The Trauma of Infidelity: 6 Ways to Know If You Are Traumatized

Infidelity rocks the very foundation of a marriage.  For some couples, it’s an instant road to separation and divorce.  It’s the end, period.  Others are able to accept that it happened, bestow forgiveness, and leave it in the past.  Then there are the couples who desperately want to repair their marriage, but just can’t seem to move forward. 

These couples don’t understand why they are stuck.  They feel frustrated and baffled.  They seek counseling and present the following dialogue:

He (or she) hangs his head between his hands and says:

“I have told her everything.  I have answered all her questions.  But she won’t let it go.  What good does it do to keep talking about it?  It’s over.  I’ve told her I’m sorry.  It will never happen again.  But she keeps asking the same questions over and over.  If I’m five minutes late getting home, she starts grilling me about where I’ve been.”

She tearfully responds:
“I’m trying to let it go, but I just can’t get past it.  I can’t get it out of my head.  Where they went.  What they did.   What they said to each other. Thoughts and images pop into my mind when I least expect them.   My emotions are all over the place.  I’m numb one day and furious the next.  When he doesn’t answer his phone, I have a panic attack.  I’m afraid to let my guard down.  What if it happens again? “

This is not an unusual scenario.  Neither spouse can fully understand what’s going on until they recognize that the injured spouse is suffering from symptoms of trauma.  Then it all starts to make sense.

While an affair may not threaten your life, it is definitely a threat to your sense of emotional safety in the world.  The person you trusted most betrayed you.  

When couples understand that the injured spouse is suffering from trauma, it’s a big “Aha! That explains it!” moment for them.  They are then better able to patiently work their way through the trial of recovery. 

6 Ways to Know You Are Traumatized by Infidelity

1.     Intrusive and Recurrent Images and Thoughts.   These images may be real, e.g., when you first saw your spouse with someone else or an image of your partner’s face when you confronted them.  They may also be imagined, e.g., images you conjure in your mind about them being together. 

2.     Intense Reactions to Cues.  A cue is anything that reminds you of the affair.  You might drive by a place your spouse and the affair partner used to meet.  It could be a piece of clothing your spouse was wearing when you saw them together.  A particular day of the week or time of day may trigger free-floating anxiety.

3.     Efforts to Avoid Cues.  You might drive ten miles out of your way to avoid a location that reminds you of the affair.  You might get rid of clothing that triggers memories.  Perhaps you learned that a close friend knew about the affair and did not tell you.  You will, as a result, avoid contact with that friend

4.     Changes in Mood.  You feel numb and detached from people you care about.  You feel depressed and lack energy.  You have lost interest in activities that you used to find pleasurable.  Sadness might turn into irritability or even bursts of rage with little warning. 

5.     Hypervigilance.   An affair shatters your sense of safety in the world.   You’re sensitive to the slightest sign that you’re in danger again.  You need to know where your partner is at all times.  If they look at their phone, you become suspicious.  An unanswered phone call or text can bring on extreme anxiety, even a panic attack. 

6.     Faulty Memory.  You keep coming back to the same questions you already asked your spouse.  You recall encounters that appeared normal and natural at the time, but look different when the spotlight of infidelity is shined on them.  As humans, we try to make sense of our experiences.  You question how you could have missed the signs.  You blame yourself for being stupid and foolish. 

Does trauma mean you can never recover and heal?  Not at all.  It just takes a little longer and requires more patience on the part of both spouses.  Following are a few tips for success.

Re-establish safety in the relationship.  This means all contact with the affair partner must cease.  The betrayed partner will frequently need proof that this has happened, either through listening in on a phone call or seeing an e-mail.  Any subsequent contacts from the affair partner should be revealed to the spouse immediately. 

Don’t minimize the affair.  Allow it to be an on-going topic of conversation.  Questions must be answered openly and honestly, even at the risk of further hurt to the betrayed partner.  Healing cannot begin until the betrayed person believes they know everything and that nothing is being withheld or kept secret.

Know what and where the triggers are.  If you are the betraying spouse, be attuned to times or events that trigger your partner’s fears and anger.  Be proactive and approach with an understanding ear.  Offer support and understanding.

As time passes and the two of you fully process the details of what happened, you will be able to move on to exploring the meaning of what happened.  You can talk about how you want to affair-proof your marriage in the future. 

Honesty, Patience, and Time Are the Keys to Forgiveness and Healing