depression/mood disturbances
  • Grave mistrust of others
  • Dissociation
  • Inability to identify feelings
  • Loss of sexuality
  • Fragmented memories/inability to remember
  • Intrusive memories of the events
  • Psychosomatic illnesses
  • Panic attacks

Trauma recovery requires re-establishing the safety of the victim. That means setting boundaries and having clear and certain consequences for infractions/violations.

Above all, please remind yourself over and over again: you did not cause it, you cannot control it and you cannot cure it. You were victimized by his affliction, his behavior, possibly traumatically. If you remember nothing else, please know that we know this to be true.

We Recommend:

Books:  (Please note that we are currently in the process of updating our recommendations- Please check back soon!)

Your Sexually Addicted Spouse by Barbara Steffans, Ph.D. and Marsha Means, M.A.
The Betrayal Bond by Patrick Carnes, Ph.D.
The Fantasy Bond by Robert W. Firestone, Ph.D.

—Terre

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Character Disorders with Dr. Bill Bercaw

Watch the entire discussion here.
Chronic Infidelity with Dr. Barbara Steffans
Watch the entire discussion here.
Acting Out as Violation with Dr. Barbara Steffans
Watch the entire discussion here.
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