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3 Essential Responses to Your Spouse’s Betrayal Trauma Triggers

Last Updated: February 25, 2019

Carl Stewart
Carl Stewart

Carl Stewart is the author of the Amazon Kindle bestseller, The Porn Antidote: God’s Secret Weapon for Crushing Porn’s Grip, and Creating the Life and Marriage You Dream Of. Carl is a counselor and coach in an overflowing private practice where he works with men and marriages devastated by pornography and sexual addiction. He has advanced training and supervision in Emotionally Focused Therapy–the most empirically validated marital therapy which is uniquely suited to restoring marriages affected by sexual betrayal. Carl is a speaker at men’s events, marriage retreats, and parenting seminars. Check out Carl Stewart’s website and blog at www.thepornantidote.com.

“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.

  • Comfort
  • Care
  • Compassion

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.

  • Comments on: 3 Essential Responses to Your Spouse’s Betrayal Trauma Triggers
    1. thankyou for all the info yo have given me over all this time but our marriage is over has been for 9mths i could not get myself to trust my husband anymore no matter how i tried and hes still now trying to justify himself asking friends whatcwould your girlfriend or wife say or behave like i have if he was in my husbands shoes and the answer they give him is she would be so hurt go mad do allnthe things i have done .hes looking for someone to say its normal what hes done other than hes three close friends who have said ive over reacted .we try to be friends but its still there it will never go away we were together for 40 years married .having seperated he actually told me that he still does if but not like he use to do .what does that tell me .i dont want him back im quite happy and i see more of my family now my husbands no longer living with me thankyou

      • Kay Bruner

        “I see more of my family now that my husband’s no longer living with me” is an indicator to me that perhaps your husband was using some isolating techniques that are red flags for abuse. When you see that leaving a relationship makes your world a safer place, you know you’ve made the choices that are healthy for you. Take good care and healing peace to you, Kay

    2. kimstar

      Porn use is adultery, same devastating effects, and same sins. But this article is helpful and so true, to begin to build trust and bring healing! Thankyou.

      • Kay Bruner

        So many women who are subjected to marriage betrayal will meet the clinical criteria for PTSD. It’s so important for women to get the support and help they need for their healing, through trauma-informed therapy, groups, and online resources.

    3. Harry

      Thank you for that. Very helpful.

    4. Annette DeZutter

      My husband had a sexual addiction for 40 years, long before I knew him. We met in 2006 at which time he told me that he was in counseling for porn use. I was like, “okay at least you are getting help” and we married in 2008. In 2013, EVERYTHING was exposed. He had a secret email where he had been chatting and exchanging “photos” with hundreds of women. He had even placed an ad on Craig’s List looking for hookups. I was so sick and devastated and could not stand the sight of him. I confronted him about it all and he broke down in a way that I had never seen before. I told him that I loved him but I did not trust him anymore and that he was going to have to show me his love instead of tell me. The very next day we met with our pastor and started counselling. It took a year and a half of hard disclosures and truth; but God healed our marriage and DELIVERED my husband from his sexual addiction. In 2018 I was finally able to tell my husband that I trusted him again. God is now using us in our church to help other couples who are struggling. I have seen my husband breakdown and cry with other men who have the same addiction because he knows the stronghold that it has. Today, we still have safeguards on ALL of our devices because we can’t crack the window. We are so thankful for CE and the sense of peace that we are afforded on a continual basis. There is hope even in infidelity as we are living proof.

      • Margie

        This was wonderful to read how God delivered your husband, and you! I felt like I was reading a bit of my own story. Our marriage has been restored, and we are still working on trust. One thing I do is say that I must trust God while my husband still needs to build trust. It has been crucial for me to rely on the Lord to do the work in my husband, and i believe it can truly take years to get to that place of “safe” again. We celebrate the fact that our marriage is now a miracle, and give God the glory! ❤️

      • Cheryl

        So Happy for you..
        My husband and I met in church
        Fell in love and married. He had a secret porn addiction. 13 years later God revealed it. I was devastated.
        I stayed with him.went through all his recovery fully supportive. Couples counseling….but he expects me to get over it, and my betrayal trauma is real.
        I feel betrayed again after being his support system during his recovery.

      • Kay Bruner

        Hi Cheryl,

        I am so, so sorry for the pain you’re going through. This story is all too common, I find. When someone expects you to “get over it,” their recovery is incomplete in my opinion. True recovery means the ability to connect in meaningful ways with a spouse, most importantly to rebuild emotional trust through turning toward pain rather than dismissing it. Here’s an article I wrote a while back, based on the research of Dr. John Gottman. I think you might find it helpful, just to help define what’s going wrong in his “recovery.”

