Episode 154: Reflection Aggression

Reflection Aggression

In this episode Jackie talks with fellow CSAT (Certified Sex Addiction Therapist), Josh Nichols, co-owner of Family Solutions Counseling and host of the Youtube Channel RecoveryTV.  This episode focuses on a common phenomenon that occurs later in recovery that often has addicted spouses asking the question to therapists Is My Partner Gaslighting Me?  The answer is no and in this episode Josh explains why and what is actually going on.  

TRANSCRIPT: How to Improve Sexual Health

Hi everyone, welcome to Thanks for Sharing. I’m your host, Jackie Pack. Today’s episode I have a guest on. I’ve got Josh Nichols, and he is a marriage and family therapist. He’s also a CSAT in Oklahoma City. He is a co-owner of a group practice, Family Solutions. They focus on betrayal trauma, sex addiction recovery, as well as trauma and relational stuff and just a healthy approach to recovery. Also you can find Josh, he has a YouTube channel so you can look him up on YouTube. He’s got several videos over there called “Recovery TV” so you can check that out on YouTube. So welcome to the show, Josh. I’m glad to have you. Thanks. Thanks for having me.

So I reached out to Josh because he had posted on our, he had posted a blog post that you wrote just like a week ago, right? Yes. Is that when you did it? That’s when I posted it. I wrote it a while ago. Yeah, I’m sure it took a while. It was sitting there for a while. There’s quite a bit in there. So he wrote a blog post that is on their Family Solutions website if you want to find the actual blog post, I can put a link up in the show notes, but he’s introducing this concept of reflection aggression, and it’s an interesting concept. When you posted it, you were saying like are other therapists seeing this? I definitely am in my practice. I know the therapists who work at my practice definitely see this, so I thought it would be great to have a discussion about this because usually when people are going through the recovery process, addicts have a lot of questions. Partners have a lot of questions. This is a great place to put some of this information out there.

So initially what you were mentioning is that reflection aggression is kind of this phenomenon that happens well into recovery, right? People have already… it’s not at the beginning stages of recovery, it’s not really in the middle stages of recovery, but it’s this phenomenon that happens, and it can have the potential to keep partners from advancing and even probably cause some conflict in the relationship.

Right, yes, and like you said, it was something that got my wheels turning because I had so many addict clients or what we refer to as the unfaithful partner that would come to us well into recovery, they’re working a program, and they’d always ask, is it possible that my partner could be gaslighting me? It just kept happening over and over and it wasn’t like they were playing mind tricks with themselves. In fact, they often wait a while before they bring it up, but once they’re recognizing, they’re connecting that certain behavior is being real similar to gaslighting, then they’re kind of itching to bring it up, I really think they’re gaslighting me, and for a while it really does kind of look like gaslighting a little bit, but in my mind I’m like, it just can’t be. It can’t be gaslighting because… not to say that partners aren’t capable of doing that. There are definitely some partners out there that you come to find that are also addicts themselves or have a number of other things going on, but it’s really rare I feel like from my experience, and so in my mind, I was really battling that because it just can’t be gaslighting. It has to be something else. As you examine it, your really do kind of see that it is something else happening to them, something that unfaithful partners have to really be careful with and make sure they’re showing the.. and also the therapist too showing that wounded or injured spouse a lot of compassion because the position they’re in when they come, when this starts to happen is really difficult, mainly because they’re seeing the full, the complete affect of the wound that they’ve accrued and how deep in the depths of it that mirror that’s held up that I mention in the blog is very unforgiving and whatever. Most mirrors are unforgiving. Yes, most mirrors are anyways. Yes.

So yeah, let’s talk about kind of this process and maybe where they see it. As I was reading your blog post, I thought of several clients, and I can see where they’re coming from, the unfaithful spouse or the addict partner trying to name it. I mean I think labels serve a purpose, and once… but they only serve a certain purpose and then they’re not helpful anymore. Right. So we label something and it can be pretty damaging, but it can also help us understand, so I get like the addict trying to understand what is this that.. and for the purpose of this podcast, we’ll use the he/she in terms of he being the addict, she being the partner, obviously that’s not always the case but we’re just gonna be consistent here using it that way. So he’s trying to figure this out. He’s had to figure out a lot of things in his own recovery, figure out the terms for it, identify it, name it, try to tame it. And so of course he’s gonna come to this, is this gaslighting? I did that. Is she doing that? So talk first, let’s go into kind of like why this isn’t happening at the beginning of recovery and what needs to have taken place before they’re going to start seeing this reflection aggression.

