Years ago, when I found out about my husband’s secretive pornography use, I recommended the two of us see a therapist, which we did.
At first, I thought this therapist was fantastic, so nice, and understanding. This was true as long as we didn’t talk about what was bothering me. He said self-care would take care of all my problems.
When I did bring up my concerns with my husband’s behavior, this therapist would tell me not to worry about what my husband does. He said every man views pornography and looks at women and told me to be more persuasive with my husband. He said I didn’t need to tell anyone either.
In response to my husband’s lies and manipulation, I was told everybody lies. My situation was minimized by saying many women go through more serious situations like rape, cheating husbands, etc.
I would leave feeling confused, downhearted, and responsible for my husband’s actions. And a feeling of dread, that nothing could be done.
After five years off and on seeing this therapist, having constant anxiety and torment, I sought other sources. I binged on podcasts, videos, and books.
I was excited to tell the therapist that I learned I was going through betrayal trauma, which he said he knew. It just so happens he is a trauma therapist. When I mentioned boundaries, he said he didn’t believe in them and that a woman should never tell a man what to do. And a full disclosure wasn’t necessary because I didn’t need to know everything my husband has done. This therapist said he was frustrated with me that I didn’t believe everything he tried to tell me. That was my last visit.
I have overcome the betrayal from my husband. Ultimately, he chose pornography. I often still have thoughts of things I was told that go against my morals, values, and better judgement. I feel like this therapist was gaslighting me. Is it normal for me to still feel resentful to this person who I trusted to help me through a very difficult time?
I’m sorry to hear what happened to your marriage. It sounds like you spent years struggling to save your marriage by seeking outside help, educating yourself, and doing everything you could to preserve your connection to your husband. I’m glad to hear you’re healing from the betrayal from your husband. Another layer of your healing includes healing from these other injuries, including healing from your painful experiences with this therapist. Let’s talk about how you can maintain your healing momentum by addressing this important injury with your previous therapist.
I recognize you’re not directly asking me to critique the work of your therapist. As you can imagine, it’s impossible for me to provide any type of commentary on the five-plus years of work you did with him. However, based on what you’ve shared, it’s clear that it wasn’t a good fit for what you needed in your healing. We place a lot of trust in those we enlist to help us with our most important relationships. Even though it’s supposed to be a collaborative effort, we accept the challenge to be pushed out of our comfort zone so we can break out of unhealthy patterns. We trust those helping us to lead us toward healing and wholeness.
However, when that doesn’t happen, it’s overwhelming and disorienting. We are more likely to question ourselves rather than question the professional. We assume that we didn’t follow directions or that we did something wrong. This is especially the case when the professional helping us isn’t open to looking at the interaction effect between client and therapist over the course of treatment. It can feel like you’re being blamed for the treatment not working instead of taking a step back to evaluate all the interconnecting pieces involved in the treatment process.
I understand firsthand the complexities of working with couples healing from the impact of secretive behaviors, lying, and other betrayals. I’ve been helping couples for over 23 years, and I know there are times I missed details that could have made a difference. I’m also grateful for clients who have spoken up and challenged me to look at things I wasn’t seeing clearly. It takes courage to stay open to someone’s experience when they’re telling you something isn’t working. Knowing how to receive input from clients in the treatment process is an essential skill for any therapist who truly wants to be helpful.
It sounds like you were trying to be collaborative with your therapist and asked him to help you with the betrayal trauma you learned you were experiencing. After years of struggling to make sense of why your marriage wasn’t healing, I’m sure it was a major relief to learn about the nature of betrayal trauma so you could finally get the help you needed. However, when you were shut down multiple times while advocating for your own healing, it adds another layer of trauma to your already traumatized situation.
Unfortunately, treatment-induced trauma happens when a betrayed partner is disregarded, silenced, or is blamed for the failing marriage. Yes, there’s work to do for both people in a betrayal context, but the responsibility for the betrayal is on the betrayer. I’ll share some of my perspectives on what I’ve learned working with betrayed marriages over the past two decades.
Betrayed partners are often pressured to quickly forgive or trust so the marriage can heal. In my experience, therapists who don’t have specialized training in working with intimate betrayal will bypass the betrayed partner’s needs and either focus on helping the other partner or over-focusing on fixing the marriage. Standard marriage counseling is based on both people coming in on equal footing. It’s about two people with equal power both struggling to figure out how to stay connected. When there are lies, betrayals, and manipulation, one person has more power than the other. In a betrayal context, one person knows more information than the other. It’s uneven and the opposite of partnership.
Focusing on the marriage too early in the process assumes that both people are equally responsible for the trauma of betrayal. Again, it’s important to understand that betrayal is a one-sided issue. One person chooses to betray another, so it’s not a two-way street. Of course, there’s work for both people to do in the healing process, but it’s not the same kind of work.
The betrayer has the responsibility of telling the truth, stopping the damaging behavior, developing compassion, and staying in active accountability through their own recovery process. The betrayed partner needs help healing the impact of these behaviors on their body, emotions, and thoughts. Much of the work, especially early in the healing process, involves setting boundaries, clarifying needs, and reclaiming their voice.
I don’t know if your therapist was gaslighting you, as I can’t say whether he really had the necessary training to help you with your betrayal trauma. Being trained as a trauma therapist isn’t the same as knowing how to work with couples where one of the partners has been betrayed. Again, it takes humility for a therapist to know their scope of practice and refer out to more specialized care when what they’re doing isn’t helping.
You’ve done enough personal study and research to know that you didn’t get the help you needed. I’m sorry this happened to you and that you weren’t allowed to have more influence in the treatment process. However, I’m glad you ultimately recognized what you needed and took action.
It’s normal to feel resentment in a situation like this. Resentment is a profound feeling of unfairness. What happened to you in your marriage and then in the treatment process was all unfair. There were factors beyond your control, and it left you feeling powerless to respond. Of course, you reclaimed your power and figured out what you needed, but it’s deeply painful to ask for help from both your husband and the therapist and not receive it.
You did the best you could to not only save your marriage but also influence the treatment process. I hope you can continue healing from the betrayal trauma and the treatment induced trauma you’ve experienced.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at [email protected]
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About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, host of the podcast, “From Crisis to Connection”, and creates online relationship courses. He earned degrees from Brigham Young University and Auburn University. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
The advice offered through Geoff Steurer’s column is educational and informational in nature and is provided only as general information. It is not meant to establish a therapist-patient relationship or offer therapeutic advice, opinion, diagnosis treatment or to establish a standard of care. Although Geoff Steurer is a trained psychotherapist, he is not functioning in the role of a licensed therapist by writing this column, but rather using his training to inform these responses. Thus, the content is not intended to replace independent professional judgment. The content is not intended to solicit clients and should not be relied upon as medical or psychological advice of any kind or nature whatsoever. The information provided through this content should not be used for diagnosing or treating a mental health problem or disease. The information contained in these communications is not comprehensive and does not include all the potential information regarding the subject matter, but is merely intended to serve as one resource for general and educational purposes.