Tue. Jul 23rd, 2024

It was an ordinary Tuesday morning when I borrowed my husband’s laptop. Mine wasn’t working and, needing to print something, I opened his. At that very moment, a notification pinged in the corner of the screen, revealing that my beloved marriage wasn’t what I believed it to be. Clicking on that notification led me to countless more — all indisputable evidence of chronic infidelity.

I fell to the floor in disbelief and then lay there next to a pool of my own vomit, as my brain scrambled to find a logical explanation. I hoped any of my mind’s meager offerings were true: that I’d uncovered a stolen identity or perhaps had discovered a secret-agent-style operation that required my husband to create a fictitious persona. I didn’t want to think that an undiagnosed brain tumor might be the cause, but decided it was the most likely culprit. Nothing made sense, but I trusted that the missing piece would certainly be offered, thereby assuaging my shock and setting the world — and my 20-year relationship — back on its axis.

But that didn’t happen. It was all real.

I filed for divorce soon after.

Except for my therapist and one trusted friend, I told no one and kept the details of my secret to myself for three months. Integrating the truth was hard enough — I couldn’t comprehend how I would even begin to explain it to others. I also felt a strong sense of loyalty to my marriage (ironic, I know) and wanted to protect it from becoming the source of hot gossip.

Ultimately, I didn’t want to talk about it because I didn’t want to be talked about, so I invented a litany of illnesses and contrived calendar commitments to avoid others. This was unusual for me, but so was feeling perpetually paranoid, so it felt like the only option I had.

In the aftermath of my discovery, I existed in a fog, carrying a persistent sense of unease accompanied by a complete loss of trust — in everyone, but most tragically, in myself. Even though I’d been comfortable in my own skin and confident in my abilities for as long as I could remember, that “me” was now nowhere to be found. Apparently, discovering that you actually don’t know the person you believe you know best in the world will do that to you.

Three months in, an ever-present headache had taken root, a byproduct of my brain’s futile attempt to reconcile not only my confusing new reality, but something far more maddening. Even now, all these years later, that headache returns every time I attempt to examine the mind-bending truth that I didn’t know my own past. Unable to eat or sleep, I looked as bad as I felt and clearly needed support. This is when, with encouragement from my therapist, I (finally) notified my loved ones.

Assaulting family and friends with this unexpected update was an added layer of pain to an already horrible experience. Not only did speaking the truth make it real, but worse yet, it relegated me to the role of spectator, where I was forced to watch my shocked loved ones being thrust into my inescapable nightmare. With each disclosure I made, I felt more and more like Freddy Krueger, adding unsuspecting souls to my growing body count.

Though sharing did relieve the burden of my secret, I still felt wildly alone. That’s because no one I told had endured a betrayal experience or could introduce me to someone who had. (Yes, I asked!) If no one in my immediate circle had a map to lend, I’d have to find someone, somewhere, who did.

Thankfully, a friend suggested the next best thing: a place offering weeklong therapy intensives, one of which was for those impacted by betrayal trauma. I called immediately. Minutes into an exploratory phone call with the center, I not only felt understood, but in learning that the sessions were conducted in a group, I was damn near giddy.

I registered to attend the next available session, which was (annoyingly) several weeks later. I comforted myself through those weeks with the thought that at last I’d be able to meet “my people.”

Sex Monster Camp

As it turns out, they soon proved well worth the wait. By the end of the first day, the women I met not only validated my experience by sharing their own, but I found comfort that they too were stuck in The Land of Retrospect, playing infinite rounds of “Wait! Was That Real?” and “What Did I Miss?”

We were an eclectic group of women ranging in age from 35 to 70-something. We represented a variety of backgrounds, from the corporate C-Suite to raising children at home. We were artists, lawyers, back-to-workers, entrepreneurs and people enjoying retirement. We were daughters, sisters, mothers and grandmothers, united in betrayal trauma as partners and wives.

Like me, all of the women were making previously unimaginable decisions, including whether to stay in their relationships, require polygraphs, separate, divorce, tell their family members, or bury the secret for good.

When one of the women relayed that her husband was upset that she was attending “Sex Monster Camp,” we proudly adopted the name as our own. Though that then-husband was sure that his wife’s experience would be a frivolous waste of time, for my fellow campers and me, it was far from it.

A talented pair of therapists guided us through the week with gentle patience and quiet compassion, affirming our pain and modeling that sitting with someone in silence is sometimes the best kind of support. Our time together included a healthy mix of education (e.g., what causes trauma and how it manifests), self-reflection (e.g., naming our emotions and identifying how we show up in intimate relationships), and somatic exercises, (e.g., channeling hurt out of our bodies via a whiffle bat and a large padded block). Though I first rolled my eyes at the sight of a padded block and a plastic bat, I learned that beating the former with the latter is indeed cathartic.

The Pain Of Betrayal Trauma

Betrayal trauma isn’t a diagnosis, but the term has been gaining popularity since first being theorized by psychologist Jennifer Freyd in the 1990s. Defining betrayal trauma as occuring “when someone you trust and/or someone who has power over you mistreats you,” Freyd indicates that it is also “toxic and associated with measurable harm, both physical and mental.” Recently, infidelity and intimate partner violence have become included as events that can cause betrayal trauma because they involve a breach of trust between people in an intimate relationship.

In addition to the emotional pain brought on by betrayal, research indicates that intimate betrayal causes immediate and often long-lasting changes in health, including increased anxiety, lower self-esteem and post-traumatic stress disorder. But what scared me most was knowing that betrayal trauma doesn’t just greatly impact one’s ability to trust others; it also often diminishes — if not annihilates — the ability to trust ourselves, which is perhaps even more damaging.