Okay, so in the beginning of recovery, the couple is in crisis mode. There’s basically been a mortal or life-threatening wound that’s being created in the partner and in the relationship so we view that 3 entities being in play here. There’s the each individual that makes up the relationship with the relationship being the 3rd entity, and what I’ve talked to partners and addicts alike about is that the addict swings his sword and cuts open the partner, and as he follows through with the cut, it also gets the relationship. The relationship is standing next to the partner, so the partner and the committed relationship share the same wound. And so there’s been some major damage done there to the partner and to the relationship, so you got this crisis that they’re experiencing and the partner’s bleeding out, and so before we can even work on relational healing, we need to stop the bleeding in the partner, get that wound to start closing or close it and then let it start to heal so it’s applying the right type of meds. So there’s such a crisis of trying to get that bleeding to stop that they’re not really able to step back and take a look at anything because that’s really what reflection aggression is is pausing and looking into a mirror to view the damage, so I live in Oklahoma City, and one thing we have a lot here are tornadoes, and so I often relate that to my clients about if a tornado is coming, you’re going to get everybody down into the cellar. You’re not going to care about your cars. You might try to grab a couple of photo albums or something, but you’re just gonna get everybody down to safety and then the tornado’s gonna pass and it’s gonna do its damage, and then after it passes, you’re going to poke your head out and kind of assess what’s happened, but your initial survival instinct is to get everyone to safety. And so that’s kind of what’s happening. So the partner always usually pushes back on recovery a little bit in the beginning mainly because the injury is so deep and it hurts that he is consumed by so much guilt and shame that he is going to jump through all kinds of hoops, and in our program we tell them that’s a normal part of the process. We want them to do that to some degree. We don’t want them to do anything unreasonable. We don’t want one of them to knock off a 7-11 to prove their love to their spouse or anything like that, but we do want them to start to jump through those hoops and do what they can to help with the healing of this wound, so it’s not until the pain has eased up and things are kind of simmering down a little bit, the addict, he can start making some momentum in his own recovery, take his eyes off his partner for a little bit and put them on himself, and he starts doing well. It starts to be a good thing, and this is the transition for him, too, where he goes from this is I’m just doing this for her because I feel so guilty, and he starts to realize that this is also for me, and I kind of like that. It’s not just about her anymore or just about our marriage. This is also about me, and that’s one of the best things I can do for my marriage.

Oftentimes, you talk about how partners are ok with that. They don’t want to be in the spotlight in the initial phases. They don’t want to be looked at and examined and poked and prodded. They want the addict to do that work and to give in to some recovery and kind of keep that focus off of themselves.

Right. There’s an interesting phenomenon with partners that I don’t know what your experience is, but they seem to be like the strongest people you ever meet in the world. They’re really tough people. They’re really good people. I mean, you can see the appeal to want to be with someone like that. So addicts are kind of selective in that, and it kind of fits with the dynamic. If they pick these really strong people that seemingly don’t need a lot of attention, that’s perfect for someone who’s trying to keep secrets, right? Right. Partners are able to be very relational and pretty secure in those relationship attachments, and that’s great for the addict. Absolutely. And when they become wounded that’s often a really new experience. You dive into their trauma, they often during a time of difficulty or where the system has been wounded in some way, they often rise to the occasion. They’re not having to be on bedrest, and I’m using that metaphorically, but they’re not… I think one of the examples I use in the blog is getting hit by a drunk driver. All they’re doing is being a good driver, but now they’ve got hospital bills to pay for, they’ve got physical therapy to go to, they’re in a body cast, they’ve gotta take all these meds, and there’s so much unfairness that comes with it. All they want to do is go back to their jobs and take care of their kids and take care of their husbands or whoever they’re in a committed relationship with, they just want to get back to the way things were, and they just can’t do that. So we talk about we usually tell them on day one that you’re gonna be terrible at being the wounded partner. That’s because you’re so strong, but it’s time. It’s time that somebody take care of them because often they don’t. They haven’t had that experience.

