Betrayed by My Husband
As told to Cliff Williams
“I never imagined that my life would blow up as we approached our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary.”
Edited by Cliff Williams from a recorded and transcribed conversation with “Sara” on July 26, 2023. After being married for twenty-five years, Sara learned that her husband had been alcoholic and addicted to sex outside their marriage for the previous twenty years. All names and identifying details have been changed or left out. “Sara” is a pseudonym.
Sara grew up in an active, Christian family. “The people in my family were highly involved in church life. My extended family was close knit, and their values sprung from their Christian faith.
“I went to a Christian college. I thought, ‘I’ll probably make some of my lifelong friends there and possibly meet a spouse in addition to becoming equipped to do something with my life. I assumed that if you met your spouse at a college that required you to have a pretty strong faith to get in, you would be safe.
“I met someone during freshman orientation. We dated all four years of college and got married right after I graduated. We traveled for my husband’s job during the first several years we were married, and then we settled down.
“During the next twenty some years, Paul and I were involved in church life. We were small group leaders and youth group leaders. We taught Sunday School and were on the missions committee. We organized and ran the first adult mission trips ever done at our church with trips to foreign countries. We even founded a charity that provided support to medical missions in lesser developed countries.
“I never imagined that my life would blow up as we approached our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary.”
Paul asked Sara whether she wanted a ring for their twenty-fifth anniversary. “When we got married, we didn’t have any money. We were young kids, right out of college, and I never had a nice ring. I said, ‘You know what? I’m not a huge jewelry person. Having a ring doesn’t mean that much to me. I’d rather have an experience, a memory-building thing.’
“We had been to a number of foreign countries, and we loved to travel. Our children had not been out of the States, and my parents were celebrating their fiftieth anniversary. So I said, ‘Let’s do a trip, taking our children and my parents, and we’ll celebrate both anniversaries.’
“That became the plan. Our children and I learned about the wildlife in the country we were going to and the animals we would see. We got packed and ready for the trip. And I hurried to finish the taxes for our business so that I could be on the trip knowing that everything had been turned in to our accountant before we left, because the tax deadline was in two weeks.
“As I was going over the checkbook register, I discovered some anomalies. There were a lot of cash withdrawals, and we hardly ever spent cash on anything. So the withdrawals didn’t make sense. Plus, they were for $500 to $1500 at a time. I totaled them up for the checkbook I was working with, which covered only four months, and the total came to $16,000 to $18,000. That didn’t make any sense.
“I pulled out the ATM receipts. My husband had been traveling to a large city two times a month for five days at a time. All of the ATM slips, I noticed, were from his trips to that city. At first, I thought he was taking taxis, maybe paying cash at restaurants, and the like. But the amounts withdrawn were huge. So I took a closer took at the ATM receipts and quickly realized they were from really late at night in the really bad parts of the city.
“I knew something was very wrong. My whole body tensed. I was shaking.”
“I approached Paul with the stack of receipts and said, ‘Would you like to explain where you spent $16,000 in four months when you were away?’
“He said that he had been drinking heavily and that the cost for that was really high in the city he had gone to. He had been going to fancy places and buying expensive bottles of wine. Plus, he had been treating people and eating extravagant dinners, taking the large UberX cars to get to the restaurants, trying to feel like a big deal. He had been keeping it from me, he said, because he knew I wouldn’t like all that spending.
“I started thinking it through—‘You could drop $200, $300, $400, maybe even $500 on a fancy meal and expensive wine, especially if you’re treating a bunch of other people to drinks, but not $1500 a night. And not a couple of those in one three-day business trip. So I went back to him and said, ‘That’s not everything. I can tell.’
“He then said that he was a closet alcoholic, a binge drinking alcoholic.
“I didn’t even know there was such a thing. I imagined alcoholics as day drinkers who are hung over every morning and miss work. But he had never been like that. So what he said was a shocker.
“He said that he had been a raging alcoholic for nearly twenty years and that he did his drinking on trips when he was away from me or at home when I was already in bed or when I was out. He had removed bottles from our house, he said, so that I did not see wine or hard liquor bottles in the recycling bin. Also, when he was commuting by train, he was drinking in the bar car on the train the whole way home. I had no inkling of any of this, because his tolerance was so high that I had never seen him drunk.
“With much prodding, I got the admission that he’d been buying drinks for women. But he said that was all—he just bought drinks for them. He never left for any place with them and had no physical contact with them.
“That still didn’t ring true. I kept at it until he admitted he had been drinking in strip clubs, which are like a vacuum cleaner for your wallet. You can easily drop a thousand to fifteen hundred dollars between drinks and tipping. He had been doing that once or twice on every business trip for a really long time.