        I think you would really appreciate the resources at , where you will find forums and discussions that really focus on your healing from betrayal trauma. In addition, Bloom offers attachment-focused couples courses that you can work through at your own pace, if your husband is willing.

        I personally would not consider someone to be recovered from porn without the marriage attachment piece also being solidly established; however, most of the work I see being done in this area does fall quite short of my own lofty goals! I think a lot of men end up being “dry drunks” in the old AA terminology. Maybe they don’t look at porn, but they are still no joy to live with; in fact, a lot of the behavior falls under emotional abuse. If that’s the case, I’d suggest this article to help you consider what your further options might be.

        Peace to you,

    5. Using porn is an addiction that needs to be understood. My husband has done this for years and I was devastated and my already existing PTSD got worse until I began taking courses in addictions for my profession. I began understanding what porn addiction is, I spoke with my husband and we installed on all mobile devices Covenant Eyes. He was relieved that we did that however, sometimes he was able to get around it but, when I noticed it my husband told me about it and allowed me to delete everything. Calm communication is of utmost importance. It is a fantasy they looking at, that does not mean they don’t love you. Be patient and communicate constantly and it will eventually get less and less. It is not you, it is an addiction and a bad one I agree however, my husband is a good man and I keep on working with him even though I felt betrayed and devastated in the past. We have to communicate and understand each other for what it is. Not just your husband has to understand you, as a wife, we have to understand our husbands as well and work with him.

    6. Ripped Off

      I am a 55 and my husband (who I have been with for 28 years) is 66 yrs old.

      Porn has damaged my marriage beyond ever recovering the years the locusts have destroyed. I noticed very early in our marriage how I was often the pursuer and rejected with ‘I have a headache’ routine. My husband & I cohabited for about 8 yrs prior to tying the knot (been married for 20 now – 2nd marriage for both of us) and on our honeymoon when we went to a remote cabin I thought for sure we’d make love. Nope…. never even happened. All he wanted to do was sleep and avoid me.

      It took years for me to discover my husband had a porn addiction but I insticively knew domething was wrong… very WRONG!

      When I found a magazine with the girls in it looking like 12 yr olds I just freaked out! My daughter was the age of the girls in the magazine so I threatened to leave my husband. He promised to change but he couldn’t, he just mastered hiding the porn. Then came the digital age where it was so much easier to access porn. I discovered him many times watching porn late at night on tv or on his computer.

      Our sex life just withered away to nothing. Slowly reducing from sexual
      Intimacy every few months ( should have been every few days or maybe weeks) to maybe once a year for years now. When we rarely did make love we used E.D. Drugs for him to perform. He doesn’t like using the drugs as he says it makes him feel sick and gives him a headache. He will gladly accept oral sex from me, but in return, I get NOTHING but a SORE NECK!

      It’s been years since we made love…. and now I am in menopause and my body doesn’t function like it used to…. I feel utterly RIPPED OFF!

      I have been faithful to my husband all these years and rejected temptation to have an affair…. but porn has highjacked my husbands brain and robbed me of any sexual
      Intimacy. We have tried counselling and have taken drastic measures like adding covenant eyes to all electronic devices. I have tried reaching out to a few trusted friends, pastoral counsel & family counselling but nothing is fixed. Talking about this elephant in the room is very taboo in churches and among christian friends but women like me, need to have our stories heard.

      I think its just too little too late for us. I am not satisfied in our marriage at all but choose to stay and have accepted a ‘sexless marriage’. Its depressing and sad for me but maybe my story can help prevent this from the younger people reading this. Don’t allow porn to high jack your marriage. Give yourself to your spouse! Your spouse might not have the tenacity to stick it out… He/She deserves better.

