There is no way to overstate the pain of learning your partner has betrayed you. It is a deeply and profoundly traumatic experience. Many women whose husbands have sex or pornography addictions experience infidelity or betrayal trauma. This type of emotional trauma is similar, in brain scans, to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and can have long-lasting impacts on mental and physical health.
“When women and men talk about what they felt and experienced during their partners’ disclosures (or the discoveries they made of spouses’ secret lives). They often say they felt assaulted by the information they heard or saw. In their own words, hurt partners describe life changing, world shattering events in their lives. Events of such magnitude are normally considered traumatic.”
—Barbara Steffens and Marsha Means, Your Sexually Addicted Spouse (2009)
The trauma described in the quote above is complex. Some women feel rushed to reconcile and fix their marriages. But first, they have to give themselves time to process and heal from the shock of discovering their partner’s infidelity.
At Begin Again Institute, we want to see marriages healed and hope restored to families. But we recognize this can happen only when the addict takes concrete steps toward sobriety and betrayed partners begin their journey of healing.
Only you can decide if you want to restore your marriage following unfaithful behaviors. Our Partner Support Program helps you process your feelings and regain your trust and connection, if you desire to do so.
Survivors of infidelity trauma deserve emotional health, safety, and of being heard, but they are often burdened with decisions about the future of their relationships and families while reeling from the traumatic discovery of unfaithfulness. This burden is profoundly unfair. While the betrayal occurred through no fault of their own, they deserve support and healing.
What is Infidelity Trauma?
Infidelity trauma occurs when trust between spouses or those in a committed relationship is shattered. Infidelity trauma is a form of betrayal trauma and can be caused by physical adultery, an emotional affair, a pornography addiction, or other sexual behavior outside of the committed relationship.
“Infidelity trauma is a type of emotional trauma, but the cause of the trauma is betrayal by a romantic partner you trusted, not a traumatic event like a car wreck or death,” said Sako Barbarian, MSW, LSW, LAC, CSAT, Primary Therapist at Begin Again Institute. “The emotional effects of betrayal at this level can be strong, severe, and long-lasting if not treated.”
Romantic relationships and marriages offer the deepest forms of emotional intimacy. When you discover that your partner betrayed you through something like affairs or excessive pornography use, the intimacy breaks, and the wound is deep.
People experience betrayal in various relationships. For example, you could catch a friend or colleague talking about you behind your back. While that betrayal hurts, you may not respond to it by developing emotional trauma. That’s because you’re not as invested in those relationships. These kinds of relationships don’t have the power to change how you see yourself or affect how you see the world. Intimate partner relationships do.
Intimate partner relationships have so much power because they mirror childhood caregiver relationships. Caregivers model and teach you how relationships work. They teach you how to ask for something and have your needs met or not. As a child, your caregivers determine if you think you are safe, if you perceive the world as safe, and who you can be in that world.
“Caregiver relationships can define all future relationships because they teach you how to have relationships with others,” Sako said. “Romantic relationships tend to be extensions of that, for better or worse.”
Committed relationships and marriages are like caregiver relationships in that they provide safety and empowerment to those within them. So when your partner betrays you, you feel like your entire life is crumbling. You feel like you’ve lost your safety and question your ability to succeed in the world. If a large part of your relationship is a lie, you wonder what other things in your life are lies too.
“Betrayed partners often think they’re ugly or not a good spouse or that they’ve done something wrong to cause the betrayal,” Sako explained. “These thoughts aren’t true, but that doesn’t make the feelings any less hurtful or damaging.”
The wounds of infidelity trauma disrupt your sense of self. They make it difficult for you to trust others and may cause you to experience a myriad of infidelity trauma symptoms.
How Do I Know If I’m Experiencing Infidelity Trauma?