“That piece of news was devastating. I couldn’t imagine leaving on the trip to celebrate our anniversary the next morning, especially with kids and parents in tow.”
Sara called the church she and Paul attended, and they met with the counseling pastor that night. “Instead of having a healing experience, though, it was very damaging. The counselor immediately tried to distribute blame equally—‘Let’s talk about what you may have done in the marriage to contribute to this problem.’ The counselor also immediately assumed I was codependent when Paul said he was an alcoholic. I have done a lot of therapy since that time, and I know now it was not true that I was codependent.
“The counselor would not allow us to leave the office that night until Paul looked me in the eyes and said that what he had done was wrong, that I didn’t deserve it, that he was sorry, and would I forgive him. Paul said this in the way I could imagine our older child talking if I took him by the scruff of his collar and held him up to our younger child and said, ‘You tell him you’re sorry for hitting him.’ My husband simply said, ‘Sorry.’ There was nothing contrite in him. No compassion or empathy. No desire for forgiveness. He wanted to get out of that office and nothing more.
“I said, ‘I’m not ready to forgive right now. This is all new information. It feels like the tip of the iceberg. It doesn’t feel like I have all the information, and I really can’t say I forgive you when I don’t even know what I’m forgiving.’
“The counselor said to me, ‘Sara, in light of all your sins, every sin of your whole life, picture them at the foot of the cross and then tell Jesus you can’t forgive this man for what he did, even though Jesus has forgiven you for all your sins.’
“That counselor shamed me when I was already broken.
“I was nowhere near being able to forgive at that point. Forgiveness needs to occur much later when you have a full understanding, or it doesn’t mean anything. So what the counselor asked me to say only served to make me feel worse, and it did nothing to facilitate further communication or any healing between me and my husband. I left feeling beat up and guilty.”
Sara and her family left on the trip the next morning. “At this point I was not ready to explain to my parents or our children what was happening. They were all packed, had gotten passports, and were ready to go. So I had to go.
“I did not sleep the night before we left and did not eat the next day, the day we were traveling. Nor did I sleep the following night, at the hotel in our destination country. I paced the bathroom all night long, writing out a thousand questions. My husband, though, had drunk a bottle of wine and instantly fallen asleep, snoring.
“After two nights at the hotel, we drove to a resort where we were given a room on the third floor of an A-frame built into a hillside overlooking the ocean. Our children ran ahead of us into the room, and before we even got inside with the luggage, our younger child fell from the balcony. He landed three stories below on a little grassy area that was sloped. He was unconscious. Fortunately, he had not hit his head, but we were concerned about a spinal injury, so we called an ambulance.
“The hospital was open air, because it was in a remote rural area in a lesser developed country. It didn’t have any food, water, or medication, not even a painkiller. After going back to the resort to get these, a half-hour taxi ride each way, I stayed there all night in a folding chair by the crib my child was in. It was super hot and muggy all night.
“That was the most miserable night of my entire life. I had not slept previous nights, had gone a couple of days without eating, now knew about my husband’s secret life, and was concerned that my child was brain damaged or paralyzed.
“In the morning, my child and I were taken by helicopter to a hospital in the capital city, where there were CAT scan and MRI machines. Everyone else drove all day to get there.
“I sat in a tiny curtained cubicle, alone, thinking the hospital pediatric neurologist was going to tell me my child would never walk again or had a skull fracture or serious brain injury. In the end, they found nothing other than a mild swelling on my child’s neck. It felt like a miracle.
“The next day we were all on a plane home.”
Trying to Save the Marriage
Sara took steps to save her marriage. “After getting back from that traumatic trip, all my efforts went into trying to save the marriage. To do that, we had to get my husband sober from alcohol. You can’t make good decisions when your brain is affected by alcohol. And he also had to become sober from all the sexual stuff.
“Paul said that he was on board and that this was his desire. He was ready to be healthy. He for sure wanted to stay married and in the family. He had been dreading being caught, but was relieved when he finally was.
“I came up with five basic things I needed from him in order for me to stay in the marriage. I needed full disclosure—he had to answer all my questions. He had to be accountable to someone. We set up filtering programs on his cell phone and the computers in our house. He was not going to travel alone anymore. And I was going to have a lot more involvement with the money. For someone who was in his position, considering what he’d done, these were not all that invasive, especially since he had said he wanted to stay married.
“But he balked at a lot of them. He didn’t want to answer all my questions. He kept saying that he had said enough.
“We selected a person to whom he could be accountable, and he set up coffee dates with him. But they just chatted, and he never opened up about any of the important things. So he wasn’t actually being held accountable.
“He agreed to start counseling, but he went for three or four times and then quit. He did this with several counselors. He didn’t like them, he said.
