Joni had not been herself for years. She had been married to Tom, her childhood sweetheart for 13 years. He was a successful businessman, and she was the owner of a small but thriving women's clothing boutique known for its impeccable service and flawless style. They had three bright, handsome children and were leaders in the church they had attended since childhood.
Despite the trappings of the All-American family, for years Joni felt isolated, joyless, had difficulty concentrating, experienced bouts of insomnia, was becoming increasing irritable and experienced frequent mood shifts. Though only 42 her mother suggested it was probably early onset menopause. Friends said it was a normal response to the stress related to her business, caring for her home and three teenagers. Some suggested a long vacation with Tom to get-away from the everyday hustle and bustle. Her friend could not know how repulsed she was at the thought of a long holiday with Tom. One friend offered to share her Xanax. "Take these and couple of glasses of wine before bedtime, and you will sleep like a baby." None of their well-intentioned advice sounded appealing. The only thing she wanted to do was to get in the car and start driving. She didn't care where she just wanted to get away and be alone.
She made an appointment with her family doctor. Joni's doctor listened to her symptoms: hopelessness, rage, loss of appetite, insomnia, and no desire for intimacy with her husband. She was given a physical exam, and a complete blood count was ordered. Other than slightly high blood pressure the doctor found no physical ailments that would explain her symptoms. Her doctor told her she was depressed. She prescribed Zoloft and a strong recommendation she schedule an appointment with a mental health counselor.
As Joni left the doctor's office, she was somewhat relieved there were no physical problems. But just as she suspected for many years now she must be going "crazy."
After a few weeks and some mild side effects, the Zoloft seemed to be working, but she was still a shell of the person she once was. She knew she needed more help but going to a therapist felt like a validation of the craziness she felt and heaped on more guilt. More faith was the answer according to her Bible study class.
Then while Googling the phone number of a supplier she hadn't ordered from in a while, she entered "counselor" while trying to write "county."
She stared at the computer screen and saw several counselors who advertised as being "Certified Sex Addiction Therapist" (CSAT). One of the sites offered a quick online evaluation that assessed any effects the partners of sex addicts sometimes experience.
There were those words again "SEX ADDICT!" She had become all too familiar with its meaning while trying to understand the change in Tom’s behavior. After the birth of their first child, Tom had gotten out of bed one night to check on the baby. She thought he had been gone for a long time and went to see if everything was okay. She noticed a light coming from their home office. The door was slightly ajar, and even without her glasses, she could see Tom was masturbating while watching porn on the computer. She placed her hand over her mouth so he would not hear her gasp and stood there for a few minutes almost paralyzed. Should she say something or wait till the shock wore off? She slowly and silently returned to bed. She remembered Tom coming back to bed. She felt afraid and angry. She laid there the rest of the night with her back to him and his to hers.
When the morning alarm went off she wasn't sure if she had slept at all or had dreamt what she saw? The morning routines went along as usual. Tom and Joni said very little to each other. But with the new baby that had become part of the routine. As Tom picked up his briefcase to leave for work he started to kiss Joni on the lips but she turned her head, and he gave her a peck on the cheek. Sensing something was not right he asked if "everything was all right?" She shook her head and added an unenthusiastic "have a good day."
She paced around the house. Several times she started to pick up the phone to call her mother and sister. She knew what she would get...more judgment. Besides, she still wasn't sure that what she saw was real. Tom was not a "pervert." He wouldn't look at porn she told herself. He is a Christian, a good husband, and now a father. He was responsible, reliable, and loved her. He would never betray her or compromise his values.
With all their time taking care of a new baby, work, church, and community activities Joni had put the event in the back of her mind. Though not completely. The sights and sounds of that night were ever-present. The thoughts were affecting their relationship. Tom was growing more isolated. He started to spend more time at the office. When he came home, he locked himself in his office, coming out for dinner and to help put the baby to bed. Almost every night she noticed he was getting up and not returning for long periods at a time. She knew the only way to alleviate the confusion, fear, and anger was to talk directly about it with Tom. She dreaded it, and each time she started to say something it didn't seem to be the right time, and she put if off.
Their sex life had lost its passion. At first, Joni tried to relight the physical fire they once had. But more and more Tom was "too tired tonight, " or his "bad back was acting up again." Which was fine with Joni because the feelings of betrayal still lingered and were affecting her closeness to her husband.