Anyone who experiences trauma is likely to have some trauma symptoms. These symptoms include things like difficulty sleeping or regulating emotions. Some people experience these symptoms, adjust, and cope. But when multiple debilitating symptoms continue for three months or longer, it could mean you have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Common PTSD symptoms caused by infidelity trauma include:
- Unstable emotional regulation
- Intrusive thoughts
- Feeling numb or void
- Lashing out or being extremely irritable
- Feeling overwhelmed, helpless or broken
- Panic attacks
- Difficulty sleeping
- Hypervigilance – always being on edge and alert for possible danger
Intrusive thoughts are one of the most common symptoms of infidelity trauma. Intrusive thoughts could manifest as nightmares or excessive worrying. Will he do it again? What else is he hiding from me? Who else is hiding something from me?
“You feel like you were fooled once, so you try to remain diligent to ensure that it doesn’t happen again,” Sako said. “But that’s a trauma response to what happened to you. It’s not based in reality. That person let you down. It doesn’t mean that everyone you trust will.”
You could have PTSD If non-related everyday life moments trigger thoughts of and anxieties about your partner’s infidelity.
Physical and Mental Responses to Trauma
Sex addiction is often rooted in trauma and results in physical and mental changes to both partners. Men who experience trauma as children can more easily develop sex or pornography addictions as adults. This increased risk is because of how the body stores trauma. Past trauma and current behavior wounds the brain and body of someone with sex addiction. Discovering that your partner is a sex addict is profoundly traumatic and wounding similarly. Many partners report that they relive in their minds the moment they discovered the addiction. Any event or circumstance that reminds them of that moment then causes them to be triggered and experience survival responses.
When your brain senses danger, it activates your survival instincts to fight, flight, or freeze. Emotional trauma, such as discovering your partner betrayed you, can trigger your body’s fight-or-flight mode, but your body can’t operate in fight-or-flight mode for extended periods. The physiological changes caused by this reaction are supposed to be short-lived. They’re to help you survive an immediate threat, such as a boost of energy to outrun a predator. Freeze mode allows the body to shut down and protect itself if escape is impossible.
Emotional trauma isn’t easily outrun. Unresolved trauma can keep the body’s fight-or-flight mode active for too long.
Staying in this mode results in a myriad of physical symptoms such as:
- Muscle stiffness
- Difficulty sleeping
- Loss of appetite
- Panic attacks and difficulty breathing
- Aches and pain, especially headaches and in the joints
Staying in freeze or shutdown mode can also have long term effects such as:
- Low energy or lethargy
- Loss of interest in activities
- Loss of access to emotions or feeling “numb”
- Frequent dissociation or “zoning out”
“Dealing with a negative thing that happened to you in negative ways is counterproductive,” Sako said. “It doesn’t help you heal. It probably will just make you feel worse.”
Coping with Infidelity Trauma Symptoms
Healing from infidelity trauma requires understanding what happened to you, recognizing the symptoms, and learning how to move forward from the past. A mental health professional can help you re-establish your feelings of safety and your trust in others.
“You don’t have to figure out how to cope with infidelity trauma symptoms alone,” Sako said. “Experts are available who have experience treating people in your situation and can give you the assistance you need to heal yourself and move forward with your life, with or without your partner.”
Therapy can help you:
- Understand Your Feelings. Part of acknowledging infidelity trauma is allowing yourself to understand your feelings and where they originate. This understanding requires you to recognize what happened to you and how your brain and body naturally responded to the trauma. Then you can begin to work through these responses.
- Mourn the Relationship. You can recognize that your relationship wasn’t what you thought it was and work through your feelings around that betrayal. You also can mourn the relationships you thought you had.
- Focus on Healing. You must care for yourself to care for others. Whether you decide to work on your relationship or go your separate ways, it’s vital to heal your own emotional health and focus on yourself first.
- Decide If You’ll Rebuild. Once you’re on the path to healing and clear on what you feel and want, you can decide if you want to rebuild a relationship. Of course, your partner must also determine if they want to rebuild and if they’re willing to admit their role in the betrayal and have remorse for how it impacted you. They also likely need to seek professional help of their own.