Right, they’ve usually been the caretaker and the one that people turn to. Yeah, and I’m not… I’m speaking kind of generalizing a lot. I know there are definitely some outliers there, but from my experience, most of the time, the partners are tremendously strong and great caretakers. It makes being wounded very difficult.

Well and I also think, I mean I think you mentioned this in the blog post, that idea that a lot of people have in relationships and particularly their romantic relationship is like I know this person, I know what they do, I know what they don’t do, I know their likes, I know their dislikes, like I know who this is, and betrayal trauma all of a sudden says, wait, there’s this side that’s pretty dark and pretty deep and you didn’t see it or you didn’t detect it.

Right, I can’t remember if I addressed that in this one or if it was in the blog on transitional distress, but there’s… in the relationship what we’re seeing happening with the couple is that a lot of times they both have their own share of trauma, whether it be something very overt like child abuse or sexual abuse or things like that or something more subtle like emotional neglect or abandonment issues and things like that, but a lot of times they both have more than their share of that, and it seems like the partner, and this is just speculative right now, but this is what I’m seeing is that the partner kind of latches on to hope in the relationship, right? So they find some… they take solace in that. The world was kind of crappy in a lot of ways growing up, but I met this person and what we’ve created is wonderful and sometimes can even be utopian-like, but in a world that has that level of certainty involved usually signals to me anyways that’s more of an illusion, and one person can only live there, so the other person has to keep that façade going, and so what they do is they kind of cast… they’re not living in that same relationship, so they kind of cast down or like the… I refer to it as the holographic image of themselves, which is really just displaying all their good parts, and they leave their darkness separate from the relationship because if I introduce my darkness into it, it’s gonna just be disruptive. And I don’t mean my darkness that I’m an addict or that I have the potential of being unfaithful. It’s most just that I’m hurting, not always happy. There are things that frustrate me. There are things I haven’t healed from. There are things I want to chance. And the unfaithful spouse is often afraid if they do that, it would be too disruptive and the partner won’t want to be a part of it. So when a betrayal trauma happens, it reveals the true nature of the world that they’re in, which is a world of uncertainty. The hard part for them is that happens once, like it’s in one moment’s time, everything was as it should be and then in one moment’s time, it all changed. It’s very abrupt, and I think the brain has a really hard time processing that abrupt change.

Right, I think that’s… I hear partners a lot of times just refer to it as this blindside, like I didn’t even see it coming, and maybe with some hindsight they can see pieces of it, but at the time they did not see that it was coming or they couldn’t put the pieces together.

Right, and on top of that, you know the addict a lot of times has… they’ve been kind of… you know with having the double life, they are pretty much aware of their dark side, and so they’ve been using their drug of choice to cope with it, so this happens to the partner with no anesthesia. They go through all of this with no even good coping mechanism, much less something, some kind of drug of choice. I mean it’s gotta be just an outright, overwhelming experience.

Yeah, and so I think that’s part of why the partner doesn’t really want to be in the spotlight. There’s just this like, I want to hide my wound or my pain or like I can’t… I’m embarrassed that this happened to me or that I didn’t see this. What are people gonna think of me? So they’re happen to let the addict be the problem. You go to therapy, you work on this, you pick back up the pieces and make this right.

Right, yeah, there’s a lot of logic to that. I mean, you did this, you’re holding the knife that cut me open, so there’s a lot of logic to go get help. You’re the source of danger. Become not dangerous anymore. So it definitely makes sense from a logical standpoint, but you’re right. You know it’s just… it’s so overwhelming to see the damage that’s been done. It’s like poking your head out of your cellar and seeing not just your house, but the whole neighborhood has been demolished. What do you do with that? Where do you even begin? And they start getting glimpses of that with the reflection aggression, and what I talk about in the blog is that it’s not about keeping secrets like gaslighting. Gaslighting’s all about messing with your reality to keep a secret, but reflection aggression is more about pacing recovery. I’m overwhelmed. I just start putting one foot in front of the other and I’m getting this mirror that’s showing me the depths of my woundedness and it’s just too much sometimes, so just get it off of me. Put it back on you for a while. I gotta start taking it in doses.

And like you said, seeing their reflection in the mirror, seeing their woundedness reflected back to them, they can be pretty aggressive in pushing that away.