“I gave him a lot of leeway on this last one, because I thought he was overwhelmed, ashamed, embarrassed, and full of guilt. It was hard giving up more than one addiction. He was, though, going to Alcoholic Anonymous meetings and to another recovery program’s meetings every night.”
Sara suffered. “I wasn’t able to think straight. I had an upset stomach and could not eat well. I felt sick all the time and dropped thirty pounds. I spent extra time with our business to allow Paul time to get healthy and sober. My heart was broken.
“When you have a sex addict in a marriage, I have heard it said, it’s like the addict has driven a large truck through your home, through your whole life, leveling everything. And then he puts the truck in reverse, running over you. When the ambulance shows up, he gets in, leaving you lying there. That is what happened to me. The whole focus is on the man and getting him better. I now know, after many years, that I suffered from betrayal trauma, which, I have learned, has very real effects on the brain.
“I had a brain scan, which showed my brain lighting up like a soldier who has just gotten back from Iraq with PTSD. I also tested positive for raging ADHD, which I’ve never had, and which you don’t just suddenly contract in your fifties.
“The trauma is such a visceral, deep, painful, difficult thing that affects every area of your life—your present, your future, your past even. It is all called into question. You go into a heightened fight or flight mode. Life becomes about survival. What happened was done by the person who was closest to you, the one you trusted, the one you should be relying on to help you through the trauma.
“The most problematic part of the trauma is its effect on the hippocampus, the card catalog of your brain. It’s where you store all your memories, the narrative of your life, in order. When someone tells you that they’ve been lying to you for decades and that your assumed reality was not the actual reality for that length of time, it’s as though the whole drawer of memories has been dumped out onto the floor. Not only are they all out of order, there are new cards in the card catalog with terrible pieces of information. You don’t know where anything fits together.
“Everything about your history together is called into question. And the only person who can sort it out for you is the addict, whom you now have to trust as being honest with you after decades of not being honest. But he is not interested in helping you order all that information, because it doesn’t look great for him. So you stay in a heightened state where you are trying to figure it all out and piece your life back together.
“Now that all the hopes and dreams and everything you’ve worked for are demolished, you’re trying to determine what kind of future you can have. How do you get through today? And what actually was your past? It’s as though you wake up being an amnesiac who doesn’t understand your history. None of it.
“For eighteen months, I lived in all this while my husband got sober from alcohol and all the sexual things, including pornography. So he said. There was no way for me to know for sure. Later, I realized he never really stopped lying to me or shut all the doors to his addictive behaviors. So I don’t know how much was and wasn’t going on, even though he was telling me he was sober from those things.”
During those eighteen months, Sara got more revelations about what her husband had done. “In the beginning, all Paul would admit to was strip clubs and pornography. But with the amount of money he had spent I knew it could not have been that he was just watching dances and giving out dollar bills. He had to be doing more than that at the strip clubs, or there had to be something further and deeper.
“On five separate occasions, we sat down and I learned more and more. Each time he said that it was everything, a full disclosure, and you can ask all your questions. Each time it got worse and worse. He had participated in every form of commercial sex that is possible, in the worst and most pernicious ways, for nearly twenty years.
“Some people think that women with cheating husbands know on some level that their husbands are cheating—there is no way they can hide it from their wives. But that is not true. I’ve learned from my own experience, from counselors who are trained in betrayal trauma, and from many other women I’ve met in various programs who are partners of sex addicts, that men who are sex addicts are able to live a dual life. They compartmentalize. They very carefully keep everything separate.
“That is what Paul admitted. When he was away from home on business and mission trips, he was living a bachelor’s life. But when he was back home, he was the married father of two and a practicing Christian. The two realms were completely separate for him. One world never crossed over into the other world.”
Also, during those eighteen months, Sara was checking on everything. “I had locked everything down pretty tight, so he didn’t have a lot of freedom. If I was going to stay married, I would have to be hypervigilant. I tracked Paul’s locations on my phone. I looked at the charges on our credit card. I checked his phone and his computer. It would have been pretty tough for him to be acting out in his addictions at that stage.
“However, he was not doing the five things I had asked for, at least not completely. He made steps on some of them, but he would quit. It was only I who went to the counseling that was supposed to be for the two of us. And I didn’t believe I had ever had a full disclosure. He seemed so sincere and genuine when we had conversations that I thought, ‘Okay. This is it. This is really all of it now.’ And then I discovered some new piece of evidence that I wasn’t even looking for that proved something large in the last conversation was still a lie. That kept happening.
“I finally gave him an ultimatum.
