Early recovery from sex addiction is a tumultuous time, your recovery foothold is shaky at best. So how do you maintain that precarious foothold when your partner is on the emotional rollercoaster? You know the rollercoaster I’m talking about; the one where she is angry, sad, fearful, or an ever shifting mix of all; the one that seems to come out of the blue to you; the one where her facts and logic just doesn’t make sense to you; the one you don’t really understand but have learned to fear.
How do you survive her rollercoaster &, more importantly, how do you help her through it so the seeds for a tiny bit of trust are planted? If the Serenity Prayer seems like your only lifeline for getting through the rollercoaster, let me teach a new strategy for helping to calm the emotional storm and begin to repair your relationship.
First of all, accept that you won’t understand, so don’t make the mistake of saying you do just to appease her. Let me tell you a secret about your wife; she already knows you can’t understand. She may not like that fact, but when she’s not on the rollercoaster she does get that. She also knows you can’t fix her or stop her pain. What she needs from you is not to make the rollercoaster go away, but for you to get on the rollercoaster with her and help her deal with the pain until it eases. Remember when you were a kid and banged up your arm? You probably gently cradled it with your other arm. You held it until the pain subsided. When you can tolerate hearing your partner’s pain it is like you are cradling her heart and helping to hold her pain until it recedes.
In order for you to do this it is going to take a very different kind of listening and responding than you may be used to. You will need to remember that being triggered is an emotional state; it’s not about the facts – so don’t focus on the facts by trying to reason with her or point out the errors in what she is saying. Don’t tell her she is wrong, even if her facts are wrong. Don’t respond with anger and don’t punish her for being triggered.
Your task is to listen to her heart, to notice that she is in pain, to know her pain is connected to your history of behaviors, and to care. The following is a set of instructions on how to use the what recovery expert Dr. Doug Weiss suggests you think of as like an emotional GPS to help your track your partner’s pain and help her get off her emotional rollercoaster.
- Remind yourself that your goal is listening to hear her heart, not listening to solve the problem. Attend to your breathing to help regulate your emotions. Put more physical space between the two of you if that helps you to stay more focused on her pain.
- Acknowledge her pain (e.g., “I’m sorry you’re in pain”). Remember that it doesn’t matter if she is totally wrong about the current trigger. The pain is about the cumulative weight of past hurts that have hit her full force in this moment – that is what you are really acknowledging.
- Discover and explore her feelings (e.g., “Can you tell me more”). You are just trying to track where her emotions are going. Don’t get caught up in the details of whatever event triggered her emotions.
- Take responsibility. This doesn’t mean that you say you did something if you didn’t. It means you take responsibility for her being in the position to be triggered by some event, even if she is misunderstanding the facts about the misdeed (e.g., “I’m sorry I caused you pain”). Don’t start defending yourself, don’t ask for forgiveness and, whatever you do, do not lie. If you did the misdeed, man up. If you don’t think you did, be willing to consider the possibility that she might be right (e.g., “I don’t think I scouted out that woman, but I’ll talk to my sponsor about your observation and factor that into my recovery plan”).
- Ask her what she needs from you.
- Do what she asks.
If you meet her emotional rollercoaster with anger it will be like pouring gas on a fire and you will ruin the opportunity to repair some of the damaged trust. If you go into your victim, then you are ignoring her pain and making it all about you. It doesn’t matter if she’s in her victim when she is triggered. If you get into a power struggle about who the real victim is in this instance, you reinforce her fear that you are never going to be there for her emotionally. Instead, use her emotional rollercoaster as an opportunity to use your emotional GPS and teach her that you will be there, in the way she needs you to be. Know that if you join her on that emotional rollercoaster you are sowing the seeds that will eventually become restored trust.