Understanding this helped me decode my own behavior. Remember how I waited a whopping three months to tell my family and friends? Had there been a physical death, I would have notified my loved ones immediately. But under the destabilizing spell of betrayal trauma, I had a new lens through which to view the world: It wasn’t safe, and neither was anyone in it.

As the women of Sex Monster Camp shared their heartbreaking truths, it became clear that they had adopted similar beliefs on trust. Like me, they were determined to safeguard what was left of their shattered lives and were entering the early stages of self-imposed exile, fortifying their heart walls against another traitor breach. I nodded in understanding as they shared their emotions and experiences, often interrogating themselves on what they had missed or what they had believed. But when they started questioning their own intelligence, everything began to change for me.

I saw no reason for these incredible women to doubt their abilities. They were all smart, capable, compassionate women who were neither aloof nor apathetic. They hadn’t “overlooked” clues or, worse, “looked the other way,” as some may incorrectly assume. It isn’t that they “missed” anything; they were never supposed to know the truth, which is why it had been so carefully hidden from them for so long. They were the betrayed, not the betrayer. It was not that they had been “too trustworthy”; it was that their husbands/partners were untrustworthy and had taken advantage of their trust. I didn’t want them to forfeit the opportunity to live joyfully or forgo the chance for future love because they were afraid to trust again — they were all too wonderful for that.

But it wasn’t until I began to advocate for my perspective that I realized that if this were true for them, then maybe — just maybe — it applied to me, too. If I was imploring them to trust again, maybe I should consider doing the same.

Look To Yourself

For the betrayed and brokenhearted, trusting again can seem like an insurmountable (and exhausting) challenge, but I’ve learned firsthand that it’s a worthy effort. But it isn’t trust in a promised future or in an unclear past. Nor is it trust (repaired or otherwise) in a spouse or partner, a parent or friend, or, well … in anyone.

The most important person to trust — the trust that is a must — is trust in yourself.

How we do this is different for everyone, but with time and daily repetition, I found that it is possible! (Who knew?!) Working to rebuild trust in myself was frustrating at times, but following a few guidelines helped. For me, those were 1) getting quiet to listen to my instincts, and not dismissing them, 2) making decisions and not second-guessing myself, and 3) practicing self-compassion when choices felt overwhelming.

Now

Thanks to my fellow campers and several wonderful therapists, I’ve learned a lot about the far-reaching impact of betrayal trauma. Though it took me seven years, I’ve come to accept that I’ll never have the answers I once so desperately sought, nor will I fully know the reality of my once-beloved marriage. I don’t love that truth, but I accept it.

This doesn’t mean that I am “healed” or never think fondly about my old life — far from it. Once-important dates and what would have been milestones are particularly tough, and I still trip down the rabbit hole of retrospection from time to time. But when I do, I don’t stay as long as I once did. Instead, I recall what I’ve learned and anchor myself in the present, tuning in to what I need to take care of me. Often, the answer is a good cry followed by a chat with Maya. Since first meeting at Sex Monster Camp, we’ve maintained near-daily check-ins, discussing anything and everything, including the macro and micro effects of our experience, single parenting through the turbulent teen years, the nuances of our ambiguous grief, and the fragility of our Bubble Wrapped hearts.

Over the years, we’ve watched one another dance in a kind of two-steps-forward-one-step-back grief cha-cha. It might sound slow and frustrating (it is), but in the sum of those “one-steps,” we have both made steady progress. As we’ve moved forward, away from our lives as they once were and into life as it is, we’ve experienced exponential personal growth.

One example of this is in the shedding of early narratives — among them, our obstinate declaration that romantic relationships would not be part of either of our futures. Even though something inside me had begun whispering otherwise, I held the line and declined offers to be set up. Until I didn’t.

Three years after my divorce, I accepted a dinner invitation. And for the first time since college, I went on a real-life, in-person date. Chris delighted me, and four years later we’re still dating. Maya is slowly opening to dating but, like so many people who have been deeply traumatized by betrayal, is hesitant. Still, with every healing step forward, the Bubble Wrap loosens just a bit for her. I suspect that Maya and I — and anyone who has been through what we’ve been through — may always keep at least a small part of ourselves covered in protective packaging.

The author with Chris. “He’s the innocent dinner date turned man-friend who respects the fragments of Bubble Wrap and continues to delight me,” she writes.

Courtesy of Stephanie Sarazin

Though I’m still working earnestly toward it, I realize that my ability to trust others may never be fully what it once was — and I’m OK with that. That’s because I know with unwavering certainty that I can trust myself in all the ways: to make the right decisions even when I’m scared, to keep myself safe, to be self-compassionate when I make mistakes, to ask for help when I need it, to find a way to speak up for others and myself, to take the very best care of me, and to use my courage to peel back the Bubble Wrap and let love in.

I don’t know my future and whether I’ll be betrayed again. None of us does. But I do know that no matter what happens, I can trust me to get through it.

Stephanie Sarazin (she/her/hers) is a writer, researcher and grief educator. She enjoys running, reading, traveling and spending time with family, friends and Chris, her kind and patient man-friend. She is the author of “Soulbroken: A Guidebook for Your Journey Through Ambiguous Grief,” a 2023 Nautilus Book Awards winner, which can be found online and in stores. Steph is currently training to trek to Everest Base Camp, where she will trust herself every step of the (very far) way. Check out her work and other adventures at stephaniesarazin.com, and follow her grief-and-joy journey on Instagram (@stephing_thru).

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