“I had found a prepaid credit card, which he should not have had. When I asked about it, he said it had been a gift from his mother who had sent it to him from another state. But I could see the name of the company that issued the card right on the card, and it was not a company that had a store in the other state.
“He said, ‘Oh, just take the card. Whatever the balance is, you spend it. I don’t need it. It was a gift. If you’re going make a big deal out of it and act like it’s something that it’s not, I don’t even want to look at it. You take it.’
“What he didn’t realize is that those cards have unique numbers, and you can see when and where they were purchased and on what date, plus all the charges. I had looked them up and had seen that the card was purchased recently at a store where we live and that the charges were for hookup sites.
“At that point, I threw the card down on the bed and said, ‘You need to sit down with me right now and answer all my questions, even the ones you’ve answered before, because everything’s in question again—all my questions, until I’m finished and the whole truth is out here on the table. Or you have to pack your bags and leave, because I can’t spend one more night in the house with a liar, with someone who is still lying to me after all this time.
“He chose to pack his bags and leave.”
Sara stayed married for the next two and a half years. “We lived separately, which was devastating to me, because I became a single mom of two young children. I could not keep the house, which was heartbreaking, because it was my dream house. I had designed it, planning out every single thing about it. I had to pack the whole place, sell it, find a new place, and move, with no assistance from my husband.
“At two points during the two and a half years of separation, I told him, ‘I’m going to file for divorce. You’re still not doing the things I asked you to do. There’s no reason for us to keep being married.’ Each of those times, he’d make a big, grand gesture. He still wanted to be married and wanted our family back together, he said. ‘You are the only woman going forward for the rest of our lives. I’ll go to the sex addiction workshop. I’m going to do the men’s group, the couple’s group with you, and then I’ll do whatever follow up they say. I’m really going to work this plan now.’ But he didn’t do much about any of these, and everything fell away.
“The final straw came when we gave our older child a cell phone. We three were on a family plan, and the first month’s phone bill went crazy. I got online and discovered that my husband was using a large amount of data. I could also see that he had called or texted three numbers forty to sixty times a day, including on his birthday when all four of us were at the beach for the day. I called the numbers. They all belonged to women.
“That was the day I marched over to his house—we were living in the same neighborhood—and said, ‘Would you like to tell me who this person is, who this person is, and who this person is?’ He was stunned. He said they were people from Alcoholics Anonymous and he was making arrangements about who was making the coffee or unlocking the church.
“I said, ‘Sixty times a day, every day?! I don’t think so.’ When he still wouldn’t tell me the truth, I said, ‘It’s time now.’ I filed for divorce.”
A New Life
Sara started life over. “For a number of years, both before and after the divorce, I was pretty much floundering. I felt stuck and was crying every day. I had to give up my dreams. I’d always believed there would be no divorce with my family. I had signed on for life and wanted to be with one man only and forever. I wanted thirty, forty, and fifty-year anniversaries. I wanted our children to have a dad in the house. I wanted to stay in the gorgeous house overlooking water and woods that I had designed. All of that was taken away.
“As for my emotional health, there was a whole lot of healing that should have started all the way back at the time of discovery but got sidelined in order to get my husband sober and healthy and then to resituate my kids and myself. I finally started my healing journey a couple of years ago when I learned about betrayal trauma and how it affects spouses of sex addicts.
“I read a lot about betrayal trauma, listened to podcasts, watched videos, and went to workshops. I found counselors who had been trained in betrayal trauma. Regular counselors or clergy without that specialized training, I learned, can do way more harm than good, as happened that first night with the counseling pastor at our church.
“I also found my way to a Christian twelve-step recovery program for people who hurt. I met other women who were struggling. Most of them had husbands with porn addiction, and one or two had husbands who’d crossed the physical line. I don’t think any had husbands who had a full blown sex addiction. But some women had been through something like what I had been through. And there was a really good leader. The whole experience with the program was a lifesaver for me.
“The most peaceful, most joyful, most fulfilling time that I have had in the last seven and a half years, two and a half of separation and five of divorce, were the years when I was a table leader at that twelve-step recovery program, helping other women who were just entering the process of recovery from situations like mine. I did nine sessions, which was very fulfilling.
“I am still heartbroken. But I have forgiven Paul and pray for him daily. I am grateful to have a home, though it is not the one I wanted. I’m grateful for a job that allows me the flexibility to get my kids ready for school in the morning, to pick them up in the afternoon, and to go to their basketball games and cello concerts.
“At some point I want to write about my experiences so as to help other women. It is not an easy subject to be honest about. It’s humiliating. It’s embarrassing even to be a partner of a sex addict. The details are pernicious and disgusting. Everything about the story is sad and ugly. Still, by telling my story, I can give purpose to my pain.”
© 2023 by Cliff Williams