Can a spouse’s affair lead to post-traumatic stress disorder? For some, the question seems overly-dramatic. “Surely it’s heartbreaking,” they say, “but PTSD is for cops, assault victims, firefighters, and war veterans.” However, as Dr. Shirley Glass explains in her seminal bookNot Just Friends: Rebuilding Trust and Recovering Your Sanity After Infidelity,victims of affairs often meet criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder. After all, their sense of security, stability, and safety was shaken. Their view of their world and their relationships was upended. They no longer feel safe.
If your spouse had an affair, while you may or may not fully meet the criteria for PTSD, there is a component of trauma (often called betrayal trauma) which no doubt affects your emotional health and your relationships every single day. If you had an affair, understanding trauma and its effects will go a long way towards helping you earn your spouse’s trust while managing your own reactions to their “rollercoaster of emotions.” Let’s move in closer and look out how betrayal trauma affects both spouses.
For the Betrayed Partner
The ways in which trauma may harm and influence you, the betrayed spouse, are more than we can list here. That said, many in your position experience of loss of joy, playfulness, and the ability to have fun. They have invasive, unwelcome thoughts of their spouse having an affair. A loss of hope for the future, intense mood swings, pushing people away because you feel unlovable, self-blame and intense feelings of shame are common. You may want closeness from your partner at times while being repulsed by it at others. You might alternate between intense romantic and sexual interest in your spouse to extreme disinterest. Perhaps you have anger that is difficult to control.
More than anything, you want to feel safe, respected, and loved. Maybe you vacillate between trying to get those needs met in your marriage and moving on to find it elsewhere. Please know that you’re not going crazy, even if it feels that way. What you’re experiencing is normal. You can heal from this. You can find stability. You can feel safe, respected, and loved. It starts withdoing what it takesto love yourself, respect yourself, and keep yourself safe.
For the Partner Who Cheated
Many in your shoes struggle to understand why, after you’ve apologized and abandoned the behavior, your spouse doesn’t “get over it.” It seems like they’re choosing to punish you instead of healing the relationship. You’re tired of being the villain. You want your partner to understand why you did what you did, and oftentimes why you felt lonely or hurt and compelled to cheat. You want to be seen as more than the bad guy of this story. Maybe you feel hopeless because, no matter how hard you try, it doesn’t seem to be getting better. Perhaps you carry intense guilt that you feel won’t go away until your spouse forgives you.
So, why can’t they move on? My graduate school professor said of someone in your shoes “until your remorse equals your spouse’s pain, they’ll never get over it. They need to know that your remorse equals their pain, because then they can believe it won’t happen again.” If you’re dismissive, shifting blame, or pushing them to forgive you, trying to speed the process along, it comes across as you not taking it as seriously as they do, and that triggers massive insecurity and fear.
Speaking of triggers, a traumatized firefighter, police officer, or soldier can take time off, away from their trigger, for psychological care. That time away can be healing. For your spouse, you are the trigger. This is one reason why your spouse is hot then cold, drawn to you then pushes you away. He or she loves you and likely wants, on some level, to make this work. But you are also a reminder of their anguish, a reminder of betrayal, a reminder of trauma. This is why they can’t just “get over it.”
Coping with Betrayal Trauma: Healing Your Marriage
You can heal as individuals, and if you so choose, as a couple from the trauma of infidelity. It involves a process of atonement (the betrayed partner having a voice and the unfaithful partner making amends), attunement (restoring trust and shoring up the weaknesses of the marriage), and attachment (solidifying your union so that you’re closer than ever while establishing a plan with boundaries to ensure faithfulness moving forward).
Outlining that process in full goes beyond the scope of this article, so I’m offering a free online course, “How to Heal From Infidelity,” for our readers to give some tips. It’s coming soon, soreserve your spot. Please know that, as awful as it feels right now, this doesn’t have to define you, your life, or your marriage moving forward. It can get better.
Jonathan Decker is the clinical director of Your Family Expert. He is a licensed marriage and family therapist, husband, and father of five. Jonathan earned a masters degree in family therapy from Auburn University as well as a bachelor's degree in clinical psychology from Brigham Young University. He is an actor, author, and television personality.