Right, which makes sense. If I’m feeling overwhelmed by it.. and also too remember that they see the unfaithful partner is the one that’s holding the mirror, so it kind of automatically is associated with something dangerous. I think that natural instinct to push back, I think that yes, that can again prevent them from advancing if it’s not addressed or recognized as a very calm and normal phenomenon that happens in this process. If it gets chalked up to gaslighting, it’s going to be insult to injury and you’re probably not going to see them very long if a therapist says they’re gaslighting their partner, but if we can give them a name for it, then we give them a point of reference and a point of intervention to know how to manage it so it doesn’t take a life of its own and become something that prevents them from recovering or becomes something that does cause further damage to their relationship.

Right, and so what do you tell the unfaithful spouse? Do you give them steps? Do you… How do you explain to them, hey here’s kind of how you need to approach this?

So this will be probably my next blog on reflection aggression. In a nutshell, the key to handling reflection aggression is compassion. It’s not just compassion for the partner, too. It’s also the recovering addict or the unfaithful partner having compassion for himself because if he doesn’t, he’s gonna be not just… If he doesn’t have compassion toward her, he’s gonna be angry with her, respond that way. If he doesn’t have compassion for himself, he’s gonna just continue to rake himself over the coals, which he’s gonna digress in his recovery efforts. So being able to lovingly and gently recognize the position that she is in and the overwhelming amount of difficulty and emotional chaos that she’s undergoing, he can then learn to say things and soften and learn how to present himself in a way that is almost like a doctor having really good bedside manor for someone who’s really suffering. There are things that we gotta do. We still have to move forward, but I don’t have to be a jerk about it because I’m angry at myself or I’m angry at you or both.

Right, you know often I think sex addicts kind of have this… I mean there’s been a lot written or talked about with sex addicts in terms of they have this timeline that they think things should move, and if the partner is still struggling or still hurting or being challenged by what happened, they’re kind of like it’s time, move forward, be done. Are you saying that part of that may be that they haven’t developed enough self compassion and so that’s difficult to hold that for the partner?

Right, I don’t know if you remember, I can’t remember who coined this many years ago, but the whole “I’m okay, you’re okay” grid. Yes. Yeah, so most of the time from my experience I’m not seeing people that are operating in the “I’m not ok, you’re not ok” quadrant. I don’t think a lot of them even come to therapy. And so they kind of find themselves bouncing around between “you’re ok, I’m not ok” and then you know, they get, they start to see that they have some woundedness themselves that’s undeserving, whether it’s from… often it’s not from the relationship, it’s from other things, but it could be. Then they start to go, well maybe I am ok, and you’re not ok, and then anger gets directed that way. So it’s trying to move into the “I’m ok and you’re ok” quadrant. We’re ok. We’re hurting, we’re wounded, but we’re ok and we’re gonna do this. So you still hold the relationship accountable for movement in that quadrant. The other two it can be hindered I think by the anger and the other… consumed by those difficult feelings that can often be misinterpreted.

Is there a part of this that like… so when the addict goes into therapy, starts this recovery process, starts to work on themselves, gain traction in therapy, is there part of this then that for the partner, it kind of feels like, wait a minute, how are you the one getting better and I’m kind of over here on the side of the road in the wreckage still? So is some of that aggression rooted in some of that like, you did this to me, I’m still hurting. I don’t really want the attention on me, but now you’re better and I’m still not.

