The Trauma of Infidelity

This article by Robert Weiss explores infidelity and characterizes it as trauma. Dr David J. Ley’s article, Abusing the Term Trauma takes the counter-argument that the term trauma is inappropriately used by clinicians (and the lay person) in relation to infidelity.

Mr Weiss makes reference to the emotional fallout and symptoms that the betrayed partner may experience, and draws parallels to some of the symptoms associated with PTSD. Triggers, Hype, and Healing addresses that PTSD and the emotional response to infidelity may share some similar symptoms, but that it does not mean that the betrayed partner is actually suffering from PTSD.

~ Wayfarer

Understanding Relationship, Sexual, and Intimate Betrayal as Trauma

By Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S (edited)

For most people affected by serial sexual or romantic infidelity of a spouse, it’s not so much the extramarital sex or affair itself that causes the deepest pain. What hurts committed partners the most is that their trust and belief in the person closest to them has been shattered. For a healthy, attached, primary partner, the experience of profound and/or unexpected betrayal can be incredibly traumatic. One 2006 study of women who had unexpectedly learned of a loved one’s infidelity reported such women experience acute stress symptoms similar to and characteristic of post-traumatic stress disorder. Sadly, it’s only in the past few years that the aftermath of intimate partner and marital betrayal has been considered a legitimate area of study. Today, family counselors and psychotherapists are slowly gaining insight into the traumatic, long-term emotional effects of betrayal of a closely attached partner. As part of this professional growth, those specialists who deal day-in and day-out with marital infidelity and relationship betrayal have become much more open to spotting and treating the oftentimes fragile, roller-coaster emotional state of cheated-on spouses – both male and female.

The trauma evoked by profound relationship betrayal typically manifests in one or more of the following ways:

  • Emotional liability (excessive emotional reactions and frequent mood shifts) – recurrent tearfulness, quick shifts from rage to sadness to hope and back again
  • Hypervigilence that can manifest in self-protective behaviors like doing “detective work” (checking bills, wallets, computer files, phone apps, browser histories, etc.)
  • Attempting to combine a series of unrelated events in order to predict future betrayal
  • Being labile and easily triggered into anxiety, rage, or fear by any hint that the betrayal might be repeated or ongoing – trigger examples include: the spouse comes home late, turns off the computer quickly, or looks “too long” at an attractive person
  • Sleeplessness, nightmares, difficulty focusing on the day-to-day
  • Obsessing about the trauma – struggling to focus, being distracted, depressed, etc.
  • Avoiding thinking about or discussing the trauma (a common reaction to a traumatic experience)
  • Isolation
  • Compulsive spending, eating, exercise
  • Intrusive fantasy images or thoughts about the betrayal

In part, the trauma of infidelity stems from the fact that while the cheater has obviously known about his or her extracurricular sexual behavior all along and may actually feel some relief once the truth is on the table, a betrayed partner is all too often blindsided by this information. Even when a spouse is not fully deceived, having had some prior knowledge of the cheating, he or she is usually overwhelmed upon learning the full extent of the partner’s behavior (after all, cheating is usually an ongoing pattern rather than an isolated incident).

Adding insult to injury, it’s not just anyone who caused this pain, loss, and hurt. The agony experienced by betrayed spouses – their reactivity – is amplified by the fact that they’ve been cheated on by the person they had most counted upon to “have their back.” Think what it would be like to have your best friend – the person you live, sleep, and have sex with, the one who co-parents your children and with whom you share your most intimate self, your finances, your world – suddenly become someone coldly unknown to you. The person who carries with them the most profound emotional and concrete significance in your past, present, and future has just taken a sharp implement and ripped apart your emotional world (and often that of your family) with lies, manipulation, and a seeming lack of concern about your emotional and physical well-being! No wonder the effects of this kind of betrayal can last for a year or more.

Healing from the Trauma of Betrayal

It is also quite typical for a questioning spouse to have had his or her reality denied for years by the unfaithful partner who insists that he or she is not cheating, (read Denial & Obfuscation and Gaslighting & Infidelity) that he or she really did need to stay at work until midnight, that he or she is not being different or distant, and that the worried partner is just being “paranoid, mistrustful, and unfair.” In this way, betrayed spouses are made over time to feel as if they are the problem, as if their emotional instability is the issue, and they blame themselves. Eventually, faced with a web of lies and well-crafted defenses, they begin to doubt their own feelings and intuition. Their thoughts and emotions are denied so the cheater can continue to cheat; and as we have long known from work with abused children, being made to feel wrong when you are right – having your accurate reality denied – is a solid foundation upon which much trauma is built.