- Practice Self-Care. Make an effort to do things you enjoy doing. You’ll learn to take care of yourself through a healthy diet, exercise, relaxation, spending time with those who support you, volunteering, being with pets, or doing anything that makes you feel cared for.
- Get Support From Loved Ones. Leaning on those around you for support shows strength and resiliency. It also helps you recognize that your trust concerns resulting from infidelity trauma don’t need to extend to all relationships. It helps you practice trusting again.
- Work on Rebuilding Trust. Rebuilding trust begins with re-establishing your self-esteem. As you work through the healing process with support and trust in yourself, you can rebuild trust in your relationship with an intimate partner.
Rebuilding Trust and Relationships
Before you can begin to rebuild your trust and your relationship, you must process your trauma and seek emotional safety. One way you can find safety early after betrayal is to get professional help for your partner who was discovered in a possible sex and porn addiction.
Sex or porn addictions are unlikely to go away on their own. Like with any other addiction, a person who tries to stop will experience cravings, a compulsive need to keep coming back, and withdrawal symptoms.
Benefits of seeking treatment for sex or porn addiction include:
- Discovering and Treating the Root Cause. Sex or porn addictions often stem from unprocessed trauma. This trauma could include sexual or physical abuse, neglect, lack of nurturing in childhood, or a traumatic event in adulthood that distorts a person’s sense of sexuality. With help from a mental health counselor, your partner can uncover the addiction’s root cause and begin healing from it.
- Learning Skills to Deter Impulses. It’s vital to understand that relapse is always a threat for someone with a sex or porn addiction. In treatment, your partner can overcome the urge and resist temptations by practicing healthy habits and learning vital skills to deter impulses.
- Overcoming Controlling Behavior. It can be frustrating, confusing, and exhausting to feel as if you have no control of your behavior or impulses. By taking hold of addiction and starting the recovery process, your partner regains authority over themselves, their actions, and their happiness.
Many men deal with trauma-induced sexual addiction. Their unresolved childhood trauma is a driving force for compulsive sexual behaviors. Until they heal themselves, they can’t heal their relationships. Once your partner seeks treatment, then it becomes possible to heal your relationship.
“You can’t heal your relationship until the partner with the addiction heals themselves,” Sako explained. “Addiction is complex. It’s not something you can just decide not to participate in anymore. It takes understanding the root cause of the addiction and continued work in recovery.”
Of course, the relationship will be different from the way things were before. But you’ll establish new methods of communication and trust that make you both feel more secure about your relationship.
To rebuild trust, think about the things you’ll need to move forward. These may be things you need from your partner and yourself. Create a reasonable timeline for your recovery to have your eyes on the goal and a growth plan.
Rebuilding trust requires:
- Honesty. Both partners have to be honest about the relationship and how they’re feeling about it at any given time. That includes being honest about the infidelity and any struggles related to it.
- Forgiveness. Eventually, you will have to forgive your partner if you want to move forward in the relationship. That means healing yourself and accepting that they’ve taken responsibility for their actions and the pain they caused.
- Understanding. It’s important for both parties to understand trauma, the way their minds and bodies naturally respond to it, what triggers their trauma responses, and how to cope healthily with them.
- Communication. Healing will require ongoing open communication and active listening, even when communication may seem hurtful or difficult.
- Time. Healing from addiction and infidelity trauma won’t happen overnight. It takes time and dedication to accept what’s happened and move on to repair and restore your lives together.
“The truth is that not everyone can heal their relationship after infidelity,” Sako said. “Both partners must agree that their relationship is worth saving and be willing to do the work — individually and together. If you’re committed to making your relationship work, there are resources available to help you know how to move forward together.”
Healing from Infidelity Trauma Symptoms
Infidelity trauma can affect you emotionally, physically, and behaviorally. Seeking help from a mental health professional is a good way to begin your healing process. Begin Again Institute understands the healing process needed to rebuild trust.
We offer a unique 10-hour Partner Support Program in our 14-Day Men’s Intensive. Your healing is a priority for us. We are here to help guide you on your journey to recovery. If you’re ready to get your life back, contact us today.