Right, and so that’s something we talk about with our couples is that because the space that is in, and we wrote a blog on this called “What is Transitional Distress?” It kind of explains this I think a little bit more on this, but this space is called a liminal state of existence, and liminal basically just means a point in time where you’re neither this nor that. It’s not a fun place to be. It’s a miserable place to be. That’s kind of where the addict, when you think of the addict having two, or the person having two selves, the true self and their addict self, the addict kind of lives out in that space and it’s not fun. That’s where they put their darkness basically, and they use a drug of choice to cope with being in that space, and they’re stuck out there. They’re like an astronaut without a ship. They’re just floating, and when this… when the discovery of the infidelity happens, it does cast out the partner into that space as well, but it knocks loose the addict, so for the first time, and you’ve probably experienced this too, that the addict kind of feels a sense of relief. They don’t have to keep a secret anymore. They might feel some forward movement in their life for the first time in a long time. Meanwhile, their partner just entered it, like I said, all at once with no anesthesia, and yeah, there’s gonna be a lot of “how dare yous” through this process. This is completely justifiable and understandable. What the partner doesn’t have the right to do is hurt somebody and in return, they’re not intentionally going to do that, but it’s very rare that they do that often or do it in a way that’s gotta be like where it’s physical and it has to be addressed, but I think in a lot of ways when it does happen, it actually gives the addict in recovery an opportunity to show their partner that they are becoming a person of integrity and a person of boundaries. I can show you love and concern and compassion at the same time that I have a boundary with you that says that you can’t do that to me, and it puts that double bind in place with the partner that goes okay, well you know the rule I’ve operated under is that shitty people do shitty things, and you’re not really acting like a shitty person right now, but this shitty thing happened. How do I reconcile that? When I’m working with the addicts on that, I’m constantly encouraging them to keep putting out information that’s confusing like that so the brain can start changing the meaning of what things are, what it isn’t.

Right, and I think helping addicts understand that of course their recovery is going to be tested by the partner. Exactly, it has to be. She will never begin to trust what you say the reality is. Absolutely. It has to be. I would worry about her if she didn’t do that. Right. Let me clarify something, too because what I said earlier is that when I say we’re encouraging them constantly putting out stuff that’s confusing, I’m not talking about gaslighting, and if someone goes… if they’re reading the reflection aggression blog, they should just go ahead and read the transitional distress blog because I do another side-by-side chart with behavior that looks like gaslighting, it will feel the same and look the same and what we’re working at with the addicts is that it’s still gonna feel the same, but then it looks different, so they’re still not gonna really trust it because it’s different, but the feeling still comes there because their brain is protecting them and they’re not gonna trust anything different either. I don’t know if that makes sense but…

Yeah, I will explain sometimes to partners, let’s say that you were just doing your thing, you stepped off the street and a bus came out of nowhere and ran over you, every time you’re walking, you’re gonna be watching for the bus because you didn’t see it the first time, and so you’re gonna be looking for the bus everywhere you go because you don’t’ want to get hit by that again. Right, or there’s a yellow vehicle you catch out of the corner of your eye and it startles you. There’s a historian I heard once say that history never repeats itself, but it often rhymes. Right, yes, I think that was Mark Twain. Was it? Ok. I don’t know who initially coined it. I heard it from a historian. But yeah, and so that’s a lot of what’s going on with the brain is that is if it looks familiar, it’s going to start throwing up red flags.

Right, and there’s going to be an overreaction to that because of what already happened. Exactly. And when you’re talking about that it’s not gaslighting, it might look like gaslighting, it may feel even like gaslighting, one of the main differences, and you talk about this in your blog post, is that the intent is not the same. In gaslighting, that intent is to deceive and to kind of throw them off the track, and with reflection aggression, the intent is not deception or secrecy or any of those things.

Right, yes, so reflection aggression, the intent really is about pacing, healing and pacing recovery. It all goes back to just the feeling overwhelmed by the amount of woundedness they start learning and experiencing when they’re looking at it, and then the depths of it, right? So it’s just, it’s more about just pacing their recovery, and they don’t really have the words for it. They just have the emotion for it. If we can, as therapists, you know, and anybody working in the recovery field, if we can start giving them the words for it, it actually can help the brain start to calm itself down a little bit and be a better self-regulator.

Right, have you heard of the book, it’s a pretty… I mean it may be like 20 or 30 years old, called “The Gift of Fear” by Gavin de Becker? No, I haven’t heard of that. So he’s a security expert and in the book, he talks about how our gut is kind of this… it detects fear, and that’s really a gift that we have, but based on experiences that happen to us or whatever, we can overuse that fear and then it’s not really useful to us because we’re afraid of everything or we’re afraid of nothing and kind of finding that balance, and it was reminding me when you were talking about kind of pacing the recovery, he shares a lot of stories in the book kind of talking about like maybe it was a rape survivor or the victim of a violent crime, and they want to know how do I prevent this from happening? Obviously they’re not to blame. They were a victim. They did nothing to make themselves get raped or to be a victim of a violent crime, but they’re trying to heal and they want to know what didn’t I know and what can I know that might make me feel a little bit safer and keep going forward? And he will walk them through, and a lot of that was like denying their own intuition or just kind of like talking themselves out of maybe what their body and their gut was saying, and I think oftentimes partners, where we work there’s a lot of partners who have been blamed for what happened or for not knowing or whatever it is, and so I find sometimes partners are really skittish because they can’t take that like one more person saying, “Well, you should have…” or “Why didn’t you…?” But I think there comes a time in which if the pacing is correct, they are saying like, okay what do I need to know? What do I need to heal? What can I see that allows me to move by this, not at his pace or the therapist’s pace, but like at my pace?