Is it any wonder that when betrayed spouses finally find out they’ve been right all along they sometimes look like the crazy one? The simple fact is this: as survivors of interpersonal trauma, it’s perfectly natural for the betrayed person to respond with rage, tearfulness, or any other emotion when triggered by something as simple and possibly innocuous as seeing a bathing suit ad or a lingerie billboard, watching a film scene that mirrors their loss of faith in the loved one, or having their partner again return home unexpectedly late. It doesn’t matter if the infidelity is in the past; betrayed spouses report that they are readily triggered into feelings that mirror the pain they experienced when the cheating had just occurred. Until relationship trust is reestablished, which can often take a year or longer, betrayed spouses are likely to remain on this emotional roller-coaster – labile, mistrustful, angry, lost, etc.

Unfortunately, many betrayed spouses, despite the hurt and anger they feel, resent the idea that they might need help to deal with their feelings (not unlike the spouses of addicts in early recovery). The spouse feels that it was his or her partner that caused the hurt and pain, so “Let him/her get the help!” is a frequent rejoinder. This resistance is perfectly natural. For those dealing with the hurt and anger of infidelity, the overwhelming impulse is to assign blame to the person who caused the hurt and/or an involved third-party. Nevertheless, many betrayed spouses do seek assistance.

Consider Emma, whose husband Reed (eventually) revealed a lengthy history of infidelity in couples counseling:

Somewhere along the way I got tired of the whole thing being about Reed – his behavior, his emotional problems, his shame and embarrassment. What about me? What about my pain, my fears about the future, and the relationship I’d lost? I got tired of asking how he was doing with his therapy and if we were going to be OK, and I became critical, nagging, even irrational sometimes – letting my anger out in fits and starts with sarcasm, nagging and passivity, and by intentionally withholding sex and emotional support. Over time, as he slowly started to become more consistent and reliable, I started to dislike the woman I had become in response to what he had done. That’s when I finally got help for me.

Sadly, betrayed partners are usually angry not only with their spouse but with themselves as well. Some, having become used to living with a physically present but inconsistent, unavailable, and ultimately dishonest partner, can turn to alcohol, overeating, compulsive exercise, spending, or other potentially self-destructive behaviors. Sometimes betrayed spouses will “cheat back” in retaliation, only to hate themselves for doing it. It’s not unusual for betrayed spouses, even before finding out what’s really been going on, to develop these dependencies as a way to fulfill their own unmet emotional needs and to soothe a deeply felt sense of frustration – often without knowing the definitive source of their unhappiness. After all, the betrayed partner is frequently the “last to know,” as the closer you are to someone (and the more dependent you are), the harder it is to see that person’s faults and interpret their actions as negative. While people with distance and objectivity can often very easily spot a cheater, the betrayed spouse may struggle to see what’s happening.

These betrayed partners, spouses, and loved ones have good reason to feel angry, mistrustful, hurt, overwhelmed, and confused. At the very least, these individuals need validation for their feelings, education and support to move forward, empathy toward how their life has been disrupted by the trauma of betrayal, and help processing the shame of being cheated on, feeling not good enough, etc. Many betrayed spouses also need guidance with day-to-day issues such as managing pain and rage, setting appropriate boundaries, approaching potential healthcare issues, and dealing with their constant desire to question the cheater in detail about his or her past and current behaviors.

When betrayed individuals choose to remain in the relationship, as most often they do, it is usually quite some time before they are able to reestablish real trust and comfort with their spouse – if ever. That said, if the cheating partner is committed to behavioral change, honesty, and regaining personal integrity, then the redevelopment of trust becomes much more likely. When a betrayed spouse joins the cheater in his or her efforts at growth by also engaging in a process of support, education, and self-examination, it will more quickly and effectively facilitate healing for the couple. However, some betrayed partners do ultimately conclude that the violation they have experienced is greater than their desire to remain in the relationship. For these individuals, trust cannot be restored – Humpty Dumpty cannot be glued together again – and ending the relationship may be the best they can do. Just as a betrayed spouse is not wrong to stay in a relationship and attempt to repair it, he or she is also not wrong to end it. Perhaps, for betrayed spouses, what is ultimately more important than whether they choose to stay or go is how they go about growing beyond this loss. Ideal recovery for this kind of hurt means placing a renewed emphasis on developing and trusting one’s instincts, finding a greater willingness to openly express one’s emotions, getting solid, ongoing peer support, and making sure that self-care, self-nurturing, and recreation take on a more prominent life focus.


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