One of the biggest challenges my coaching clients face is learning how to help their partners heal from betrayal trauma caused by selfish sexual behavior. In general, men who are actively addicted to pornography or sex spend most of their time focused on their own wants and desires, oblivious to how their actions impact others. In recovery, we learn to be others-focused. A key tool I teach clients to help them shift their focus beyond themselves and to become a safe container for the pain of their wives is the acrostic VET. It stands for Validation, Empathy, and Truth. Instead of getting defensive, blowing up with rage or retreating to isolation when your wife gets triggered and wants to know for the 176th time how you could have possibly been such an inconsiderate, selfish jerk, it's time to VET. Here's how.
When your wife gets triggered, your first three responses to any of her emotions should always be the same. Validate. Validate. Validate. Her words may feel harsh and hurtful, or they may seem wildly inaccurate and exaggerated. None of that matters. What's important is that you look her in the eye, acknowledge that you hear her, and validate how she feels in a calm and caring voice. You don't have to agree with everything she's saying in order to validate her emotions. Instead, just ask yourself the question: What makes this make sense?
For example, if you have a history of being secretive with your phone and using it to look at pornography, it makes sense that your wife might get triggered when she walks into a room just as you swipe the screen and slip it into your pocket. You may have been reading your Bible app or texting your sponsor, but she doesn't know that. From her vantage point, it feels just like it did when you were looking at pornography. So instead of getting defensive or, worse yet, telling her she should be over this by now, you can instead validate her feelings. You might say: "It makes sense that you would be suspicious of me when I go to another room to use my phone." Or: "I've lied to you in the past about how I was using my phone so I can understand why you might assume I'm still looking at pornography instead of reading my Bible."
One reason this type of validation is so helpful to your spouse is because it's the opposite of how you used to react when she voiced her suspicions. In the past, you probably used manipulations, lies, blame-shifting, and gaslighting to make your wife feel like she was crazy for trusting her gut instinct that something was wrong in your relationship. Now, you have the opportunity to begin righting that wrong by affirming that her reaction to the current situation makes perfect sense.
Validating her emotions may feel very difficult in the moment, since her reaction might wound your pride or make you feel ashamed, but it's important to remember that you're not the victim. The pain she's experiencing is a direct result of your actions, so take ownership of the situation and resist the urge to throw yourself a pity party. This will take lots of practice and you won't always get it right, but learning to validate your wife's emotions is an essential skill for any man in recovery.
As you practice, here are some great ways to start just about any sentence:
It makes sense that ...
I can understand why you would feel ...
I hear you. I'm glad you told me ...
That sounds overwhelming.
Having empathy means you're able to understand and share the feelings of another person. In the context of sexual addiction, it means you can recognize, understand and vocalize the pain your sexual betrayals have caused your wife. To empathize, you must see the world through the eyes of your partner. "To engage empathy, you have to extract yourself from the equation and attempt to be enveloped in the circumstance of the person with whom you're trying to empathize," Jason Martinkus writes in Worthy of Her Trust.
When you were acting out sexually you had zero empathy for your partner. I know this because if you had truly empathized with her pain, you would have been overwhelmed with heartbreak and your acting out would have been impossible.
Today, what your wife probably wants most from you is confirmation you understand that the pain she's experiencing is a result of your selfish behaviors. When you demonstrate that you understand her pain, she is then free to stop trying to force you to get it. Many men ask, when will she stop bringing up how much I hurt her and beating me down with it? The answer: when she believes you really, really understand the depth of her pain and can verbalize that to her with a broken and contrite heart.
Radical healing takes place when a wife hears her husband attempt to describe her pain without prompting. If you have no idea how to do this, start by considering these questions: What has happened in her past that would play into the hurt you've caused? What is unique about this situation that makes it different for her? How does it make you feel for her knowing that you caused this pain? How do you hurt for her?
As you practice empathy, consider some of these example statements, and then write down some of your own.
I can see that you are triggered and I'm sorry I have caused you this pain.
It breaks my heart to see you hurting this way because of my actions in the past.
I want you to know that I hate that I did this to you.
I realize that your anger is caused by my actions in the past.
"You have traumatized her and now you must prove that you can meet her emotional needs for perhaps the first time." – Carol Juergensen Sheets, author of Help. Her. Heal: An Empathy Workbook for Sex Addicts to Help Their Partners Heal
Only after you've validated and empathized with her pain will your wife have any capability to hear your truth and perspective. With love and tenderness, you can now share your reality, reassuring her that what happened in the past isn't actually happening now. You can gently reassure her that you are sober, that you are mentally present, that she is enough, that you aren't actually doing the thing she fears. You can invite her into the present moment and out of the dark memories that have been triggered. It's also okay to ask her if she would like you to share your perspective on the situation. If her answer is no, then respect that answer and wait for a more appropriate time.
You can also ask her what she needs in this moment to feel safe, and then provide it if you can. Look for any part of her request that you can say "yes" to. For example, perhaps you can commit to verbalizing what you're doing on your phone without being asked to do so. Maybe she'd like you to leave your phone on the kitchen counter after 7 p.m. each night. With permission, you might offer a caring touch or hug. Or maybe she would like you to give her some time and space to process her feelings with a trusted friend. It's also important to be clear about what you cannot agree to, or if you would like some time to consider the request. Agreeing to a request or boundary that you have no intention of honoring simply to end an uncomfortable conversation will do significant long-term damage to your relationship.
You can do this!
If all this sounds overwhelming, or if you just can't seem to stop yourself from getting defensive or angry when your wife is triggered, don't give up just yet. You can VET your response. I'd love to help you begin building a new, healthy relationship with your wife. I encourage you to take the first step right now by signing up for a free coaching session below.