The Stages of Betrayal Trauma, Pt. 3: Making Sense of the Situation
The stage of MAKING SENSE OF THE SITUATION is characterized by:
A need for inner clarity
How do you make sense out of the nonsensical? When your entire world has been shattered by betrayal and abuse, when everything you thought to be true has proven false, how do you stand up, gather the broken shards, and get moving again?
(Hint: Very, very carefully. Self-care is still crucial!)
When you realize your life isn’t what you imagined it would be and your spouse isn’t the person you’d thought you’d married, the acceptance of these realities can be harsh. The key to remember is to go slowly as you begin to process all you’ve been forced to endure. Nothing happens instantaneously; triggers and other setbacks are normal. When you realize that, you can learn not to be too harsh on yourself.
One of my favourite ways to take care of myself—particularly during times of high-stress—is by working out. I’m a total Les Mills Body Combat freak, and in one of their workouts, instructor Rachael Newsham says,
You can go right when there’s nothing left. You can go left when there’s nothing left that’s right. Or you can struggle straight on through!
I love that, because at this point in the grief and healing journey, struggling through is the only way to get through. Trust me, it’s worth the effort, because in the end you’ll regain your stability, sense of safety, and a clear understanding of your true, beautiful self.
This is the stage in the grieving process where your journal really becomes your best friend.
Making sense of the situation isn’t merely about educating the mind by reading about domestic abuse, infidelity, and/or betrayal trauma. While educating the mind is a crucial step as you begin to heal, this stage takes place more in the heart than in the mind.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew within me a steadfast spirit.
As I mentioned in my earlier article, journaling is an excellent way to put a name to your emotions, release their intensity in a safe way, and relieve your physical body of the impact of betrayal trauma. Before you begin journaling, ask yourself what traumatizes you the most about the situation. Is it his lies, his betrayal? The gaslighting, the crazy-making, the depletion of your sense of self-worth? The infidelity? A possible feeling of disconnection with God, the loss of your dreams, the confusion and sense of surrealness? Your spouse’s anger and rages? Or all of the above?
As you write, notice how your body is responding physically—in other words, where does your trauma reside? For some victims it’s in their head (migraines, dizziness), others their heart (palpitations, racing heartbeat), still others their stomach (digestive issues, pain, nausea), or anywhere else in the body.
Take breaks if you need to, or put the writing aside until later if you feel stressed. Go slowly, and eventually that feeling of stress will be replaced with relief and release.
Remember that your body is sacred, a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19). Because your body physically stores trauma, it’s crucial to your health and overall wellbeing to release it. Focusing on your individual reaction and understanding where your trauma is being held will go a long way toward healing the wounds.
For more information on this topic, I recommend The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van der Kolk.
Right now, your focus is on making sense of the swelter and hum inside your head. The human brain is wired to seek understanding. We’re curious by nature: we want to know things. When you’re in the stage of making sense out of your trauma, a variety of questions are likely pulsing and zipping through your mind. Putting pen to paper naturally slows the brain and engages the senses in a more productive way than mere rumination can.
Rumination all too often morphs into obsession. Control those zapping thoughts by writing them down on paper. The tactile engagement of writing by hand is extremely rewarding.
Questions people often ask themselves after realizing their spouse is abusive or unfaithful include:
How could I have been so wrong about him?
Is this my fault? (No! Abuse is never the victim’s fault!)
How could he do this/be this way?
What else has he lied about?
Will he—or can he—change?
What do I do now?
By using these prompts as a springboard for your personal writing session and adding your own questions and concerns to the list, you’re allowing yourself the freedom to fully express your vulnerability in a safe place. If you have a trusted group, friend, or therapist to share your thoughts with, all the better. Just remember what I mentioned in the first article in this series:
Are these safe people to talk with? Will they truly understand or will it end up being more damaging and traumatic for you to confide in them? Be sure the people you talk to are those you can thoroughly trust to have empathy and understanding. And be sure they aren’t the gossiping sort.
Making sense of the situation is a difficult and individual process. No one can tell you exactly how to assess your situation, to move forward in a healthy manner, and to resolve the decisions you may need to make. All that depends on you and where you’re at any given moment.
Each step in its own place.
Once you begin to make sense of the betrayal, you’re able to begin processing your trauma. This is the stage where true healing takes place. As you make sense of both the positive and negative aspects of what happened to you, the path of hope and empathy opens up before you.
Empathy for self. Empathy, even, for the one who betrayed you.
Hope for the future. New possibilities seem exciting rather than frightening or daunting.
Life begins again.
You’re then able to ask yourself crucial questions, such as what am I going to do about this situation? What do I truly want?
Empathy for self means taking your own self—your feelings, needs, and dreams—into consideration. All too often, victims of domestic abuse are highly empathetic people, which causes them to put others first—usually to the detriment of themselves. Ignoring personal needs is a destructive path that inevitably ends in exhaustion and an openness to more abuse from others. You forget who you are when focusing exclusively on the care of others.
You must remember who you are, what you want and how you wish to direct your life from now on.
You can also take the next crucial steps of setting boundaries and deciding what you feel is acceptable in a relationship—and what isn’t.
More Journaling Prompts:
Where do you require change—from self, and from others—and what form should that change take?
What areas in your relationship can you be flexible? What are non-negotiable?
Do you believe in forgiveness? Be aware that your answer to this question is likely to waiver, change, and take on different meanings throughout your stages of grieving. That’s normal—and necessary. Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting, it doesn’t mean automatic (or even eventual) reconciliation, and it doesn’t mean erasing the past. For more on forgiveness, read my article, “Forgiveness After Betrayal.”
How will your life be different after this experience? How do you want it to be different?
What is the most difficult part of the situation for you? Is it the abuse, the betrayal, the lies and deception about what he did? Is it something else? Identify the core wound.
If your spouse admits his toxic behaviours—without blame or excuses—and wants to change, what steps will you require him to take (such as joining an abuser intervention program, finding a spiritual director, going to Confession regularly)?
What are your personal boundaries?
This process helps you put to words your deepest beliefs, which gives you a greater awareness of self—an awareness you can now lean on for strength and endurance in the future, no matter what the future may bring.
Be extremely patient—with yourself, and with the movements of recovery and rejuvenation. Yes, this is a difficult process. You’ve experienced trauma, you’re wounded, you likely feel confusion and perhaps even guilt. This is a unique form of suffering no one should have to endure, yet if you’re in this situation, you’re not alone. And there is hope.
More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
Arbitrary suffering is excruciating, but when you gain a sense of the good that can come out your experiences, new meaning, expansion, and awareness begins to shine light onto and into your situation.
Suffering in and of itself is meaningless; we give our suffering meaning by the way in which we respond to it.
(Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning)