Infidelity fractures the very foundation of a marriage.
The discovery of a partner’s betrayal and infidelity is devastating because it shatters basic assumptions about the security we expect in committed relationships.The disorienting after effects of this trauma of betrayal resemble the psychic disorientation and confusion that we see in victims of earthquakes or other natural disasters. Traumatic events such as natural disasters and criminal attacks shatter our assumptions about our sense of safety in the world. Like the victims of these disasters, following the discovery of a marital or relationship betrayal, the individual will frequently experience symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress.
The symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress are:
- Repeated intrusive thoughts.
- Unstable emotional regulation.
- Out of body experiences.
- Alternating between feeling numb and striking out in retaliation.
- Inability to stop scanning for any new data that might cause more distress.
- Feeling overwhelmingly powerlessness and broken.
- Needing to regain self-worth by assigning blame.
- Confusion and disorientation
Shirley Glass was the first to acknowledge that infidelity causes PTSD. When someone is experiencing PTSD, the world becomes an incredibly dangerous place. In intimate relationships, there is a “truth bias”, people tend to take their partner’s word as truth unless there is a prior history of lying and deception. After the betrayal, the traumatized spouse questions everything they once trusted and depended on. They often feel that they no longer know who they are married to or what their marriage stands for.
Some individuals are so badly traumatized by the discovery of an ongoing affair that they are barely able to get through a day. Sometimes the most helpful thing is to simply “normalize” their pain and suffering by reminding them that their reaction to a betrayal of this magnitude is not at all unusual and, in many ways, is to be expected. As stated by Barry Bass, Ph.D., “the process of healing from this trauma becomes particularly painful and prolonged when couples accept advice offered by well-meaning but misguided friends and relatives. For example, couples are often told to stop focusing on the infidelity and to get on with their lives. They are cautioned that ‘dredging up’ the details of the affair will further injure the innocent partner. The unfaithful partners, because of their shame about the episode, will often latch-on to this advice, believing that they are simply protecting their partners from the unsavory facts of the affair. However, in most cases, ‘ignorance is not bliss.’ It is my experience that for the majority of couples, the process of healing from the trauma of infidelity is accelerated when all of the injured partner’s questions are gently yet completely answered.”
Dr. Kevin Skinner states that “like PTSD, unless treated, recurring triggers will not only sustain the trauma but can feed and exacerbate it, regardless if the relationship remains intact or not.” Healing and forgiveness from infidelity takes honesty, time and requires patience on the part of both spouses.
Some of the steps to repairing the breach in the relationship are:
- Re-establishment of safety in the relationship. This means all contact with the affair partner must cease. Any subsequent contacts from the affair partner should be revealed to the spouse immediately.
- Not minimizing the affair. Allowing 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.
- Learning 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.
Despite all the pain and distress that the trauma of betrayal brings, there is a real possibility that your marriage can recover. The benefits of reconciliation by far outweigh the costs.
In order to restore trust in your relationship, it is critically important that you look at everything that contributed to the situation. Feelings resulting from the betrayal may be so overwhelming that it is often difficult to see clearly. It is important to have the assistance of a good couple’s therapist who understands what you’re going through, acknowledges the pain, and is able to guide you through the healing process.
Lind Butler, MEd, LPC, can help you and your spouse sort out your thoughts and feelings and direct you to look at all the factors that contributed to the breakdown of your relationship, without blaming either party. She can be there throughout the ups and downs of recovery and patiently guide you in mending your marriage.
For many couples the discovery of infidelity is often the wakeup call they needed to finally motivate them to address the unresolved relationship issues they had been ignoring for years. Some couples report that after working through the painful after effects of infidelity are they able, perhaps for the first time in their marriage, to enjoy the kind of intimate, loving relationship they had feared they would never achieve.
I invite you to contact Lind Butler, MEd, LPC, Houston, Texas, if you have any questions or would like to consider couples therapy to improve your marriage.
Lind Butler, MEd, LPC is a member of the National Registry of Marriage Friendly Therapists with extensive experience in working with couples. Her expertise in the areas of marital and family therapy, trauma, addictions, mood disorders, chronic illness, grief and bereavement augment her effectiveness with couples struggling with infidelity and other complex situations.