Katie Davis graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University in Family Studies. She and her husband Matt have two toddlers and live on a hobby farm in South Carolina. They are passionate about helping individuals and couples heal from the effects of pornography use in marriage and founded Upward Inward Outward to help them spread their message. They host a podcast, have an online course, and have an Instagram page devoted to helping couples come closer to Jesus Christ and find hope amidst their challenges.
My husband, Matt, struggled with porn use for most of his life and for many years of our marriage. He lied to everyone about it, including me. I didn’t find out about it until our first anniversary, and I was devastated. Over the next weeks and months, I started experiencing, what I later learned, was betrayal trauma symptoms like anxiety, grief, paranoia, and body dysmorphia. Instead of dealing with my struggles and getting help, I immediately dismissed my feelings and told myself things like, “I’m being too dramatic” and “Matt’s the one with the real problem, I need to put my energy into supporting him”. I didn’t know what betrayal trauma was at the time, but all I knew was that I was not coping well.
Both Spouses Need Help
After I found out about his addiction, we started doing all the “recovery things” – we went to therapy, got a life coach, went to the Temple frequently, got priesthood blessings, and started attending the church’s addiction recovery and spouse support programs. I threw myself at helping my husband get better and did everything I could to be the spouse and support person he needed. I tried to keep up in my schoolwork, keep up at my part time job, stay healthy during my pregnancy, and take an active role at supporting Matt through his addiction, all while experiencing the all-encompassing symptoms of betrayal trauma. I might have looked like I was doing fine on the outside, but on the inside, I was crumbling.
With a lot of consistent time and effort, we both began to heal. After a couple of years, things were going better for both of us, and our bishop asked my husband to share about his experience in the church’s 12 Step Addiction Recovery Program with our ward in Sacrament Meeting.
Support for the Betrayed Spouse
During the meeting, Matt stood up and shared his story of overcoming porn use and gave a beautiful testimony of the Savior. As I listened, I felt so proud of him for what he had been through, and I felt so grateful for the Savior who made it possible for us.
After the meeting I was flooded by people who were touched by Matt’s story. They said things like, “Wow, you must be so proud of everything Matt has accomplished” and “You are so lucky that he was able to overcome his addiction” and “Matt is amazing, I can’t believe everything he’s been through.” Of course, I was delighted that everyone was inspired by Matt’s story, but I also felt dismissed, overlooked, and undervalued.
I couldn’t help but feel like everyone was singing Matt’s praises without considering the effects this experience had had on me. For years I had been devoted to supporting Matt through his addiction while I was also silently suffering from the effects of his poor decisions. That was the first time I realized just how overlooked the betrayed spouse is in these situations, and I committed to changing that.
Pornography Use Statistics
We know that pornography use isn’t always an addiction, but many men and women struggle with pornography use and other sexual behaviors. According to a 2020 study, approximately 91.5% of men and 60.2% of women reported consuming porn in the past month (Solano, Eaton, & O’Leary, 2020). This study wasn’t specific to members of the church, but we know that porn use in members is just as prevalent.
With that in mind, let’s consider something that is often overlooked: behind the 90% of men and the 60% of women struggling with pornography use, there’s often a spouse or significant other who is feeling hopeless, betrayed, and completely alone due to their partner’s porn use.
What is Betrayal Trauma?
Most people (even spouse’s who are experiencing it) don’t know what betrayal trauma is.
Betrayal trauma is a term that refers to a situation where someone you trust and depend on breaks or violates your trust. Betrayal trauma can happen to individuals in any kind of relationship including a parent-child relationship or friendship, but in the context of pornography, betrayal trauma often manifests in the spouse of someone who is struggling with porn use. Both men and women can experience betrayal trauma, but for this article I would like to focus on the sisters in the church who are struggling with this type of trauma.
Often someone who struggles with porn use or other accompanying behaviors feels deep shame, which leads to unhealthy behaviors like lying, deception, justification, gaslighting, toxic rage, and rationalization. Those who struggle with porn often consciously or unconsciously direct these unhealthy and harmful behaviors at their spouse, which can leave the spouse feeling confused, overwhelmed, and hopeless.
