“What are you looking at?!” Lisa shrieks while her eyes bulge and her body pulses with adrenaline.
Doug looks up from his phone like a deer caught in the headlights. Panicked, he tries to reassure his wife that he really was just checking email.
Lisa grabs the phone to look for herself, bracing for what she is about to find. “Checking email, huh? You’ve used that one before. I’m not falling for that one again!”
The pain from discovering porn so many times in the past comes rushing to the surface with searing intensity. Even though her husband was actually checking email this time, she feels wounded all over again.
Tossing the phone back to her husband, Lisa squeezes her forehead with both palms as if to make her brain stop. “Everything feels like a reminder! I can’t turn off the pain or the fear. It’s screaming at me that I’m having my heart ripped out again. It’s tormenting!” Lisa sobs as anger gives way to grief.
Doug is reeling from the emotional explosion. Stunned, he thinks, “This will never end.” The guilt and shame from all of the times he hurt his wife floods in.
Deep rooted pain and fear overwhelm both of them. They both feel hopeless and as if this will never end. They both feel helpless, like they are at the mercy of the other’s reaction.
What happens next will determine how the next day, week, or month will go. There is a way to navigate these rapids so that you don’t get stuck here like so many couples do.
Understanding Betrayal Trauma Triggers
Before we cover how to get past the past, we have to be clear about what happens when your wife’s pain is triggered. A trigger happens when the past invades the present. This can be the result of doing something similar enough to past behaviors that have wounded your wife.
If your phone has been the source of porn in the past, she will assume it is a source of porn in the present.
If you stayed up late to watch a movie or sports and ended up watching porn, then she will believe that any time you want to stay up to watch something you are looking at porn.
Triggers can also be environmental. Movies and TV shows are the biggest culprits here. You can be having a great evening with your wife and suddenly the story line throws in something about porn. Your nice evening just took a hit.
Triggers involve re-experiencing pain. This is different than recalling the past.
Recalling going to the dentist is uncomfortable. Revisiting the scene of a violent car wreck you were in will involve re-experiencing a lot of the same feelings as the original event. For her, this is a car wreck.
Responding to Your Spouse’s Triggers
Let’s return to Doug and Lisa. Remember, her hair is on fire as she re-experiences the shock and pain from catching Doug looking at porn on his iPhone.
Doug feels ambushed since he was really checking email this time. He feels indignant that his wife would accuse him unjustly and fears this pattern will never stop.
There are two paths they can go down. One has a happy ending.
Door Number 1
Doug launches into defensive mode, “See! I was checking email like I said I was! You should be over this by now, it’s not like I had an affair or anything. Just put the past out of your mind like a mature adult.”
Doug just poured water on a grease fire. It makes the fire spread out and intensify. No one will be sleeping well in this house tonight.
Door Number 2
Doug pauses and takes a breath as the initial shock wave passes over him. Collecting his thoughts, and his courage, Doug emotionally moves towards his wife, “Even though I was looking at email this time, I know I have hurt you in the past.”
Lisa is stunned and confused. She has already loaded her next panicked attack, “You have no idea how you destroyed me. I can never trust you again.”
Again, Doug pauses before responding to her last comment at face value. “I’ve given you plenty of reasons to not trust me in the past. I get why it doesn’t feel like you can trust me right now. I’m truly sorry for how I hurt you.”
His wife’s response shocked Doug. He was bracing for the next hit.
Instead of yelling, Lisa softened. She started crying (sad instead of mad), and Doug was able to comfort her.
Why Comfort, Care, and Compassion Work
Doug felt like he was about to hug a porcupine, but these are critical moments to apply the 3 C’s.
Your wife needs this in that moment. She may not know exactly what she needs or how to ask for it. Trust me, this is what she needs.
Ok, so you are probably asking why comfort, care, and compassion work when she is triggered.
When your wife is triggered, her brain is stuck in the past, re-experiencing the past to be more specific. Her brain needs your help re-orienting to the present.
When you offer comfort, care, and compassion, it will take your wife a moment to begin to register what is happening now (especially if you typically choose door number 1).
Offering comfort, care, and compassion means she experiences you as a source of comfort instead of being a source of pain. Neurologically speaking, experience overwrites experience. Comfort starts to overwrite the pain.
As your wife experiences you as a source of comfort and safety, her triggers will start going down in frequency, intensity, and duration. They start to shrink.
So, the next time your wife gets triggered by something, lean in and pick one of the 3 C’s to offer her. It’s ok to fumble through it.
Comfort, care, and compassion are your best chance of enjoying the next 24 hours together. Pick one and lean in.