Boulder Recovery Blog

Infidelity Trauma: Understanding the Emotional Turmoil of Betrayal

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 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. Boulder Recovery wants 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 with God. 

Victims 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, or betrayal trauma, as it is also known, is a form of trauma experienced when there is infidelity or loss of trust between spouses or those in committed relationships. This trauma can be due to physical adultery, an emotional affair, or other sexual behavior outside the relationship. Betrayal trauma also can occur if pornography use is discovered. Relationships and marriages are about more than trust. They can offer the deepest forms of emotional intimacy. But when a wife discovers her husband betrayed her through affairs or excessive pornography use, this intimacy is broken and the wound is deep. 

People experience betrayal in a variety of relationships. For example, you could easily catch a friend or colleague talking about you behind your back. While that type of betrayal hurts, it typically doesn’t cause emotional trauma. This response is 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. 

The reason intimate partner relationships have so much power in our lives is that they mirror our childhood caregiver relationships. Our caregivers modeled and in some ways taught us how relationships work. For example, I reach out and my needs are met, or conversely, I reach out and I am rejected.  As a child, our caregivers determine if we are safe, if the world is a safe place, and who we can be in that world. Caregiver relationships can define our life. Our caregiver relationships taught us how to have relationships. Our marriages tend to be extensions of that for better or worse. 

Committed relationships and marriages hold a similar weight as caregiver relationships as 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 as though you’ve lost your safety, and you 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 share with me thoughts like, “Am I ugly?” “Am I not a good wife?” “I feel so much less confident.” “I know it isn’t, but I feel like this is somehow my fault.” “Do I matter?” 

The wounds of infidelity trauma can disrupt your very sense of self. 

A young woman in bed looking very hurt and worried

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 a month 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
  • Confusion
  • 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 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 os someone with sex addiction. Discovering that your partner is a sex addict is profoundly traumatic and wounding similarly. Many partners I’ve spoken to 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:

  • Depression
  • Low energy or lethargy
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Loss of access to emotions or feeling “numb”
  • Frequent dissociation or “zoning out”  

Rebuilding Trust and Relationships

Before you can begin to rebuild your trust and your relationship, you need to 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. 

Many men suffer from trauma-induced sexual addiction. Their unresolved childhood trauma is a driving force for compulsive sexual behaviors. Our 14-day Men’s intensive program helps men resolve their trauma, so they can begin putting their lives back together and begin the healing process for the family as well.

Partner Support at Boulder Recovery

Another way to begin to seek healing from betrayal trauma is to get support for yourself. 

Boulder Recovery’s 14-day intensive treatment for men also includes a separate Partner Support Program.  This program exists to help wives and partners process and deal with their infidelity trauma. 

The Partner Support Program is a private group that meets virtually in the evenings during the 14-day program. The partner program is only for the partners of the men in our treatment program. 

 A betrayal trauma specialist facilitates the program. It offers safety in a confidential community, tools for true healing and forgiveness, and hope for the future. 

You need to grieve the loss of trust you experienced and process all of your emotions. Spouses face unresolved issues following infidelity. We created the Partner Support Program for wives to talk through these challenges in a caring community to start their healing journey.

Contact us today to learn more about our 14-Day Intensive treatment for men or our Partner Support program. 


  • Category: Mental Health
  • By Lawrence Buddoo
  • July 21, 2021

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