I’m glad you brought that up, too, when you said that you know how others mind respond to it can also make it difficult. Addressing the cultural challenges is really important in this, on both sides of it, because there are a lot of… our culture is run by human beings, so it’s a very imperfect world. The rules that we operate under, the meaning that we assign certain things are often very flawed. I think if you listen to anything Esther Perel does, that will fill you in to that, but Pauline Boss, who does a lot of work and coined the concept of ambiguous loss, you know this is one of those types of losses which ambiguous loss being something that you can’t see it or touch it, but it’s gone, and the people around us don’t really know how to respond to that very well. A good example of that would be like a miscarriage. You know, if people have a miscarriage and then we hear people say things like, well people have miscarriages all the time, or they’re say, that’s just the body’s way of protecting a baby that was… it self-aborted basically because the baby was probably deformed in some way and wasn’t going to have any kind of life, and then they can even get crazier with saying, hey, you wanna come over and hold my baby? And just I think one thing that we heard was, well at least you have your two boys. And they’re all well-meaning, you know, it’s not like anybody’s trying to say hurtful things, but the ambiguity of that loss is so challenging to the people around us that they often will say things or do things that are hurtful or just a minimum of just unhelpful.

I was gonna say, going along with your mirror analogy, I think for a lot of people maybe they haven’t had to have a mirror held up in their life, and so you’re going through this ambiguous loss, they don’t have context to deal with that. No mirror has been held up for them, so they’re just trying to throw something out there that maybe makes them feel better or they’re trying, but it’s not really landing.

Right, and on that front, it likely is holding a mirror up to them and they’re uncomfortable with it too. I would not say it’s reflection aggression because they’re often not aggressive in it, but definitely uncomfortable with facing the ambiguous loss that other people go through. If you think about how much… it’s even more challenging for the partners because now they’re just so lonely. No one gets it. Often even the therapist doesn’t really get it, and what I’ve talked about is that tinge of loneliness, that will consume you if you let it. No one will… that’s just the reality. No one’s gonna get it like you get it, even other partners in your group. They’re gonna get it more than most people, but they don’t know what it’s like for you specifically because they’re not you. But the piece that I try to encourage them with is that if you do have a group of people, this is why groups are so important I believe. They’re the people that get it the most and they’re all dealing with the feeling of no one gets it, and that’s a common denominator that you can really connect on is that loneliness that comes with it. That’s something that everybody can relate to to some degree.

Absolutely. Anything you want to add before we wrap up? No, I appreciate you taking the time out to talk about a concept that I feel like is very important I think to get out there because I think we do need to give a name to this phenomenon and make sure we’re not misconstruing it as gaslighting. It’s not… for any partner listening, its not gaslighting. It does need to be addressed and worked through with your therapist, but it is definitely not gaslighting and if it’s brought up as such, now you have another term that you can refer to it as.

Absolutely. Well thank you so much for thinking this through and giving us the wording for it. I do want to be part of getting that wording out there so that partners and healing addicts have something to help them understand what this is and move through it.

Again, for listeners, Josh has a YouTube channel, Recovery TV. I’m guessing, do you have an episode on this or on the transitional trust? We do have one on transitional distrust, not on reflection aggression yet. Ok. The URL that by the way is once you type in youtube.com, it’s RecoveryTV4U, and that will take you right to our page. Awesome. Okay, I’ll put that in the show notes, too. Thank you so much, Josh, for your time. Thank you for having me. Alright, thanks.

At the end of this episode, I want to remind you that your story matters. Remember there’s something meaningful in every chapter. Don’t’ wait to share your story ‘til you’re finished. Until next time, Jackie.