      • Bambi

        I am similar. About 3 years ago I came out of our bedroom and had a view of my husband and his iPad with gay porn. At first he denied and then said someone sent it. Three days later I came home with our daughter, looked over and it’s sitting there on his iPad for all to see. I yelled and grabbed it-I imagine our daughter(grown) wondered what the heck. Then he said later that he watches it but doesn’t know why. He is a cancer survivor(prostate) and we had been down to maybe sex once or twice a year and had to be in the morning so he could use the pills on an empty stomach but even that stopped helping. I had often (mostly) been the initiator for years and we had fought about that in middle age with promises that were never kept.so for the last 3 years, I haven’t initiated and no sex. He was never that sexual looking back. Happy to wait for me to be comfortable early on. Married 41 years and in other ways very in love and happy. Three days who I was on the computer and out of the history comes suggestions for gay porn stuff. I had been waiting to talk to him but this morning he was asking for help with some computer thing and up the pornographers stuff comes. He immediately said he had no idea how that got there. He stays up late and that’s probably why. Anyway we got in the car for our planned cabin in the mountains for the 4th and I can’t stop thinking about it. He always has had little ways of making me feel belittled(he is 5’10” and weighs about 140. I weigh 160 at 4’5” . His family had this thing about “fat people” . All of them were slim except his rather crazy sister but I’m sure she was constantly belittled for her looks and weight.When we met I was very petite about 115-120. But childbirth sent me into hypothyroidism and later I developed fibromyalgia. I used to plan romantic weekends in our middle age but he always seemed irritated or bored. Just really venting because I’m stuck now at our cabin(where the temp inside was 102-105 inside) because of a long term heating issue. I am at 6 weeks post hysterectomy and just want to lie down and have peace. Help! I am so stressed out and just want to drive the 3 hours home but we only have the one car here. I want to run away and not be told I’m crazy. I do still love him-he is a good person-kind as could be after my surgery, helps others, but can also be incredibly petty and stingy like he was raised.

    7. Kay Bruner

      I am so, so sorry for the pain you are suffering. I just want to tell you that you are not a slave to sin, including your husband’s sin. You do have the power, and the responsibility, to make healthy choices for yourself, no matter what he chooses. Here, here, and here are some articles on boundaries that will help. I would also recommend that you find a therapist just for you who can help you process your emotions and give you support for your new healthy choices. You’ll also appreciate the online resources at Bloom for Women, which are trauma-informed and highly, highly recommended. You cannot control your husband’s choices, but you CAN control your own. You have the capacity, you have the ability, you can be healthy and whole, no matter what he chooses. Peace to you, Kay

    8. Steve

      I need advice. I’m a 54 year old male, married for 21 years. About 5 years ago I had an opiate addiction. It was extremely hard to tell my wife. (She knew I was taking them for a torn disk) but even as I healed, I kept using until I couldn’t stop. I came clean, begging, crying, for her to keep it to herself. She swore she would. I understood it was hard on her and I let her know that going to a therapist, if she needed, I would support 100%. Telling her was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, much harder than withdrawal. Over the next year there were ups and downs, relapsing, going back to detox. I’m proud that I never gave up, and it’s been 4 years clean now. I found out while I was in detox 4 years ago that she told her two (2) closest friends, who had told others. I let her know that I would never discuss private subjects while she remained friends with the two (2) women. My wife admitted that she didn’t tell her friends the whole story, the parts that made her look questionable she didn’t disclose-such as the fact I begged, crying; that she swore she’d never tell a soul, and then lied to me for a year, assuring me she had never said a word. It’s hard to think about the times when her friend joined us out, now knowing that my private info wasn’t private She’s the love of my life and I’m lucky to have her. It’s lessened but now even little lies bring me back to that moment when I found out. I want her happiness more than mine. I don’t know how to move past it and come to a place of closure. Please, any advice would be greatly appreciated. I am seeing a therapist, as the fighting with my wife was triggered by little pieces of info I’d find out; (for example she told her friends she was random urine testing me). We never had real fights before, just little stupid things, and even that was rare.

      • Kay Bruner

        Hey Steve,

        It sounds to me like you need to explore in therapy what’s going on here.

        Why did it matter so much to you that she be sworn to secrecy? You probably know that secrecy is a major marker for addiction, and that openness is central to recovery. I think that’s a question to explore with a therapist.

        Another thing to explore is the seeming threat that you wouldn’t be emotionally intimate with her if these two friends were still in her life; again, it seems like the need to keep your addiction a secret is taking priority here.

        In addition, it sounds like she revealed these things to her friends several years ago, and yet you are still really stuck on this. As an addict, you know that you created a life of lies. And yet, you’re having such a hard time letting this go.

        If you’re really in recovery, I’m surprised that (1) you are so deeply disturbed that others have this knowledge, and (2) you are having such a hard time forgiving someone else for their mistakes, when admitting our own mistakes and accepting forgiveness is the cornerstone of many recovery programs.

        Your wife needed support during a very difficult time in her life. She talked to her friends about what was going on. You wanted her to keep your secrets as addicts often do, you threatened her other relationships when she didn’t, and years later, despite saying that you want her happiness more than your own, you’re still rehearsing all the things she did wrong.

        I really encourage you to explore this is therapy. I think this is more about you than it is about her. I hope your therapist can be helpful as you work through this.


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