When a traumatic event happens, such as a violent dog attack or learning a spouse has betrayed you, living in a state of hyperarousal is normal. For a little while. When it continues after about a month, it’s considered to be a problematic thing you probably need therapy to help with. What is hyperarousal? It’s living in a state where you’re poised for fight or flight. You search for threats, scanning your environment. You react more dramatically to stimuli like noises or surprises. You may feel anxious, agitated, out of control.
So, say you witnessed a dog attack. It was violent. There were injuries, surgeries, financial fallout, and other consequences because it was serious. You experience a surge of adrenaline during the event, you get through it, the fallout occurs. For days you’re shaken. You can’t take a walk in your neighborhood without feeling like a giant dog is out to get you. You might relive the experience, either in flashbacks, dreams, or actually feeling as if you are experiencing it again vividly. You loose sleep. You snap at people. You’re looking over your shoulder constantly wondering if you’re safe. Over the course of weeks, your muscles relax. Your logic centers take over and tell you there’s not a vicious dog on every corner of your neighborhood. You start to take walks again, maybe you avoid that one street. You can breathe. You stop having nightmares or flashbacks. Your mind, body, and soul can once again function like you used to.
This kind of normal function takes place to keep you safe! You’re designed to preserve your life and the lives of those you love with your adrenaline and your subsequent hyperarousal state. It’s supposed to be a gift.
Now think about betrayal trauma. The compulsive sexual behavior of someone you love is a threat to every aspect of life. A wife is designed to depend on her husband to love and protect her til death do they part. No matter what behaviors are occurring, no matter how she found out, she experiences it as watching her husband hold a gun to the head of her marriage. It is violent, there are consequences financially, emotionally, mentally, physically, spiritually, and socially. And this is inside her own home. Does hyperarousal make sense? Of course! She could be having tremors, hives, raging at everyone she knows, eating everything in sight. She might cry uncontrollably, her vision and hope for the future may be dashed against a rock! Nightmares, headaches, relapses, loss of will, panic attacks, and loss of appetite. All while continuing to parent and try to work and maintain life.
In an absolutely ideal scenario, this horrid wreck of a thing happens but then her husband gives her a swift and full disclosure. A polygraph is employed so she doesn’t have to take the word of an untrustworthy person. He works tirelessly in recovery and never acts out again. He develops emotional maturity. He steps up into a role of the spiritual head of the home and protects her, nurtures her, helps her heal from his behavior by doing everything to help her feel safe. Eventually he earns her trust. She starts to relax. Her mind, body, and soul begin to function normally again.
Unfortunately, that idea scenario takes a very long time to play out. It’s not a few weeks. At best it’s months. That causes damage. But in most cases, the idea scenario is not what plays out at all. That is in fact a horrific tragedy. The man was caught but has no desire to recover. He doesn’t want to divorce either, putting her in a very challenging position. Or he says he wants to recover but he doesn’t put the work in. Or he seems to be trying, but slips and relapses happen over and over. The reality is that pornography and other compulsive sexual behavior takes 3-5 years to recover from. That’s 3-5 years of working a rigorous recovery program with no slips. Before the brain heals enough for a man to begin developing maturity. And every slip, lie, dribbled disclosure, relapse, and manipulative conversation is new trauma on the mind, body, and soul of a wife. Add to that sexual complications! My point is, she isn’t meant to live with chronic trauma.
In the twelve step movement partners of sex addicts can find a ton of experience, strength, and hope. I am not at all against them. However, not all groups are trauma informed. So many aspects of living in a hyperarousal state are labeled as codependent behaviors. Snooping on him, overeating, over functioning, blaming the sexaholic, etc. These behaviors can keep a woman feeling traumatized long after she becomes safe if they continue. And they can cause a woman to abandon herself. She cannot function living this way. But what if she just isn’t safe? If her husband keeps slipping, gaslighting, or lieing? If a woman experiences new trauma every month or six months, even every year, she will not stop scanning her horizon. She’s convinced there is a lion in the room. Because she’s married to him! So if she keeps checking his phone, is it codependency or is it hyperarousal caused by trauma? It is not helpful to call this a behavioral issue if the woman is not living in safety.
Women, God cares so deeply for your hearts. Get safe! Do anything you have to do to get safety all around you. Coaching with me can help you make a plan and stick to it! Men, step into your role as spiritual head of household or get out of that woman’s way so she can. Live in a ditch if that’s what it takes to give her safety while you get it together. Maybe there will be a strong, capable, healing woman to come home to! But if you stay and keep injuring her for years, do not blame anyone but yourself when she becomes strong and capable and won’t stand for you any more.
Pastors and church members, get wise. Don’t you dare shame a woman out of getting safety. If you’re a pastor and you want to lower the risk of divorce in your church, do it by maximizing safety for the woman and accountability for the man. Surround him with men who really check in on him. Get him out of his house and into your own! Offer him someone who will monitor his Covenant Eyes account. Get him involved in a local sports team. Insist he volunteer in a capacity where his empathy for women and children can develop. Babysit him or find a deacon who can! Then you make sure his wife is safe. Financially, physically, emotionally. She needs a meal train and occasional babysitting much like a young widow. She needs women calling her and praying over her. She needs your prayer shawl ministry to wrap her up! Don’t you dare shame her or silence her or tell her she has to forgive him or bring him into her bed. Develop empathy for the very real trauma she is experiencing and the pain she may have minimized for years. When you encourage her to stay in a state of chronic trauma, you minimize the chances this couple has for healing. You may as well nail the coffin of their marriage shut now.