It had been more than three years since that night when she saw her husband engaging in "virtual" sex. In those intervening years, Tom and Joni had two more children. It was mostly a satisfying time in her life, but she still couldn't get the shocking scene from three years prior out of her mind. She kept it to herself, but the scene had turned her world upset down and was eating away at her. How does one even discuss something like this? It had been so long ago, and she didn't have proof. What if he admitted viewing porn? What if he denied it? Fear, confusion, shame, the increasing episodes of rage, and intrusive images had become too much. She had to know the truth.
Lies, Secrets, Threats
One night after the kids were in bed she told Tom she had something serious she wanted to discuss with to him. He hit mute on the TV and said, "Sure honey is everything okay?" She told him about what she had seen that night three years ago and the misery she had experienced ever since. Tom seemed surprised at her accusation and denied he had ever watched porn. Calmly and confidently Joni recounted the scene and begged Tom to be truthful. The look on his face was condescending, meant to make her feel as though she was the one with the problem. He denied he had ever viewed porn. When Joni repeated that she knew what she saw, and he was not being truthful, Tom became indignant and stomped out of the room. "You're crazy. You better have some proof or apologize," he shouted.
Tom's reaction was worse than she had imagined. Over the next week, he gave her the silent treatment and his contempt was unmistakable. Maybe she was wrong. Maybe she should apologize. At least their home and the children could have some normalcy again she thought. They never spoke of it again.
Joni pushed the images and her feelings to the back of her mind. Though there was an unmistakable coldness in their relationship, for the most part, things were manageable between her and Tom. The kids were healthy, doing well in school, and were busy with after school and church activities. Still, something in her gut told her their marriage was teetering on the verge of collapse. The thought of divorce had now started showing up. She could barely fathom the idea. She threw herself into her work, kids, church and community affairs in an attempt to distract herself from the thoughts of how it must be her fault.
Tom continued to sneak away at bedtime and spend long hours locked in the home office. He had started to take time off from work and spend all day at home while she was at the shop and the kids were in school. More and more Joni was convinced he was having an affair.
One evening while just her and Tom were home alone she decided this was a good time to talk to Tom about her concerns and to propose they attend marriage counseling.
Tom was in the office. She knocked on the door then entered the room. As she opened the door, Tom began scrambling to turn off the computer or the browser. He was apparently trying to hide something. “What do you want? Can’t you see I’m busy?” he yelled. Instead of asking if he was hiding something and why he was breathing so hard she told him she wanted to talk to him about going to marriage counseling. Joni was not prepared for his response. “Go right ahead. But count me out. You’re the one who is paranoid. You’re the one the kids are afraid of and all your anger issues. And you’re the one who rejects my attempts to be intimate with you. I’m glad you finally realize you are the one who needs help.”
Joni stood there unable to speak. How could he say such things? When he finished, she tightened her lips, shook her head in disbelief, then left the room. Within a minute she realized he had turned the table and made her the problem. This time she wasn’t going be the victim.
She burst back into the room where Tom was still sitting. “I want to see what you are doing on the computer. Open it up I want to see.” Tom glared at her and in a threatening tone told her to “get out, or I won't be responsible for what happens next.” Joni started to reach for the computer mouse, but Tom grabbed her wrists and pulled her out of the room slamming and locking the door.
Joni burst into tears. At first, she walked out on the patio her mind trying to make sense of what was happening. She grabbed her purse and car keys intending to go and talk with her sister. She got in the car but decided she didn’t want anyone to know how defeated she felt. It wouldn’t help her and would only make others feel bad. The only thing to do now was to accept this would be her life.
How the Disease Spreads
But everything was about to change. The morning began on a bad note when her youngest son was late getting ready for school. If he missed the bus, she would have to drive him to school making her late opening the shop on her new employee's first day on the job. None of her yelling, threatening, and offers of rewards could get him to move. At her wit's end, she burst into his room, yanked his covers off and began slapping, threatening, and cursing her son. Her oldest son, afraid for his brother and mom, ran into the room and positioned himself between the two while begging his mom to stop. She did but amongst the bed covers strewn about the room a telephone began vibrating. She picked it up. It was her youngest son's phone. She stared at the phone paralyzed as she watched the X-rated photos of her son and classmates scroll across the screen.
"What is this she demanded?" “It’s nothing mom everyone at school does it,” he said unable to meet his mom’s eyes. “Mom I am so sorry. I’ll erase them and promise to never download them again.”