Likewise, women suffering from betrayal trauma also experience symptoms like anger or rage, social withdrawal, anxiety, depression, body dysmorphia, eating disorders, intrusive thoughts, paranoia, nightmares or flashbacks, general distrust of others, shame, guilt, and low self-esteem and self-worth. These symptoms not only affect women at home and in their marriage, but they also affect women’s ability to function or feel joy in their jobs, school, hobbies, and in their daily lives.
Hope and Healing
Over the last six years, Matt and I have grown immensely, both in our marriage and as individuals. He has learned how to effectively work through and overcome his porn addiction, and I have done the hard work it requires to heal from my betrayal trauma. I have spent the last four years as a women’s betrayal trauma group leader working with hundreds of women who are learning how to heal from their own trauma.
From my personal experience and my time working with other women, I have learned that we need to be doing much more to support these amazing women who are simultaneously doing their best to strengthen and support their husbands in their addiction, as well as suffering from the effects of their own trauma.
What Leaders Can Do
Women who are experiencing betrayal trauma often feel hopeless, isolated, and overwhelmed, but they are experiencing too much shame to reach out for help. When I was deep in my trauma, I would pray that someone would ask me how I was doing or give me a sign that they were a safe person to talk to. I felt desperate to talk about it but didn’t know how much I could share or who I could share with. As leaders in Christ’s church, it’s our privilege to minister as He would. There is a large population of women in the church who desperately need to feel Christ’s love and guidance and it’s up to us to be His hands and His mouthpiece as we do our best to minister to them.
Here are three ways that you can more effectively, lovingly, and empathetically minister to sisters in your ward and stake.
Bring the Topic into The Light
The first thing that leaders can do is help bring this topic out of shame and into the light.
In the church we often hear how porn use is rooted in shame. Even though so many men and women are struggling with it, the shame around it can make it hard to talk about in Church meetings or with leaders, so many people don’t get the help that they need and instead become even more isolated.
Just as porn use is rooted in shame, so is betrayal trauma. Even though so many women are at home or work during the week feeling overwhelmed, alone, and anxious, betrayal trauma is hardly ever brought up in our Sunday meetings.
Discussing this topic in Relief Society or Sunday School lessons will let the sisters in the room know that what they are experiencing isn’t shameful and that they are safe to open up about it.
If you are in a lesson when someone mentions her spouse’s struggle with porn use, check on her and see how she is doing.
As a Bishop, if you know brothers in your ward are struggling, you can help their spouses feel seen and valued by checking in on them or giving the Relief Society President a heads up.
Instead of shying away from the topic, let’s talk about it more openly so women who are silently struggling can feel your support and love.
Become Educated on Betrayal Trauma
The second thing leaders can do is become educated and versed in betrayal trauma resources.
As men deal with their pornography addictions, it’s common for leaders to recommend a number of resources including 12 step meetings, therapy, and regular meetings with the Bishop. Leaders rarely know what resources are available for women dealing with betrayal trauma, even though women need support just as badly as the men do.
Along with the Church’s 12 Step Addiction Recovery Program and manual, there are meetings and a manual for the spouses of the addicts. They cover 12 principles of change and healing so the loved one of the addict can have the tools and resources to support the addict as well as heal from their trauma.
The spouse and family support meetings and manual are invaluable resources, but not many leaders are aware of them. As a leader in any capacity, it would be meaningful for you to read through the manual and get to know the principles that are taught in it so you can feel comfortable discussing it with the sisters who need these resources. The spouse and family support meetings are held in person in every state, and there are dozens of online meetings available as well.
Support Person for the Spouse
The last thing you can do as leaders is encourage the spouse of the addict to find a support person outside of her marriage. A marriage and family therapist trained in betrayal trauma would be a valuable resource for these sisters. Additionally, another great support person would be a sister from the ward or from a support group who have had similar experiences with betrayal trauma and are also finding recovery.
Many women who are experiencing trauma believe that it’s not their place to talk about it with anyone outside of their marriage. Of course, that belief is understandable, but finding a support person that the wife trusts is necessary to her mental health and individual healing. Just as you would suggest a porn addict get help from friends and family, the betrayed spouse needs that support network so she can get out of isolation and start healing.
Ministering to Our Sisters
While these are just a few examples of ways to more lovingly minister to sisters who are suffering from betrayal trauma, there are so many more ways that you can help them feel loved, cherished, and supported. Jesus Christ knows each sister in your ward personally and I know He will continue to guide you in your diligent efforts of ministering like He would.