Betrayal Trauma: The Pain of Trickle-out Disclosures

As those of you who have listened to episode 4, season 1 of my podcast, I AM MY Passion Project, know, my husband, Noah, is a recovering sex and porn addict. Deciding to stay in a relationship with him was a huge decision. It’s been a long process of recovery for both of us, and there have been lots of challenges along the way, but we have made it to a relatively stable place. Unfortunately, last night I was on the receiving end of one of the most difficult ongoing challenges: a trickle-out disclosure. 

Yesterday after movie night and before we did our evening meditation, I found out that, as part of his “acting out” as a sex and porn addict, Noah had gone on dating sites to look for women. The reason this topic came up in the first place was because just that morning I had interviewed the author Michelle Traub about her experiences with online dating, and I brought it up in conversation with him. When I asked Noah why he didn’t tell me that he had used dating sites earlier or why he failed to answer my original question to him months ago (“Did you ever use online dating sites?”), he said he didn’t remember using the dating sites and didn’t even remember me asking that question. As you can imagine, I was pissed. I was pissed to learn this new information because I felt even more used and tossed aside as his wife than I usually do when thinking about his actions pre-discovery, also because it seemed like he lied to me—once again.

In the recovery world, they talk about the mental state called “brownouts.” That’s when a detail regarding acting out is so egregious that the addict simply blanks out about the event. But in our relational recovery process, I have noticed that this trickle-out disclosure situation is actually related to “brownouts.” Noah conveniently forgets actions he did in the past that are too painful for him to recall. The brownouts seem to be a way for his brain to protect him from having to admit that he participated in abusive habits that didn’t reflect healthy morals and values, that harmed others, and harmed himself.

May 7, 2022, was my discovery day (D-day). That’s when Noah informed me that he was a sex and porn addict and that just that morning when he told me he was taking a nap he was actually looking at porn. On August 8, 2022, we went through the formal disclosure (FD) process. This is when he worked with a CSAT (Certified Sex Addiction Therapist) to write down all of his sexual history from childhood on, and his acting out behaviors during our twenty-one years of marriage. 

Most therapists and coaches who specialize in sex and porn addiction will say that once the betrayed partner receives the FD they will have the full story about how their partner acted out; the betrayed partner now knows all of the secrets that their partner was keeping from them, and the betraying partner no longer has control of the sexual narrative of the relationship. This gives the betrayed partner the opportunity to make a decision about if they want to stay with their abuser or want to leave the relationship. The betrayed partner is then able to start processing their feelings with therapists specialized in betrayal trauma and sex addiction as well as with empathetic and supportive friends and family. But from my personal experience and from hearing from other betrayal trauma survivors, the FD is rarely the end of the disclosure process. And, I think it’s because of these brownouts; these devilish pockets of denial. 

As a betrayed partner choosing to stay with my husband, it’s the continued trickling out of more abuse details that is one of the most challenging parts of the recovery process to deal with. It also leads to CPTSD (a condition where you experience symptoms of PTSD along with continued additional symptoms). I have a lot of metaphors I like to work with to describe my feelings surrounding the betrayal. These are the metaphors I’ve been working with to help explain my personal betrayal trauma landscape to my husband.There is a thin veil that floats between the now (where he is in healthy recovery and we are working to build a new relationship) and the shit-show that is his past abuse. Every once in a while the veil blows to one side and I get an eyeful of that shit-show. The shit-show has two different collections. I have the “shit mountain” (this is where I have to dump all of the acting out behaviors I hear about). It is an ever growing mountain of steaming stench. Then, I have “the bucket of women.” This is where I have to mentally add all of the women I constantly learn about that he engaged with in a variety of ways. The bucket is overflowing with body parts protruding every which way, with some ladies threatening to tumble out. But, I still have to continue to pack them in because, due to the trickle-out, they just keep a cumin’. Each time I hear a new detail regarding Noah’s infidelity, I have to leave the comfort of my sunny, cozy apartment to slide back into the disgusting shit-show. I have to climb the mountain of shit and add more bodies to the bucket of women.

I wish this wasn’t the truth of my situation but it is. The trickle-out is real. How do I deal with it?

  • I ask Noah all the questions I can think of to clarify the new information that I receive
  • I allow myself to feel the feelings. I usually find myself getting angry, sad, resentful, disempowered, unloved, and unattractive
  • I tell Noah exactly what I think about how he told me, the information he told me, and how I feel about it and him since finding out
  • I take time for myself to process the new information. This usually involves physically leaving or shutting myself up in a separate room. Sometimes, I will take a trip by myself and go off to another city for a short time to just be one with my feelings or visit friends.
  • I reach out to friends I can trust with information about my betrayal trauma
  • I talk to my APSATS (Association of Partners of Sex Addicts Trauma Specialist)
  • I do some self-care in the form of going for a long run, working out, eating something tasty, or shopping for something that will make me feel pretty
  • I have Noah do AVR with me—the process where he acknowledges the truth of the situation, validates my feelings, and reassures me that he is in healthy recovery and no longer the person who took advantage of me in those ways
  • I have Noah remind me that he has a disease, those were the actions of a person letting their disease control them, and that he is using all of the tools he has learned in therapy, a twelve-step program, and at his inpatient clinic to manage it
  • I have Noah tell me “the things.” This is where he tells me how much he loves me and is devoted to me and to his recovery, and that I am the only one for him—he chooses me

By the end of that process, I’m usually feeling more grounded and able to step back out of the shit-show and into my sunny apartment where I get to eat chocolate and get loving hugs and kisses from the man that I chose to ride this out with. 

Trickle-out disclosures and brownouts can happen at any stage in the coupleship’s recovery process. And, it can seem unbearable when they happen, but when you are with “your person” and you find that both of you are intentional about having a healthy relationship you will be surprised at your strength and resilience to work through these challenges.

For more information about the FD process you can read the book, Full Disclosure: Seeking Truth After Sexual Betrayal, Volume Two for Partners, and the rest in the series by Janice Caudill and Dan Drake.

If you want to learn more about the steps in betrayal trauma recovery read, “Ten Initial Steps Toward Betrayal Trauma Recovery.”