She started to explain the consequences and her disappointment but was interrupted by her older son who was still standing between them. “Mom, why are you punishing us when dad watches porn all the time?”
“What do you mean?” she asked. “Mom if you don’t know you really are out of touch. A few years ago we were using dad’s computer to do our homework. He hadn’t logged out of his portal so when the computer came on what he had been “working on” popped up. There were hundreds of porn sites. Some of them were pretty raunchy. We laughed about it, and when our friends come over or when you guys weren’t here we watched it all the time.”
“Show me what you saw,” Joni insisted. “Mom it’s gross. I don’t want you to see it.”
“You’ve got five minutes to get ready for school young man. Get going!”
Joni went straight to Tom’s office and turned on the computer. It took her a couple of minutes, but she figured out the password to Tom’s portal. As soon as the browser opened a flood of porn sites popped up on the computer. She was so scared and shocked she began shaking. She started feverishly hitting the keyboard buttons and moving the cursor around. Her mind was frozen she couldn't remember how to turn off the computer and was about to smash it when she heard her son.
“I’m ready mom,” he shouted. Still, in a blur, she somehow was able to drive her son to school and get to the shop just a few minutes late.
She showed the new employee around. Fortunately, she seemed to be a fast learner. Joni’s mind was consumed with everything that had happened that morning. It was impossible to stay focused.
At the first opportunity, she turned on her computer. She checked Tom’s cell phone and text messaging activity. She called a few of the numbers that turned out to be “sex chat rooms.” She discovered Tom had added a new cell phone line to the account that she knew nothing about. She then started going over their credit card statements that listed off payments to establishments she had never heard of. She called the credit card companies to report the oddly named businesses. The credit card representative would only say they were merchants but couldn’t say what kind of merchandise they provided. She made copies of everything.
Time to Get Real
She closed the shop early so as to be home before the kids. When they got home, she told them they would be staying with their grandmother. She had already packed their clothes for school the next day. The boys grabbed a couple of things and loaded up in their grandmother’s car who promised them it would be pizza night.
Joni sat on the sofa going over in her mind the last 42 years. This was not the dream she had dreamed. She heard Tom’s car enter the garage. She silently said one more pray before Tom opened the door.
Tom knew something was wrong when he saw Joni standing near the kitchen island with stacks of paper spread out on the island. He saw the stack of screen shots Joni had downloaded from a few of the porn sites on his computer.
“What is all this? You don’t think this is mine do you?” he asked with all the disbelief of a person confronted by the police with the bag of marijuana found during a search of their car.
“I copied them off of your computer Tom. They are phone numbers and texts from your phone and charges on your credit cards.”
“Wait, Joni I can explain,” he pleaded.
“There is nothing to explain Tom. I am done with your lies, secrets, and manipulation so that you could get your ‘fix.’ You didn’t care how it affected our children or me. For years now I thought I was going crazy. Well, I’m not crazy. I’ve been seeing a therapist, and she has helped me to get my life back. You need to get help, and until you do, I don’t want you around our children or me. I have already packed your things. I want you to leave, and when you can show me you can be trusted we can think about our future. Now please go.”
Tom continued to plead for Joni to reconsider. He told her he wasn’t leaving his name was on the deed she couldn’t make him leave his house.
Joni picked up the phone to call the police. “Stop Joni. Okay, I’ll go,” he said. "I'll be back tomorrow when you have cooled down."
In this fictional scenario, Joni was suffering from Betrayal Trauma, a term first coined by psychologist Jennifer Freyd. The research has continued most notably by Bessel van der Kolk. Betrayal trauma is the response of a person whose trust and belief in the person closest to them has been shattered. The symptoms include those associated with depression. However, therapists trained in treating partners of sex addicts often recommend a treatment protocol similar to that prescribed for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
If Joni’s story resonates with you or you are concerned for a friend or loved one don’t try to tough it out. Betrayal trauma victims need support, reassurance they aren’t crazy, and a plan for transitioning from a victim to a survivor.
There are many excellent resources, but the one I recommend is “Mending a Shattered Heart: A Guide for Partners of Sex Addicts” by sex addiction therapist Dr. Stefanie Carnes, Ph.D. You can also go to www.recoveryzone.com and take the Partner Sexuality Survey to help gain some insights about how your partner’s behavior has impacted your life. Last but not least, go to www.sexhelp.com for a list of therapists in your area trained in treating sexual addiction and helping partners of sex addicts back to a rich, full, meaningful life.